Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NFL wives

Just down the winding street from our house is a charming little school called North Elementary that my family knows very, very well. It's home to the little playground with the grey "spinny thing" that Lennon has loved (to watch, not ride) since he has had an opinion. Home to a sprawling field where Danny and I used to take our sweet pup to run the furniture-chewing willies out of her. Next to a rustic, wooded nook where we had our engagement photos taken back in 2009 and about twenty years before that it was where I played kickball and four-square as a rambunctious fifth grader. North is where we meet 95% of Lennon's playdates and where he gets 99% of his knee scrapes. And when it's just me and him, we make sure to swing by Starbucks on our way there, even though it's not actually on our way. This morning was one of those days, he asked and I conceded. It was chilly out but it was just us, so we took full advantage.

When we got to the schoolyard we sat down on our favorite bench and Lennon ate a small slice of pumpkin bread before running off to join in a game of tag. As the heat of my latte warmed my fingers I was thankful that I'd won the morning jacket debate that day. The clouds in the distance had become the clouds overhead and the sun had been reduced to a bright spot in the corner of sky. A mom called out to her daughter, requesting a break from swing-pushing, and then walked towards me with her hands in her pockets and a smile on her face. She asked if the seat next to me was taken and then sat down.

We chatted a bit about the weather, about Lennon and then about her daughter. It was the usual Park-Mom conversation. How old is he? What school does she go to? Where do you guys live? We talked about the foreign concept of "TK," a new program called Transitional Kindergarten, and then somehow started talking about the local high school ratings. Lennon ran over to me, yelled that he was "it" and threw his New York Giants ball cap on my lap. The woman looked down at the hat, raised an eyebrow, and then asked if we had ties to the East Coast. Before I knew it we were knee deep in football speak. She vented about her issues with her beloved 49ers' and their lack of offseason acquisitions and I told her a little about why Danny was excited to return to the Giants for another year. I asked her how she liked the new Santa Clara stadium and she asked me which city I enjoyed the most on our journey. Before I could respond, she grinned eagerly and placed her hand on my shoulder. "Wait, what's being an NFL wife like?"

I smiled and shrugged. The answer that I have bookmarked in my brain for that oft-asked question rolled off of my tongue. I told her that there are proverbial ups and downs that come with being married to a professional athlete and that the chaotic lifestyle keeps me on my toes. That sometimes it's fun and exciting and other times it's a ball of worry in the pit of my stomach. She nodded empathetically and then hesitated. "So are you friends with the other wives?"

I looked out to the playground and caught Lennon's eye as he turned a corner. He waved and I waved back. As my gaze followed him to the top of the slide I contemplated reaching back into my archive of easy answers. I contemplated a short response that would quickly answer her question and fulfill her enthusiastic inquiry. Then a cool breeze sent a chill down my spine and I looked up at the darkening sky. For a moment I wondered if maybe I would allow the moment be as authentic as it felt...

Most of the NFL wives who I've had the privilege of meeting over the past nine years have been much more than just persons who are or were married to professional football players like my Danny. In fact, if you met the majority of them on any given day, you would never actually know that their husbands play or played the game. They simply wouldn't care to mention it because they're too busy being dentists, teachers, trainers, and business owners. Supermodels, singers, TV personalities, and pageant queens. Mothers, friends, daughters, and companions. Listeners, mentors, therapists, and life coaches. Managers, missionaries, philanthropists, and activists. They are women who prefer to be called their first names rather than so and so's wife and women who are happy with who they are, with and without the game, with and without their husbands' celebrity. 

When Danny told me he had been signed by the St. Louis Rams almost a decade ago, I, honest to God, didn't even know what state St. Louis was in. I didn't know what it was close to or how far it was from San Francisco. I didn't know a thing about what it would be like, not the weather, the culture or more importantly the people, and I was immediately nervous about how little I knew about the Midwest. I was also nervous about the idea of following my husband's career rather than focusing on one of my own so I began to constantly remind myself that I could write anywhere and that the length of the average NFL career was only three years. But when I realized that most of my anxiety came from the immense unknowns of moving, I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed knowing that regardless of where St. Louis was and what it was like, it wasn't my hometown and I was going to miss my family and friends every single day. I soon found, though, that I was in good company.

By the time the regular season started I had learned that the NFL lifestyle was one that, undoubtedly, brought women together. With our husbands eating, breathing and sleeping football for the entire month of August, the other wives and I quickly learned to fill the void they left behind with each other. By September I had a gym buddy, a game night crew and a cooking class carpool. A few of us started a book club (that was unashamedly more of an excuse to have a daytime cocktail than to read) which eventually morphed into a "Ladies who Lunch" safe-place that, quite frankly, kept all of us sane. As we got to know each other on deeper levels, we created a culture where nothing was off the table and no feeling was too big to share. We laughed and cried and ate and drank. When four of us got pregnant around the same time we made mocktails and threw each other heartfelt baby showers that even our out-of-town besties would've been proud of. I was lucky to be in the company of women, extraordinary women, who were also hundreds of miles from their own families and friends and who were building a new normal right alongside me. We all had different personalities and some individual bonds were closer than others but when we sat at the same table, we broke the same bread and sipped the same wine. We listened and advised. We conferred and inspired. And we took care of each other so that we could take care of our husbands in a career that could consume them.

Lunch was always a great time but we learned to lean on each other for more than just good food and good conversation. When the guys left town or had to stay in the team hotel on the evenings before home games, we had grown-up slumber parties. It was unsettling knowing that anyone who looked up the Rams game schedule could tell when our husbands wouldn't be home. And when the same blue car drove slowly down our street for the third time in ten minutes our alarm systems didn't always feel like enough. So we congregated under the same roof, ordered Papa John's thin-crust pizza, drank red wine and caught up on reality TV. When the guys volunteered at charity events, which was often a weekly occurrence, we manned booths together and got involved in the community. We took turns bringing each other snacks and giving each other occasional bathroom breaks and always, always managed to make the event photo-booth attendants completely sick of us. We supported each other in raising money for causes that were near and dear to our hearts, walked in fashion show fundraisers together and picked each others' brains about offseason football camps and foundation dinners. When family came to town to visit we helped each other run errands and offered up our air mattresses and spare bedrooms. Why wouldn't we? Family of family was family too.

If one of our husbands decided to play through a harrowing injury we all held our breath together when he was on the field. Every game, every play, until the whistle blew, we watched him prayerfully and clapped hopefully. Most of the time we sat in the same row but that didn't keep us from checking in on each other with subtle head nods and hip-bumps. And if someone had to get through a scary moment we always came together to see her through every second of it. We let our lives intertwine and overlap, blend and conjoin, and we did our best to ignore the risk that came with getting close to peers in a temporary career. But there was no denying that turnover was a huge part of the game and that the business side of the league was just as ruthless of a place as the field turf.

One of the more difficult things an NFL wife has to do is welcome the woman who replaces her best friend on a revolving roster. Sometimes she and her husband move right next door, into your best friend's old house, and they take down the wind-chimes that she sprained her ankle trying to hang. And sometimes you manage to avoid them at all costs. Sometimes your eyes well with tears on quiet car rides to big games when your gameday carpool isn't there to cut the tension with her unfailing humor. And sometimes you try not to feel sad when you can't celebrate a playoff win with your signature handshake. In some situations, a new wife comes in knowing that she and her husband are there because two people you love no longer are and other times she has no idea at all. Regardless of what she knows or doesn't and regardless of what's right or wrong, giving her a chance can feel like cheating and befriending her can feel like betrayal. It wasn't until I had been both the replacement and the replaced that I began to better understand the revolving carousel that we were all on. Through the turbulence of the trade, I learned a very important truth that will resonate with me forever more. I learned that no matter the city and no matter the year, no matter the reason and no matter the outcome, we are all part of the same short story. We are all part of the same snapshot in time when our husbands were part of something spectacular and no matter who came and who left, no matter who won and who lost, we are all on the same team.

Another reality that I've found to be true over the years is that there is no quicker way to get close to someone, whether you want to or not, than to experience the pitfalls of life with them. And sometimes that someone just happens to be whoever's there. There are no sick days, no holidays and no family emergencies for the blue collar NFL player. No days off for the man who values his unique opportunity and strives to prove his total commitment to his craft, each and everyday. So the set-in-stone calendar that dictates our husbands' rigid routine for six months of the year exists with no exceptions. Danny has played football with a 103 degree fever and has gone to work on Christmas morning like it was just another day. In 2009 it took an in-house Swine Flu epidemic to shut down Rams football for just one afternoon. When the fifth guy tested positive for the miserable illness everyone was sent home after practice.

According to an age-old schedule, NFL players get Tuesdays off during the regular season. They get Tuesdays off if they don't have an injury or ailment that needs treatment, but life never waits until Tuesday to transpire. Sometimes we miscarry on Saturdays and our parents pass away on Wednesdays. Sometimes our pups escape our yards on Mondays and we fall down flights of stairs on Sundays. When my car broke-down on a snowy St. Louis highway on a Thursday morning, I knew better than to call Danny for help. I knew his phone was in his locker, where it generally stayed until his last meeting of the day and I knew that his ringer was most-likely on silent. I also knew that if, by some miracle, he was actually able to answer my call, it wouldn't have mattered anyways. There wouldn't have been anything he could do to help. I called my sweet friend and she didn't think twice about no-showing a doctor appointment so that she could pick me up right away. An appointment I would never have known existed if I hadn't overheard her reschedule it two days later.

When I found out, back in 2013, that I was pregnant with a "season" baby, restlessness crept over me like a dark cloud. It wasn't the surprise of the pregnancy that made me uneasy and it wasn't the real possibility that Danny would be out of town when I went into labor that rattled me. My nerves came from knowing that, during a time when I would need my husband's support the most, he simply wouldn't be able to give it to me. They came from knowing that I would need to learn to juggle both a newborn and a toddler without my only constant by my side, and I'd have to do it 3000 miles from home. Night feedings, diaper changes and teething fits would surely consume me but no matter how tired I'd become, I'd need to send Danny back to bed when he got up to help. In the end, I understood that when your body is your livelihood sleep is a necessity not an option. And I also knew that tired legs could be more hazardous to his health than a two-ton lineman. As my due date neared I smiled through my angst and hoped that my mom could make the trip when the time came. And if, for some reason, she couldn't I knew that it would be ok. If, for some reason, she couldn't, I knew that my girls would make it ok.

My NFL wife friendships are mostly rooted in the novel experiences that many of us maneuver through at one point or another. From moving five times in three years to awaiting a third MRI result over the span of two weeks. From prying our crying toddlers off of their bleeding dads during training camp to holding our husbands' hands while they transition from the career of a lifetime to an entry level desk job. There's something therapeutic about talking to someone who gets me in an unexampled way, someone who sympathizes with the unique concerns that I harbor behind my confidence. I worry about my husband's longterm health and they worry about theirs. I speculate about how my husband will adjust to a life away from the gridiron, and they do too. When I stress over the fact that Danny's battle-wounded body will only be covered by NFL provided health insurance for five years after he retires, they stress with me. When our husbands joke about how we will be pushing them around in wheelchairs in their mid-life we shake our heads and say "God forbid." In the three minutes that follow the coin-toss and precede the kick-off I chew at the walls of my mouth and run through all four of my gameday prayers in a specific order. They all have their own versions of that moment and they understand when I don't respond. When a man is down on the field, writhing in pain and unable to walk, I reach out and touch his wife's knee in compassion. I don't touch her knee because I can imagine how she feels, I touch her knee because I know how she does. I know how the nausea starts in her gut and works it's way up to her throat and I know that it gets harder to breath with each second that he's down. The injury cart always comes out onto the field in slow motion and the rumbling of the crowd is always silenced as she fumbles for her mom's number in her phone.

Another facet of the game that NFL wives know all too much about is the immense pressure that comes with being an entertainer. The pressure on our husbands to be flawless is very real and the pressure on us to hold it together when they make a mistake is too. It's true that nobody's perfect but very few have their missteps magnified by the howl of seventy thousand roaring fans, very few are publicly reprimanded in their professional workplaces and even fewer are on live TV during those low moments. And when our guys perform well we brace ourselves for a good verbal bashing, for the relentless heckling that is courtesy of the angry mob that's cheering for the other team. Danny says it's funny and that it's all part of the gig but I'll never, ever, get used to it. Say what you want about me, but utter a word about my love and all I see is red. In those infuriating moments, it's a gift to be in the company of women who remind me that it's not as personal as it feels. Women who remind me that it all comes with the same territory that brings so much good to our lives and who make me laugh to distract me from the incessant noise. Incredible women, who cheer just as loud for my husband as I do when he scores a touchdown and root for me with the same enthusiasm when I submit an op-ed to the local newspaper. We're each others' bodyguards, cheerleaders and confidants. Each others' preschool emergency contacts, marriage counselors and scary doctor appointment buddies. When surgery on Danny's leg took two hours longer than it was supposed to, I didn't have to worry that our pup wouldn't be let out. And when we finally got home from an exhausting day, a three course meal was waiting for us in the fridge.

When I found out that Danny and I would be leaving St. Louis for a new opportunity in Denver I was inconsolable. Leaving the women who had become my pillars of strength over several years was a daunting idea and I didn't know how I was going to get by without them. When we flew to Colorado with our newborn in tow I told Danny that I didn't want any new NFL friendships. I told him that I couldn't take the heartbreak of goodbye if we had to pick up and leave again and he told me that he understood. He apologized for the emotional rollercoaster that came with his unstable career and I felt terrible that he felt terrible. But true to my word, when the season started up I kept to myself. When I wasn't Skyping with my St. Louis girls or with family and friends from back home, Danny and I had some fun times together. We spent a few nights out on the town, dined in a few steakhouses and checked out the Sixteenth Street Mall. Most nights we stayed in and let Lennon entertain us and when he went to bed we had two-person dance parties and played movie trivia games on the Xbox. It was different from the life we grew to know in St. Louis but we tried to make the most of it. There were no game nights for us to make appetizers for or slumber parties for me to join when he flew cross-country. No surprise birthday dinners to attend or baby showers to help plan. No girls lunches, no chat sessions and no help with the baby or the pups when Danny was at work and I was sick. The team Halloween party was fun and I talked to a few wives at a couple home games but that was the extent of my interaction with them. When Danny played through an injury I held my breath by myself and when he was heckled for scoring I bit my tongue and only talked to God. When he had to leave town on the morning of my birthday, Lennon and I celebrated the last year of my 20's with a Friends marathon, some smashed avocado for him and Chinese take-out for me. I was so very lonely but I wasn't willing to do anything about it.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in December, I returned to our Dove Valley home from a quick trip to the grocery store to find what looked like the scene of a botched home-invasion. Heater vents had been lifted up out of the floor and the sliding glass door to the yard was wide open. Sideways rain clamored onto our dining table and muddy footsteps were smeared onto the hardwood. I rushed Lennon back into the car. Danny was out of town and I had no one to call and nowhere to go. I sped down to the corner of our street and pulled over at the stop sign. I put the car in park and lost it. I struggled to catch my breath but the tears wouldn't stop. I banged on the steering wheel and Lennon started to cry. I felt so very helpless and alone. When I finally caught my breath I climbed into the backseat of the car and pulled my sweet boy onto my lap. I hugged him until the rain stopped and I promised him that it would be ok. As tears streamed down my cheeks, I rocked him to sleep and came to realize that I'd had it all wrong. I'd let fear overcome faith and I'd put up cement walls that separated my boys and myself from the support group that was the NFL family. I realized that unparalleled friendship and incomparable support did outweigh the hurt of goodbye and no one, including me, should ignore that fact. No one should try to go it alone. Because the truth is, no one ever has to.

I'm beyond grateful for that difficult day and for the hurt condition that consumed me several years ago. I'm thankful for the helplessness that set the stage for the remainder of my journey, the realization that built doors where walls once were and the epiphany that built hope where anxiety once was. I can't imagine my life without some of the ladies I've met since that day and I'm so incredibly glad that I don't have to.

Today, the dear friends who I've met on my crazy, cross-country ride are scattered all over the U.S. but so many still feel right next door. When Danny trades his cleats in for Oxfords and we set out to adjust to "real life," I know who I can call for direction. If one day Lennon decides that he wants to play football like Dad and I can't seem to talk him out of it, I know who I can call for counsel. When the 80 percent divorce rate for NFL relationships knocks on the door of my marriage and my strong resolve, I know who I can call for guidance. It's a sorority you can't graduate from, a club with no association dues. It's a lifelong sisterhood, like it or not, and neither your husband's roster status or the status of your relationship with him are relevant to your membership.

I can lean on my girls, in any hour for any reason. Any day of the week. And they can always, always lean on me.

...I lowered my eyes from the sky and looked towards her anticipating stare. As much as the authenticity of the moment existed, the words that could convey the veracity of my answer didn't. Deep down, I knew, in that time and space, there was nothing I could say that would make her understand. There was no explanation that could do the truth justice, no matter how badly I wanted to share it.

"I guess you could say that we're friends." I said. I took a sip of my latte and smiled. 

6 comments:

  1. You did an amazing job painting a picture of your life and the lives of the other wives.
    I love here in Nashville and I am newly friends with some of the wives. There are things that never get talked about, like the husband not being able to answer his phone bc it's in the locker...on silent, that I won't ever be in a situation to help but this opens the door on ways to be able to pray for them that I haven't before. Great read, thank you.

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    1. Thanks for the kind note Charlene. Best wishes this season XO

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  2. All I can say is WOW! Nahall, you are an excellent writer! I read every word. You perfected the summation of the life of an NFL wife. This is only my third year in this life but I have experienced several of the things you described. I learn from women like you everyday. I would love for you to be a contributor or guest contributor to NFLWAGSRedefined.com. Regardless, I needed this today. I happened to be doing some research for the site and filtered through pages and pages of NFL wife and wags results. I stumbled upon yours. Glad I did. I hope you write a book on these experiences one day.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words friend. I'd be happy to contribute to the site :-) feel free to email me. XO

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