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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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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