From James Thurber to George Plimpton, literature has often focused upon the dreamer, the man who contemplates an imaginary moment in the spotlight. Plimpton, the late journalist and editor, made a cottage industry of living the dream of sports in baseball, golf, football, boxing and hockey. PAPER LION, his account of training camp with the Detroit Lions, is considered by many to be one of the classic sports books of all time.
A FEW SECONDS OF PANIC by Stefan Fatsis brings readers once again to the training camp world of professional football. It is a world far different from 1963, when Plimpton spent his weeks with the Lions. Perhaps it is that difference that makes Fatsis's account so remarkable. Any sports fan who recalls professional football in the 1960s, when there were 12 teams and the NFL played second fiddle to major league baseball, can only be struck by how far the sport has come in the past four decades. The differences are remarkable and superbly enumerated by the author.
To be precise, it was not George Plimpton who pioneered the writer as athlete. Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News entered the boxing ring against Jack Dempsey and golfed against Bobby Jones. Regardless of who established the tradition, through his writing Fatsis is clearly the heir to the throne once occupied by Gallico and Plimpton.
Plimpton was able to masquerade as an NFL quarterback because he was over six feet tall. In the present-day NFL only one position, kicker, is available to a man 5-feet-8-inches tall. It makes for interesting reading because looking at professional football from the viewpoint of the kicking game tells readers a great deal about the modern game.
At one time, NFL kickers were simply regular players who also could kick with a modicum of skill. Two of the all-time greatest kickers, George Blanda and Lou Groza, played regular positions as did Hall of Famer Paul Hornung. Even today, only one full-time kicker, Jan Stenerud, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fatsis shows readers how the kicking game is one specialized aspect of the various components of a professional football team. Working with the Denver Broncos and their outstanding kicker, Jason Elam, Fatsis learns how fleeting the life of a kicker can be. One bad kick at a crucial moment in a game can send a kicker to the ranks of the unemployed. Todd Sauerbrun, the Broncos punter, serves as an interesting foil to the Renaissance Man lifestyle of Jason Elam. Elam is an author, big-game hunter and pilot, while Sauerbrun cares for nothing other than punting the football. In his zeal to gain any physical advantage he can, the punter tests positive for a banned substance and is suspended for four games resulting in $325,000 in lost salary.
A FEW SECONDS OF PANIC is far more than a story about the players in the NFL. The league is its own society where teams must be created within a salary cap that sounds as complicated as any explanation of the Federal budget. Fatsis does an extraordinary job in explaining the machinations of the cap and how it affects the composition of a team. In Plimpton's era, players worked real jobs during the off-season and came to training camp to get in shape for the regular season. Now, players earning well into six figures and beyond work out, train and practice all year long. Training camp is for refinement, not for getting into shape for the season.
Fatsis has given football fans at all levels a wonderful look behind the curtain that is maintained by the National Football League to protect the image of its game. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry with its own television network. A FEW SECONDS OF PANIC is an even-handed and balanced look at what is today the greatest sports industry in the world. As teams report to training camp in preparation for the 2008 season, fans will want to read this book for the insight it offers into the world of professional football.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on July 3, 2008