NEXT MAN UP: A YEAR BEHIND THE LINES IN TODAY'S NFL
by John Feinstein
Little, Brown and Co., 502 pages, $25.95
In the tense minutes before the Baltimore Ravens go out to do battle on the field, a kind of lunacy grips their locker room as players holler out their rage and anxiety. In the midst of one of these shouting sessions last year, defensive end Terrell Suggs suddenly confronted All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and yelled, "Ray, what does pressure do?"
"All I know," Lewis shouted, "is that it breaks a pipe. So imagine what it does to a human being!"
John Feinstein did not set out to write a book about stress. For years he has embedded himself in one sporting culture after another--tennis, baseball, golf, college football, college basketball--and produced books on the intense, intimate dramas that take place over the course of a season. But none of his previous adventures prepared him for what he calls the "constant tension" in the NFL. Next Man Up, Feinstein's chronicle of the Ravens' 2004 season, doesn't quite rise to the high standard of his classics, A Good Walk Spoiled and A Season on the Brink, but it is nonetheless one of the most compelling portraits of NFL life ever written.
The NFL, Feinstein writes bluntly, "is the most insecure world there is in professional sports." The 16-game schedule (which makes nearly every game meaningful and any mistake potentially disastrous), the relentless aggression, the frequent injuries and the ever-present pain all help make pro football a stress factory. But Feinstein suggests that what may cause players the most anxiety is the lack of guaranteed contracts. When a baseball or basketball player signs a contract, both he and management are usually bound to honor it, barring extraordinary circumstances. But in football the only money most players can be certain of getting is their signing bonus. Players frequently go "from starting to cut in one year," writes Feinstein, or are presented with a grim choice about their pay: "Take a cut or be cut."
No one need feel sorry for football players, of course; they are more than adequately compensated for the stress they endure. But Feinstein makes a persuasive case that it's impossible to understand today's NFL without knowing something about the emotional lives of the players. Ravens coach Brian Billick apparently agrees. Feinstein found that Billick periodically makes detailed handwritten notes about how his coaches and various players are feeling. For instance: "[Quarterback] Kyle Boller is starting to feel pressure because of all the criticism.... [Special teams coach] Gary Zauner's feelings are hurt because I yelled at him twice last night."
The good news is that coaches and players have come a long way toward understanding their emotions. At the same time, old-school fans who worry that players might be getting soft will be reassured by Feinstein's revealing stories about what passes for sensitivity in the NFL.
For example, during last year's opening day coin toss, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, acting as offensive captain, repeatedly called his Cleveland Browns counterpart, Andra Davis, a motherf-----. Davis replied sharply in kind, and the two players nearly came to blows. Afterward Davis learned that Brown's mother had died the day before the game, and he sent an apology to Brown through team officials.