By Jean Masthay
Chicago, January 23, 2011
The snow and wind shaking off Lake Michigan envelopes me with strange warmth. Soldier Field’s stately columns glisten in the glow of the lights. Forgetting my stiff joints and numb toes I turn to hug my daughter-in-law, Amanda. We both have tears in our eyes, but I don’t dare break into a full cry.
I wonder what Amanda is thinking. Her husband, my son, Tim, the Green Bay Packers’ punter, just finished playing fist-pumpingly, towel-wavingly well helping his team beat their arch rivals, the Chicago Bears, 21 to 14 in the NFC Championship game. Is she satisfied that his many months of intense training have paid off? Proud of the risks he took to pursue his goals? Maybe she’s simply happy. I don’t ask, but tighten my hug through our layers of clothing and simply say, “Our Tim did his job well.”
“Wow, Mom! Tim’s going to the Super Bowl!” Tim’s little brother, Tad, my six-foot-three teenager, puts his arms around me. He seems so proud, but what else is going through his mind right now? Is he jealous? Or just excited and grateful to be part of our family’s wild ride through the NFL? As with Amanda, I don’t ask, just lean my head against his chest, gently edging in. The rest of our large family isn’t here to celebrate with us. Tim could get only three tickets for today’s sold-out game, and it was Tad’s and my turn. The others are at home watching this on TV: my husband, Mark, and our younger kids, Tyler and Tara, in Ohio; Ted at his college campus apartment at the University of Dayton; our eldest, Tom, with his own family in Kentucky. I can picture them clapping, shouting and smiling, just as we are. I miss them.
Tim is 23, a rookie, and now a champion. He’s been climbing uphill since the day he first ran out onto an NFL field less than a year ago, and today he’s only one step away from helping to plant a flag on the summit. Closing my eyes for just a second I murmur, “Thank you, Lord. You made him strong, so determined.”
Cheering Packers fans are all around, hugging and high-fiving, while down on the field, little green and gold men are having a celebration of their own. I scan the field, trying to spot Number 8. I hope he takes his helmet off, because his bright red hair is still a beacon in any crowd. But the players are now heading for the locker room. I wish I could see my son hug his teammates. See the sparkle in his eyes, the stay-cool-even-though-I’m-crazy-excited grin spread across his face when he touches the George Halas trophy and listens to his coach’s pep talk about preparing for the Super Bowl. But instead I’m one of thousands, standing in the cold, smelling the spilled beer, trudging down countless steps, crowding into jammed concourses, shuffling across ramps, until I finally reach an exit.
Today, Tim punted eight times for a total of 334 yards, sweetly dropping five inside the Bears’ 20. The ball that he booted 58 yards with three minutes left in the game pushed the Bears back to their own 18-yard line, leaving the Packers’ seven-point lead unthreatened. Chicago’s Devin Hester, the NFL’s most accomplished punt returner with an average of 17.1 yards, was limited to 5.3 yards per punt return today. Overhearing strangers’ comments—”Beautiful kick!” “Good thing we had Masthay in there.” “We owe this one to the punter”—I can’t help breaking into a smug smile. I am more accustomed, when I tell people about Tim, to hearing “Hmm, the punter? Well, at least he won’t get hurt;” “We don’t like to see him play” (referring to the disappointment of a fourth down situation); or my favorite, “Oh, the kicker!” (No, the punter!) On occasion, someone wordlessly furrows his brow, in which case I assume he has no idea what a punter does, and therefore doesn’t think much of it. Today, in Chicago before 70,000 fans here in the stadium and millions more watching on television, Tim confirmed how important the punter is to the outcome of an NFL game, and I am as proud as ever to be the punter’s mom.
But it’s been almost an hour since the referee blew the final whistle, and the urge to reach my son is nearly crushing now. Leading Tad and Amanda, I try to pick up the pace to exit this massive stadium so that we can reach the gathering spot for players’ families. I recognize a family of four who seem to know their way around, so I move closer to trail them. Suddenly, the crowd slows. All eyes turn to the nearby stands where TV lights, cameras, and reporters are clustered. I join in the straining to search for any familiar faces in the spotlight. No Packer redhead here. We press on until we finally reach our destination, a cold, dark parking lot. Security personnel check our credentials and direct us through a narrow turnstile into a fenced-in area crammed with other eager, waiting families.
My eyes are fixed on the tunnel beyond the fence and across the parking lot that leads to the players’ locker room. Guards protect the closed gates to prevent anyone unauthorized from mingling with the players. I know the drill: Tim will verify us as his family and only then will the guards open the gates for us. Smashed together with other players’ loved ones, I wonder how much it matters to the adult men celebrating, showering, and dressing in that concealed locker room that their families are here waiting to share in their victory. Something deep inside of me is reaching up through my chest and squeezing my throat. How odd. This is a celebration. I couldn’t be prouder of my son, but I can’t loosen the grip on my throat. I have eagerly and gratefully shared every previous chapter of his athletic success, but what is my role now that Tim has a wife and a professional career? Right now he’s with his teammates and coaches. The comrades he trusts. The ones he trains with, jokes, bickers, plays, and eats with. Anxious young wives and girlfriends, tired puffed-up parents, a few little ones sitting on shoulders, and Tad and Amanda surround me.
It wasn’t so long ago that Tim ran to me, wearing his purple uniform and holding out a gold medal, so proud to be a member of the Johnston Hornets soccer team, champions of the eight-year-old division at the Iowa Summer Games. I tried not to laugh when he was in eighth grade and I caught him primping in front of the mirror before his baseball games; already playing left field on the high school junior varsity team, he explained with great gravity, “Looking good is part of my image.” When he was in high school and the starting center midfielder for the Murray Tigers soccer team, I cringed the night he showed me the hexagons imprinted on his side by the shot he had dived so dramatically to block. I drove him to and from so many practices, cheered for him and shared his setbacks in so many games. Starting his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, he insisted on driving alone to football training camp, so I waved good-bye from our driveway, and through my tears, watched him head off. Even though college stadiums were bigger, seasons longer, and the distance greater from home, I was in the stands.
Now, waiting outside this Soldier Field locker room, trying to keep my frozen fingers and toes moving, I’m reminded of a winter evening 12 years ago when we lived in Murray, Kentucky, and we were waiting for 11-year-old Tim to emerge after a middle-school basketball game. He was always the last player out. His brothers and sister found this habit annoying, while his dad and I just considered it part of his swagger. Our champ eventually appeared, the family sighed with either exasperation or delight, and we went home together to eat, watch TV and do homework. Tonight in Chicago, waiting for Tim the professional football player to exit a locker room, I understand that something fundamental has changed. This is his job. He has postgame responsibilities that have nothing to do with us—team prayer, coach’s speech, the cold tub, interviews. Still, I feel restless. Players are beginning to wander out now and their families are flooding from the holding area to join them.
At last, I catch Tim’s tall, lean figure coming down the tunnel. He’s pulled a dark-colored toboggan hat over his head but the fluff of his red bushy sideburns still pokes out. He taps the shoulder of the nearest security guard and points at us. The guard opens the gate and I bolt toward Tim. Part of me really wants his wife to reach him first, but I can’t resist racing all-out to his side. I need to connect with him so badly that it surprises me. On tiptoes I stretch to reach for his face and plant a kiss on his cheek. “How does it feel, son?” Understated as usual, he replies, “Good, it’s good.” Amanda takes her turn with a long embrace and they communicate wordlessly, just with their eyes. I smile, watching them. Tad, shivering, lifts his hand to meet Tim’s in a high five.
While we spend a few minutes rehashing the game, my mind settles on Tim’s face. But for a moment, I don’t see him. Instead, I see Timmy, my orange-haired, freckled-faced, pudgy-cheeked, impish kid. The moment can’t last, though. There are too many lights, too many people. This isn’t the old days. The next game isn’t the divisional championship or the state play-off. It’s Super Bowl XLV, the culmination of all Tim has worked for—and the culmination of what he and I have been through together as mother and son.
Author’s Note: Two weeks after winning the NFC championship Tim and his teammates went on to win the Super Bowl. I was there shuffling through crowds, clapping, shouting, hugging and crying again. The Green Bay Packers haven’t made it back to the Super Bowl, but Tim’s multi-million dollar contract extension through 2016 and record-breaking performances keep me proud, and also alert. Armed with the lessons I learned during his rookie year, I continue to work, with grace and with humor, on my ever-evolving relationship with my son the punter.
Jean Masthay is the executive director of a nonprofit in Cincinnati. She lives in Lebanon, Ohio, with her husband and their teenage daughter. She’s working on a memoir about becoming an NFL mom.
Art by Michael Lombardo