Writer Talks J-E-T-S in Norwich
FILE - In this Dec. 29, 2013, file photo, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has a laugh on the sideline before an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Jets have signed Ryan to a contract extension, removing the lame duck label and keeping him with the franchise for at least the next two years.(AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan speaks to the media during an NFL football news conference Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Florham Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Norwich — When author Nicholas Dawidoff first met Dartmouth College professor Thomas Powers, it was for help with research for a book about baseball player-turned-U.S. spy Moe Berg, published in 1994 as The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Mo e Berg.
It was the first of many works throughout Dawidoff’s career pertaining to baseball, including The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball (2008), a memoir about how the game helped him through a troubled childhood growing up in New Haven, Conn. Dawidoff, who still lives in New Haven, also edited Baseball: A Literary Anthology, published by the Library of America in 2002.
A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Dawidoff wished to explore the enormous popularity of professional football and began by writing a profile on outspoken New York Jets coach Rex Ryan for the magazine in 2010.
Ryan enjoyed the piece, and the following season Dawidoff did what few authors have an opportunity to do: spend an entire year chronicling the inner workings of an NFL franchise.
The end result is a 485-page, hardcover book called Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, released by Little, Brown and Company in November. The main title is derived from one of the author’s favorite football phrases, a defensive term instructing players to make legal contact with receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Powers, a South Royalton resident and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, interviewed Dawidoff on Wednesday night before a full house at Norwich Book Store, discussing the project and the author’s views in its aftermath.
From the college draft in April to a training camp delayed by a lockout imposed on players by the league during a labor dispute, Dawidoff immersed himself in offseason meetings with the Jets coaching staff. Even before players arrived to the Jets practice facility — the lockout ended after 130 days on July 25, 2011 — the author gleaned some of the differences in the way a team’s offense and defense operates.
“In professional football, a team’s offense and defense commonly exist in separate but neighboring regions,” Dawidoff writes in chapter 2, “and, because they practice against each other every day, the two groups are competitive with each other.”
Dawidoff told his Norwich audience that until they’re inextricably unified as teammates on game day, offensive and defensive players view each other with “enmity” and “disaffection.”
“They wear different colored uniforms and practice on opposite sides of the field. ... It’s all part of the tension throughout football,” he said. “I would argue that defense is tougher. The offense knows what they want to do, and the defense has to respond.”
Dawidoff was picked on by players, he said, “for driving a mini coupe in a culture of SUVs,” and for his dietary habits.
“During meals, I think I was the only one who ate the beets that were available. I love beets,” Dawidoff said. “I still get text messages from players with pictures of beets, who think of me every time they see them,” he said.
The author wasn’t just teased, however. Some of the Jets’ personnel — including Ryan — made a point to open up to him. Not long after the draft, Dawidoff was eating lunch in the team cafeteria when Ryan plopped down beside him.
“(He) proceeded to tell me about his son Seth’s recent junior varsity high school baseball exploits in such a way that I felt instantly absorbed in the story, invested in whether or not Seth would soon be called up to the varsity,” he said.
While Ryan may come off brash in news conference sound bites, Dawidoff has always found his liveliness engaging.
“I’ve always seen him as more charismatic than a braggart,” Dawidoff said. “He has a strategic gift for football and sees things on the field that other people don’t see, and his confidence and enthusiasm is something that people who are on his team love. He makes it so you want to do things for him, which in the end, isn’t that what you’re looking for in a coach?”
Dawidoff was asked by Powers about the physical pain involved with football and how it’s handled by players. The author essentially answered that it’s a culture of denial.
“When you ask players about getting hurt, they’ll usually say something like, ‘everybody gets hurt, you just have to try not to get hurt worse,’ ” he said.
“With some, there’s a gladiator complex where players don’t think they can get hurt, that it can’t happen to them. I’ve heard a whole litany of reasons players have said as to why they won’t get hurt.”
During the question-and-answer session with the audience, Dawidoff was asked several times about the new science strongly linking the effects of playing football with traumatic brain injuries (TMIs). Last summer, the NFL reached a multi-million dollar settlement with more than 4,500 retired players and their families, who’d sued the league claiming it withheld information about the dangers of head trauma associated with the game.
Dawidoff called the stories of former players suffering from TMI’s “heartbreaking,” and said most Jets personnel weren’t keen on addressing the issue.
“By and large, it was never discussed and they didn’t want to talk about it,” the author said. “Many of them looked at it as though it were a league problem, or a medical (personnel) problem, that it wasn’t their concern. Some of them were a little bit old school and thought the league was getting soft.”
Dawidoff thinks there will always be tackling in football, but thinks eventually defenders will only be allowed to hit offensive players in the torso.
“One of the reasons the sport is so popular is because it evolves and keeps changing with the times,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, football came of age with TV, and at the heart of the NFL is business. It won’t be out of the kindness of anybody’s heart, but once the league starts getting hit in the pocketbook by all of the concern over TMIs, it will evolve or become marginalized like boxing.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.