Excerpt: Wedded to the Game

Wedded to the Game: The Real Lives of NFL Women (Bison Original, 2006) explores what it’s really like living in the shadow of the NFL. Bringing a background in sociology and a firsthand understanding of being married to the NFL, Shannon O’Toole is uniquely qualified to report from behind pro football’s doors. Part insider tell-all, part sociological study, her book is packed with candid on-the-spot accounts of NFL life, providing a rare glimpse into the often hidden world behind the game. 

PREFACE

The freshly painted, white-walled house was quiet. Our German shepherd, Keisha, settling in to her new surroundings, had claimed the sunniest corner of the kitchen’s linoleum floor for her afternoon snooze. I was making dinner, and as I carefully scooped vegetable clippings into a paper bag, Keisha jerked her head upright and began to bark. I also heard the car engine out front, but I said to her, “No, no, it’s too early to be John.”

It was only two o’clock, and John wasn’t due home until after five (and usually later than that). Six weeks ago, and one week into the regular season, John had been signed to the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad as a receiver. This was his second change to play football in the NFL, after having been cut that summer at the end of training camp by the then Los Angeles Raiders, and he was determined to make it. If that meant being the first guy on the field in the morning and the last one to leave it at night, that was what he was going to do.

Not only that, but it looked like the Packers really wanted him. At first overwhelmed by the extensive playbook, John was beginning to feel at ease, and he would come home from practice energized and excited. His receiver coach, Jon Gruden, was especially positive about John’s future and told him he might even be activated from the practice squad to the active roster by midseason. Learning from one of the best, Sterling Sharpe, John though things had finally “clicked” and that he had found the place where he could grow and improve until the day he eventually became a starter.

This was why I had decided less than a month before to give up my full scholarship to Western Michigan University—and interrupt my studies in sociology—to join John in Green Bay. We were in love, and we had spent that summer together in Los Angeles—rollerblading at Manhattan Beach, riding horses in the Hollywood hills, and getting a taste for the NFL and what it might be like to share our lives together. In fact, nearly every moment in our then ten-month relationship had been amazingly exciting—an emotion that was probably heightened by our uncertain future—and it looked and felt like every Midwestern girl’s dream.

Perhaps the hardest part of my decision to move to Green Bay was telling my parents. I am their eldest daughter, and I was the first in the family to attend college. At that point, they hardly knew John at all, but for him I seemed ready to give up everything I’d worked so hard to achieve. That wasn’t how I saw it, but when I left my parents’ home in rural Michigan to drive to Green Bay, we all felt like we were in mourning. Despite my resolve, I wiped a near-constant stream of tears from my eyes during the entire eight-hour drive.

How could I explain to them how bored and lonely I’d become without John? How much I’d come to almost dread the new semester? A year ago my studies and my college softball career were completely satisfying, and now my thoughts continually wandered to John and all the fun and activity he was going through as he got settled in with the Packers. Our phone conversations had become heart-wrenching, ending in impassioned “Good-bye’s” and “I miss you’s.” Marriage was the furthest thing from my mind—that was way too much commitment—but I began to seriously consider how John’s goals and my aspirations could be meshed successfully.

And one thing that I’d always craved was the kind of life it seemed we might lead in the NFL. It wasn’t the money that energized me. It was the adventure—the travel and unique experiences it seemed to offer. Ever since adolescence, I’d grown up cringing at the thought of a predictable, scheduled life nestled in the cornfields of mid-Michigan. Now I was twenty years old, miles away from the man I loved, and beginning to wonder how long I would wait for life to begin. My biggest fear was someday saying, “I wish I had. . . .”

From the beginning, almost from our first date, John turned the NFL into “our dream.” He include me and wanted me involved in all the pro football excitement, and because of him, I became excited about it too. When his agent came to town, John invited me to join them for dinner. When John heard encouraging news about his chances of being drafted, I was the first person he called. Every day seemed to bring something new, but during all the hype, John always made me feel valued and important. Plus, we were clearly involved in something special and unique—none of our friends had ever experienced anything like this.

I wanted to see him reach his goals. I wanted to help him get “his shot.” As a fellow athlete, I was proud when he asked me to train with him. I timed him in the 40, ran next to him down the snow-covered streets of Kalamazoo, and mixed protein shakes with him. We did everything together.

 

That afternoon, as I looked out the window to see who in fact had driven up, I found John getting out of his brand-new, two-toned Chevy Blazer.

“It is him! I wonder if he’s sick?” I asked out loud, glancing down at the dog as I wiped my hands on a dish towel.

I pushed open the kitchen door, a welcoming but questioning smile on my face. John didn’t even acknowledge me but brushed past with his head down. He slunk onto a kitchen chair and faced the wall, leaving me to stare at the back of his green-and-gold sweatshirt. This can’t be good, I thought blankly.

Still not facing me, he mumbled something about a meeting with someone in Packer personnel. “Guys are hurt. Needed to make room for some offensive linemen.” Speaking only in fragmented phrases, his message vaguely began to penetrate. “Said he had to let me go. They appreciate all my hard work.”

Suddenly he turned, and I saw that his mouth had twisted into a weird grin. Peering directly at me, he spat out, “They just cut me.”

I didn’t reply. I thought, “If he’s smiling, then he must be joking.”

Seconds went by as I incredulously searched his face. Then panic set in. I thought, “Oh God, he’s not joking. It really happened. This is really happening.” My throat tightened, and then the sensation of suffocation moved into my gut.

“What do you mean?” I said, my voice rising. “But your coaches!? They said you were doing a great job. I thought they liked you!”

“I don’t’ know. They needed to make room on the roster. He called it ‘a numbers game.’”

My gaze fixated on the still unpacked boxes lining the kitchen counter, so that I hardly noticed as John left the room and began shuffling through his address book. Then, with frustration and worry in his voice, I heard him say, “I need to call my agent.”

No. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d given up a full ride scholarship at a Division I college! I couldn’t get that back. Green Bay was supposed to be our new home. Everything had been falling into place. But without his football salary, we couldn’t live in this house. We couldn’t afford half the things we’d just bought. Where would we go? Could I face moving home and living with my parents after this? And what would John do? Would we even be able to stay together?

Less than four weeks. I’d been there less than four weeks. I had said good-bye to my old life less than four weeks ago.

 

That night John and I lay in bed side by side, but I don’t remember talking much or comforting each other. Curled onto my side and staring at the still unadorned bedroom wall, my mind reeled in disbelief. Our moving boxes would never be unpacked. We’d have to break our lease, and tomorrow I’d have to rummage for merchandise receipts and beg store managers to take returns. But most of all, the thought of calling home to Saginaw was making me sick to my stomach. Shit, what are we going to do?

In hindsight, John was naïve to think he would have a long, prosperous playing career in the NFL, since only 8 percent of undrafted rookies ever make an NFL roster. However, even if John had heard that dismal statistic, he would not have been deterred. Optimistic, single-minded, and determined, that’s my John.

He wanted that exciting NFL life, too. John truly believed that the Packers’ signs were pointed in the right direction, and I had no reason not to believe him. We both had faith that if you studies diligently (in this case, learned the playbook), then sweat, toiled, and gave 110 percent, success would follow. Isn’t that what everyone’s taught? The Packers had already praised John’s attitude and work ethic, so staying on the team didn’t seem to be a question.

I should have taken the first Raiders’ release last summer as a warning of things to come, or at least as a clue of how the “Not-For-Long” League actually works. With the Raiders’ roster already packed with talented veteran receivers, we simply blamed John’s being cut on bad timing. Because John was already acclimated to cold-weather games—having gone to college at Western Michigan University as well—we told ourselves John was better suited for Green Bay anyway.

As I lay in bed that night, my feelings of desperation and shock turned to anger. I had just made one of the toughest decisions of my young life, and for what? So the NFL could mislead us and undo everything? I wasn’t mad at John. I knew he had done ten times more than what was expected. It was those people.

Why did these teams elevate his hopes, applaud him as he spilled his blood working toward their vision, only to dispose of him weeks later? Did they have any idea how many people had been affected by their “numbers game”?

They’re all the same, I thought. Liars. I hate them. I’ll never trust the NFL again.

 

This book is about what it’s really like to life inside the NFL, told from the unique perspective of the wives and girlfriends of pro football’s players and coaches. Part insider tell-all and part sociological study, this book is packed with no-holds-barred, firsthand accounts of NFL life, providing a rare glimpse into the often hidden world behind the game. If you want the inside scoop on what the highly competitive, sometimes brutal, only rarely glamourous NFL is all about, just ask the women who live it every day.

Far from the stereotypical, fluffy Barbie doll image under which NFL wives often suffer, NFL women are sharp, strong-willed, and opinionated—and not afraid to speak their minds. Rather than being shallow or timid, as they are sometimes portrayed, they are as tough, if not tougher, than the men who play and coach the game. They have to be. Those who aren’t don’t last in the NFL for long, while those who learn to cope with the NFL’s immense difficulties and challenges become stubborn, resilient, wise survivors.

Indeed, when head coach Steve Mariucci of the Detroit Lions was once asked by a reporter, “What is the most difficult position in pro football?” he replied: “Coaches’ wives. For seven months during the football season our wives are everything: teachers, cooks, counselors, nurses, moms, chauffeurs, you name it. These women have the most difficult job in pro football by far.”

What is it like to stand by completely helpless as your boyfriend or husband is cut by teams, not once or twice, but a dozen times? How do relationships survive the stress, strain, and insecurity of that kind of life? What is it like to watch a Sunday game on television when it’s your husband who can’t get up from the turf? How do you keep your composure when, while sitting in a stadium, seventy thousand fans are screaming for your husband’s head because of a dropped pass or poor play-calling?

What is it like to raise kids in the constant shadow of their NFL father? How do you deal with infidelity and domestic violence when the media are praising your football husband as a hero? How do you make friends or even think about having a career when you’re moving with your husband’s next job every year or two? When you’re the one in the relationship always making the sacrifices and having your needs overlooked “for the good of the team,” how do you not become hopelessly cynical and depressed? How, indeed, do NFL women maintain their sense of self, much less their sanity, while their husbands are employed by America’s greatest game?

I must admit, when I began my research for this book I had an ulterior motive. Although I have been in the NFL for twelve years now and I know very well what this life is like, I was also seeking the advice and hard-earned wisdom of women who had already found solutions to my numerous concerns. I still struggle with this life I’ve chosen, and so I wanted to know: How do other women deal with the NFL? How to they cope and survive? What are their experiences?

To find out, I sent an anonymous survey to over 150 women and got back an amazing 75 responses. In most surveys, a 30 percent response rate is considered very good; 50 percent is unheard of. This surprised me more than anything: the eagerness of these women to talk—and not just about the good times, but about some of their darkest experiences. NFL women are almost universally overlooked by the public and the media, and what I discovered is that they have things to say and they want to be heard.

 

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