It’s not a stretch to say the past two weeks have been the best of Andy Levitre’s life.
The former Buffalo Bills’ guard is headed to his first Super Bowl as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
Not too many experiences can top that, but the birth of his first child is certainly one that does. Lily Gene Levitre arrived just after midnight Jan. 15, weighing 8 pounds and 10.5 ounces. Her parents have a heck of a story to tell her one day about how she entered the world.
Levitre’s wife, Katie, is a Buffalo native and former Jills cheerleader. The couple met when Levitre was playing for the Bills. A former second-round draft pick in 2009, he spent four years in Buffalo before signing as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans prior to the 2013 season. After two years in Nashville, he was traded to the Falcons in 2015.
If there was one constant in Levitre’s career up until 2016, it was that he was on bad teams. He had never so much as sniffed a playoff berth in his seven years, with his teams going a combined 44-73. So when the Levitres found out they’d be having a baby in mid-January, they couldn’t be blamed if they thought “no big deal.”
Until this season, that is. The Falcons went 11-5 to win the NFC South. Including the last four games of the regular season, they’ve won six straight, making them the hottest team in the NFL.
“I didn't panic too much about it at the beginning, but as it got it got closer and closer, I was like, 'ok, the team is doing really well.' It's pretty clear that they're going to be going to the playoffs, and she could come at any time,” Katie said. “So that got a little bit nerve-wracking, for sure.”
What if the Falcons were on the road when Lily decided the time was right?
“We had lots of conversations about what would happen if I went into labor during a game, and we never actually came up with a solution,” Katie said. “I was under the impression that I was just not going to say anything because I knew how important these playoff games are. … Labor can last 48 hours, so I would feel so bad if I made him leave a game and she didn’t come until the next morning.”
You can probably guess what happens next.
With the Falcons set to host the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round on Jan. 14, Katie set out for the Georgia Dome. At the stoplight outside the Falcons’ home, about an hour before kickoff, she started timing her contractions.
“One of the football operations guys on the sidelines, he had my number. I would text him if I needed anything,” she said. “That day, I sent him a text saying, 'hey, I'm definitely in labor. I'm in the stands, and I'm going to let you know if it gets worse and I have to go to the hospital. But if it doesn't get worse and you don't hear from me, don't tell him because I don't want to mess up his play.’
“Just let him think that everything’s fine, and then as soon as the game is over, you need to run up and tell him as fast as you can.”
The first quarter was manageable. Katie could even talk through contractions.
But as the game went on, Lily continued to make her presence felt.
“It was probably about a quarter in, maybe a little bit more than that, where they started to get to the point where I couldn’t talk through them anymore,” she said. “Bruce Matthews, Jake Matthews' dad, who used to be Andy's coach in Tennessee, he was sitting next to me and he was talking to me, and he looked over at me and I wasn't responding. I was giving him the finger, like 'hang on a second.' He was like, ‘oh God, don't make me deliver this baby.’ ”
Katie spent the second half roaming the halls of the Georgia Dome.
“I did my best to try to sit and watch, but it was getting pretty impossible at that point,” she said. “I was trying to decide whether I should go home or I should stay. I don't know what I was thinking, but I wanted to stay and watch his game. I just knew that I'd be able to get through it somehow. I ended up staying until the very end and waiting for him.”
Katie’s contractions intensified as they battled postgame traffic.
“I think my midwife thought I was like every first-time mom, kind of panicking,” she said. “I was in a lot of pain. She was like, ‘go home, give it 20 minutes. Get in the bath tub and try to relax and see if they slow down.’ ”
After returning to their apartment, Katie followed her midwife’s instructions, while Andy and the gathered family had dinner.
“They’re ordering Chinese food, eating in the other room and I’m in the bath tub screaming,” Katie said. “I started to feel like it was definitely coming.”
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Katie was in excruciating pain – for good reason. She had planned for an unmedicated birth.
“When we got there, we went to the triage room, and I was like, ready to go,” she said. “I almost had the baby in the hallway on the way to the labor and delivery room.”
At 12:07 a.m., just about four hours after the Falcons’ win, Lily arrived via unmedicated waterbirth.
“She’s definitely tougher than me,” Andy told his hometown newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, of Katie. “I would’ve went to the hospital right when I went into labor.
“It’s been surreal. It has all happened so fast. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”
After the birth, Andy stayed with Katie in the hospital in the morning, but reported to the Falcons’ facility for afternoon meetings. Atlanta coach Dan Quinn wasn’t having any of that, however, sending Levitre right back to the hospital.
Quinn was so impressed with Katie’s story he awarded her a game ball from the win over Seattle, with the words “ultimate toughness” across it.
— Katie Levitre (@katielevitre) January 24, 2017
“We thought that was definitely worth the game ball,” Quinn said.
Toughness has been a trait that has defined Levitre’s career, as well. In eight years, he has started every one of his 128 career games. He’s also enjoyed a career renaissance in Atlanta, ranking 14th among all guards in analytics website Pro Football Focus’ grading. He was 12th in pass blocking and 17th in run blocking, according to PFF, while his 1,162 snaps ranked as the eighth most at his position.
“Man, can he finish,” Quinn said. “That’s one of the things we love about his game that he just brings it every time.”
Levitre left the Bills after the 2012 season for a six-year, $46.8 million contract with the Titans.
“We were both super sad to leave Buffalo, because he loved the team and he loved the fans there, and obviously it was nicer for me because that's where I'm from,” Katie said. “We were lucky because Nashville ended up being our favorite city in the world. We still have a home there.”
Levitre’s stay with the Titans lasted just two seasons, though, before he was traded to Atlanta. The couple resides in California in the offseason, so that meant another big move.
“At one point we had lived in four different states in one year,” Katie said. “Atlanta was the best thing that could have happened to us. He is so happy on this team, and now he's going to the Super bowl. The coaches are really great and he loves his teammates.
“It ended up being good, it's just a lot on the family. We have two dogs that travel with us everywhere. We're like the Clampetts, everywhere we go.”
Levitre appears to have found a home at left guard on the Falcons’ dynamic offense. Atlanta scored the seventh-most points in NFL history (540) in 2016, a league-leading average of 33.8 per game. That’s despite facing the second-toughest set of defenses in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
Former NFL scout Matt Williamson calls Levitre an “unsung hero” on the offense.
“A good, but not great, athlete with very functional size and power, Levitre doesn’t stand out in any one area. He gets to the second level well in the run game and fits this movement-based scheme very well,” Williamson wrote in a column this week for FanRag Sports. “Levitre is also quite solid in the passing game and can handle both quickness and power quite well.”
Playing between center Alex Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews has benefitted Levitre, Williamson noted, “but that shouldn’t detract from how well he played throughout the season and into the playoffs for Atlanta.”
“We’ve got a good group of guys,” Levitre told Atlanta reporters before the season. “We all come out and get our work in every day. … I like the group that we have. Everybody has the right mindset.”
Since coming home from the hospital, Katie has done her part to help the team. She said Andy is sleeping in bed, while she takes the couch with the baby.
“I have to make sure he's well rested," she said. "I take her by myself every night. He goes in bed and sleeps for eight hours. I sleep on the couch with the baby next to me and get about one hour a night.
“I know it's almost over. He’s only got a week left, and then I will have him around. I'm trying to stay strong for him, because I know how important this is to him.”
Levitre and the Falcons leave Sunday for Houston, where the New England Patriots await in Super Bowl LI.
“We know there’s a lot at stake, but to us it’s just a football game,” Levitre said. “It’s the same way when you’re a rookie. You think, ‘I’ve been doing this my whole life.’ ”
Katie and Lily will be there, too. The family’s pediatrician has given them permission to travel, provided mom keeps her baby wrapped up tight and away from as many germs as possible.
“I'm so excited for him,” Katie said. “He's been waiting for both of these things his whole life, and now they're happening all in two weeks.