In ''A Few Seconds of Panic'' the writer dons cleats and becomes a Denver Broncos kicker

A lot has changed since George Plimpton poked his pointy head into the Detroit Lions huddle to learn the life of a ”last-string” pro quarterback for his groundbreaking 1966 book, Paper Lion. In A Few Seconds of Panic, Stefan Fatsis infiltrates the militantly corporate culture of the modern NFL as a Denver Broncos kicker. A novice whose experience was limited to playing high school soccer, the Wall Street Journal reporter subjects himself to a humbling crash course in the lonely art of placekicking. ”It was something that I had fantasized about when I was a kid,” says Fatsis, 45, a lifelong New York Giants fan.

In addition to his own quest, Fatsis depicts the cutthroat work environment of the present-day NFL. Tears are shed, dreams are shattered, men are broken. ”On its face, playing professional football is completely irrational,” says Fatsis, who mastered Scrabble for his last book, 2001’s Word Freak. ”You’re guaranteed a ridiculous amount of stress and a lifetime of physical pain. But players do their job because there’s one part they love: playing on Sundays.”

Fatsis never made the cut for a Sunday game, particularly after he bungled a short field-goal attempt during a high-pressure practice. ”Missing that field goal was probably the most humiliating and painful moment of my life,” he says. ”It is hard for me to talk about. But from the standpoint of writing a book, my failure was essential. It made the players’ struggles that more personal.”