For his new book, Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, author Nicholas Dawidoff spent 2011 with almost total access to the New York Jets. He attended team meetings, practices, and draft strategy sessions. He watched games from the sidelines and coaches' boxes (and even called a few plays during a preseason game). And he was assigned a locker, an office in the team's scouting department, and a security code to the organization's New Jersey training facility. The end result is a deeply reported account of life in the NFL — one in which the games we watch on Sundays represent just a tiny fraction of the overall work involved. Dawidoff spoke with Daily Intelligencer about the pressures players face to conform, the dynamic between offenses and defenses, and the nickname Mark Sanchez gave him.
I finished the book before the details about Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin came out, so I wasn't necessarily looking for this, but I don’t recall anything about rookie hazing or bullying in general. Did you witness any of that, or hear stories of it?
I think one of the reasons this is such a big story is because it is such an unusual event. I mean, I think if this sort of thing were going on all the time, we’d probably hear about it. I guess I would say a few things. I would say that football culture is pretty unique in the sense that football coaches and players spend so much time together, from early in the day to well into the evening lots of days. And so it’s a very intimate sort of culture. And I would also say that there are good reasons for why it’s a culture of conformity. Rex Ryan, the Jets coach, always calls football the ultimate team game, and I think what he’s referring to in lots of ways is that you need a real cohesiveness.
Especially, since we’re talking about the offensive line, you need people to be highly, highly synchronized in these highly, highly choreographed movements for things to work well. And that just requires very, very intense labor. So football felt to me like sort of a workaholic office environment where people were just around each other a lot, which requires ... you need to really get along well, in a sustained way. And if you were a sensitive person, it could be tricky for you. And that’s one reason that Rex jokingly gives sensitivity fines, because he always was the person who said you have to have skin like an armadillo in order to succeed.
I never saw anything remotely like what apparently went on in Miami, but what I did see were just moments that suggested how something like that could almost casually happen, which is to say that I saw what the pressures were not to be too different. And since I myself was pretty different, right? I wasn’t a football player, I was a writer. I spent most of my time with the defense, and I would say that it was a joy. But I also was very aware that I was different, and because I was comfortable being different, it was okay. But there were always ways that I was kind of being checked out, if that makes sense.
I’ll give you a couple of examples, and you’ll see the level about which I’m talking. I really like to eat beets, and there were beets every day in the cafeteria, and it was always noted that I was the guy eating beets. Or I would wear a purple bandanna when I exercised sometimes, and this also was always commented on. And I thought it was funny. I mean, Darrelle Revis once took my picture when I came into a room after exercise wearing the purple bandanna. Another day, a guy in the front office said there were "headband concerns." It was all joking and funny, but also I just noticed that they noticed. I don’t know anything specific about Incognito and Martin, but I noticed that his nickname was “Big Weirdo,” so clearly they thought he was different in some sort of way. The idea, especially with a group like the offensive line, where everything has to be choreographed with such precision, I think there are pressures to conform.
I guess there’s a difference, too, between your experience as someone who’s only there for a year and someone who needs to fit in for his entire career.
Yeah, but I mean, do you remember those passages that I wrote about the quarterback meetings, where they’d given me a mean nickname? Even those quarterback meetings, they didn’t last long, but my experience with them was in such contrast to the long days and nights I spent with the defense, which I really cherished. I loved being with those guys. They were, in fact, incredibly tolerant, and lots of fun. And I would also say that racially it was probably the most open and healthy atmosphere I’ve ever been in. It was dominated by black guys, and they talked about race really openly and frankly. It felt to me, the defense, like it was an incredibly healthy atmosphere.
And it was only in sitting with the quarterbacks — and I would say that everybody was great to me — but it was only with the quarterbacks that I felt this sort of small, slender feeling of, I didn’t know exactly why it was happening, and I think I would agree that it would be kind of difficult to ask why, but it just made no sense to me on some level, that they were giving me a nickname that nobody would really like: “Worm.” It started as Bookworm, and it quickly became just Worm.
I thought several things about it. One thing was that if I was gonna sit there and watch them struggle and lose that I should go through something too. But I also thought that it was putting me on notice that I was different and I wasn’t one of them. And so that made it slightly less pleasant to sit in on those meetings, where every other group of people that I sat in on meetings with I really loved. How can I put this? This was so much my life. It went from so early in the day to late at night. Sometimes I would sleep out there the way they did. You say that it was only one year, but it was — often we weren’t sleeping that much and such — so that I could see how, even though it wasn’t my life, I could see how if it really was your life, how even something small, when there was even a slight tinge of malice to it, could really make your life miserable pretty easily.
In the quarterback meetings, how much do you think that was the result of Sanchez’s personality? He seems like the type of guy who likes to sort of bust balls.
Yeah, I really liked Sanchez. I thought he was charming. I really admired his physical bravery. I admired his curiosity about the world. I admired his deadpan and, I thought, very witty sense of humor. And I was pulling for him. But I also thought that like so many other football players, he was really young. And I think I shared the general feeling among his superiors that they just wish he’d grow up a little. And I thought that this was an example. I mean, really what was the point? There wasn’t any real wit to it. It was just sort of a benign, unkind thing to do. And it was a very small thing to do. It wasn’t ruining my life or anything. And at times I thought it was pretty funny. But at other times, I just wondered why. He’s the quarterback of a playoff-contending football team. He had so much else going on. Why was he taking the time to do this? It just seemed odd to me, I guess.
Changing gears, I don't think I realized how much at odds the offense and defense of a football team are — often almost like competitors more than teammates. It sometimes felt like two separate teams, wearing the same jerseys.
Right, yeah. I wasn’t aware of that either. But it’s definitely true. When I went back and read Roy Blount’s book about the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventies, that’s talked about. When you go back and look at Paper Lions, it’s talked about, too. And I read those, so it’s been a part of football for a long time. But until you’re really experience that division first hand, it didn’t sink in. But then, once I was there, I could see that — the football life is all about competition, and the daily competition is — I mean, somebody wins and loses on every play during practice, and it’s serious to them. Everything is filmed, everything is critiqued. And through training camp, on every team, as they told me would happen, it was definitely true. They are bitter rivals. The offense really wants to beat the defense; the defense really wants to beat the offense. It’s serious. I thought this was certainly true between players, but it was even more true between coaches. The coaches were really rivalrous.
Did the attitudes toward the possibility of a gay football player surprise you at all?
Well, I'm just not of football culture, and so many things were surprising to me about football culture. I was a guy who lived in Brooklyn, and like many, many people in America, the idea that there would be such a culture where ... I mean, there's never been an openly gay football player. And some of the attitudes seemed to me pretty regressive, and [they] are. I mean, it's a homophobic culture. There's no getting around it. But what I also felt is that football's kind of a curious thing. On the one hand, it's very conservative and slow to evolve. But on the other hand, it's incredibly embracing. Racially, it felt probably like the most progressive culture I've ever been in, just the way people talked about race. And Rex Ryan, one of the reasons he's such an excellent football coach is because he's so accepting of difference.
And I just think that in football, people are really, really wary of anything that will sort of — it's the same thing that people used to be wary of in the military — anything that will interfere with group cohesion and group purpose. But I also think that so many of the people in football are — how can I put this? — really are team people, they really are embracing of other people. So it's this weird sort of contradiction between an aversion to difference in a loving, embracing community. And what I think is that football culture is slow to evolve in some ways. When it does evolve, it really evolves. And I think that — of course, there have been gay football players, we know this — but I think that very soon there will be gay football players. And what's going to happen is that they're gonna be accepted, and just as the eccentricities of everybody, down to my purple bandana, gets you teased, their predilections will get them teased. And you have to take it. And once you do, you become part of the group, and all the teammates will be standing there at his wedding.
You reported the book two years ago, and must have learned a lot of things that would be considered newsworthy. Even little items. The Post, for instance, picked up on the mention that Antonio Cromartie had a vasectomy. Was it tough to sit on newsworthy items for two years until the book's publication?
No, I didn't really think about it at all. I didn't think of the book as news. I was trying to write about something that felt, in a little way, timeless. I was trying to write about an emblematic season, and that's what I hoped I would see, and what I hoped the team would let me see. Because I was really interested in explaining football more in a thematic way. I felt that you had to go through a season in order to explain really how something that I was really interested in worked. It's funny that you say that — I never really thought that much about news. I thought much more about, How will I write about loss? How will I write about difficulty? How will I write about race? That's really how I was thinking about things. And I also thought of them as a group of really interesting characters. I realized that the things that happened to them were newsworthy, but I didn't think of them that way myself. I thought of them as people I was meeting in a moment in their lives, but who, for me, in effect, once I stopped being around them, were characters, and I just had to think about, What do they all have to do with one another?
This interview has been edited and condensed.