Season of change: An NFL rookie mom stays calm through life's one constant

Wednesday September 7th, 2016

When news broke of Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury, my heart sunk. I felt badly for a kid who’s truly coming into his own as a winning quarterback. Being a huge college football fan, I remember Teddy from his time at Louisville, and I ached for him and his family.

The call his mom received that day is the one all football families dread even though we understand injuries are part of the game. I’m often asked if I fear Eli getting injured on the field. The job of parents is to help your son or daughter find his or her passion. Once they find that, it’s our responsibility to help them nurture and improve that passion. Fear cannot be part of that equation.

During Eli's first preseason game as a New York Giant, he suffered what would later be determined to be a knee strain. I didn't even know Eli was injured until my husband got a Google alert. I had my phone off and was eating “beef” nachos. If there was ground beef in there, it was hiding. So when he told me, all we knew was that Eli had left the game due to a left knee injury. We'd just seen him out there balling. My husband went to see if he could see anything on the sideline because we were a bit away from the field.

I continued to slowly eat my nachos. I generally don't eat during game time—perhaps it's subliminally because of the overpriced concession food, but I think I'm usually just so excited and focused on the games that I don't want to turn my eyes away from the moment. But it had been a long day and the rain and lightning delay further lengthened it. Maybe I was trying to locate a fragment of ground beef in my advertised beef nachos. Or maybe I just wanted to focus on what I was doing because I trusted that God knows what He is doing.

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Once Eli fell in love with football, there was no turning back. We nurtured him out of expectation, not fear. We expect him to do his best, honor his faith, respect himself, his family and teammates. Everything else is out of our control. Thus panic and anxiety about football are things I don't do. Except for a particular game against Cincinnati at the Shoe in Columbus more than two years ago.

It was Eli's first season starting for Ohio State, and I believe it was his first home game. We were winning but Cincinnati’s offense was testing the young redshirt freshman cornerback non-stop. As I got up to go to the restroom at the start of halftime, I felt unusually anxious. My heart rate sped up and I became stuck in my tracks, feeling unnaturally overwhelmed by the moment, the expectations, the what ifs. Immediately right where I was, I heard a voice say, “Just trust me.” Those words felt like cool water running through my body on an extremely hot day. I could feel them cooling the temperature of my soul. Immediately I felt peace. I knew that this journey was in God's hands.

A couple of years later, as I sat at MetLife with my beefless nachos and as word spread to two of our children and close friends who were sitting with us, I assured everyone through my calmness that all was well. Minutes later, Eli was back on the sidelines with his teammates. At this point I’d given up finding any ground beef in those nachos. But that beef search had been the perfect distraction.

Rookie preseason is now behind us. I can’t believe how quickly it went. We attended every practice opened to families during training camp and got to see Eli play on an NFL field. My favorite thing about watching Eli play is how poised he is with the game plan and how he and his teammates on defense communicate out on the field. Watching him locked in is always impressive. But when Tom Brady and the Patriots came to town last Thursday, I knew Eli would have more tests than a room filled with SAT students. Watching Tom work was impressive but so was the Giants’ first-team defense. Following the game, there is a lounge area where families are allowed to wait for players. We wanted to see Eli’s high school teammate and mentor, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan.  As we were talking to Logan, guess who slowly strolled by?

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.

Before my mind could conceptualize the awesomeness of the moment, my mouth was already talking to the future Hall of Famer. “Hi Tom. Can I take a picture with you?” “Sure,” he said as he took two more steps in the opposite direction, probably hoping I’d go away. I went up to him and introduced myself, “My name is Annie. I’m Eli Apple’s mother.” His eyes lit up in a very Tom Brady way. “I’ve heard really great things about you,” he said, very pleased with himself and with me for not being some random stalker who got away from the grasp of security to come harass him. While posing for pictures, I looked at his wrinkleless, boyish face. “I hate that you don’t age,” I said. He coolly laughed in a very Tom Brady way. “I do age.” We took a couple of photos before he strolled away. I wanted to ask him how often he exfoliates and if he could send me some free pages from his $200 cookbook. What a moment. Who walks out into a hallway and runs into Tom Brady? No matter how you feel about Brady, he’s an ageless NFL icon with GQ looks and four Super Bowl rings. You know life has definitely changed when you’re in the hallway of MetLife Stadium chatting with smiling Tom Brady.

Going from college to the pros is filed with so many adjustments, not just for the rookie but for his family as well. Mostly wonderful changes but with every change comes a new reality, and no one is immune from the effects. Every change, whether it’s in circumstance, position, profession, location or relationships, requires a new letting go and a new holding on. You let go of some things and some people, and hold onto new things and strong people.

Often, we go through an effort to unchange change. We want the familiar. When life brings change, we long for what we know, what we've gotten used to and the faces and places we’re used to seeing. But change doesn’t give a damn about your feelings. I cried during Eli’s first training camp practice. There were no familiar faces around, just new coaches, new staff, new people. In college, you're good. You have your routine. Everything is regimented. Where you sit, your pregame routine and traditions, the faces you see and the faces that see you. In the pros, it’s all different. My tears knew that the old was gone and the new was here to stay. But at the same time, it’s crucial to hold onto those things in your life that will never be a causality of change. What's inside you should go unchanged. What you love, value and prioritize must be constant and consistent.

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, but I guess with more Twitter followers, some folks expect me to change what I say and how I say it. That’s one change that won’t happen. Just because your circumstances change doesn’t mean you change who you are. For example, at practice and on Twitter, I often refer to my Eli as “Black Eli.” Why? Because he’s black and the other Eli is white. There’s nothing wrong with seeing color. The problem is how we see color. Do we use color to describe or to denigrate? I think our diversity is what makes us beautiful. Plus I’ve never allowed the ignorance of others to become my responsibility.

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My son is now a rookie with the New York Giants. Of course this is an amazing accomplishment. But with this new achievement comes change. To Eli, he’s still a 21 year-old. For rookies, the game of football comes naturally. It’s what they love, what they know how to do. The challenge is making the mental leap from college to the pros. This change not only impacts rookies but their families. Speaking of family, I’ve met Odell Beckham Jr’s mom; I’ve yet to meet Mamma Manning. I’m still trying to figure out what that first encounter will be like. I can’t decide whether I should shake her hand, hug her or bow before her Hall of Fame uterus.

With heavy media glare and scrutiny, players often have no room for errors. But just because your kid plays professional sports or is athletically or musically gifted doesn’t mean he’s immune from the mistakes and stupidity that plague his age and generation. Often people think the money they make should be a fair tradeoff for the heavy scrutiny and often disrespect that they get, especially on social media. But celebrities, athletes, actors, they're human too. They feel. They hurt. Money doesn’t make you pain-resistant. 

So much has been made recently about Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem. Eli asked me what I thought about the controversy. I told him that as an American, that is Kaepernick’s freedom and right to sit. I just prefer to focus on why we stand. For those of us who stand for the national anthem, we don’t stand because America is perfect. We stand out of love and respect for our country, knowing it’s up to us, individually and collectively, to make her beautiful. As we stand, we lean on the things, even if it’s just one thing about our country that we do love. We stand in honor of the hard fought progresses from our past, our present freedoms and the endless possibilities of our future. This is why we stand.

People have said you must be so proud watching Eli play. I say I'm proud of Eli not because he's playing in the NFL. I'm most proud because I've watched a kid dream of doing something he loves, and now he gets to do it at the highest level. I'm proud of the hard work, sacrifices and discipline it took to get him where he is. But where he is now begins another journey that's going to require even more hard work and discipline.

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We remind him to never become comfortable with being comfortable. Change is the only constant. After the game against the Patriots, Eli’s position coach Tim Walton, called Eli and asked to meet with his family. Coach Walton shared the state of Eli’s progress. He chatted with exuberance and pointed out that he liked how Eli always stays emotionally even and consistent.This is how Eli has always been. He doesn’t get high with the highs and he doesn’t get low with the lows. Nice to know he’s still emotionally consistency. This lets me know he’s ready for this phase of his journey. Will he make mistakes? Of course. That’s a natural progression.

The most important thing about change is that no matter what it brings or where it takes us, we're never alone. God is with us, and because he’s with us, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, "We gon be alright!"

Annie Apple will write weekly for Sports Illustrated during the NFL season, as well as contribute to ESPN's Sunday Countdown. She is the founder of Survivin America, where she frequently blogs on an array of topics ranging from sports to politics to lifestyle. 

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