The unlikeliest Bronco |

The unlikeliest Bronco

Courtesy Jack Dempsey Stefan Fatsis takes notes on the practice field during his stint with the Broncos at training camp in 2006.

ASPEN ” It’s the dream of any Broncos fan: Putting on the pads, the shiny helmet, the crisp blue jersey with the orange trim, and running onto the field to play for coach Mike Shanahan.

Longtime Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis did just that before the 2006 NFL season, although his new book about the experience is no fairy tale. After selling Denver owner Pat Bowlen on the idea of a modern-day “Paper Lion” story, Fatsis joined the Broncos before the start of the 2006 season as a 43-year-old rookie place-kicker. He hung with the team for two minicamps and the three-week grind that is NFL training camp, while culling the material for “A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 43-year-old sportswriter plays in the NFL.”

From his previous reporting experience, Fatsis knew that life in America’s most popular professional sporting league isn’t as glamorous as it’s perceived by the average fan. He didn’t expect it to be so heartlessly dispiriting, however.

“The most surprising thing to me was just how joyless the overall environment was,” said Fatsis from his cell phone while en route to Aspen for a speaking engagement Thursday and a book signing Friday at Explore Booksellers. “Just how combative and cynical and paranoid the place was. I was just sort of shocked at how negative an environment the NFL was.”

If that sounds like an indictment of the Broncos, it’s not. It’s more of an honest assessment of the NFL’s infrastructure, which Fatsis came to view as one of the most ruthless places to work in America after hours of exclusive conversations with coaches, front-office personnel and players.

The NFL has a food chain, but what makes it so joyless to those who make it up is that everyone ” aside from the owners ” is always in danger of losing their spot, Fatsis said.

That’s not to say there’s no joy in being a Denver Bronco.

“What the players do requires tremendous skill and concentration and they love doing it,” he said. “What surprised me was how introspective the players were about their lives and their motivations for doing what they do.”

Fatsis said he was little more than a gray-haired mascot when he first joined the Broncos, an outsider in an uncomfortable place. After weeks of showing up for practices, meetings, team meals and outings, however, players came to see him as one of them.

That led to some eye-opening, candid conversations with some Broncos, both well-known and virtually unknown.

He also got to experience first-hand a small dose of the pressure that NFL players and coaches deal with on a daily basis. The book’s title comes from a line from former Broncos kicker Jason Elam, who admitted to Fatsis, even after 13 seasons, that he still got nervous kicking in preseason games.

The most jolting, pressure-filled, and ultimately humiliating moment of Fatsis’ life came when Shanahan summoned him at the end of a morning training camp practice to try to kick a field goal with a live rush.

He failed miserably on the first kick, then the second. A few days later, Shanahan offered him two more chances at the end of another practice, and Fatsis redeemed himself. He nocked home a wobbly 28-yarder on the second kick that left him mobbed by teammates, some of whom tried to carry him off the field.

“We all experience pressure in our lives in one form or another,” said Fatsis, whose previous book, the best-selling “Word Freak,” was a foray into the world of competitive Scrabble. “For me, it’s ranged from writing on deadline to playing Scrabble games that deeply mattered to me.

“But there was nothing like this. I felt this pressure to perform that was just so magnified because of the fact that there were so many people watching, all these players and coaches and fans. There was something more burdensome about it.”

And ultimately more rewarding. Fatsis said his failure, then success as a kicker helped break down the barrier built up between writer and player.

“The players did say afterward, ‘Now you get it,'” he said. “It helped them trust me more.”

Since the book has come out, Fatsis has said he’s gotten nothing but positive responses from the players who have read the book. A group of Broncos even showed up at a book signing in Denver, as did former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist, who said the book was educational for him.

Fatsis said he got the ultimate compliment from a lineman who sent him an e-mail out of the blue.

“He said, you totally got it right about the mind (expletive) that is the NFL,” Fatsis said. “Once they started to trust me, some of them saw me as a megaphone. They trusted me to tell the real story.”

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