SAN JOSE -- Nate Jackson wasn't sure what to think. I had just told him some interesting news: As an author, he was outselling "League Of Denial" on Amazon.com in the football books category.
Jackson, the former 49er from San Jose, thought about it for a second.
"I don't think there's a huge market for a thoughtful look at the whole industry," he said.
Actually, Jackson could be proving there is, but from a different angle. His memoir, "Slow Getting Up," has been a surprise hit. And it's hardly comprised of hilarious jock strap anecdotes, although there are some. Jackson basically documents his six years in the NFL (principally as a Denver Broncos tight end) from the vantage point of a lower-tier roster player who must endure buckets of pain and the cruel-crazy weirdness of pro football culture to reach his dream.
Jackson names names. He tells stories. Mike Shanahan, as coach of the Broncos, comes across well. Eric Mangini, as coach of the Cleveland Browns, does not. There are wince-inducing passages about painkilling injections and wild stuff about a player who brings a duffel-bag full of condoms on a road trip to Europe.
In that regard, "Slow Getting Up" is indeed much different than "League Of Denial," the brutally frank look at the NFL's concussion crisis that has received much merited attention. But the "League Of Denial" sales figures have been disappointing. Amazon's top-listed football books are a tome about the 1985 Chicago Bears and the autobiography of retired Green Bay Packers star receiver Donald Driver.
Not to generalize -- OK, to absolutely generalize -- but it seems NFL fans prefer to suspend their disbelief about the physical damage being done to their favorite players every week and instead enjoy the eye candy of touchdown replays or written recaps of thrilling games.
The appeal of Jackson's book is that it thoughtfully addresses the same brutality as "League Of Denial" but does so with anecdotes rather than data. Jackson knows he was a largely invisible personality in the NFL, so he was concerned that no one would care what he thought -- or worse, that he'd be criticized by former teammates for exploiting them.
"I was expecting someone to blast me," he admitted. "You know, 'Who is this guy?' Or just 'Shut up, go away.' "
Instead, just the opposite happened. Players were appreciative that someone was trying to explain what the NFL experience was truly like. The book has received rave reviews. Rolling Stone called it "the best football memoir ever."
Now living in Los Angeles, Jackson is returning to the Bay Area this weekend for two book signings. He'll probably see some old friends from Pioneer High and Menlo College, where he started his unlikely over-the-river-and-through-Dusseldorf journey to the NFL. Literally. One spring, he played for the Rhein Fire franchise in NFL Europe, an experience he describes with great amusement and poignancy.
Jackson's time with the 49ers, meanwhile, was brief and injury-filled. But he was around to witness the awkward coaching handoff from Steve Mariucci to Dennis Erickson, during which Jackson poetically observes "the 49er brand blows away in the wind."
After that, it's on to Denver and several other stops. Jackson receives a multitude of painkiller injections in what he terms his "long relationship with the needle-as-savior approach to injury treatment."
He also goes to bed bloody from severe turf burns and wakes up with sheets sticking to his seeping skin for a full week.
He has a brief romance with Human Growth Hormone that does not prove beneficial. He winds up retiring in 2010 after a hamstring explosion with the Las Vegas UFL team.
There are many laughs and tender moments in the book. But never at the expense of realism. It made me wonder: What does Jackson think about when he watches NFL games today? First, he thinks the television voices focus too much on quarterbacks and not the other positions. He also does not pull for any team in particular.
"I just want guys to do well and stay healthy," Jackson said. "The one thing I do notice is how coaches do affect games. They give these guys so much information in all those meetings during the week that I think when it gets to Sundays, too much is going on in their minds with so many complicated plays and too many things to think about. You can tell."
If Jackson has a son, the kid would be allowed to play football -- but not until his high school years. Jackson doesn't believe that any rules change will lead to a completely safe game. Players will always want to collide violently with other players.
"I think the best thing the league could do," Jackson said, "is be honest about what the players are doing to themselves -- and then make sure they are taken care of when they're done playing."
Despite everything, Jackson said, football remains "a beautiful game." The following passage explains why. It's from the chapter he writes about attending the funeral of Bill Walsh, who had mentored Jackson. There is this scene outside the Stanford chapel:
"The 49ers of my youth stand in a cluster and embrace each other like only brothers can. This is what football can do. This is what it means. It's not the yard or the touchdowns or the money or the fame. It's this."
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Tight end Nate Jackson played six seasons in the NFL, with a majority spent with the Denver Broncos.