The first thing you’ll notice about the book co-authored by current Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil and former teammates Jordan Gross and Geoff Hangartner is that it has lots of pictures.
They’re remarkably clever pictures – illustrations, actually – done by Charlotte designer Matt Stevens, whose resume includes everything from local projects for restaurants like JJ’s Red Hots to global projects for corporations like Nike.
But they’re still pictures, and they were included, liberally, with a very specific audience in mind.
“It’s geared towards rookies. We know that a lot of them weren’t on the dean’s list, so we wanted to make sure it was heavily illustrated,” Kalil says of his and his pals’ light-hearted, enlightening “The Rookie Handbook: How to Survive the First Season in the NFL,” which will be available in stores and online starting Tuesday.
Not bad for an idea that began (back when all three players were still active) as a sheet of paper handed out to the Panthers’ offensive line rookies, outlining their rookie responsibilities.
“You know, keeping the cooler filled with water and Gatorade, bringing doughnuts on Saturdays,” Hangartner says. “It’s nothing terribly hard, but they seemed to always mess it up, so we just wrote up a little pamphlet.”
Both retired players said it was Kalil’s idea to turn it into a book.
“He’s such a creative guy, and he always pushed he and I to come up with videos for the team, or pranks to do, or songs to write,” Gross says. “The same process would always happen: He’d get the idea, I’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’ because I didn’t want to spend the time, he’d keep bugging me, and eventually we’d put something out that would make everybody laugh or motivate the team, and it would always make you feel good. Well, the way this book came about was no different, really.”
The timing of the book’s release couldn’t be much more perfect: It comes seven months after the Panthers’ trip to the Super Bowl and two days before Kalil is to play for Carolina in the 2016 NFL season opener – a rematch of SB50 against Denver.
Equal parts wit and wisdom, it details the trials and tribulations the typical NFL rookie likely will encounter, from the days leading up to the draft (which, the writers stress, won’t necessarily end with a celebration) to the first offseason (if the player makes it that long without being cut; remember, they say only half-jokingly, that the NFL stands for “Not For Long”).
The book’s success, of course, rides on also appealing to some of the NFL’s massive fan base. And it does so, by peeling back the curtain on what goes on in locker rooms, in training camp, on the team bus, at the team hotel, etc. But it’s not something parents need to hide from their kids.
“I would probably take a little bit of the blame – or the credit, depending on how you look at it – of having it be as mild as it is,” says Gross, who played offensive tackle for the Panthers from 2003-13, still lives in Charlotte, and now has two school-age children.
“I personally don’t believe comedy or entertainment has to be crude for it to be good, so that was really the goal: to let an eighth-grade kid be able to read it and at the same time let a guy who’s an avid NFL fan enjoy it.”
Over the course of 176 pages, the guys – with, again, great support from spot-on and sometimes laugh-out-loud illustrations by Stevens – cover several obvious no-nos (e.g. don’t be late for practice, don’t hurt the quarterback, don’t date the coach’s daughter).
But they also offer plenty of tips you’d never expect.
One of several favorites: How to give a high-five to players running out of the tunnel without injuring your elbow. (The trick is to reach across your body with the hand opposite of the running lane; “this puts your arm in a position that bends with maximum give,” the book says.)
Another: Why spend thousands of dollars on flashy jewelry when you can get something for the cost of a steak that looks close enough?
“If you see a guy who plays for the Panthers and he’s wearing big diamonds, you’re not gonna think, ‘Those are probably fake.’ But they could be. And if they’re smart, they are,” says Hangartner. He spent seven seasons as a lineman with the Panthers before retiring in 2014 to Austin – and, as a player, he says he wore a knock-off Breitling watch for three years without anyone realizing it was phony.
All three men say everything in the book is based on experiences they’ve had, seen other people have, or heard about second-hand.
(So when you get to the section titled “Avoiding Risky Celebrations” you’ll do exactly what I did: You’ll immediately think of Cam Newton. “Yeah, yeah,” Kalil says, chuckling. “That chapter is specifically for him.”)
Is it Shakespeare? No. But it’s a breezy, easy read wrapped in a concept that feels fresh – which makes Kalil, Gross and Hangartner’s first stab at being authors all the more impressive.
“And we didn’t have a ghost writer. I don’t know if that means that the book is better for it, but it’s at least in our voice and we’re proud that we didn’t have any help in terms of that,” Kalil says. “A lot of athletes who write books have ghost writers come in and then pass it off with their name on it. We really did put our heart and soul into it, and if our writing ability handicaps it ... at least we have Matt Stevens to save it.”