Thursday, May 31, 2012

Summer School Is in Session: OTAs and Minicamps

You may have been hearing the acronym “OTAs” quite a bit in sports news and water cooler conversation recently.  If you’ve been wondering what that means, I’m here to ‘splain all.

Under the NFL’s rules, teams are allowed to hold up to ten days of “organized team activity” during the offseason.  They can also hold “minicamps” for rookies in one of the two weekends following the NFL draft, and one mandatory minicamp for veterans.  If a team has a new head coach, however, it may hold one additional voluntary minicamp for veterans.  Under no circumstances, however, may any team hold any activities during the ten days prior to the start of training camps—which usually start in mid-July.*  So, what are these events?  Read on…



The rules governing offseason training and workouts are set out in Article 21 of the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the NFLPA (the labor organization representing the players) and the league and team owners.  Among the many changes to the CBA hammered out last summer are some of the rules by which OTAs are conducted.  The rules governing offseason training are quite extensive, believe it or not, but I will do my best to summarize those that apply to the OTAs and minicamps, which are basically preliminary practice sessions for the teams.  Under the CBA: 

&   OTAs are voluntary, and no one can indicate to a player that failure to participate will result in adverse consequences, such as not making the team;

& Activity is limited to a maximum of six hours a day, with only two hours on the field;

& There is no live contact, which means no one-on-one offense vs. defense drills; and

& Players are allowed limited padding:  only helmets and knee and elbow pads can be worn, presumably to dissuade full contact activity.

To ensure compliance, and because (believe it or not) league officials can’t be everywhere at once, the teams are required to film on-field workouts during OTAs.  Each team must keep copies of these films until thirty days after the start of the regular season, in the event the league receives a complaint about any violations of the CBA’s rules.

Even before the OTAs start, however, the CBA provides for two “phases” of offseason workouts.  In Phase One, teams can allow players to use team facilities to work out, but only for strength and conditioning and any needed physical rehab.  During this phase, only strength and conditioning coaches (who can have no other coaching duties for the team) are allowed to be present.  No footballs can be used during Phase One either, except for quarterbacks who want to practice throwing to their wide receivers.  During Phase Two, all coaches are allowed to be present, but there is to be no contact and players cannot wear helmets.


Article 22 of the CBA sets out the rules for “minicamps,” the other type of offseason activity teams can run.  As noted earlier, each team can hold only one mandatory minicamp for veterans (the exception being that teams with a new head coach can have one more voluntary minicamp).  There is no limit on how many minicamps a team can have for its rookies, provided that they are held within a seven-week “Rookie Football Development Program,” which starts around May 16th.

The CBA’s rules about minicamps are very extensive, specifying: the weekly schedule (i.e., physicals on Monday, with no practice or workouts, and practices Tuesday through Thursday); the maximum time allowed for on-the-field activity; the length of meal breaks; and exactly when in the offseason the camps may be held (e.g., voluntary veteran minicamps must be held before the draft). 


If any coaches are tempted to stretch their interpretation of these rules, they should take a look at the penalties for violating them that are outlined in the CBA.  The NFL Commissioner is empowered to impose hefty fines for violations:  against head coaches, up to $100,000 for the first violation and $250,000 for a second violation; against the team, up to $250,000 for the first violation and $500,000 for the second.  The league also has the ability to cancel a portion of a team’s remaining OTAs and dock the team’s fourth-round draft pick the following year. 

This dramatization isn't that far off.

If a violation occurs in the last week of the team’s offseason workouts (i.e., the last week before the break leading up to training camp), the first week of the team’s OTAs for the next offseason will be cancelled.  It is interesting to note that in such an event, the penalty will follow the head coach should he be hired by a new team in the interim.  For example, let’s say that the Washington Redskins violate the OTA rules during their last minicamp (June 12-14), and the NFL decides to cancel their first week of OTAs in the 2013 offseason.  If Mike Shanahan is fired at the end of the 2012 season and is hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Redskins will be able to have their full 2013 OTA schedule back, and the Jaguars will be staying home during what would have been their first week of OTAs in May 2013.


It may seem that such extensive regulations over when and how to practice is an extreme form of babysitting—after all, these are grown men who have attended at least three years of college and many of them have already played at the professional level for many years.  However, the basis for these limits lies in the real risk to the health and safety of the players, which can often be ignored by the athletes who are more concerned with making the teams. 

Even though minicamps and OTAs are voluntary, all players typically show up, unless they are injured or are in protracted contract negotiations with the team (e.g., QB Drew Brees in New Orleans).  Remember, the offseason is an extended job interview for each player; just because he has been with the team for many years, or he was just drafted in the first round, doesn’t mean that his spot on the final roster is guaranteed.  In fact, many use offseason workouts to improve skills or parts of their game that coaches may deem lacking.

The pressure to impress one’s coaches and teammates can lead players to disregard their personal health and safety.  One of the more memorable examples of the toll that the offseason routine can take is Korey Stringer (right), who was an offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings.  A 1995 draft pick, Stringer had an impressive career; in his six seasons he played in 93 regular season games, starting 91 of them.  Unfortunately, he died of complications from heat stroke during the team’s preseason training camp in 2001, at the age of 27.

Korey Stringer’s death prompted the football community at all levels to reexamine its practicing methods to determine how to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related injuries.  Discussions over player weight also arose, as Stringer weighed 335 pounds (actually the lowest in his pro career) at his death.  Since 2001, teams at all levels have taken protective measures against heat injuries—e.g., wearing light colored uniforms for practices and having water and shade accessible for players (and coaches) at all times.

Even though player-on-player contact is prohibited during practice and workouts, there is still a significant risk of injury during OTAs and minicamps, and such injuries can be costly to both the player and his team.  Teams and players were reminded of this risk when New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (left), who is one of quarterback Eli Manning’s go-to receivers, broke a bone in his foot last week.  Nicks was having a routine workout session when he broke the foot; he had surgery to repair the break with an implanted screw the next day. 

Nicks should be able to play in the Giants’ season opener against the Dallas Cowboys on September 5th, but the injury certainly put a damper on the excitement that comes with the start of offseason training.  One positive to come out of the situation for the Giants, however, is that other receivers who are further down the depth chart on the roster will now have a chance to play pitch-and-catch with Eli Manning during the OTAs and minicamps.  It’s doubtful that anyone will have a chance to oust Nicks from his starting position, but one more receiver who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance might stay on the final team roster.


*Click here to see the complete list of OTA and minicamp schedules for all 32 NFL teams. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cardinal Virtue: the Pat Tillman Story

Memorial Day is a special holiday in the United States.  It’s special because any American, regardless of religion, gender or race can celebrate.  We pause to remember friends and family who have departed this life, and we honor in particular those brave men and women who perished in military service to keep us safe.  Today, Naptime Huddle remembers one man in particular whose story of selflessness and courage made a lasting impression on his fellow Americans. 

In May of 2002 a young man, at the age of 25, made a shocking career decision.  That decision was to enlist in the U.S. Army and then join the Army Rangers.  This individual was a healthy, strong, red-blooded American who, like many other Americans at the time, felt compelled to take action in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  That a man in such a situation would choose to enlist in the U.S. Army would not normally be shocking.  What made this particular career decision so remarkable was that it cost $3.6 million dollars to make it. 

The young man who made that choice was Patrick Daniel Tillman, star safety for the Arizona Cardinals.

Tillman at ASU
Tillman graduated in three years with a 3.85 GPA from Arizona State University (where he had claimed the last available scholarship for the football program his freshman year).  Not only was he a big success for ASU on the field, as part of an undefeated senior season and Rose Bowl appearance, he won numerous academic awards as well.  Though he was one of the last players to be drafted in 1998 (he was selected 226th overall by the Cardinals), he quickly made his mark on the NFL, starting in ten of sixteen games in his rookie season.  Over his four-year career, Tillman amassed impressive stats:  238 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 3 interceptions.

In May 2002, Arizona offered him a 3-year, $3.6 million contract.  Pat, who had once said no to a lucrative contract from the St. Louis Rams so he could stay with Cardinals, turned down the offer.  On May 31st, he enlisted in the Army.  His brother, Kevin, himself a promising athlete who had already signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians, also enlisted and the two completed basic training together.  After serving in the initial invasion of Iraq in September 2003, Pat Tillman graduated from Ranger School and was redeployed to Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. 

Pat (left) and brother Kevin

On April 22, 2004, Tillman’s platoon was moving through a desert canyon in two separate groups, forced to separate when one of their Humvees broke down.  After Tillman’s group passed through the canyon, the trailing half of the platoon came under heavy fire in an enemy ambush.  Tillman’s group doubled back on foot, taking a higher position from which to provide cover fire for their comrades.   Unfortunately, as they attempted to relay a “friendly” signal to the troops in the canyon, the lead vehicle of the cornered platoon opened fire on their position.  Pat Tillman and an Afghan militia soldier were fatally wounded, victims of friendly fire.

An image from the Sperah province of Afghanistan, the province where Tillman died.

Death in combat by so-called “friendly fire” is a hazard as old as combat itself.  In the frenzy of battle, adrenaline, instinct and even fear sharpen the soldiers’ senses.  However, they can also cloud those senses, making it impossible to distinguish between friendly and hostile combatants.  Perishing under such circumstances, however, should in no way minimize the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, and such individuals still deserve the honors bestowed on those who fall in combat at the hands of the enemy.  This is particularly so in Tillman’s case, as the friendly fire was in response to an engagement initiated by enemy forces.

Unfortunately, Pat Tillman’s sacrifice was tarnished by the ensuing cover-up involving members of his own platoon and the Army Special Operations Command, which initially reported Tillman’s death the result of hostile fire.  An investigation conducted by Brigadier General Gary M. Jones revealed that Army investigators and senior commanders were aware of the true facts of Tillman’s death shortly after the skirmish, but still approved the Silver Star and Purple Heart commendations for Tillman while citing his heroic actions “in the line of devastating enemy fire.”  The next day after approving the awards, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal sent a confidential memo to senior government officials warning that Tillman’s death may have actually been the result of friendly fire.

The Silver Star

The timing of outside events may explain the Army’s desire to paint the circumstances of Tillman’s death in a certain light.  On April 28, 2004, the day Tillman’s Silver Star was approved, CBS news broke the scandal of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  The Silver Star was awarded to Tillman on the 30th and a nationally televised memorial service for him took place on May 3rd.  Without excusing their reprehensible actions, it is apparent that correcting the public’s understanding of what happened to Pat Tillman in the midst of the publicity nightmare of Abu Ghraib would have been embarrassing—to say the least—for the Army and the entire U.S. military.

Tillman's mother (center) and brother testifying before Congress
The treatment of their son’s death as a PR opportunity outraged Pat Tillman’s parents, and angered his brother Kevin.  The family has not hesitated in speaking out about the case and criticizing the Army’s handling of it.  They have willingly spoken to reporters and Kevin and his mother testified at the Congressional hearings probing into the matter.  Unfortunately, the public attention brought Tillman’s personal views on religion (he was an atheist) and the Iraq war itself into the spotlight.  Certain evidence, such as a meeting with war critic Noam Chomsky arranged for after his return from Afghanistan, indicate that he was opposed to the war at the time of his death.  Tillman’s journal that he kept while deployed, in which he may have recorded these sentiments, was never returned to his family, and its location is unknown.

Despite the controversy surrounding Pat Tillman’s death, and his personal stance concerning the war in Iraq, his personal sacrifice resonated with many, and he is no less deserving of the countless tributes that have been made to his memory.  One legacy that he leaves behind is the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was started by his friends and family after his death.  The mission of the Foundation is to support military veterans and military spouses through education and community.  To date, the Foundation has awarded 171 scholarships totaling over $2 million.  Click here to learn more about this special organization. 

Several articles and books have been written about Pat Tillman's story, but two stand out:  Boots on the Ground by Dusk, written by his mother, Mary Tillman, and Where Men Win Glory, written by Jon Krakauer.  You'll find links to purchase these books in the left sidebar.

Pat Tillman was the first NFL player to die in action since the Vietnam War.  Two players perished in that conflict and several more died in World War II.  To learn more about these gridiron warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, click here to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s page noting their service.

As you grill your hamburgers and hot dogs today, I hope you will take a few moments to pause and remember these individuals, and the countless others, who have given literally all they could to ensure our freedom.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From the Locker Room to the Ballroom

If you’re like me and my husband, and millions of other Americans, you were glued to your television Sunday night, around 10:55 PM Eastern, to find out who would be crowned champion of the fourteenth season of ABC's Dancing with the Stars.  And, if you are a football fan like me, particularly if you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, you were hoping that champion would be Packers receiver Donald Driver.

I'm not sure what all the fuss is about...
After dancing what the judges believed was the best freestyle dance in the show’s 14-season history, Donald became the new crowd favorite Monday night—over Cuban heartthrob and telenovela star William Levy (right), who had the ladies in a dither all season with his sultry Latin looks and electric hips.

Donald received another compliment from head judge Len Goodman.  Len, who never gave Donald a perfect score of 10 until his show-stopping freestyle, informed Donald that, of the many footballers that have been on the show over the years, Donald was the best. 

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the history of DWTS, I thought I would take a look back at the current and former NFL greats who have replaced their cleats with dancing shoes for ABC—so you would understand that Len’s comment was high praise indeed.  

There has been a current or retired NFL player in ten of the first fourteen seasons of DWTS; of those, the footballer has won the Mirror Ball Trophy three times, and placed second three times.   All except two were also Super Bowl champs.  Here are those twinkle-toed pros, in order by DWTS season*:

Season 2:  Jerry Rice, Runner-Up
Super Bowls XXIII, XXIV and XXIX champ rocking the 'fro in his freestyle dance.

Season 3:  Emmitt Smith, Winner 

The Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX champ holding a new kind of trophy

Season 6:  Jason Taylor, Runner-Up

A graceful Taylor with an unusually well-covered Edyta

Season 7:  Warren Sapp, Runner-Up  (Super Bowl XXXVII champ)

Who knew that such a big guy could be so light on his feet?

Season 8:  Lawrence Taylor, 7th Place  (Super Bowls XXI and XXV champ)

Ah, that's the Edyta we know!

Season 9:  Michael Irvin, 7th Place

Though a champion with Emmitt's in the 'Boys' three Super Bowl victories, Michael couldn't quite live up to his former teammate on the dance floor.

Season 10:  Chad Ochocinco, 4th Place--dancing a surprisingly tender waltz:

Season 11:  Kurt Warner, 5th Place (Super Bowl XXXIV champ)

The Super Bowl XXXIV champ "Bewitches" the crowd in his quickstep to an iconic TV theme.

Season 12:  Hines Ward, Winner-- The Super Bowls XL and XLIII champ shakes what his mama gave him in this sizzling samba (the action starts at about 1:20):

…and of course, Super Bowl XLV champ Donald Driver won Season 14 with this boot-stomping country send-up, accompanied by Cowboy Troy:  

Yee-ha!  Congrats, Donald!

*There were no football players in the casts for Seasons 1, 4, 5 and 13.  Seasons 5 and 13 ran in the fall, during football season, so no active players could have been on the show. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Undrafted Stars: From the Checkout Line to the Goal Line

Today, we finish our look at undrafted free agents (UFAs) who clawed their way onto the NFL playing field and became stars.  Our last two players profiled are both quarterbacks—but their similarities end there.


Iowa Barnstormers, 1995-1997
Amsterdam Admirals, 1998
St. Louis Rams, 1998-2003
New York Giants, 2004
Arizona Cardinals, 2005-2009

Kurt Warner’s route to the NFL elite had more twists than a barrel full of pretzels.  Warner went undrafted after graduating from Northern Iowa University in 1994.  He was invited to the Green Bay Packers’ training camp but was released before the start of the regular season; since he was competing with Brett Favre (who started for the Packers for over 15 years), Mark Brunell (who played in the league nearly 20 years), and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, you could say the odds were not in Kurt’s favor.

Stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa was not going to pay the bills for long, so he decided to return to the Northern Iowa football team as a graduate assistant coach.  He also signed with the Iowa Barnstormers, a team in the Arena Football League.  Warner had an impressive career in the AFL, being named to the All-Arena team (the AFL’s equivalent of the Pro Bowl) twice and leading his team to consecutive Arena Bowl appearances.  Kurt was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2011.

After a freak spider bite on his throwing elbow prevented a tryout with the Chicago Bears in 1997, Kurt finally got an NFL contract in 1998.  He was hired by the St. Louis Rams, who promptly sent him to Amsterdam to play QB for the Amsterdam Admirals, a team that was in the now-defunct NFL Europe.  He was brought back to St. Louis for the 1998 NFL season, as the third-string QB.

Warner finally got a starting gig in the NFL in 1999 when the Rams’ starter, Trent Green, was injured prior to the start of the season.  With little time to work with the rest of the offense, expectations were not high.  Warner proved the doubters wrong, and in convincing fashion.  Achieving numbers that put him near the top of the record books, he threw for over 4,300 yards with 41 touchdown passes; with super stars like running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt, the Rams offense earned the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.”  Their crowning achievement was victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV; Warner earned both the Super Bowl and league MVP awards.

After leaving the Rams in 2003, Kurt Warner was signed by the New York Giants; however, he lost the starting jobs after the first two games of the 2004 season to Eli Manning, and we all know how things have turned out for Eli.  Kurt chose to become a free agent after the season, he found a second home with the Arizona Cardinals.  Like his career, his tenure with his new team began with fits and starts:  he was named the starter, but lost the starting job after a groin injury; when his replacement, Josh McCown struggled, he was put back in the starting position.  In 2006, he was benched in favor of rookie Matt Leinart after the first three games, and the two men would exchange roles several times over the course of that season, and the next.

The quarterback situation in Arizona was finally resolved in 2008.  Warner responded to his new-found security with stellar performances, ending up with over 4,500 passing yards for 30 TDs.  Not only did Warner lead his team to their first post-season home victory since 1947, but he navigated them through a story book playoff run, leading them to their first ever Super Bowl, Super Bowl XLIII.  Unfortunately, the Cardinals lost a heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23.

Walking off the field after Super Bowl XLIII

Since retiring after the 2009 season, Kurt has had a very full calendar.  He’s been on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, been an analyst for NFL Network, has made numerous TV appearances and is slated to host a new reality series on USA Network called The Moment.  The recipient of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2008, Warner and his family have devoted themselves to many charitable causes, primarily through his First Things First Foundation.

If you want to learn more about Kurt Warner's Cinderella story, you can vote to have it told as NFL Network's "A Football Story" this Saturday.  Click on this link to vote: 

Other Notable UFAs of the 1990’s:

John Randle (1990), defensive tackle:  Minnesota Vikings,  1990-2000 and Seattle Seahawks, 2001-2003 (pictured below)

Adam Vinatieri* (1996), placekicker (and another Amsterdam Admirals alum):  New England Patriots, 1996-2005 and Indianapolis Colts, 2006-present  

Priest Holmes (1997), running back:  Baltimore Ravens, 1997-2000 and Kansas City Chiefs, 2001-2007 (right)

Jeff Saturday** (1998), center:  Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2011 and Green Bay Packers, currently


Tony at Eastern Illinois
Despite a stellar college career at Eastern Illinois University (a Division I-AA school), Tony Romo went undrafted in the 2003 NFL draft.  Like Kurt Warner, his name wasn’t called over draft weekend; otherwise, their careers don’t have much else in common. 

Romo was signed as a UFA by the Dallas Cowboys soon after the draft and he settled into his role as a third, then second-string quarterback until the 2006 season.  That season began with veteran Drew Bledsoe as the starter for the Cowboys.  Bledsoe had signed on with the team the previous year and had led the team to an improved record and hope for the future.  Unfortunately for Drew, his performance dropped off significantly in 2006 and he would be replaced by Tony Romo halfway through the season.  Romo, and the Cowboys, never looked back and Bledsoe was released at the end of the season; he announced his retirement in April 2007.***

Romo was comfortable at the helm of the Cowboys’ offense, and it showed.  Winning six of the remaining ten games of the season, the Cowboys made it to the playoffs and Romo finished the regular season with 2,900 passing yards for 19 touchdowns and an impressive passer rating of 95.1.  Unfortunately, the Cowboys would lose in the first round of the playoffs when Romo fumbled the placement on a field goal attempt just before the final minute of the game.**** 

Unfortunately, the 2006 season became the start of a pattern in Romo’s career:  seasons starting with stellar performances by Romo, who appears to be leading a cohesive offensive team; then missteps by Romo late in the season that either have the Cowboys limping into the playoffs, or being left out of the postseason entirely.  As a starter, Romo has a dreadful record in the month of December:  2-5 in 2006 (with a loss in the first game of the playoffs), 2-2 in 2007 (another loss in the team’s first playoff game); 1-3 in 2008 (no playoffs); 3-2 in 2009 (losing in the second round of the playoffs); and 1-4 in 2011.*****

Romo’s late season collapses are a bit of a mystery, considering the impressive statistics he has managed to put together over his short career to date.  Tony owns several team records, including the number of games with three or more TD passes (24), games with 300 or more passing yards (32), and season passing yards (4,483 in 2009).  His career passer rating of 96.9 is second in the NFL (behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers who has a 104.1 rating).

Many theories have been advanced by the media and fans to explain Romo’s late-season collapses:  detractors offer lack of maturity, composure and/or leadership as explanations; supporters blame lack of cohesion between owner Jerry Jones and his head coach of the moment, the rest of the offense and poor offensive strategy; and everyone likes to gab about off-field distractions (like his much-discussed relationship with Jessica Simpson, which ended in 2009). 

Cowboys devotees certainly hope Romo can shake off the December doldrums in 2012, but until then, they’ll continue to be his biggest defenders, and sharpest critics.

Other Notable UFAs of the 2000’s:

Antonio Gates (2003), tight end:  San Diego Chargers, 2003-present 
[Gates was featured in our Stars and Legends post on tight ends.]

Kris Dielman (2003), left guard:  San Diego Chargers, 2003-2011
[Dielman is also another Naptime Huddle star and was noted as a retiree earlier this offseason]

Wes Welker (2004), wide receiver:  San Diego Chargers, 2004 (looks like the Chargers had good scouts in 2003 and 2004); Miami Dolphins, 2004-2006; and New England Patriots, 2007-present
[Click here for Welker’s profile in our wide receiver Stars post.]

I hope you've enjoyed our look at undrafted free agents who have made it big over the years.  When you hear about your favorite team signing a UFA, ask yourself--will he be the next Kurt Warner or Night Train Lane?

*Vinatieri has made appearances in other Naptime Huddle posts for his ice-cold performances under pressure.  Click here for his appearance in “Super Bowl Game Changers." 

**Since it was widely anticipated that Jeff Saturday would retire this offseason, especially with Peyton Manning moving to Denver, Jeff appeared in our first post on this year’s retirees.  Click here to read that post. 

***Of course, this wasn’t the first time Bledsoe would be supplanted by a rising star—the first time was at the end of his tenure in New England.  Tom Brady stepped in for an injured Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season and Drew would never start a game for the Patriots again.
****This spectacular error merited a spot in Naptime Huddle’s series “Super Bowl Game Changers”; click here for the post that includes Romo’s “Ruh roh.”
*****Romo’s 2010 season ended on October 25th when a hit by New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley broke his left clavicle.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reading Huddle: Playing for Pizza

After a couple of months off, Naptime Huddle presents a new selection for its book club, “Reading Huddle.” I chose this book for a few reasons—the subject matter, naturally, but also because it is a rare creature:  the well-written fictional work about football.  I have another reason outside of the book club to introduce this particular book at this particular time, as I will explain toward the end of this post…


Have you ever, now or in your younger days, dreamed of quitting your job, cutting off ties with the people and obligations that are bringing you down, and start a new life in another country—somewhere with a hint of romance…like Italy?

In the novel Playing for Pizza, Rick Dockery, the third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, gets to do just that.  The only difference between your dream and his reality is that he really has no choice.  Through an unbelievable chain events, he has managed, in the span of a few moments, to realize his dream of playing in a professional football game (the AFC Championship, no less) and then blow that dream to pieces by blowing his team’s lead—and his opportunity for greatness—in a big way. 

Hounded by angry fans and a critical media, Dockery longs to find a way to get way, way out of town.  Despite his public career implosion, he can’t let go of his dream to play football.  His loyal agent finds him an opportunity—maybe his only opportunity—to join another team as it’s starting quarterback.  Only this team isn’t in the NFL—it’s a ragtag group of enthusiastic players in Parma, Italy.

Assuming that Parma will be a short-term solution, a place where he can cool his heels—and his head—Rick accepts the offer.  From there, we watch as Rick struggles to cope with his culture shock—from adapting to a new culinary lifestyle, to learning to tolerate opera and to navigating Italy’s impossibly narrow streets.
Psych! This is actually a pedestrian trail on Capri. Made ya look...

I have to admit that nostalgia played a small role in this Reading Huddle selection.  In September 2009, my husband and I took a trip to Italy: 
the Amalfi Coast, including Capri...


...and Rome. 

It was a wonderful trip, and the last vacation we took before we had our son the next year.  So, I hope you don't mind the vacation photos I've included in this post (and will include in the follow-up post).


This novel, which is part football, part romance, part travelogue, is very different from anything you’ve read by John Grisham.  Wait—what was that? John Grisham?!?  The same recovering attorney* who wrote The Firm, The Pelican Brief and A Time to Kill?  The John Grisham who made “legal thriller” an oxymoron no more?

It turns out that Grisham was inspired to write Playing for Pizza while conducting research for his novel, The Broker, in Bologna, Italy.  Surprised that “American football” (so called to distinguish it from the fรบtbol—a.k.a. soccer—played by the rest of the world) had a presence in Italy, albeit a small one, he smelled an opportunity (or maybe it was just basil).  When his focus turned to Pizza, he got a feel for the Italian football experience by watching Parma’s games and becoming a shadow of the team’s head coach, an American who had played at Illinois State.  He also did a lot of hard time in local restaurants so he could paint an authentic picture of Rick’s dining experiences.


Not only does Playing for Pizza provide a unique and (hopefully) entertaining look at the football experience, but it does it in an international context, which provides me with a nice segue to a soon-to-be revealed series on NH. 

While it might not come as a surprise that Naptime Huddle has found an audience here in the U.S., you may be surprised to hear that we have developed a respectable international following as well.  Nearly 20% of my readership is located outside the United States.  In honor of these readers, I will soon be publishing a series of posts about the status of football in those countries where Naptime Huddle has a following.  Which country boasts the largest number of NH fans?  Stay tuned to find out!

I hope you enjoy Playing for Pizza and that it transports you to the land of love, art, divine cuisine and football that might just be played in its purest form—because the men on the field are playing for the love of the game… and pizza.

Look for discussion questions about the book during the week of June 18th.  Here is a link to buy Playing for Pizza on Amazon:


*My term for a person (like me) who has decided to retire from the noble career of lawyering.