For one entire year, author Nicholas Dawidoff (The Catcher Was a Spy; In the Country of Country) was granted full access to the New York Jets; he was even given his own locker and a personal office. At close quarters, he closely observed interactions about which even veteran reporters and devoted fans could only speculate. Under his watchful eye, the behind-the-scenes conferences, confabs, outbursts and hijinks play in real time, win or lose. One early reader called it "revealing, engrossing, extremely funny, and about as close as you can come to the NFL without getting a concussion." A great read.
Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Footballby Nicholas Dawidoff
By spending a year with the New York Jets, Nicholas Dawidoff entered a mysterious and private world with its own rituals and language. Equal parts Paper Lion, Moneyball, Friday Night Lights, and The Office,/i>/strong>/i>
An unrivaled portrait of day-to-day life in the NFL: "Riveting...An instant classic." -- New York Times Book Review
By spending a year with the New York Jets, Nicholas Dawidoff entered a mysterious and private world with its own rituals and language. Equal parts Paper Lion, Moneyball, Friday Night Lights, and The Office, this absorbing, funny, and vivid narrative gets to the heart of a massive and stressful collective endeavor.
Here is football in many faces: the polarizing, brilliant, and hilarious head coach; the general manager, whose job is to support (and suppress) the irrepressible coach; the defensive coaches and their in-house rivals, the offensive coaches; and of course the players. Wise safeties, brooding linebackers, high-strung cornerbacks, enthusiastic rookies, and a well-read nose tackle-they make up a strange and complex family. Dawidoff makes an emblematic NFL season come alive for fans and nonfans alike in a book about football that will forever change the way people watch and think about the sport.
Over the past few years, the New York Jets under blustery coach Rex Ryan have been an overexposed media magnet that repels many fans. Yet Dawidoff's (The Fly Swatter) immersion into the world of football presents a nuanced, thorough account of the team's disappointing 2011 season that demands to be read. His book, which originated as an article in the New York Times Magazine, where he is a contributing writer, is more about the management of an NFL team than about on-the-field heroics. Dawidoff details the exacting, overworked life of the coaches in their pressurized bubble, drawing incisive, compelling profiles of Ryan, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and several other assistant coaches, as well as general manager Mike Tannenbaum. Jets players are mostly ancillary here, although the sad sagas of struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez, frustrated wideout Santonio Holmes, and unstable cornerback Antonio Cromartie are a continuing burden for the coaches. The author contends that past family dysfunction in players' lives has significantly molded the strong and often difficult personalities of many of these young athletes. VERDICT This quality piece of embedded analytical journalism relayed with warmth and insight will be enjoyed by football fans.—John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ
Claiming that professional football "thrive on mystery," Dawidoff (The Catcher Was a Spy) embedded himself with the NFL's New York Jets for the 2011 season in an attempt to demystify the sport. By converging elements of the best sport literature—analysis, expose, humor—into an expansive narrative, he takes readers inside the windowless offices of the Jets' Florham Park, N.J., headquarters and onto sweat-stained practice fields where men become boys and friendships rise and fall. Beginning with the NFL Scouting Combine in February through to the final game of a disappointing season marked by early Super Bowl aspirations and a player lockout, Dawidoff reveals the professional, physical, and human toll a single NFL season takes. Issues of player safety and sexual orientation are covered neatly and quickly so he can get back to an overreliance on Xs and Os. In fact, the book takes its title from a little-known term used by defensive coaches to describe linebackers and other players who make "legal contact with any potential pass receiver… crossing the field within five yards of the line of scrimmage." This coveted exploration of the inner workings of an NFL team isn't for casual fans, but it will thrill Jets followers and disciples of the game, ensuring readers won't watch football the same way again. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick & Williams. (Nov.)
Dawidoff is a crack writer, saturating the book with the best of a year's worth of anecdotes and lacing it with the backgrounds of coaches and players with an intimacy that begs the question how he got all this sharp and often moving material.... Dawidoff has a sure hand with the nature of passion, the rancor and weeping joy that characterizes every season in the most popular sport in the country. Insightful, immediate sportswriting. Readers will feel every bit of the team's frustration and elation." Kirkus (starred review)"
This is a superlative insider's portrait of one NFL team (reminiscent of John Feinstein's similar Next Man Up: A Year behind the Lines (2005), about the Baltimore Ravens), and it's accessible to casual fans and irresistible to NFL geeks." Booklist (starred review)"
A riveting case study." New York Times Book Review, "Editor's Choice""
Collision Low Crossers is a book that I would highly recommend not just for lovers of sports writing, but for lovers of intelligent writing that sheds new light on something so universal in the average American's life that the average American might never notice. This is a wonderful book by a talented writer I hope to read more from in the future." Seattle Post-Intelligencer"
May be the best book I've ever read about football." Mike Pesca, NPR's All Things Considered"
Entirely suspenseful, even when one knows how it will turn out.... Dawidoff has established a reputation as one of the best chroniclers of sports in American life.... A deeply nuanced look at an organization a business with characters who leap off the page." The Chicago Tribune, "Editor's Choice""
An unusually smart and revealing (and often funny) look at the quirky subculture of pro football." Tom Perrotta"
Incredibly engaging and gripping.... What makes Collision Low Crossers a transcendental read is how thoughtful and thorough a guide Dawidoff becomes." Kirkus Reviews"
A rare behind-the-scenes look at what makes a football organization tick." The Washington Post"
Collision Low Crossers is the best book ever written about football and I'm in awe." Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine"
On every significant American subject there are only a handful of really good books, and Collision Low Crossers is one of the best books ever written about sports. Dawidoff takes you into a closed world of interesting men who are obsessed with how to perfect the art of football. The book is closely and boldly observed, frankly reported, ferociously written with both humor and humanity; it teems with wonderful lines, rich and vivid passages. The end result is what all coaches long for, the magical pleasure of watching a perfectly managed game that ends in a great victory." Thomas Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Man Who Kept The Secrets and The Killing of Crazy Horse"
It is rare indeed that any writer can infiltrate any sports team so thoroughly as Nicholas Dawidoff has done in Collision Low Crossers. His access, though, is but the foundation of this sports tour du force, for his year in the belly of the New York Jets is so informed with insight and sensitivity alike that it reveals to us not just the season's secrets of one team, but the complicated attractions that trap men in football's mean clutches." Frank Deford, commentator, Morning Edition, and author of Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter"
Nicholas Dawidoff shows us everything television doesn't. By the time I finished Collision Low Crossers, I realized that what happens on the field is only a tiny fraction of a football season-and hardly the most interesting. It was a huge pleasure to be led behind the scenes by a writer with such subtlety, wit, and style." Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and At Large and At Small"
I loved Collision Low Crossersit's revealing, engrossing, extremely funny, and about as close as you can come to the NFL without getting a concussion. With expert reporting and an enviably light touch, Dawidoff shows the warm heart beating inside the most dangerous game." Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding"
An exceptionally detailed description of how the coaches of an NFL team prepare for and survive a season that turns out to be a disappointment.... Full of intriguing, creatively chronicled little moments." Bill Littlefield, WBUR's "Only A Game""
A startling, year-long, day-in-and-day-out tale of large men and obsessive, outsized personalities. Nicholas Dawidoff is a committed watcher and listener who takes Plimpton's participatory impulse and applies it in his own artful way, creating an entirely original - and thoroughly grand - portrait of an NFL team. Before Collision Low Crossers, it's now quite clear to me, I didn't really understand pro football at all." Ted Conover, author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and Rolling Nowhere"
Unputdownable.... Whatever your interest, be it in sports, business, or even politics, Collision Low Crossers is a great read. You won't be disappointed." Forbes"
Insightful and funny, this is a must read for any sports fan." Susanne Jaffe, creative director, Thurber House, for The Columbus Dispatch"
A fascinating, incisive look at football, written in prose that soars like a perfect pass." Shelf Awareness, "The Best Books of 2013""
A quality piece of embedded analytical journalism relayed with warmth and insight." Library Journal"
In the hands of a skillful observer such as Dawidoff, the volatile personalities and intricacies of running a professional football team become both accessible and understandable." The Virginia Quarterly"
Superb.... Excellent stuff.... Dawidoff is as good as they come." Newsday
The story of the author's year embedded in the New York Jets football team. Before the 2011 NFL season, the "big, warm-blooded, exuberant" coach of the Jets, Rex Ryan, asked New Yorker and Rolling Stone contributor Dawidoff (The Fly Swatter: Portrait of an Exceptional Character, 2003, etc.) to spend a year with the team. That fact alone says a lot: not only that Ryan trusted the author to make a good job of it--which he absolutely does--but to be so open in what is mostly a closed, secretive society. Unlike most journalists, who are escorted around "like state visitors to Pyongyang," Dawidoff received a locker and the freedom to roam and eavesdrop. In the past 20 years, writes the author, the game had become "the national passion…something graceful, thrilling, dangerous, and concealed in plain sight." Though he touches on the bad press that has recently smeared the game--the concussion issue, the bounty hunting, the closed-mindedness about homosexuality--the author was soon in the game's thrall, both intellectually and emotionally. Dawidoff is a crack writer, saturating the book with the best of a year's worth of anecdotes and lacing it with the backgrounds of coaches and players with an intimacy that begs the question how he got all this sharp and often moving material. Typical is the lovely scene where the young Rex is with his twin brother, Rob (a defensive coordinator in the NFL), and his father, Buddy (a legendary former NFL head coach), as Buddy is explaining to the boys some piece of the game's obscurity, and Rob suddenly realizes: "He's teaching us the family secrets." Dawidoff has a sure hand with the nature of passion, the rancor and weeping joy that characterizes every season in the most popular sport in the country. Insightful, immediate sportswriting. Readers will feel every bit of the team's frustration and elation.
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Collision Low Crossers
A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football
By Nicholas Dawidoff
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Nicholas Dawidoff
All rights reserved.
He seems very strong. Did you notice his torso?
—Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels
The year really began in the last days of February, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The Scouting Combine is an annual invitation-only event at which more than three hundred of the country's most promising draft-eligible college football players gather to audition for NFL teams by running, jumping, lifting weights, taking intelligence tests, and sitting down for private interviews, where each one might be asked about almost anything, including his injured shoulder, his bar brawl, his decision to save himself for marriage, and, as had happened the year before with the receiver Dez Bryant, whether his mother was a prostitute. When Eric Mangini led the Jets, he sometimes began a Combine interview by requiring the ten or so people in the room to introduce themselves to the player, after which the coach turned to the player and asked him to repeat all the names he'd just heard. This did not always go over well. LSU's Dwayne Bowe, now a Chiefs receiver, believed Mangini was trying to humiliate him, and he shut down, producing a lengthy awkward moment that Jets officials still can't recall without shuddering.
The Combine was a spectacle that had elements of other spectacles: it was a football screen test; a football beauty pageant; a strongman contest at a football county fair. Jets receivers coach Henry Ellard, a former NFL star, thought back to his own Combine experience and remembered the queasy feeling of standing on display, "only in shorts," for crowds of men who tugged and pulled at him "like a piece of meat." Ellard, like most Combine attendees and most NFL players, is black. The majority of the people evaluating the players are white, creating a dynamic the Jets coaches warned me I might find disquieting: "It looks like a fucking slave auction," one coach said.
The Combine was also exactly what the word proclaimed it was: an NFL harvester that winnowed the field of ripe young football players and separated them into wheat and chaff. Two months after the Combine, at the end of April, the threshing would be completed in New York, when two-thirds of the contestants would hear their names called at the NFL draft ceremony. For the players, the Combine loomed the way the MCAT did for their classmates who hoped to become doctors, and most of them prepared just as assiduously. These study sessions were often conducted by agents, who helped the players to have ready responses for just about anything anybody might ask them to do or say.
The Jets had been preparing too. In Florham Park, after a season spent living in the moment, coming within a game of reaching the Super Bowl, the Jets coaches and team officials had stepped back, evaluated the team, assessed its deficiencies, decided what had kept them from the championship, and then discussed whom they could find at the Combine to deliver them. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, for instance, hoped to discover "a bitch-kitty pass rusher." By this he meant a defensive end or, in a 3-4 alignment, an outside linebacker who would smell a warm quarterback and become an insatiable, unblockable, pocket-infiltrating force of war-daddy bedlam. In other words, a sacking specialist. A fundamental fact of a defensive coordinator's life was that a sack reduced the chance of the opposing team's scoring in any drive to 7 percent. For all their reputation as a pressuring defense, the Jets didn't generate many sacks, leading to the perception that they lacked a real pass rush, were doing it with mirrors. Their basic problem was that there were not many large men capable of accelerating off a mark at high speed and then making a feline curve around the edge of pass protection by dipping their shoulders low enough to the grass that you could imagine them passing beneath a café table without disturbing the vase of tulips on top before raising a little backfield harm.
Attending the Combine was the University of Wisconsin defensive end J. J. Watt and the Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller, and either would have been the answer to Mike Pettine's (and Rex Ryan's) prayers. But because the Jets had been the NFL's third-best team the year before, their position for the seven rounds of the upcoming draft was low—they would pick thirtieth out of the thirty- two teams. Watt and Miller would be drafted by other teams long before that thirtieth slot. So Pettine was looking elsewhere. Pettine had watched cut-ups, collections of film footage on a common theme chosen from various games of the college careers of all the defensive players the Jets scouts and front-office people had graded draft-eligible. In his best moments on film, Temple University's Muhammad Wilkerson had impressed Pettine as much as any lineman in the draft. He weighed 315 pounds, had arms that were three feet long, and he looked like a Volkswagen when he sprinted. But Pettine worried that on too many snaps, Wilkerson needed "a little gunpowder in his Wheaties."
For the coaches and front-office people, the Combine was an industry convention. Downtown Indianapolis teemed with contingents from all the NFL organizations. Everybody knew everybody, and there was a reunion feel. At hotel lobbies and in restaurants and bars, you could hear scraps of conversation particular to the time and place: "You can't coach nasty"; "He's only six three"; "Optimal hips!"; "Josh McDaniels thinks he invented football." McDaniels had been hired in 2009 to be the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Only thirty-two and another protégé of Bill Belichick, McDaniels was then the young NFL coach of the moment. But in December, with the Broncos a 3-and-9 dead horse, he'd been fired, and now there was a different ascendant NFL leader who also happened to be the undisputed king of the Combine—Rex Ryan.
The combination of his coaching success, his charm, and a star turn in the 2010 season of HBO's training-camp documentary Hard Knocks as the smack- talking, life-loving profane fat dude with motivating charisma—"Let's go eat a goddamned snack!"—had earned Ryan first-name recognition out in the world: Rex! For him there were now invitations from the likes of Letterman, Sandler (a movie cameo), and Doubleday (a memoir). His popularity had only increased with Deadspin's discovery of fetish videos in which Ryan praised the feet of his pretty wife of nearly thirty years, Michelle. Ryan was not only gregarious but also a happily married inamorato! (Around the facility, when the other coaches teased him about this episode, Ryan would retort affably, "I'm the only guy in history who gets in a sex scandal with his wife!") Within the well-insulated facility, one could still believe that things with Ryan were as they had always been. Out at the Combine, it was clear that much was different.
In Indianapolis, as soon as Ryan was free of his long schedule of meetings, he was all over town, as he always was at the Combine. Only this time, everybody wanted to join him for a cheeseburger—or lob one at him. He'd given a press conference in which he'd guaranteed a Super Bowl victory for the Jets.
As for the Jets defensive coaches at the Combine, after hours of asking players to diagram their college base defenses and showing them cut-ups of themselves making good and poor plays on the field—clips chosen to stimulate a revealing discussion, assess the player's football acumen, and measure his responses to uncomfortable situations—the Jets coaches would gather for a late meal or drinks and conversation. They discussed peekers (a player who so badly wanted to please that every time he made a mistake, he looked to see the coach's reaction). They discussed various methods used to defend the back of the end zone (a discreet hand to a receiver's hip to "help him out-of-bounds" was one). They discussed Stanford defensive players ("Buyer beware!"). The coaches worked together closely year-round, so it was understood that, in the interests of group harmony, they would not discuss politics, religion, or wives. The dating exploits of the unmarried coaches were, however, fair game, and questions arose on the order of what was the appropriate interval of time to let pass after breaking up with a woman before one asked her roommate out.
And then there were the ongoing adventures of young Mike Smith. Smitty had been a Ravens linebacker until a severe shoulder injury ended his career. With the Jets, he was still officially a defensive intern, but Pettine deemed him a promising enough coach to lead the Jets outside linebackers. He was a dark- haired Texan with a big, cheerful arm-around-the-shoulder manner, and in a community filled with strong, physical men, there was something sweetly unmenacing about Smitty. The others enjoyed telling Smitty stories in front of him, partly because the stories were so amusing and partly because Smitty's policy in the face of less than flattering personal history was to smile and tell himself, You just have to take it. A year earlier, Smitty had prepared to celebrate his thirtieth birthday, only to realize on the birthday morning that actually he had just turned twenty-nine. Reporting the oversight to Pettine, Smitty used the word "forgot." Another day, Smitty's car was discovered parked at such an angle that it consumed two facility parking spaces, one of them not Smitty's. When confronted, Smitty claimed all ignorance, said he'd left the car perfectly parked. Smitty was a native of Lubbock, Texas, where the gusts were such that sometimes locals seemed to walk at a forward lean. That explains why, on the subject of his askew car, Smitty ventured this speculation: "The wind must have blown it crooked."
At the Combine, Smitty's hotel roommate was Jim O'Neil, with whom he also shared an office at the facility. O'Neil was Pettine's extremely competent quality- control vizier, and he also assisted Dennis Thurman, the Jets secondary coach, which made O'Neil a slow young white guy in charge of some very fast black guys. If this intimidated O'Neil, he never showed it. He had tremendous self- confidence grounded in a belief that his capacity for preparation would always win the day. You looked at O'Neil's big, pale face, jug ears, and upturned chin, and you had the idea that as a kid he must have spent a lot of time down in the family basement lifting barbells while listening to Tom Petty. In another life, he would have been the union boss buying beers for his guys down at a bar called Jimmy O's. Except that he hated unions.
O'Neil's affection for Smitty did not keep him from revealing to the others that his roommate preferred showering in the dark. Or from putting Tabasco sauce in Smitty's can of Skoal chewing tobacco. Or from telling Smitty that O'Neil's Pennsylvania high-school team would have kicked the Texas out of Smitty's. That was a dropped handkerchief Smitty could never resist picking up. O'Neil had played at Central Bucks West, in Doylestown, for Pettine's father, a storied coach who rated aggression above all football qualities—as did O'Neil. Time after time, O'Neil lured Smitty into these debates with assertions whose sheer unprovability seemed to deter neither of them.
O'Neil: "Dude! Our fullback was two hundred and fifty pounds! How you gonna stop him?"
Smitty (indignant): "I'd have woodshedded him with my shoulder!"
O'Neil (going in for the kill): "Dude, we'd have ruined your shoulder long before you got to the NFL and ruined your shoulder."
And so on.
The Combine was a business trip, and one that had the distinctive energy that develops among a group of work colleagues who are traveling together as a unit. In a sport like football, where people are constantly shifting teams and group identity is everything, this was how they owned their present colors. During one Combine meeting with a defensive lineman, the Jets coaching and front-office contingent was looking at the player's inconsistent film with him, and Terry Bradway, a former Jets GM who had stayed on with the team as Tannenbaum's senior personnel consultant, said that the tackling and effort needed to be better if the lineman was going to play in the NFL. When it was the defensive-line coach Mark Carrier's turn to speak, he said, "I agree with Mr. Bradbury's point." The little malapropism was received with much hilarity; it provided the sort of moment the coaches lived for. Bradway, of course, became Mr. Bradbury for the duration of the Combine and well beyond, and his name was worked into conversations with regularity whenever Carrier was in the room.
The prize moment in that year's Combine meetings involved Ryan. These daily sessions went on for long hours, and to keep his energy up, Ryan ate many snacks. He was working through a stack of cookies while the Jets interviewed Clemson defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins. At the table, Mike Tannenbaum received a text from someone across the room telling him to look under Ryan's chair. A swarm of ants was enjoying a cookie-crumb banquet. Tannenbaum sent out an e-mail to all the Jets people in the room alerting them to the sudden ant-farm developments; the subject line read "Right Now." Soon everyone was shaking with laughter, except Jarvis Jenkins, who didn't flinch—which earned him high interview marks from the Jets for Composure.
Not that anybody was going to fall too hard for a player because of anything that happened at the Combine. The team's draft personnel were still recovering from the debacle of 2008, when they'd held the number-six pick. Then, as now, they had been in search of a bitch kitty, and during the 2007 college season, an Ohio State defensive end named Vernon Gholston caught their attention. Gholston had just set his university's record for sacks in a year—fourteen—and one of them was against Michigan tackle Jake Long, the lone sack that portcullis of a lineman had allowed as a senior. In Indianapolis, wearing only shorts, Gholston looked not so much sculpted as quarried. Mangini was still the coach, and what he and other Jets executives were thinking after they watched this 266-pound man run a forty-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and bench-press a Combine-best thirty-seven reps of 225 pounds was that they'd just seen, as one of them said, "a Greek god who jumps over buildings."
As so often happens when people look back on the history of how they made terrible decisions, the Jets possessed all the information to warn them away from Vernon Gholston. That information simply didn't prevail. The Jets knew that Gholston had begun playing football very late, as a high-school sophomore; that he was on the field for only two seasons at Ohio State; that half his college sacks were compiled in two games; that he didn't seem like a "natural" football player so much as an "analytical" athlete who appeared to process every action before he committed to it; that Gholston's impressive Combine measurables might indicate only that he was "a workout warrior."
All players have flaws. NFL draft mistakes often come down to the team's inability to know if a football player will continue to display a relentless desire to play and to improve at the game after he's signed a contract for a great deal of money. As soon as Vernon Gholston joined the Jets, put on his pads, and began playing live football, it was clear to many Jets players that the rookie had little feel for the game—that he lacked both a passion for it and "the good awareness," as Darrelle Revis put it. Moving straight ahead, Gholston could charge hard and fast, but football is a game of angles, and sudden changes of direction drained his momentum. As plays began, Gholston had no instinctive ability to limit and refine the possibilities presenting themselves to him. "In football, no matter how fast you are, you have to see before you see," said the Jets linebacker coach Bob Sutton.
Excerpted from Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff. Copyright © 2013 Nicholas Dawidoff. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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Meet the Author
Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of four books. One of them, The Fly Swatter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and another, In the Country of Country, was named one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature by Conde Nast Traveller. A graduate of Harvard University, he has been a Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri and Berlin Prize Fellow, and is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the American Scholar.
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