Who’s Your Fullback?

One of my favorite football players is a guy who’s scored exactly 6 touchdowns in his career. He’s never rushed for more than 175 yards in a season, nor caught more than 31 passes. By every conventional statistic measuring offensive players, he’s a non-factor. And he’s been told by 6 different teams that his services are no longer required.

And yet, for nearly his entire career (and in a league where the average player lasts less than 4 years he’s lasted 16), an interesting thing happens to every team to joins. They start to win more.

The player is Lorenzo Neal, and he’s a fullback.

A fullback basically serves as the bodyguard for a more highly paid, more famous, running back. The fullback is allowed to carry the ball, but very few do. Most often, when a play calls for the running back to run through a certain gap between linemen, the fullback’s job is to get there first and knock the stuffing out of the defender in the best position to make a tackle.

When a fullback does his job correctly, the viewer at home will be treated to endless replays of the highly paid running back prancing untouched down the field while the announcers talk about his “breakaway speed.” In success a fullback is invisible.

In the case of Lorenzo Neal, for most of his career, each time he’d arrive to a new team, that team’s running back would suddenly get much better. The running back would, running untouched through the holes opened up by Mr. Neal, start appearing in Nike commercials, get a big new contract, appear on the cover of Madden. Then Mr. Neal would be released or traded and the running back would suddenly be normal again.

This all occurs to me because, having spent the last number of years as an book editor, for many of us in the background of the culture business, we are fullbacks.

If I did my job well on a given product, the end result would have my fingerprints on it, but not my name.

Each project was an opportunity for me to block for an author, and that could mean fighting to get the right kind of marketing support, convincing them that a particular change to the book’s structure might more effectively tell their story, or keeping them on track when it felt like forces were aligning against them.

If I block well and a project is a touchdown, the satisfaction in watching the author get to do a touchdown dance is immense. If the result is a first down, I’m excited to take another shot. And if it’s a tackle for a loss, I know I’ve overextended a metaphor.

Do you have a fullback? Are you one?

Who’s Your Fullback?