As Nate Jackson sits on the sidelines of the Santa Monica College football field near his home in Venice, CA, there’s an air of wistfulness about him. He twirls and spins the football he’s carrying, sometimes unconsciously tucking it into the crook of his arm as if he’s preparing to run. The former Denver Bronco has been out of the game for four years now, but it’s obvious that the game is still in him. Last September, his memoir Slow Getting Up was released to critical acclaim. It’s an eye-opening look at what life is like for the average NFL player, and readers will find their perspective markedly altered when watching football in the future. While Jackson’s book delves deeply into the pain endured and the mental toughness required to survive in the NFL, he also writes candidly about pot use by players and, in this interview, rolls out a sound rationale for allowing them to use it without penalty.
What’s the biggest difference between the NFL and college football?
For me, it wasn’t the speed; it was the technique of everyone. Everyone was just so fundamentally sound. These guys were polished, really confident and really strong. As a receiver in Division III, I was able to do what I wanted off the line of scrimmage against DBs [defensive backs] — I could throw them aside and go where I wanted. In the NFL, the DBs weren’t having it. I had to work on my subtlety of movements.
How high did you go in the NFL draft?
I wasn’t drafted — I was signed as a free agent to the San Francisco 49ers, my hometown team. Coach Bill Walsh [who died in 2007] was instrumental. He came to my Menlo College games and was actually the guy who gave me confidence. After one game, I met him and he said, “Hey, keep doing what you’re doing. You can play at the next level.” He pulled some strings to get me on the Niners. Then he helped get me signed in Denver when it wasn’t working out with the Niners. He believed in me all along.
Most of your career was spent with the Broncos. How was that experience?
Great. The city was great, the fans were awesome, and I really liked coach Mike Shanahan. A lot of it is luck where you end up — most guys don’t get to choose where they go, and I didn’t choose to go to Denver.
Your book doesn’t spare any details about the injuries and pain players suffer.
It’s actually part of a football player’s daily mental processes, overcoming the physical pain. And that’s empowering. It was for me, pushing through any bumps, bruises and misalignments. The daily pain was kind of my buddy; I learned to embrace it as part of the job. I definitely had my share of severe injuries, which I chronicled in the book. But I wouldn’t take those back. I never complained about the physical aspects of playing. It was something that I was comfortable with. All football players are.
Concussions in the NFL have been in the news constantly. As serious as a concussion is, do players try to hide them?
Yeah — I mean, football’s a tough guy’s sport. You’re not supposed to tell the coaches and trainers when you’re hurting; you’re not supposed to tell them when you’re in pain. If you do, you get pulled off the field and someone takes your place. If they play better than you, you don’t get back on the field. So there’s an institutional incentive for keeping your pain and your injuries and your symptoms to yourself.
Up until a few years ago, the head issue was never even talked about in the NFL—definitely not inside in the training rooms and the meeting rooms. The doctors never addressed it. It was something that you dealt with.
Did you suffer head injuries?
When I made the transition from wide receiver to tight end, I was undersized, trying to block 300-pound men on the line. My only hope was to shoot out like a missile using my head, with the crown of my helmet hitting them in the chin, neck or face area. That’s where I aimed, and I’d always feel a little woozy, a little dizzy — some times more than others. But to me, that meant I was doing what I was supposed to do. Anything above the waist you can deal with; as long as I could run, I could deal with anything else. If you can’t run fast, if you can’t cut well, you get exposed on a football field.
Over the past 20 years, tacklers have increasingly used their bodies as missiles — something the NFL is trying to curb.
Yeah, they’re trying to stop it, but it’s after the fact. [Players] are trained to be missiles; they’re trained to be explosive weapons. They lift crazy weights; they train linear, downhill and exploding fast. It’s all about moving as fast as you can towards your target. You can’t pull off and decide exactly where you’re going to hit that target. You’re going as fast as you possibly can—if you make any contact, that’s a win. And when you’re leaning forward running that fast, your head is the tip of the spear. Your head is always going to make first contact. On top of that, it’s the most effective way to bring down another man, especially a larger man. Guys who can do that stick around; they earn jobs. The guys who don’t know how to attack like dogs get cut. So you learn to be an attack dog.
Last season, the NFL actually tried to regulate how tackles are made.
I think it was a PR move generally. The NFL is in a tough spot. They want to promote the game, they want it to grow, they want to make a profit, so they don’t want to admit that it’s probably as bad for you as it is. They want little kids to play; they want that feeder system alive and well. They want the mothers of America to think that it’s an okay sport. So they’re implementing things like “Heads Up Tackling” for the little kids — teaching the safe way to tackle.
“Heads Up Tackling” was an initiative started by the NFL, which is working with USA Football, which governs youth football. It purports to be a safe—or safer—technique of tackling that keeps the head out of the tackle. It’s bullshit. They present it using a tackling dummy —i t’s like slow motion. But it’s impossible to implement that technique in real time. Not only that, the actual tackle is probably only 5 percent of the hits that occur on the football field. The rest are blocks, not tackles. People are hitting all the time.
The league says it’s worried about players’ health. “Safe,” “safety ”— they think if they say those words enough, it creates a perception that the game is being made safe. But it can’t be made safe. There is no safe way to tackle. There’s no safe way to bring another man to the ground who’s running full speed.
Some experts believe the altered technique has been more damaging to the lower body.
They fine players who lead with their helmets, but those are split-second tackles. The guy who’s going to be tackled is trying to avoid being tackled, so he’s constantly moving. Everyone’s moving! It’s impossible to dictate where that helmet is going to land. Guys are intentionally aiming low because they don’t want to be fined. They’re taking out guys’ knees in the open field. I think, to a man, you’ll find NFL players would rather be hit up high rather than down low, even if their head’s involved. Because if you get a torn ACL, you’ll be out for four, five, six months—and it may never feel good again. You may be done for your career. Whereas your head—as sad as it is to say—you can shake that off and be back the next play. That’s just the institutional shittiness in the game of football. But again, there’s no safe way to attack another man like that, especially wearing armor and with the armor leading the charge. If you get hit in your bones, your ribs or your knees with a helmet, it’s going to hurt no matter what.
How do NFL players view league management?
I think what you’ll find is a general mistrust on the part of players. They don’t think [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell is on their side. He seems like a politician. The prevailing belief is that he’s not compassionate. He passes out fines for things players know are endemic to the game. They know he’s passing out fines for the media and for the fans, to create a perception. The players are very aware of that, so they don’t trust him.
That being said, I think there’s room for him to reach across the aisle and try to connect with players. The players just want someone to feel their pain — or at least to act like it’s a collective effort. The NFL should do a better job of taking care of guys after the fact. If they have certifiable, documentable injuries from playing, these dudes should be taken care of the rest of their lives for those injuries. As of now, the NFL doesn’t do that. There’s a feeling in locker rooms that it’s us versus them. “Us” is the players; “them” is everyone else. Nobody has compassion for what we go through.
What do you go through?
Players are interchangeable pieces; they come and go constantly. The threat of being fired is always hanging over your head if you fuck up on the field or in practice. You watch film of every day of practice—not just the games. Multiple angles, slow-mo … every guy’s performance is dissected. If you mess up the same play a couple times, they won’t parse words: “If you can’t get this done, there are a hundred guys waiting by the phone right now who would love your spot.” Guys get replaced all the time. We’re like the equipment.
Roger Goodell made $30 million last year. Thirty million dollars! That disconnect is very apparent to players who will never be millionaires. The average salary is less than a million, and the average career is only three years. A lot of guys will run into money issues after playing, yet they see the commissioner raking in money hand over fist. That’s definitely a disconnect.
The novel North Dallas Forty, written by former NFL player Peter Gent 40 years ago, detailed widespread pharmaceutical drug use by players. How accurate was his book?
We live in a pharmaceutical country. Everyone seems to be on pills of some nature, but NFL players need them—they need to take their minds off the pain. So, yeah, it’s pretty widespread. Some take to them more than others. But they’re definitely available, especially if you have an injury. A legitimate injury allows a doctor’s prescription for Vicodin, Percocet or whatever, with several refills. You deal with your injury, you take all those pills, you go through the refills, and then you find yourself with a physical addiction. You’ll have withdrawal symptoms when you come off the pills.
Was that your experience?
Yeah, the pills weren’t good for me at all. They made me depressed, got me down, made me sluggish. I didn’t like what they did to my head. I couldn’t think well; I couldn’t sleep. And it’s not just the pain pills—it’s the anti-inflammatories. They pump guys full of anti-inflammatory pills. My stomach lining is gone; I have constant acid-reflux issues. I’m constantly clearing my throat; my food comes up all the time—not vomiting, but regurgitation. And the Toradol shots I took in the ass before a game to play, they destroy your insides. But they’re passed out regularly.
Jackson scores against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007.
How did you use pot during your playing days?
It was based on the time of the season when I needed it. As we started training, I felt really good; I didn’t think about it much at all. In mini-camps, I felt great, so I didn’t really mess with it. We got tested once a year for the “street drugs,” and that usually started in mini-camps and went through training camp. You’re good for the rest of the season as long as you pass.
I wouldn’t smoke weed much during mini-camps — maybe a little bit in the down time between mini-camps and training camps. But once training camp started, I didn’t touch it at all. We were there for 15 hours every day, from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night. You can’t be smoking weed; you have to be in meetings or on the field.
People forget that when they watch game one of the season, the players have been at it for months. Their bodies are starting to break down, and the season is only beginning. That’s kind of when I started to use pot: After games, after really rough practices, I’d medicate with marijuana when I got home because my body was a wreck and my mind was a wreck. It helped me; it got my mind off my body and strengthened my mental resolve for what I’d be doing the next day.
Do many NFL players smoke pot?
I don’t think there’s a high-school kid in America who isn’t familiar with weed, what it smells and looks like—it’s part of the lexicon these days. But you have this older, right-wing, white reefer-madness crowd running the NFL. They make the rules that players live under, so again there’s a big disconnect. The NFL is definitely worried about its image, its cultural image. Coaches are well aware that guys unwind in different ways, and that they need to unwind. Of course, there are consequences if you get caught. But if you handle your business when you come to work and know your plays and perform on the field and stay in good shape, the coaches don’t care what you’re doing.
Do you believe pot can be a “performance-enhancing drug”?
I don’t know. It allows you to visualize. Playing sports involves visualization — picturing yourself performing. If you can visualize success, you can do it on the field. Marijuana helped me in that regard over the years, but not just with football — with life, with general things. Is it a mental performance enhancer? Maybe. For me, it was nice to just get away from my body for a few hours.
Would you recommend that NFL players be allowed to use marijuana?
I think it’s an inevitable part of life for these guys. They’re very familiar with marijuana. They’re very familiar with their own bodies, their own pain, their own path to the NFL — and if it involved marijuana along the way, they’re still at the very tippy-top of their profession. There’s no one better in the world at what they do, so obviously they know how to manage it. We should trust them to manage these things on their own, as long as they’re performing on the field and not fucking up their world. The NFL should accept that marijuana’s here to stay.
Are you comfortable being a spokesperson for allowing pot to be used by players?
I’m comfortable because it doesn’t carry a stigma for me anymore. I know what these guys go through. To me, it’s less about marijuana than the health of these guys, the fact that they’re ravaging their bodies on a daily basis to entertain millions of people — and that ravaging makes a lot of people really rich. These guys are human beings, with fears and insecurity and pain. They have doubts as well, but they know how to push through them. At the same time, they’re only human, and marijuana is an innocuous form of escape.