Pam Reeves didn't sign up for this.
It's been nearly 50 years since she walked down the aisle, 50 years since she thought the man she was marrying would go into the family construction business. He was playing college football at South Carolina at the time, but even that didn't give her an ink- ling of what was to come. After eight seasons as a running back in the NFL, Dan Reeves became a coach, Pam Reeves a coach's wife. It was about a hundred degrees removed from the life she had imagined.
But in 1973, years before Dan Reeves led the Broncos to three Super Bowl berths, he took a year off from football after retiring as a player.
“I thought it was the most wonderful year we had ever had,” Pam Reeves says now, 10 years after her husband retired from coaching. “We went to church on Sundays like everybody else. We had weekends where we could take the kids and go out to the lake and do fun things.”
Then she paused.
“He was absolutely miserable.”
Soon after, her husband got into the coaching game.
What Pam Reeves came to accept over decades as first a player's wife and then a coach's wife was that she'd married not only a man, but a sport. Her husband was happy only when football was in their life, a life far different from what most women imagine. Like plenty of professionals, there were days when her husband left for work before their children woke up and returned after they'd gone to bed.
The difference: Every Sunday, America watched him do his job, offering a million opinions as to what he'd done well, or why things went wrong.
When coach John Fox returned to the Broncos on Dec. 2 after aortic valve-replacement surgery, some of his first words were to thank his wife, Robin, for nursing him through his recovery. What the Foxes went through this fall is an extreme illustration of the stress that coaching places upon families, but wives across football can relate. They worry not only about their husbands' health and lack of sleep, but also about the constant moves from one job to the next, and their children's ability to adjust. They are the disciplinarians and the organizers, the ones in charge of selling houses and buying them, finding schools and establishing curfew.
They call themselves single parents, football widows, and yet most of them bear their burden with a resolute smile.
'A very tight-knit group'
It begins with the word we. They don't get fired. He doesn't get fired. We get fired. That's how these women look at it, perhaps because it's all so public. Firing means packing up and moving on, but for as quickly as these families relocate, the women don't forget.
Peggy Shanahan, wife of former Broncos and current Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, remembers her husband's tenures with each team, down to the month. That year with the Raiders — no, she corrects herself, that year and four months. Change is what marks these women's lives.
“You just never know,” said Angel Roberts, whose husband, Alfredo, is the Colts' tight ends coach. “It's like musical chairs, and the music starts to play in December. It starts very low, like background music ... and then as January comes around and most teams are finishing, the music is loud, the chairs are moving, the people are moving.”
Moving means figuring out where to live, deciding if the kids need to stay behind to finish out the school year. Some wives, such as Roberts, think it's good to send the husbands ahead to get established. Others, such as Jill Baker, whose husband, Joe, was on Mike Shanahan's staff in Denver and is now with the Cowboys, think it's best to quickly pack up and go. That way, her kids will have friends by summer and won't spend months worrying about their new lives.
Then, of course, there's the matter of moving to a new city, one where the family will more than likely know no one. Who's the best doctor? Where's the best grocery store? These are the things families take for granted, and this is where the network of wives matters. Across the NFL and college football landscape, wives have formed a web of contact. With the amount of movement, everyone knows everyone, and head coaches' wives often spearhead introducing assistants' wives to their towns.
It may sound trivial, but there's a reason so few NFL head coaches — only four out of 32 — are unmarried. Wives are an integral part of the football world, and Jill Baker said that during their time in Tampa on Raheem Morris' staff, things felt a bit off because Morris was unmarried and the group of wives had no de facto leader.
“It's a very tight-knit group,” said Sarah Stretz, whose husband quit coaching after a stint with the Buccaneers two years ago. “The wives are very supportive of each other. That's the one fantastic thing. Everyone watches out for each other, because you have to.”
Wives turn to one another when their babies get sick late at night, when they fall and twist an ankle and the men are stuck in meetings. When the daughter of Cowboys assistant coach Gary Brown was diagnosed with leukemia, the rest of the wives on the Dallas staff rallied around Brown's wife, Kim. When the daughter was hospitalized, Baker helped with the other children, wives brought over food and Jason Garrett's wife, Brill, sent a cleaning crew to help tidy up the house.
After all, the men were at work. They didn't have time to organize anything, not with their upward of 18-hour workdays. Some coaches, such as John Harbaugh, have made a practice of spending some nights in their offices. Others come home so late and leave so early that the only evidence they've been there is a dent in the pillow. Over a months-long season — and an offseason that's not much better in terms of getting a chance to recharge — it adds up. Wives stay on top of their husbands' checkups — teams are good about mandating those — and try to insist they eat well and get some sleep, though the attempts to do so are often futile.
“Always in the back of your mind, you know that by midseason, they're just exhausted, and they have another eight weeks or more to go,” Peggy Shanahan said.
'Let him do the football'
But for every John Fox or Gary Kubiak, who collapsed at halftime of a game this season, there are 10 perfectly healthy if exhausted coaches by season's end. Wives can do only so much, and the biggest stress comes in maintaining a sense of normal, for themselves and more so for their children. The coach knows a bad season means children will hear things at school, that they themselves will be approached in grocery stores by fans pressing their opinions upon them.
Some wives get irritated. Others brush it off. It's a personality thing, and just as some are able to read the reports of their husband's staff being on thin ice, others avoid following media coverage of the team.
Some bring a stash of toys to games to distract their kids so they can focus on the game, and others, such as Pam Reeves, realized early on that the best thing about going to a game was making it a social occasion.
“When he first started coaching in Dallas, I thought, 'Well, I'm gong to be the perfect coach's wife,' ” she said. “I'm going to learn all about defenses and offenses and play calling, and I did. Then I'd go to a game, and I had an opinion. I thought, 'This isn't good. Why aren't we doing this and this and this?' After the game, I'd say, 'Well, gosh, on third down, why didn't we do blah, blah, blah?' That was not a happy time, so I decided, I'll let him do the football, and I'll do home.”
Pam Reeves was lucky. She was able to embrace a mind-set of putting football to the side. Some women, though, can't be quite so laissez-faire.
“You sit there, and you're not just watching a fun football game,” Stretz said. “It's your future. It's your stability. It's how your mortgage is going to get paid.”
It's enough to drive a person crazy, which is why so many of the coaches' wives worry about the lack of balance in the world in which they're bringing up their children. It's why Roberts, who goes to the gym almost daily, gains weight with every move; she jokes that the stress she's absorbing on the part of her kids goes straight to her thighs.
It's why Peggy and Mike Shanahan spent years telling their son, Kyle, he should be a lawyer, not a coach. Kyle, though, kept saying no. He was going to coach, and now he is the offensive coordinator for his father. The fact that he grew up in such an environment and kept on living in it gives his mother a moment of validation.
“As it turns out, you think it's so hard, but ... it probably was one of the best things that could ever happen to them,” Peggy Shanahan said.
You see, if the coaches are all right and the kids are all right, these women are all right. It's as simple as that.