Our journey in the NFL began in 2009. Unlike most NFL careers my husband’s started off on the less conventional track without having his name called on draft day. It wasn’t until after the draft he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a priority free agent. During that time, I was finishing my degree in Speech Pathology from San Diego State where Russell and I met as student athletes in soccer and football. Having both grown up in San Diego, it was a substantial change for us both to pick up and move across the country where we didn’t know a soul.
Without the security of being a touted draft pick, I was cautious about the prospect of the future and whether or not he’d make it past the first day much less sign to the fifty three man roster at the end of training camp. When I received a phone call at the beginning of camp with my then fiancé explaining he developed a staph infection, I did my best to encourage him knowing the almost inevitable result of a plane ticket back home. Much to our surprise, Russell made the roster that year as well as the next four years ultimately earning himself a starting spot at linebacker and on special teams.
Jacksonville, Florida became our first home as a married couple and the birthplace of our son, Parker, in 2011. Throughout the thirty-seven hour labor, Russell went to work and came back in time for the delivery then headed off again; playing a game that same week. The demanding and unpredictable nature of the NFL became embedded into our daily life. Becoming a new mom two thousand miles away from family was equally demanding to Russell’s twelve-hour workdays in meetings and on the field.
Uncertainty became part of our reality; whether it was making the team, staying on the team, saying goodbye to friends, or the most prominent reality – injury. It abruptly became our most compelling reality in December of 2013. In a home game against the Buffalo Bills Russell took on a routine block with a lineman, something he’d done countless times. For some reason, this particular play resulted in a brief snap of his neck, creating a dissection in his vertebral artery allowing a clot to form and shoot up to his cerebellum – a stroke.
My two-year-old son, Parker, and I were in the stands and, from afar, the incident wasn’t apparent. No dramatic collapse or trainers rushing to the field. He managed to complete the play and remarkably went on to finish what was left of the game despite a symptomatic concussive flash and several minutes of double vision.
It wasn’t until the following day after reporting light sensitivity and a headache to the trainers that he received an MRI diagnosing the stroke. He was admitted to the hospital for several days while they ran tests attempting to pinpoint the cause of the dead spot in his brain. It took four months and eventually a second angiogram to determine the source of the injury and, shortly after, the neurologists deemed it no longer “advisable” for him to ever return to the field.
A week prior to the incident, I found out we were pregnant with our second child. My initial feelings of excitement quickly shifted to overwhelming emotional stress and fear of losing the pregnancy as I rushed to and from the hospital, trying to get answers and comfort my husband. Parker had a hard time understanding what happened to daddy. Despite the daunting circumstances in front of me, I tangibly felt God’s peace and comfort during that chaotic time as friends and teammates supported us with meals and helped care for Parker.
Our journey in the NFL was a roller coaster to say the least, but the transition after football has proven to be an equally unpredictable ride. One of the most difficult parts of this transition was the lack of understanding for what we were left to process. Not even our closest friends and family could begin to comprehend the complexity of such a unique experience, which led to feelings of isolation.
Russell and I reconnected with college friends Traci Keiaho and her husband Freddy, who were also in San Diego sorting through their post-NFL life. For the first time, we were able to fully relate to and empathize with people facing the same issues – devastating injury, identity crisis, shifting family dynamics, career changes, moving, the list went on. It was refreshing to hear that most of our hardship was common and part of the process.
It has now been four years since leaving Jacksonville and we’re finally enjoying a stable and normal life as a family. We are thankful to feel settled in San Diego around friends and family where we can raise our two boys Parker, six, and Levi, three. It has taken several years, but we’ve established a healthy school and home life routine for everyone. Russell (safely) works for an insurance wholesaler and helps out with a local Christian high school football program.
The opportunity to connect with several other women, who have come and gone through the NFL, has helped me see the many common threads in our stories. Very few understand the reality behind the romanticized veil of NFL life and the aftermath; that’s what A Victor’s Voice community provides. It weaves our threads into one solid strand. Through A Victor’s Voice, women dispersed all over the country now have a place where they can find authentic community and support one another. My name is Alison and I am A Victor's Voice.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4