Jarvis Landry was like every parent at the beginning of the pandemic last year, looking at his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son and wondering how quickly he could fill up his Amazon cart with enough indoor activities to last them an indefinite amount of time during a global lockdown.
The boxes piled up on the front door so quickly that he couldn’t remember what he ordered. Landry said he was never a stranger to diaper duty and some of the other essentials of early fatherhood, but this is where he excelled the most. This was his time.
“Oh my God, I bought so much stuff, toy trains, soccer goals, Nerf guns, man,” Landry said. “One hundred-piece Legos.”
Then, of course, the most popular activity ended up involving some paint and pieces of paper. The kinds of things that existed in the house all along. If there was anything that bound Landry to the struggles of the lay person over the last 18 months it was this; piles of new toys, crafts and experiments, but only love for the boxes they came in.
“We ended up just throwing some of the stuff away,” he said.
As NFL players approach their first Father’s Day amid a new normal, preparing a workforce return not unlike the rest of the country adjusting to office life again, they all do so with a broadened perspective. Football, like many professional sports, can be a nomadic, isolated existence; a nonstop run of training, recovery, games and practices that often shift the power dynamics of a household and force players to fit in time with their families around a demanding schedule.
That changed in 2020 when virtual offseasons bled into virtual training camps. Facilities were empty. Gyms were empty. Players had to train on their own and, in many cases, welcomed the opportunity to see a side of their home life that may have been somewhat foreign to them as their professional careers took off. For some dads, pajama blowouts, pregnancy craving runs and endless hours spent creating some kind of safe, time-sapping, educational activity for a wobbling toddler are rights of daily passage. For others, it was a new world, albeit one that they welcomed with open arms.
Landry said the time inspired a push among him and other Browns players to ask for a reinstitution of family days during training camp, a former staple of summer in which siblings and children could pile onto the field after practices. He said the request was met with enthusiasm from head coach Kevin Stefanski, himself a father of three, who would lobby for the expanded guestlists as COVID-19 restrictions dwindle.
Even as they return to football as they knew it, they can still take a piece of their time at home.
“All the moments that we had to spend together, that whole period was obviously a trying time for the world, but I’m so grateful because it gave me a lot of time to focus on them,” Landry said. “It gave me time to be where my feet were. Training during the offseason, traveling, you’re always worried about your kids but you're singularly focused on what you’re doing. Getting to spend more time with them was something I was really grateful for.”
Danny Johnson, a cornerback for the Washington Football Team, found himself sounding more like his own father during the pandemic. His son is 10, and, in need of some motivation during virtual schooling, got an earful straight from the dad book of comebacks.
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“I feel old, man,” he said. “My dad used to tell me the same thing when I was 14.”
He, like many dads, discovered the beautiful strangeness of watching your kids grow older during COVID-19. His son was becoming just like him. He was becoming just like his dad. In the stillness of a global shutdown, it was easier to see. They fished a lot and he watched as his son insisted on baiting the line by himself, despite not knowing what to do. That was Danny when he was younger.
“I wanted to see if he knew what he was doing,” he said. “He put the bait on the line and the reel he was fishing with was real big. I was like, he’s not going to even know how to cast this,” he said. “Of course, he throws it straight in the air and comes down and hits him in the top of the head.”
Erik Harris, a cornerback for the Falcons said he got a taste of “full-time dad” mode with twin boys (age 8), a daughter (age 4) and another son (age 2). Perhaps non-coincidentally, his wife was gifted her “dream horse” for her birthday this past year.
Harris experimented with a family fishing outing but said they ended up just feeding them instead. Some of his long-held beliefs on parenting (“It’s not really the terrible twos, it’s the freakin’ threes”) were confirmed again. Some of his most dreaded moments, like a full pajama poop blowout he encountered during a solo parenting mission when his oldest boys were babies, came flooding back into his psyche.
“Poop all the way up to his neck. Poop in the footies of the pajamas. You couldn’t even use wipes, what were wipes going to do?”
Harris said that he was dialed in on child psychology during the pandemic, which was a passion of his wife’s. He’s grown in his understanding of child comprehension and internal and external validation. He’s more likely now to ask his kids what they think about their own artwork rather than tell them what he thinks.
Being isolated during COVID-19 helped him realize that, outside the insular world of football, he lives a life that is anything but conventional. He misses games and birthdays and anniversaries, sometimes all in the stretch of a few weeks. This was his chance—everyone’s chance—to take some of that back, reframe their experiences and help shape a family unit that always seems to grow faster than expected during their time away.
“I have four opportunities to bring more light in this world,” Harris said. “Our kids are a reflection of us. It’s a different time. They’re exposed to different things. Is the world crazy at times? Absolutely. But it starts in the house. If we raise them the right way, that’s four seeds we can plant into the world that they can help change.”
Patriots cornerback Justin Bethel has his first child due later in the summer. He has survived all of the thorny parts of the journey so far, including the always dicey proposition of name ping-pong, where options were batted around until something stuck.
He said he lucked out that his wife’s only pregnancy craving was buffalo chicken wraps from Buffalo Wild Wings. He would always nab a 10-piece. Most of this was possible as restaurant restrictions in Arizona had been long lifted by the time he was doing the chicken runs.
So while the pandemic didn’t necessarily give him time to care for a baby, it did give him a moment to reflect on what he’d hope for once his daughter arrived. He said that his goal is to be the man he wants her to marry one day, which is something he modeled after his own parents, who are still very much in love.
“My dad is always saying oooh look at how fine your mom is,” Bethel said, laughing. During a recent trip to church, his mom noted how attractive she still found her husband while following him from behind.
He’s found himself more in tune to the conversations surrounding fatherhood that have become more prevalent in the locker room. Of course, it could just be players with kids noticing the whole thing now. You don’t often find yourself drawn to a conversation about diapers and sleepless nights if it isn’t your entire world back home.
But the extended family time has added a certain richness to it all (“We all got a taste of what our wives go through,” Harris said, “they needed a break and we were there.”) Players pick up on who the All-Star, minivan dads are in the locker room now (in Cleveland, Landry said, it’s backup quarterback Case Keenum and long snapper Charley Hughlett). After seeing how much they grew in the presence of their own family, their questions are often about how other players might have done the same.
“Before we’re football players, we’re fathers, we’re men,” Landry said. “Most of the conversations are about our kids. How are they doing? How are they growing? When was the last time we saw them?
“Each and every guy, you see their eyes light up when you ask about their kids. That’s a beautiful thing.”
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