This is the fourth in a series of six columns for The Buffalo News by Janine Talley, wife of Bills great Darryl Talley.
Training camp signifies to fans the end of football drought. Its countdown and anticipation begins the day after the NFL season wraps and crescendos with the draft. While this is a reason for fans to rejoice, it isn’t much of a cause for players’ wives to celebrate; we know the turbulence ahead.
Yes, we’re showered with the benefits of having husbands who play a game for a living, but we don’t embody the life most imagine. And as much as we’re fans of the game on Sunday, we’re not always thrilled with the process that leads up to it.
Here’s a glimpse of what it was like for me, and the wives I knew of Darryl’s era.
Our husbands have been mentally and physically preparing for camp for months. As the date nears, their edginess increases. Their skulls are tangled with the emotion and instinct necessary to step onto a field and repetitively release inhuman skills. That emotion can translate callously over a bowl of corn flakes.
He reacts sternly when our youngest doesn’t want to finish her breakfast, and thinks if I don’t make her finish it will contribute to her being “soft.” He tells me that if he were raising the girls they wouldn’t get over on him like they do me. It starts a fight that wouldn’t have happened if he weren’t sharpening his own need to be tough.
Age is inching its way in on some of our husbands. We see his worry. Not only is he readying to be in competition with younger guys for his job, for the first time in his career he’s about to be in competition with himself. That trepidation festers behind our closed doors.
I notice he’s distancing himself from us, preoccupied with thought and snapping at things little girls do that usually wouldn’t bother him. He’s acting out of character, so I ask what’s wrong. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but my instincts tell me he’s tilted within.
The day our husbands pack their vehicles and set off for training camp is the day we become single – single women, single parents. The rigors of professional football cause our husbands to mostly withdraw from family life for six months. They’re tailoring themselves for a long, grueling season and we’re low on the totem pole of priorities.
Sure, we are fortunate to have comforts that buffer the inconvenience, but explain that to a child when we ask them to switch schools and friends. Some of us are married to NFL journeymen, and we can find ourselves with a new team several times throughout a career. Many times this happens during the season and the player is off to the new team while the family’s transition is left to the wife.
We were lucky that Darryl spent the bulk of his career with Buffalo, but when he switched teams twice after his term with the Bills we became a pitiful bunch. We left behind our home and a community we’d immersed ourselves in and found it difficult to match up with Darryl’s new teams and our new cities.
With Darryl in camp, the girls and I stayed in a hotel until I was able to find an apartment that rented on a month-to-month basis. We went from a house in Orchard Park with a yard and a street full of friends to a transient apartment complex in an Atlanta suburb on a busy highway. I tried to make a home with rented furniture and four miserable inhabitants. Our oldest daughter was enrolled in three schools that year.
Somewhere along the way, the life of an NFL wife became synonymous with glamour. Don’t let our good fortune of having nice things confuse you; the glamour is lent to few.
Unless our husband was playing in a city where we had family, we didn’t travel to away games. We were home shuffling our children to practices or games or lessons. We were taking the dog to the veterinarian. We were sitting in an emergency room while our child was having her broken arm set. We were meeting with a teacher because our child was struggling to blend in with her new classmates. We were watching our husband wallow in self-doubt because the younger guy was nipping at his heels and he was seeing his career coming to an abrupt close.
Most NFL wives are uneasy with a perception that renders us down to shallow humanoids with showy cars and generous expense accounts, an ornament to our husbands’ rough exteriors. As easy as it is to fall into the grip of excess and entitlement, it becomes uncomfortable to wear a skin that isn’t yours and you learn to shed it by intentionally persisting in self-evolution.
We are so much more than an endorsement for expensive handbags and most of us don’t want to be defined as something irrelevant to us as a person. We are just like every other woman who’s dealt with life’s complexities. It only appears to be easier because of income, a vast misconception.
For all of the joy I experienced as an NFL wife, my unhappiness was equal. Playing professional football didn’t come with a manual on how to steer family life. Darryl couldn’t flip a switch and not be a professional football player when we were at Chuck E. Cheese’s celebrating our daughter’s birthday or while we were waiting in the Ferris wheel line with our daughters at the fair.
As much as I told myself it was part of the package, I often resented the intrusion and just wanted Darryl to blend in with the crowd. Being shoved out of the way or burned with a cigarette or having a drink spilled down your back while people are trying to get at your husband is humiliating and infuriating. On those occasions, I wasn’t nice. I regret that and wish I’d had the wisdom to handle it better.
Most of the wives I’ve known have had similar experiences and it gave us an odd solidarity. We were a diverse group of young women who shared no connection other than that our husbands played a game together, and in most instances, the commonality ended there. Being thrown into the football cauldron provoked cohesion during our NFL tenures that forged friendships that have endured.