This is the second in a four-part series examining the intricacies of being an NFL Wife. Part 1 on the struggle to maintain an identity can be found here.
So, you've started dating an NFL player? Or maybe you are already married to a man just entering the league.
The space that NFL wives reserve for each other is safe and sacred. Women can be real, express fears, doubts, and dreams without the fear of judgmental media or friends from outside of the game who may assume that because your husband is in the NFL, your problems and concerns are no longer valid. Most NFL wives know that money in the bank is not the answer to happiness, that they need women who understand their lives so they can better understand themselves.
What you once believed to be a game is about to become your life. Your happiness, sadness, hopes and dreams will likely come to ebb and flow with the tide of your husband’s career. The NFL will become you just as it became each of us who came before.
I feel excited for you—for the best and strongest of yourself that you will find in the brokenness of who you were before. I am excited for the commitment that you will feel to the team—to your husband’s career. And for who you were before, I mourn with you. For no one is the same on the other side of the NFL. You will likely give all of who you are—but every career must end. When I was new to the NFL, I felt scared and insecure. Change is scary and life in the NFL is nothing if not ever-changing. The NFL was the wildest roller coaster I’ve ever ridden. I didn’t want to be an NFL wife and I didn’t want an NFL life. But the NFL became me. Now, I’m glad it did. I’m a better person now than I was then more charitable, more grateful, and far more selfless. I didn’t have a choice. The role defined me. And the role will likely define you. And for your time in the league, you will likely one day be grateful. For now, prepare to lose yourself before you begin to understand yourself as an NFL wife.
Just like the NFL has rules for players on the field, it also regulates each club in the league. Each club manages their head coaches, and, in turn, coaches make rules for assistants, who are responsible for their players. Like blue-collar construction workers, NFL players labor to build the team for which they play. They are told when to arrive, how hard to swing the hammer, and when they can go home. As long as an NFL team employs them, the game must come first.
NFL players’ schedules and needs determine the opportunities and restrictions of their wives. This is frustrating. For me, it felt oppressive and lonely and left me with no choice but to make friends with other NFL wives—the women with whom I was sure I’d have nothing in common. Today, I count those women among my closest friends. Training camp may be the first time you see this come to life. For weeks, your husband will be sequestered to work for the team. It is arguably the most difficult time in any NFL player’s career. While he attempts to master a new playbook and get in NFL shape, you will be left alone. You will try not to worry about him, about his daily progress at camp. You will see articles about how he is or isn’t performing. You will read chat boards about fans’ opinions of his playing ability. Do not be dismayed; they are fans, not coaches or scouts. Still, you know that if he doesn’t perform well, his career may be over. One missed block, one poorly executed route, a step in the wrong direction and his football dream could be over. He knows the reality too.
The best NFL wife advice I learned along the way: Be on his side. Don’t ask too many questions about his performance or his likelihood of making the team. I used to ask Craig nightly for the odds that he would make the team. I felt I deserved to know. I felt that he was playing for us, not just for him. He was playing for our family, for college funds, for our future. Looking back, that feels selfish. Celebrate him. NFL careers don’t last long and what he’s doing now may be the best part of his life down the road. Celebrate the victories. Be there for him when he calls and listen to him if he needs to vent. Remember why you fell in love with him and let him know that you love him for who he is and not for how he plays. You may also want to remind him that you believe that he is the greatest NFL player who has ever played the game.
Team organized events such as luncheons, charitable events, and holiday parties are the best way for you to get to know other NFL wives. Both the player development and community outreach departments on your team will be able to help get you connected. Reach out to them or, if you are not married, have your boyfriend/fiancé contact them on your behalf.
If you are married and your husband makes the team, you will be welcome to join all team functions. If you’re not married, it’s important that your boyfriend or fiancé lets the player engagement director and other players know that he would like for you to be included in team events. Ultimately, an invitation to any team function is your opportunity to earn the trust of others. Here are some unwritten rules that may help you fit in at team functions:
1. Do not talk about contracts. Neither your husband’s contract nor any other contract should be the topic of conversation. Salaries are published online. Still, the topic is taboo at team get togethers.
2. Do not talk about individual players, or coaches. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the team is what brought you together with the other women in the first place. But, an NFL team is a competitive environment. You are on the team because someone lost his job to your husband. If your husband is a starter, another player lost his starting position. If your husband is not a starter, then he is in competition with someone else’s husband to earn that spot. Being hired and fired are life-changing events. At NFL wife gatherings, you may express that you’re happy to be a part of the team. Nothing more. It is ironic that the topic of the game is censored in wives’ gatherings because, in general, NFL wives love to dissect the game with other NFL wives. They are just careful to talk only with wives whose husbands play on the opposite side of the ball or a completely different position. Even then, any analysis that is too close to the other wife’s husbands position is strictly avoided for fear of offending others and hurt feelings.
3. Do not bring anyone with you to team functions besides your children. This includes your sisters, your brothers, and your best friends. Out of protection for everyone’s privacy, only immediate NFL families are welcome into the closed world of other NFL families. Team gatherings are a safe place away from reporters, fans and groupies.
You may not feel like you fit in right away. It typically takes a full season for a new NFL wife to feel like she knows what’s going on within the organization, the benefits and activities that are available, and the team’s expectations of her as an NFL wife. The more committed you are to your relationship (and the more committed he is to you) the more likely other NFL wives are to invest time in getting to know you. Show other NFL wives that you are committed to your husband and to the NFL life.
When Craig proposed marriage, I knew that moment would forever be significant in our relationship and etched in my mind. I had no idea, however, just how significantly the ring on my finger would affect my experiences as an NFL wife.
At the Seahawks Christmas party, a few nights after Craig proposed, I learned that engagement and marriage are important for an NFL wife’s visibility and social status. One by one, more than a dozen players’ wives, most of whom I had never talked with before, came by our 10-person table where just the two of us sat, congratulating me on the engagement, admiring my ring, and some even suggesting that we get together before the end of the season. It was the first time I realized that marriage was a form of validation in this network. I felt visible to the other wives. I was becoming one of them. Despite not thinking I wanted to belong, I felt validated and visible. It had been months since I had felt seen by anyone besides Craig.
It took being engaged to Craig for me to fully realize the distinction between NFL wives and girlfriends. One wife told me that she was dating her boyfriend for a year and a half before most of the other NFL wives would talk to her. She said that her saving grace was that one of the veteran wives on the team took a liking to her and told the other wives that they should get to know her too. An endorsement from a trusted veteran NFL wife goes a long way for new girlfriends who are trying to fit in. It worked for me. When a veteran wife told some of her friends about my research project and that they should be honest in their conversations with me, I saw a new side of NFL wives—the women beneath the façades—for the first time.
Like marriage, children also help NFL wives relate to each other. Even if you have nothing else in common besides your husbands’ professions, your children will give you something to talk about when many football topics remain taboo. In academia, children are often seen as a burden. In the NFL, children are seen as an asset.
Do not be dismayed; the best part of being an NFL wife will be the relationships that you develop with other NFL wives. Learning the rules of how to engage in those relationships takes time, however, and there are risks involved with gaining the rewards of friendships with other wives. In all relationships we risk rejection and loss. In the not-for-long (NFL) league, wives know that time together on the same team in the same city is undeniably finite.
When NFL wives get together, it is typically on weekdays while players are working. NFL wives who have jobs outside of their homes can feel systematically excluded. In other words, NFL wives are subtly discouraged from working if they want to be full-fledged members of the group. One wife expressed the pressure promoted by this schedule:
“We never felt secure about my husband’s spot on the team so I didn’t want to quit my job in case we needed it to pay the bills. It was hard to work while he was an NFL player because not only did I lose out on time with him (his day off was Tuesday, but I had to work) but I also missed out on most of the activities with other NFL wives….It’s hard to work and to be a part of the NFL. I quit my job the next year so I could be a part of everything."
You will get things right and you will get things wrong. That is okay. Even wives who feel a part of the team can misinterpret the rules. A rookie NFL wife of a highly drafted player recalled her first team event:
"It was a bowling event, so I wore jeans and a t-shirt. My husband and I are competitive, so I was looking forward to beating him in the lanes. I felt uncomfortable when I got there and I saw that everyone was dressed up and then the people in charge told me that I couldn’t bowl. I guess people had paid money to bowl with the players, so they had a “VIP room” where the wives could hang out away from the players and fans. I went into the little room they had sectioned off for wives and saw another wife who I knew had been around for a few years. It felt like a jail. We started talking and I told her how nice everyone had been to me and how much we were enjoying the city. She looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, if you wore a t-shirt and jeans to a charity event on any other team, it would not be okay.’ I felt like I was about two inches tall. I knew then that it was probably not okay in that city, either, if I didn’t want to stand out as different from the other team wives. She was wearing jeans with heels and a fancy blouse. I guess I didn’t really have things as figured out as I thought. I chalked it up to a rookie mistake, took note of what she was wearing, and never wore a t-shirt or tennis shoes to another NFL event.”
I immediately sympathized with her story. Just a few years ahead of her in the NFL, I’d weeded out my tennis shoes and t-shirts from the “NFL functions” outfit possibilities. By the time Craig was in his final season, I approached other NFL wives by saying, “Welcome to the Seahawks… we have a great group of girls and we don’t care what you wear. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself as much as I was trying to change the culture for everyone else.
As friendships are made, NFL wives will become your surrogate sisters and best friends. Other NFL couples will feel like family. It is a unique dynamic because, as NFL wives, we are suddenly immersed into a social world with women who we did not freely choose as friends. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are often eaten together, presents exchanged, and memories made. Your children will grow together and your families will be forever connected. Like any group, not all wives establish close friendships with all other wives. We are placed together because of our husbands’ jobs. Their jobs as professional athletes are uniquely competitive. Contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed and players in the league lose playing time and positions to injuries and poor performance that cannot be precisely anticipated. When your husband’s career ends, so will your time among your erstwhile peers. And for the journey, you will never be the same.