The Secrets of an NFL Locker Room

A former professional punter remembers his time inside the players' last sanctuary

Players Only: Inside the bubble of an NFL locker room. Credit: Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photo by MIchael Zagaris/SF49ers/Getty

There's a strange place that exists in our world. It's an intersection of cultures, ideas and people, from all manner of socioeconomic backgrounds, hailing from every walk of life, brought together under an umbrella of violence and greed. It's a sphere of privilege and respect as ephemeral as the surface of a soap bubble – yet, to those on the inside, it's the solid bedrock of reality.

I speak, of course, about the NFL locker room.

Inside an NFL locker room, you will not find a sole collection of meatheads smashing their skulls into each other until blood streams from their noses. You will not find an isolated gathering of erudite scholars discussing the latest findings from NASA, and what that might mean for the global economy. You will not find just a quarrel of rednecks discussing fishing lures and shotgun merits, nor only huddled hunches of nerds debating the merits of the latest AAA video game release.

You will find every single one of these, and many more besides, because the interior of an NFL locker room is made up of individuals, none of whom are easily crammed into a single box, save one: The common trait of football aptitude.

I've met Episcopalian fundamentalists, Sunday Catholic practitioners, the staunchest of atheists and Muslim faithful alike. I've talked race relations with East Coast prep schoolers, theoretical economics with inner city Chicagoans and same-sex marriage rights with Deep South conservatives. I've seen grown men throw chairs at each other over perceived slights committed hours earlier, completed The New York Times' Sunday crossword with people who could bench-press me twice over, and never once did I consider it out of the ordinary, because the reality of the bubble I used to inhabit is that it is comprised of the same people that exist in every other job in every other place in our country, except we probably run the 40-yard dash quite a bit faster than you.

That 40-yard dash is all we usually let you see.

What the average fan never seems to understand is that out on the field, during the interviews we give, we're the uniform, mouthing the same clichés. Those in charge don't want you to be you. They want you to be the product – and sneaker sales cross political lines. But inside the locker room? We're human beings; no more, no less. We talk about the same things everyone else talks about at work, because just like everyone else, we have to do something to pass the time when we're not working.

"What do you think about Obama? We finally got a black president!"

"Hey, did you see this sweet thing on YouTube? It's called 'Gangnam Style.'"

"Man, these fucking taxes fucking suck. Obama fucking sucks. Fuck."

"So there I was, two fingers deep, and in walks her friend..."

The enlightened, the inane, the important, the profane, echoes of reality and splinters of dreams. We talk about skits on Saturday Night Live, the difference between hip-hop and jive, babysitters and bassinets, strippers and clarinets. We contemplate the virtues of Vonnegut in between slapping down dominoes, and there's nothing we're surprised to hear because the conversations are simply masks for words unseen and unsaid.

"My head's still ringing. Ha ha. Better keep fooling them."

"Shit, man, I drank too much again last night. Cover for me on some of these reps?"

"My girl keeps calling, and this other girl keeps calling. Fuck."

"It's torn. Do you think they're gonna find someone new?"

Every one of us in there recognizes, although it is almost never vocalized, that our job is not just a job. It is the only job like it, and it can be taken away in an instant. One bad game. A twist of the knee. One mistimed step. Everything that we've worked for can instantly vanish – sending us back to a life of ignoble anonymity.

It is that plaintive undercurrent, the unspoken vulnerability between those for whom vulnerability is a weakness, that permeates our atmosphere. Our conversations, whether we recognize them or not, carry the inherent knowledge that the person we're speaking to may simply not be there tomorrow. Cut, traded, injured – it makes no difference. They are gone nonetheless. Whatever similarities we shared, whatever differences we appreciated are immaterial. The one thing that brought us together is ultimately the cause of our separation.

Football gives us our bubble, brings us together with people we otherwise never might have met. Football makes us family, gives us visions of immortality and hides our expiration dates. Football beguiles us with wealth and glory, a meritocracy of equals, the platonic American ideal, and it is impossible to contemplate the price we must one day pay while remaining at the top of our game.

The victories under Sunday lights, our practice-field efforts, the relentless grind of training day in and day out – an outside observer has no context for these things. Your secondhand emotions are but a pale shadow of what we experience with each other, the roller-coaster ride every year brings. Old faces lost, new faces gained, seeing each other more than we see our families; disparate parts merging into a cohesive whole as best they can, until fate calls our name.

The dream ends. No more of the good. No more philosophical debates on the nature of humanity; no more laughing at someone stumbling and falling on game film; no more hyper-competitive Mario Kart tournaments replete with friendly insults screamed across the room. No more pranks, freezing someone's clothes to their car, or blowing an air horn into the storage closet where it's easy to sneak a nap. No more birthday celebrations while stuck in a college dorm at minicamp, bemoaning the enforced isolation, but cherishing the moment nonetheless.

No more of the bad. No more sharing a bus with domestic abusers, unable to refuse to associate with them because that's not your choice to make. No more questioning the motives of coaches who demand you act in their best interests and not your own. No more failure, the stomach-wrenching sensation of publicly shaming yourself by not being quite good enough that particular day, no matter how badly you wanted it. No more casual racism and misogyny and idiocy, drunk drivers who could buy cab companies.

No more of the strange. No more watching someone get suspended four games for taking penis-enlargement pills. No more trying to explain that, if you get an email saying you won a sweepstakes, but first they need you to send $10,000 and your banking information, then it's probably a scam and you shouldn't have sent that $10,000. No more listening to conversations about the merits of different regional affectations vis-à-vis lap dance price and quality. No more 40-pound tape balls, crafted over the course of years of meetings.

No more bubble.

Perhaps that is what makes those conversations, those relationships, those interactions so vivid. The good, the bad, the strange alike, all moments that will never take place again, because there is no re-creating them in the real world. There is no other job that surrounds you with such a diverse assortment of people, forces you to share the same space under such intense circumstances and pays you more money in one year than most people will earn in 20. There is no other job where being injured is a guarantee, and the only questions are the severity of the malady and duration of the recovery. There is no other job that forces you to sacrifice the future for the present, and I still do not know if that's a good or bad thing.

What I do know is that, like every other player finished with the game, I miss it, even though I am not the most sociable individual. I miss the conversations, the shared miseries and triumphs. I miss being surrounded by people I probably never would have met otherwise, idiotic and intelligent and complicated, sharing parts of themselves that, for all the scrutiny and media attention the NFL gets, very few people know exist. I miss being constantly surprised by the diversity of rookies, and the familiarity of vets.

It's not something that I can even explain properly, though I've spent quite a few words trying to do just that. I can't distill a multitude of emotions, both positive and negative, into anything more than the barest approximation of what existing in an NFL locker room is like. It's an experience, a slice of time from my life that I didn't realize was gone, until one day it wasn't there anymore, and it is only by looking back on that experience that I can appreciate how much it shaped my life at that time.

The locker room I lived in is gone. Without football to bind us together, we players go our separate ways when our playing days are finished, scatter back to the disparate points we came from, and odds are good we'll never run into each other again outside of one or two close friends. We can commiserate at reunions, try to catch up via text and phone, but it's not the same. It'll never be the same, because for us, the bubble has popped, and there's no putting it back together.

When you hear a retired player say, "The only thing I miss is the locker room," perhaps now you'll have a slightly better understanding of why. The things you never see, the hidden facets of gems who've been polished to only show you one face – that's what they miss. That's what I miss. Fortune and fame were nice, to be sure, but it's the people that made the game worthwhile, in all their varied personalities. It's the people – good, bad and strange – that make anything worthwhile, and I will be forever grateful to have met the people I did. Without them, my life would have been a less interesting place.

I am both privileged and damned to have lived inside that bubble, and it is truly the only thing I miss about football.