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COVID-19 season taking heavy toll on NFL players' significant others: 'It's changed our lives completely'

As the director of player wellness at the NFL Players Association, Dr. Amber Cargill is always searching for ways to help players retain important information. Oftentimes her most effective allies are the wives and significant others, which is one reason she arranged a virtual meeting with about 15 of them on a recent Tuesday.

Cargill wanted to discuss not only the ins and outs of what happens when a player is put on injured reserve but also the psychological impact it can have. An interesting thing took place that afternoon, though: The longer the conversation went on, the more it veered away from the men and toward the women and their mental health, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The ladies were talking about how they've had their own episodes of depression, their own times of crying in the shower and crying in the bathroom, of just being very anxious and worried about what's going to happen, anxieties that have only increased with COVID," Cargill said. "In talking with some of them, I've heard about them being the ones who are at home dealing with the kids, and what happens if the kids get COVID. We know the guys deal with these things, too, but they're able to focus their attention away. The wives and significant others are the ones who are kind of left to really sit and think about it."

“The ladies were talking about how they’ve had their own episodes of depression, their own times of crying in the shower and crying in the bathroom." AMBER CARGILL

Much of the outside focus on the NFL has been on how players and coaches are handling the behavioral changes the league imposed in hopes of mitigating spread of the virus. But equally important -- though most times overlooked by the public -- is the impact the pandemic is having on the mental health of the wives and significant others.

In September, The Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open published a survey that found depression symptoms had more than tripled during the pandemic, climbing from 8.5 percent before COVID-19 to 27.8 percent during the pandemic. It's unknown whether any of the slightly more than 6,500 adult participants were wives or live-in partners of NFL players, but it would not come as surprise if that were the case, considering sport is often a microcosm of society.

For many of these women, the stresses and pressures they feel are similar to what people across the country are experiencing during the pandemic: the need to limit exposure to outside sources, the demands of homeschooling young children, the sense of longing from being separated from extended family. And yet, their situations are relatively unique because how they handle the pandemic could have consequences far beyond their own household. Any lapse in judgment could potentially jeopardize not only the livelihood of their spouses, but also the livelihood of teammates, coaches and club employees if the league is forced to cancel games or shut down the season, possibilities that could have an impact beyond the 2020 campaign. That reality weighs on them.

Nikki Jordan, wife of Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, has her hands full with four young children, including three she has been home-schooling during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Nikki Jordan)
Nikki Jordan, wife of Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, has her hands full with four young children, including three she has been home-schooling during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Nikki Jordan)

"It's changed our lives completely," said Nikki Jordan, wife of New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. "Not only are the guys accountable for what they do off the field -- we're held accountable, as well, because they can always catch it from us. So we've got to limit our risk of how we can catch COVID so that our husbands and their teammates and coaches are safe."

These women don't play beneath the bright lights of an NFL stadium, but their work within the home can be critical to a player's success. They know it, the union knows it and the teams know it, even if some in the general public are slow to recognize it. It's why the women often serve as human roadblocks to keep outside pressures off their spouses. However, transferring that weight to their own shoulders can cause them to break psychologically, if not physically. Never has that been more apparent than during this unprecedented season, which has tested everyone in ways they never envisioned.

"I hear a lot of fear from the other women," said Veronica Woodyard, wife of free-agent linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who noted that their family has been extremely careful with its behavior in case an opportunity were to arise for Wesley to join a team. "Football is family, so we're all family. We're all kind of in similar situations, so we're very supportive of each other and the decisions we make for our families. But it's taken a toll.

"I have four kids, and to have them at home constantly where you're now taking on a new role as a teacher -- that's a difficult role to take on. You're not equipped with it. It's almost like you're being forced into something. It takes a toll not just on the family dynamic but marriages, the stresses of having to do it all and making sure you're adequate enough to provide the learning that your children need so that they can progress to the next level. It's not easy."

The wives have enough self-awareness to understand how some of this might come off to the average fan. But money and fame, they say, don't solve all problems in a pandemic.

"People need to really understand that we have just as many issues as normal families. We're no different," said Woodyard. "The pandemic doesn't discriminate by your finances. We're all struggling and it's a tough thing to go through."

While it is true that players' families do have more resources at their disposal than the average fan, it is oftentimes more complicated than that.

The Players Association's online site lists some of the benefits available to players and their families, many that were collectively bargained by the NFL and NFLPA. It outlines how professional behavioral health coaches can work with families to look for signs of depression or substance abuse, better understand a behavioral diagnosis, identify and manage triggers that can affect a condition, and map out a personalized plan to set and achieve health goals, among other things. The spouses also have access to the team clinician for things such as marriage counseling, although some hesitate to utilize the service because of fear the confidential discussions could be found out by the club and used against the player.

"What me and my counterpart at the league want is, we want to make sure that when clubs are hiring clinicians, they are first and foremost loyal to their oaths as mental health professionals, and that they're not letting undue influence from being associated with the clubs impact their judgment or impact their clinical work in a way," Cargill said. "I think we're on our way to getting there, but to suggest that the team clinicians don't necessarily come across to both players and spouses as being balanced, I wouldn't be authentic if I said it any other way."

"There’s been a couple of nights where I wake up at 4 a.m. at the end of the bed because I was too tired to get into the bed." NIKKI JORDAN

In conversations with several NFL player wives for this story, the psychological strain could be heard in their voices. There were deep inhales and long exhales. Little things they might have taken for granted in the past, like having time to read a book for leisure, or going to the bathroom alone, have been replaced by the constant call of toddlers and infants as they have become fulltime teachers and babysitters. There no longer are nannies or sitters entering their homes because that potentially could expose them to someone carrying the virus, which could then be transferred to their spouses. That exact scenario infected nine members of Andrew Whitworth's family last summer, including the Los Angeles Rams left tackle himself.

So, players' wives have taken on roles that were once filled by others. But in helping their kids and husbands with what they require, the women's needs are oftentimes ignored.

For Nikki Jordan, a former professional basketball player, that has meant no more morning trips to the gym, where she regularly cleared her mind. Her three oldest children, ages 5 and younger, are being home-schooled, so her time is theirs, from the moment they awake at 6 or 6:30 until the time they are put down for the night. Just hearing a breakdown of her days leaves a listener exhausted. And that was before she gave birth to the couple's fourth child on Sunday, two hours after the Saints' 32-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The kids are up? Gotta brush my teeth and wash my face while they do the same. What's for breakfast? Gotta fix them something to eat. Clear the table and prepare the dining room for classroom work. What type of day are we going to have? Am I going to have to fight with my 2-year-old, who is a perfectionist and gets frustrated if she doesn't get her letters right? "Stay focused, baby girl. Stay focused." Am I going to have to be repetitive with my 5-year-old son? "Please listen, please listen, please listen."

The good days are exhausting. The bad days are overwhelming.

Lunch ... what's for lunch? Prepare lunches. Now it's story time. What story are we going to read? Story done. OK, nap time. Will they go down without a fight? Will they stay down?

She thinks she has won on this day, only to have one of them pop into the room and interrupt the phone call she had put on the schedule several days earlier. There is no relief because Cameron is at practice and won't get home until after 5:30 or 6.

"It feels so overwhelming because, at this point, I still haven't had a moment to myself, just a breather to myself," she said.

Time for the second half of school with Tank (the couple's only son and oldest child). "Focus, Tank, focus." Switch the subject matter to prevent him from being bored, annoyed or overwhelmed. Let's do language arts instead of math this afternoon. And also a science experiment. Keep him active and excited about school because his friends have been replaced by his mom. Try finding a moment for myself, but now school is out. Tank wants me to go outside with him and play basketball. What's for dinner? Gotta prepare dinner. Don't forget the dishes and straightening up the house. Now the kids need to be bathed and dressed. Teeth have to be brushed, affirmations recited in the mirror, prayers said beside the bed. Oh, spend quality time with Cameron. Take a shower, wash my face, brush my teeth.

"You can't understand it until you're actually going through it," she said. "There are some hard days where it's like, 'Whew, I just need a breather.' Cameron can look at me and see it, the energy is gone. Being pregnant, having three kids (now four) -- it's one thing to prepare your mind mentally beforehand, but once you're in it … whew, alright, just pray, moment by moment, day by day. Cam knows if I hit the edge of the bed, I'm out. He'll say, 'Honey, do you want me to help you move to the point where you're actually laying in the bed next to me, or are you ok?' There's been a couple of nights where I wake up at 4 a.m. at the end of the bed because I was too tired to get into the bed."

Chris and Leah Harris moved to Los Angeles with their four young children at the start of the pandemic after the veteran cornerback signed a free agent contract with the Chargers. (Courtesy of Leah Harris)
Chris and Leah Harris moved to Los Angeles with their four young children at the start of the pandemic after the veteran cornerback signed a free agent contract with the Chargers. (Courtesy of Leah Harris)

Leah Harris can relate. Her husband, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., spent nine seasons with the Denver Broncos before signing with the Los Angeles Chargers last March at the onset of the pandemic. Moving to a new city with four kids all under the age of 6 is never easy, but the uncertainty stemming from COVID-19 made this time even more anxious for the couple from the start.

Should they rent a place in California right away or wait to see if the league is going to close training facilities? And what about school? Should they enroll the kids or not?

"A lot of it was just standing on guard," Leah said.

"People need to really understand that we have just as many issues as normal families. We’re no different." LEAH HARRIS

Leah Harris' recipe for coping includes medicine, music and scripture. She suffered from postpartum depression following the birth of their first child five years ago and began taking medication to address it. She speaks openly about it in hopes that other women won't feel ashamed of getting help. She also copes by starting her day at least 30 minutes before everyone else wakes up in the house, just to get her mind right. She turns on Christian music and reconnects with her spiritual self.

"I make sure to find a moment with God, because my strength comes through Him," she said. "It prepares me for the day."

Like Nikki Jordan, Leah also is part of a weekly Bible study group. It was started last offseason by her husband and some of his friends from college; all of them are connected to football in some way, as an active or retired player or a coach. Later, the wives created their own group. They call it Wednesday Warrior Women because they cloak themselves in the armor of God. They can vent to each other, be vulnerable with each other and, most importantly, be supportive of each other.

"The common theme is to be encouraged, not discouraged, especially during COVID," Leah said. "For a lot of us in the group, it's just nice to talk to each other and be heard."

"We're overwhelmed, completely, at times," said Nikki Jordan. "And while we have moments where we can share that with our husbands, we're not going to put so much of a burden on them that it's just wearing them down to the point that they can't focus. That's why we have these Bible study groups. That's why you make friends where it's more like, 'Hey, can you just pray for me?' Or, 'Hey, you wouldn't believe it.' We're all going through the same things. We all understand what's going on. It's a safe zone among each other where we're allowed to vent and release the things that are weighing you down. We can get emotional with each other. It's funny how if I'm nervous to talk about something, and the next woman talks about it, you're just feeling everything she's talking about. Being able to have those groups among the NFL wives is crucial."

Adds Veronica Woodyard: "We're called to have relationships, we're called to communicate, and everyone who has testimony can help someone else. It's important when you're going through things to be able to communicate and talk it out. Harboring it is not good for your health."

Physical or mental.

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