Longform.org's Guide to Quarterbacks: Five incredible stories about playing the hardest position in pro sports.

Longform.org's Guide to Quarterbacks: Five incredible stories about playing the hardest position in pro sports.

Longform.org's Guide to Quarterbacks: Five incredible stories about playing the hardest position in pro sports.

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Aug. 13 2011 7:11 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Quarterbacks

From pre-draft jitters to post-retirement bliss, five glimpses into the minds of NFL QB's.


Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter. For more great sports writing, check out Longform's sister site, SportsFeat.

Enough with the labor negotiations and free-agent machinations. Actual football is finally here! Well, pre-season football at least. As you watch your squad work out the kinks over the next few weeks, here are five reminders of just how difficult it is to survive as a quarterback in the NFL. Eli Manning, profiled below as a jittery rookie, made it. The jury is still out on Tim Tebow. Todd Marinovich had his career cut short by heroin; Jake Plummer chose to cut his career short while still in his prime. And, finally, George Plimpton recounts the greatest five-play career in football history.

The Man Who Never Was Mike Sager • Esquire • May 2009

On the desolate career of Todd Marinovich, who was engineered from birth to be an NFL quarterback and ended up a junkie:

Todd returned to football for the last time in the spring of 2000 — a mercurial stint with the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League. His first year, he tied the record for most touchdowns in a single game despite undergoing severe heroin withdrawal; after shitting his pants during warm-ups, he came out and threw ten touchdowns to win a game against the Houston Thunderbears. That same year, at age thirty-one, he was named to the all-rookie team. The next season, he became L. A.'s franchise player. The day he picked up his signing bonus, he was busted buying heroin. With him in the truck was $30,000 cash in an envelope. Toward the end of the season, he was ejected from successive games for throwing a clipboard and a hand towel at officials. Finally, he was suspended from the team.

"At that point, heroin became my full-time job," Todd says.

Does God Have a Tim Tebow Complex? Jason Fagone • GQ • September 2009


A profile of Tim Tebow, whose struggles in Denver have made headlines in recent weeks, as he dealt with NFL skeptics on the eve of his final college season:

There it was again: the external doubt that has always clung to him. Which is why he sees this season as a chance to shoulder an awesome new burden—the burden of continuing to dominate as a college quarterback while showing the world he can be a great quarterback in the NFL. These are potentially non-overlapping goals. By trying to shape himself into a pro QB, he could screw up what makes him great in college. And he'll be trying to pull this off with an entire football nation watching over his shoulder, taking notes about his every throw. Then again, no one has ever yearned so devoutly to be judged.

"When you die," Tebow booms, "there's gonna be a tombstone, and on that tombstone there's gonna be a name, and there's gonna be a date. And for me, it's going to be 1987, and then it's gonna have a dash.… I want that dash to mean something. I want that dash to be special. I want that dash to represent that Tim Tebow finished strong." He pauses, scans the crowd, sucks in a calming breath, and the wild screams and cries nearly drown out his next line: "And most importantly, when I get to heaven, I want Jesus to say, WELL DONE, MY GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT."

What Was He Thinking? Chris Ballard • Sports Illustrated • February 2011

Catching up with Jake Plummer, who turned down a $5 million contract and left the NFL while still in his prime to concentrate on playing handball:

Well, after that Jake Plummer pretty much disappeared, at least by the standards of modern pro athletes. He moved to Sandpoint, a town of 8,300 people in northern Idaho, a short drive from the Canadian border, where he lives five minutes from Eric and within an hour of his dad, Steve. So far Plummer hasn't surfaced to do TV commentary or Dancing with the Stars or tweet or scribble his signature at an autograph show. He hasn't hinted at a comeback, and other than to promote handball, a game his family holds near and dear, he has kept his distance from the media.

Still, in the wake of another Super Bowl, people might think about Plummer on occasion and wonder, What the hell was he thinking? After all, when asked to name their dream job, American men overwhelmingly choose pro athlete over movie star or president of the United States. And no pro athlete is as mythologized as the quarterback. He's Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory, Joe Montana lofting perfect spirals, Tom Brady squiring the most beautiful woman on the planet. Who in his right mind would walk away from such a job? Who requests a wake-up call from the American Dream?


The Eli Experiment Michael Lewis • New York Times Magazine • December 2004

A profile of Eli Manning—brother of Peyton, son of Archie, future Super Bowl MVP—published shortly after his first NFL start:

The only thing that distinguishes Eli Manning, outwardly, from a slightly shy 23-year-old recent college graduate unsure of what he wants to do with the rest of his life is the way he plays quarterback. He offers new hope to introverts everywhere; such characters don't normally land in such exalted positions of leadership. This may be because conventional leadership skills are necessary for the role. But it may also be a matter of false selection. There aren't many introverts playing quarterback in the N.F.L. for the same reason that, until recently, there were not many blacks playing N.F.L. quarterback: they never get the chance. Shy, quiet kids aren't tapped by their Pop Warner coaches to play the position -- unless, of course their fathers were famous N.F.L. quarterbacks. The biggest unseen edge that Eli possesses may be that he is expected to excel at the position. Because of this he will be given more time than most to do it.

"Hut—Two—Three ... Ugh!" George Plimpton • Sports Illustrated • September 1964

A detailed account of Plimpton's 5-play tenure as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions:

The ball slapped into my palm at "three." I turned and started back. I could feel my balance going, and two yards behind the line of scrimmage I fell down—absolutely flat, as if my feet had been pinned under a trip wire stretched across the field—not a hand laid on me. I heard a great roar go up from the crowd. Suffused as I had been with confidence, I could scarcely believe what had happened. Cleats catching in the grass? Slipped in the dew? I felt my jaw go ajar in my helmet. "Wha'? Wha'?"—the mortification beginning to come fast. I rose hurriedly to my knees, the referee's whistle bleating, and I could see my teammates' big silver helmets with the blue Lion decals turn toward me, some of the players rising from blocks they'd thrown to protect me, their faces masked, automatons, prognathous with the helmet bars protruding toward me, characterless, yet the dismay was in the set of their bodies as they loped back for the huddle.

I joined them, there being no alternative. "Sorry, sorry," I said.

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