At the Super Bowl, super moms
Connie Anderson knows she will soar when her son Mark, the sack-happy rookie defensive end for the Chicago Bears, bursts onto the field for Super Bowl XLI at Dolphins Stadium here Sunday.
She might even watch the game.
Ms. Anderson admits she may default to her bleachers habit from Mark's big games back at the University of Alabama and at his Tulsa, Okla., high school.
"I know other people are playing. But I'll just watch him," she said with a laugh in a phone interview. "And after the game I'll say, 'Mark, did you have something in your shoe?' "
Joy Freeney will be zeroing in on her own Super Bowl son, Dwight, a defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts. Dwight toddled up to a mirror at age 4, Ms. Freeney recalls, to see if his neck muscles were football-ready. The quick All-Pro Freeney – now with a 19-inch neck – routinely draws extra coverage from offensive linemen.
Mama Freeney understands the tactic. But she doesn't like it. "They have two and three players on him every week," she says. "Why don't they try that on somebody else?"
The hands-on sports mom is a mythic figure in America. Meet some star specimens of the professional-grade version. Their public profiles are limited – sometimes by choice – to mid-game shots on the Jumbotron outfitted in oversized jerseys, or to soup commercials. But this is a (mostly) all-for-one coterie of women whose influence runs as deep as a Marvin Harrison pass route and whose mothering instincts extend to any NFL player.
"It's no surprise that you see [players] mouthing 'Hi, Mom' from the sidelines," says Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the National Football League. Agents can make deals, he says, but "we have found many times that if we're looking for a player to work with us ... we'll go through the mom."
Besides feeding their sons' teammates when they're in town, NFL mothers cook up a cumulative knowledge base. About 100 of them network through the 10-year-old Professional Football Players Mothers' Association.
PFPMA backs philanthropic initiatives and serves as a support group. Many members booked hotel rooms here among the rustling palms and sea-grape trees this week.
"It's my first [Super Bowl] experience and his," says Denise Wayne, who came down with her husband to cheer on their son, Colts receiver Reggie. "If he needs us, we're here."
"Even at the professional level, parents can still parent," says Frank Smoll, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and coauthor of "Sports and Your Child."
Like other active NFL moms, Sharon Stoutmire – Omar is a strong safety with the New Orleans Saints – finds herself watching over players other than her son. She saw Saints rookie Reggie Bush taunt veteran Bears defender Brian Urlacher during the Saints' final game before making a showy back flip in the end zone. "Be still, now," she recalls thinking.
And when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo bobbled a hold on a field-goal attempt to cost Dallas a playoff win against Seattle, she lowered her head and said a prayer. "If I could've just reached through the TV," she says, "I would have hugged him." She even finds herself defending Romo in grocery store checkout lines in her Dallas hometown. "I tell them, 'You go out and try that play.' "
"Every son's the same to us," says Michele Green, mother of Minnesota Vikings tackle Brian McKinnie – a "gentle giant," she says, at 6 ft. 8 in. and 343 lbs. Ms. Green has arranged rooms and good seats for out-of-town players' moms for her son's games.
Colts mom Freeney recalls the complex feelings that come with adopting an entire league: "Last year, when [Indianapolis] fell to Pittsburgh in the playoffs, Dwight said, 'This is why it hurts so much. We can't fix this until next year.' "
When Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl, Freeney's thoughts turned to Gladys Bettis, whose son, star Steelers running back Jerome, had declared that game as his last. "That was my consolation," Freeney says, "that Jerome would be rewarded for his 13 years in the league."
Players and mothers know they might never get back to the big game, if they get here at all. Pam Howard's son, Reggie, a walk-on at Memphis State, was so seriously injured in his senior season that Ms. Howard found herself visiting him in intensive care. He later became a standout at a pro training camp, and in 2004 he played in Super Bowl XXXVIII as a Carolina Panther.
"It's almost unexplainable," Ms. Howard says of the feeling she had that night, "especially knowing what he had to go through to get to that point. I admire him as a man, because he persisted."
Among mothers, too, there is respect, many say, despite an unspoken hierarchy.
"There's a pecking order, even among the moms, by position," says Mary Rackers, whose son, Neil, is a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals. The high-visibility players – wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks – represent the upper tier. "[Kickers] probably are only above long snappers," she says. "Even though a lot of games come down to the kick."
Some NFL moms can get carried away a bit. Saints quarterback Drew Brees reportedly asked his mother last fall to stop using his image in television commercials in her campaign for a spot on a Texas appeals court.
Even high-profile PFPMA member Wilma McNabb raised eyebrows in December for writing a blog entry that questioned coaching decisions with regard to her son Donovan, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback.
But NFL mothers, while acknowledging faults, point to noble goals. "We want to promote the professionalism of the players ... to let people know that our sons are great guys," says Peggy Jones, whose son Daryl was released by the Vikings in 2005. "There's a lot they go through that people don't understand."
Several mothers recount episodes that remind them their behemoths are still young men. Karen Barber cites the almost childlike innocence of her son, Cowboys running back Marion, just two years in the league. "He'll call us and say [whispering], 'Mom, Dad, I'm signing autographs, can you believe it? And I just met [Cowboys superstar] Emmitt Smith."
Others point to young players' vulnerability. "By senior year [of college], it's outsiders" seeking control, says Angela Curley, mother of Tennessee Titans defensive end Travis LaBoy. Ms. Curley encouraged LaBoy's older brother to study sports management; he now represents LaBoy.
Plenty of NFL fathers – including some who are former pro players – pass along wisdom. But mothers and sons remain the sport's special team. Ms. Anderson recalls being called aside by her son after the Bears won the NFC title at Soldier Field. She left her husband's car in a parking garage to jump into Mark's. "He was just like, 'Wow.' And I said, 'I know.' We didn't have to talk."