‘Interchangeable Monsters’: Former Bronco Nate Jackson Ponders the NFL Experience

Watching his old team on Monday Night Football, the tight end remembers profane grandmothers, big hits and the art of professional football

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Andy Cross / Denver Post / Getty Images

Nate Jackson at the Denver Broncos training camp, Aug. 15, 2008.

“I’m really not trying to ingratiate myself into the football world. I know there’s not any room for me there,” says Nate Jackson, the six-foot-three, two-hundred-plus-pound veteran of eight NFL seasons who has just published a book, his first, about his life in pro football. The book follows Jackson’s time as a tight end and wide receiver on the margins of the game, trapped in trainers’ rooms, coaches’ offices, and lonely road hotel accommodations (albeit, he notes, hotel accommodations with two free pay-per-view movies). With a funny, dreamy, discursive style, he shoots through the romantic, militaristic myth spouted by football’s major media organs. Football isn’t war; it’s a profession characterized primarily by ennui. He was there. He knows. The book’s cover pictures Jackson in a Broncos jersey and full pads, lying face-first on the sideline.

Jackson and I are watching his Broncos host the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. We’re in his room at a boutique hotel in New York; he’s spent the better part of a week here promoting the book, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile. There’s a towel under the door.

Although Vegas heavily favors the Broncos — according to a bartender downstairs, the line was two touchdowns at kickoff — Jackson’s still worried about the Raiders. He remembers twice in his career when Oakland rolled into Denver and upset his team. Broncos fans reacted like a family member had died. And he doesn’t relish the thought of emboldened Raider fans when Denver visits later in the year. When he played, Raider Nation offered the meanest, most violent fans in the NFL.

“If you wear a Broncos jersey to a Raider game, you better be ready to fight, or at least ready to ignore a lot of awful taunting. People get stabbed there, with whatever sharp objects they have at hand,” Jackson says. He grew up 45 minutes away from Oakland’s stadium, but when he played there as a Bronco, he told his female family members not to come, and the men to dress in neutral colors. He once got cursed out (with accompanying double-birds) by a grandmother.

But this game is at home, in the serene confines of what Jackson calls “[Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field.” All the fans are decked out in orange jerseys, and the Raiders — who look not much better or worse than they have looked in each of the past 10 frustrating years — must face Peyton Manning and his brigade of excellent receivers. Jackson owns most all of them on his fantasy team. The Raiders go three-and-out on their first drive; the Broncos march 55 yards for a touchdown in three minutes and 23 seconds. (What was that about an upset?) Eric Decker catches the first score, and Jackson whoops, “Yeah, Deck!” “I see a lot of myself in him. Six-foot-three, good beardage. You know, Denver always loves when a nice six-three white receiver makes good.” Jackson lists Ed McCaffrey, and before him Steve Watson, who coached the Broncos’ wide receivers when he played.

But Jackson’s not so much like the other tall white guys. They had 1,000-yard seasons at receiver. He got shifted out of position early in his career to tight end. Of that experience, he writes: “I start eating like a fat man… The weight comes quickly. So do the bowel movements. I consider starting a band called ‘Two-Poop Morning,’ decide otherwise.” And this is what the good parts of his NFL tenure were like. Sometimes, despite all the food he was eating, he would have to strap on ankle weights under his sweats before his weigh-ins. The episode was characteristic of much of his time in the NFL. In the face of inflexible rules, he had to attempt a benign scam. He didn’t care for it.

What Jackson did like — he notes, when we see the night’s first big hit, the first reminder of the risk of down-the-road brain damage — was the game’s contact. “I like hitting, I like the feeling. That smashing, that crashing, the ringing in the ears. That’s what football is.” It’s what the players want, and it’s what the fans want. So he doesn’t mind that the sport sells it.

But the hits build up over the night. A fourth-quarter hit, with the game more or less at hand, concusses Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Empathy is Jackson’s first instinct. “Oh, he’s out. Oh man, poor dude, that hurt.” (Jackson knows from experience: The linebacker who hit Pryor, Wesley Woodyard, played with him in Denver. “He’s a violent dude, man. If he attacked you on the street, he could kill you really quickly.”)

Then he takes on a fan’s voice and turns sardonic. “Yeah! Let’s watch some interchangeable monsters kick the shit out of each other strategically! And use a ball!”

For all the game’s cerebrocranial ravages, though, Jackson finds himself more troubled by the other mental toll it takes. “In the NFL, I felt really f–king creatively stifled. It’s not a forum for artistic expression.” Players go where they’re told at the posted times; they do what they’re told once they’ve gotten where they’ve been told to be. They’re too busy doing their job to think about what their job means. And so others — bad announcers, bad writers — get to tell the story. It drives him nuts. Even now.

Jackson calls Broncos receiver Wes Welker his favorite artist in tonight’s game, pointing out the precision in every route he runs. “That’s art to me. Every movement, every head nod.” That art is why the undrafted five-foot-nine wideout with average speed became the only player in NFL history to catch 100 balls in five different seasons.

But in the second half Welker drops an underthrown pass that came to him through a defender. He was falling down as the ball hit his shoulder. Had he made the circus catch, it would have been a touchdown. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden chimes in over the replay: “I still think Welker shoulda played it. I’ve seen him make tougher catches than that.”

Jackson doesn’t agree. “Is he really saying he should have caught it? F–k you, Jon Gruden!” Afraid he’s said too much, he prods me on the arm with admirable force once the words have left his mouth. But later he puts it more gently. “I just look at football kind of like an art, you know? So I guess I have a problem with people — media people, announcers — telling me what my art means.”