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Seven Bowel Movements: A Training Camp Conversation With Stefan Fatsis

During the 2006 NFL season, Stefan Fatsis embarked on a 21st century version of George Plimpton, with more tees. As you've no doubt heard, the D.C. resident and well-known author hired a trainer and a kicking coach and eventually convinced the Denver Broncos to let him in the doors, as both reporter and player. He writes about all this in A Few Seconds of Panic, whose massive publicity tour might as well make a stop in these parts.

Fatsis--a former Wall Street Journal columnist and contributor to NPR--will appear on Comcast SportsyNet's Washington Post Live this evening to discuss what it's like to be inside an NFL locker room during training camp and beyond. He'll also do signings at Politics & Prose this Saturday at 6, and then at the Georgetown Barnes & Noble on Thursday, August 21, at 7:30. In advance of our joint appearance, and in honor of Skins training camp, I present a few questions and answers with Stefan.

Today is Day Two of Redskins training camp. Much of your book is about the drudgery and ambivalence inherent in a pro football career. Were there any moments at all of childlike glee in, say, the first few days of camp?

You mean like the two-hour (and five-minute) team meeting where we were lectured about the spread of the potentially lethal MSRA bacteria? And then informed about a survey showing that 68 percent of current and former NFL players cited frustration and irritability? That kind of childlike glee?

One rookie lost 15 pounds in the first day and a half of camp from nerves. A veteran moved his bowels seven times on day one. On day two I observed a parade of injuries, great and small. My favorite moment: When an offensive lineman, on the sideline after someone fell on his shoulder in a scrum, told the trainer he couldn't raise his arm straight up and the trainer replied, "Then don't do it."

So, no, two-a-days are not much fun. The first 10 days or so of camp are, one member of the Broncos told me, like Groundhog Day. During my summer in Denver, the only smiling Broncos were the handful of veterans who were rewarded by head coach Mike Shanahan for their veteran-ness by being excused from afternoon practices every single day. "One of the three happiest moments in my life," offensive lineman Matt Lepsis told me. "It has restored my love for the game."

The kickers, of course, can't and generally don't complain. They never have it bad, which the other players are none too happy to repeatedly remind them. ("Stefan, drink plenty of water out there today!" one player deadpanned on day one.)

I'd attended two minicamps already, so by that point I was already assimilated into the team. The big difference for me was the five boxes of Reebok footwear--two pairs of cleats, cross-trainers, running shoes, shower shoes--that were waiting in my locker upon arrival. Yes, I got a shoe deal. Call me stupid, but for reasons of journalistic propriety I turned down the $3,000 of contractual swag typical for a no-name NFL rookie.

The days of fatty players using training camp to actually get in shape are apparently gone, but are there any guys who show up just completely not ready to play football? If so, what are the first few days of camp like for them? Are they treated like outcasts?

No one shows up out of shape. Not a single player. No one. Does not happen. Don't forget: The players since springtime have been attending "voluntary" workouts, which are voluntary only in the sense that missing them means you're pretty much volunteering to lose your job. There also have been about a dozen and a half of what the military-speak NFL refers to as "organized team activities" and three short camps.

By the time training camp began, the players already had been through the first three days' worth of plays four times. Even if a player feels out of shape, and struggles with the four or five hours of on-field practice, he'll never admit it. He can't. The pressure on everyone is just too great. In Denver, Shanahan and his underlings reminded everyone that their jobs are on the line pretty much all the time.

Every time I go to Redskins Park, players disappear for great stretches of "meetings." I've heard that some players regard these meetings as insufferably boring, especially if they've actually studied their playbook and know what's going on. What was the vibe like in the meeting rooms? Did you see guys fall asleep? Doodle? Talk in the back of the room?

Doodle, absolutely. Fall asleep, too risky. Spit tobacco juice into empty 12-ounce Gatorade bottles, all the time. I did notice a difference between the position meetings and the team meetings that everyone must attend, which were run by Shanahan and were more informational and broadly threatening. (Except for the first 15 minutes at night during camp, when rookies were called on to tell a joke. I didn't exactly kill, probably because my two original light-bulb jokes were G-rated, though my teammates did howl when I announced my school and year--Penn, 1985--and my position.)

Players are far more attentive and involved in the smaller position meetings, where video of their performance on the field during the day is scrutinized (and sometimes berated) by coaches. Those meetings can be like a ninth-grade classroom, though, with eyes rolling when someone asks too many questions. At a certain point in the evening, players just want to go home. The most tedious team meetings by far are the ones before preseason games, when the coaches deconstruct every play in the game plan or, in the words of then Broncos QB Jake Plummer, "go over the same s--- we've gone over 10 times already."

The kickers, of course, have no meetings. During afternoon positions meetings, we'd play video games, schmooze, take a long hot hub. Starter Jason Elam had his own Internet hookup in the groundskeeper's office, where he'd retreat to write his messianic thriller about football or work on his master's in divinity. Really.

If you could eat lunch today at your choice of downtown takeout joints, or at an NFL cafeteria, which would you choose and why? Seriously, what was your average food intake like during training camp? Did you have to give anything up?

NFL cafeteria. The food was catered, copious, varied and tasty. Loved the grilled-chicken sandwiches on toast! Excellent sloppy Joes! And the ice-cream freezer! Some players just piled the food on. With the heat (but no humidity; I'm very glad I did this in Denver) and the exhaustion, some players had to force themselves to eat. At the start of camp, the trainer told everyone to eat a lot, salt all food and hydrate. The goal: clear urine!

As with everything in training camp, though, even the food got tiresome. "If I have to eat any more food on a stick," a player said one day, "I'm going to stab myself with the skewer."

Since kickers aren't banging heads, I actually felt like I was working less hard than I had in the run-up to camp. Over the course of the previous year, in hopes an NFL team would let me pad up, I'd gained a dozen pounds, much of it in the last two months before camp, when I was lifting or kicking and eating six meals every day. But during camp, when I focused on kicking rather than gaining muscle (ahem) mass, I didn't eat a ton.

Did anyone ever discuss Clinton Portis, Daniel Snyder, or the Redskins as an organization? Many fans in Denver still like and follow Portis; I'm curious if any players you met have feelings about him. And how is the Portis for Bailey trade regarded in that locker room?

I never heard anyone talk about the Redskins or Portis, not that I asked. But if I had polled the locker room, I'm sure the Portis-Champ Bailey trade would have received a 100-percent approval rating.

Bonus question: What makes team handball the best sport to follow during the Summer Olympics?

For starters, Iceland is in the field. Iceland! But seriously, this might be the greatest sport in the world, certainly the greatest at which the United States sucks and shouldn't. To self-quote from a column I wrote at the 2004 Olympics, the idea is to wing a ball the size of a cantaloupe past a clearly insane goalie who guards a rectangle the size of a couple of refrigerators. The seven-on-seven indoor sport has the leaping, dribbling, passing, off-the-ball movement and shot-blocking of hoops (the ideal player is about 6-foot-5, 210 pounds; Germany had a 7-foot cross between Shawn Bradley and Randy Johnson); the hard throwing of baseball (shots fly up to 70 mph); and the body contact of hockey, soccer and lacrosse (defenders grab, push and slam the guy with the ball, who tries to shoot over, under or through a defensive fortress). Nonstop, fast-breaking, simple to understand, high-scoring. And excellent shoes! And Iceland! I beseech the Bog to make team handball this Olympics' curling.

By Dan Steinberg  |  July 21, 2008; 9:44 AM ET
Categories:  Media , NFL , Redskins  
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Yes, I endorse learning more about team handball now. Sounds like Mike Sellers should be participating.

Posted by: Lindemann | July 21, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

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