The saying goes “Good things happen to good people”. So what happens to bad people? To be honest, I like to think I’ve always been a good person who just made bad decisions. Problem was, those bad decisions made me look like a bad person to everyone around me. How do you regain the trust of your family after you’ve crumbled the rock to the ground? For starters, you cut out the bad things in your life. For me, my life took a turn for the better when I cut out alcohol. Once I did that, things went fairly well for me. From there, I’ve decided to make family memories around the one thing that all 6 of us agree is pretty awesome; football. More importantly, the Philadelphia Eagles.
To some, football is just that, football. To my family, it’s about the 6 of us putting everything down, and spending that day together. My Sunday routine has changed however throughout the years. I used to wake up at 8:00 am or earlier and pound back beer after beer while waiting for the main event to start. Little did I know I was the main event. My bride and all my children feared how the day was going to play out. My bride has always cheered for the Eagles. However, she cheered for a different reason. If the Eagles won when I was drinking, things were “fine” and I went about my beer drinking with no “ill will”. If the Eagles lost, boy lookout because dad is drunk and pissed off. I would literally ruin the entire day for my entire family. For the longest time, my bride loathed Sundays. Guess I can’t blame her. Today, I’m 4+ years sober and football couldn’t play a bigger role in our lives.
In October of 2012, the Eagles were struggling while my sobriety was in a comfortable state. I traded in the Bud Lights for Coca Cola Classic. I traded in the punches in the wall, with framed family pictures. No longer was the house walking on egg shells as an interception was thrown. Touchdowns were no longer celebrated by stung little hands because dad got carried away with his high 5’s. Touchdowns are celebrated with hugs and smiles while interceptions are discussed and analyzed with “what ifs” and “let’s hope the defense can get a stop”. So where does a football team play in this story of a broken family brought back together?
My family was on the verge of being broken when I decided to quit drinking. My bride had both feet out the door and she was taking all 4 of our kids with her. My oldest didn’t trust me, let alone love me. He saw what I was doing and he didn’t want to be around it. The other kids were young yet so the brunt of it, landed on him. I started staying home and watching the Eagles with my oldest. He was immediately drawn to the game and the team. I believe his mom saw a moment of real truth in me as I interacted with my son. She hasn’t said to me, but I feel in my heart of hearts, those moments with my son watching football, saved not only my marriage but my life.
The moment I knew I was in good shape with my son and his love of football can be traced to an Eagles football game. The Eagles were playing the Packers at home. It was a one possession game and the Eagles were driving. Michael Vick drops back in the pocket, scans the field and rifles the ball down field. The playoffs were in the 1st round and the Eagles were the 3rd seed hosting the game. They had a special year full of big plays with big time play makers. My oldest begged me to take him to a game that year. He was fairly young at the time and didn’t understand the Eagles don’t get to South Dakota often. Later I would take him to his 1st NFL game in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field. As the pocket starts to collapse around our QB, he steps up in the pocket and sets his feet. That ball he rifled was picked off and the Eagles season was over.
While I was upset I understood the gravity of the situation. Here’s an opportunity for me to show my son the right way to handle a big loss. So as I’m boiling inside, my oldest is almost in tears. I pass along the stereotypical cliches such as “they can’t win every game” and “there’s always next year”. My 9 year old son looks at me with tears in his eyes and says “Dad, you don’t understand! I’ve waited my ENTIRE life for the Eagles to win a Super Bowl!” I was 9 months sober at that time and knew I had a best friend for life with that comment from my then 9 year old.
Flash forward to the fall of 2012. Sobriety has treated me well as I’ve repaired my relationship with my bride of 12 years. My youngest son is taking to football and my 2 daughters love the cheerleaders. My bride and I make food every Sunday and the 6 of us spend the day watching our team and more importantly, we are spending time together as a family. Memories are being made and they are healthy ones. Something is missing though. My oldest still truly hasn’t forgiven me for the demons in my closet. He saw too much and remembers it all. He knows I’m sober and things have changed yet he’s apprehensive. He’s guarded. He loves me but not sure he saw me as the man I am as opposed to the man I was. I tried and tried but to no avail.
The two common denominators that we shared outside of our family was our love of history and the Eagles. In October of 2012, I sent an email to Dave Spadaro, Eagles media guru. I had no idea that email I sent would lay the groundwork for family vacations, to Minneapolis, and to Indianapolis. I had no idea that my oldest and I would end up in the back of the end zone at Lincoln Financial Field watching bigger than life athletes warming up. Had I known that an email to Dave Spadaro would lead all 6 of us to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and put my family back together, I may have written it earlier.
So with a simple email, my life changed forever. I brought my son on a type of a trip that only happens once in a lifetime. What happens when a once in a lifetime trip happens multiple times? My email was relatively simple. Regardless of a win, loss record, couple of guys in South Dakota are watching and rooting every week. A family settles around hot plates of food and flys green at noon every Sunday. From there, Dave sends the email to Don Smolenski, president of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mr. Smolenski takes it upon himself to take an interest in this Eagle family from South Dakota. He sent my oldest son a LeSean McCoy jersey and a personalized letter to myself. My son wore that jersey with a sense of pride. When he wore that jersey, I couldn’t help but smile. At the time, I didn’t realize our relationship was being repaired. I didn’t know that we would end up in Indianapolis at Monday Night Football. Mr. Smolenski and I traded emails for a while. My bride and I have four children. A trip to McDonalds generally cost us $40.00 or more. Several hundred dollars are spent each month on food alone. Kids are expensive. We don’t have a lot of $ left over after the necessities are paid. I knew I had to get my son to Philly and meet this man who would ultimately change my families lives forever. That being said, a trip to Philly would be incredibly difficult for us financially. My bride and I spent many nights at the kitchen table discussing how this could work. She later told me she knew we were going the second I brought it up.
With little convincing my beautiful bride gives me the green light to take my oldest to Philadelphia. With an email to my favorite president, he tells me he’s got the tickets taken care of for us. The only thing left to do is wait. As the months turn into weeks and the weeks turn into days, I know that this trip is so much more than football. It’s an opportunity for me to spend one on one time with my son and mend that hurt. As we are boarding the plane, I told him I’m sorry. I hugged my son and told him this trip was all about him and what he wanted. He looked at me and said “Dad, I know what this trip is for, and I’ve forgiven you.”
So our Philadelphia experience was a smashing hit. We ran on the field. We met former players. I watched as my son caught balls off the net behind the goal post. I got goosebumps as NFL Hall of Famer, Chuck Bednarick put my son in a head lock. We smiled as we shook the hand of Eagles GM Howie Roseman. Our jaws dropped as we marveled over the size of Jeremiah Trotter as he towered over us for a picture. Our hearts excallerated as Mr. Smolenski slowly started walking towards us. We were nervous as he approached us with a smile and a reached out hand. I tried to be calm and professional as the moment grew closer. We thanked him, took a picture, and visited for a short moment. After having similar encounters in Minneapolis, and Indianapolis, I still don’t feel I’ve thanked him enough. His generosity and selflessness helped save my relationship with my son. He doesn’t know my troubled history and still to this day, doesn’t know the impact that he’s had on me and my family.
A father and son sit surrounded by 68,000 people yet feel all alone on an island as the seconds tick to zero after an Eagles loss. That moment will forever be frozen in my memory. We sat there and relished what just happened. For my son it was most likely the pictures, the handshakes, and the game. For me? While all those previously mentioned memories are all great, that was the moment I got my son back. That moment I realized that everything was going to be ok. I knew I had the missing piece of my heart back. All from an email to two men that didn’t even know we existed.
Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Market Street, Phillies Baseball, Rocky Steps and Statue, along with the Franklin Bridge were all visited the day after. While all those moments were special and never be forgotten, they all play 2nd fiddle to Don Smolenski. Upon our arrival home, stories flooded our home like a broken dam. My bride is in absolute awe at the transformation the relationship went through in 5 days. My other children would later share their jealousy as they wanted to experience something similar.
When we boarded the flight to leave Philly, I never thought I’d see Mr. Smolenski again. I just assumed that he’d write us off and I’d never get to fully show him my gratitude. Well, a few months later we wound up shaking hands again with him at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. I was able to bring my four kids and my bride for a weekend to watch our favorite team play football. While meeting Coach Chip Kelly and walking on the field of the Dome was unforgettable, introducing my family to Mr. Smolenski for the 1st time was the memory that lingers for me.
Before we left for Minneapolis, my daughter asked if they were going to meet the man behind the emails. I told her that was the plan. So the 4 hour drive was made in mid December. We shivered as we walked the few blocks to the Dome in the ice cold Minnesota winter. Our hearts were about to be warmed by my little girl. As my oldest daughter reached her little hand out to give Mr. Smolenski a homemade bracelet she made. To all our surprise, he was very receptive of it and genuinely appreciated the work she put into it. He immediately put it around his wrist and my daughter oozed with pride. She glowed as we headed to our seats. Mr. Smolenski was polite and took time out of his hectic, busy schedule to spend a few minutes with us. Those few minutes were very important to all of us.
So that’s that. The Minneapolis trip would be it. We had our fun and made some incredible memories. On September 15th 2013 my son and I sat at the Linc and exactly one year later, we wound up shaking hands with our friend from Philly. I thought MN would be it. It wasn’t. After sharing a few emails, and a few conversations with my bride, and some dumb luck, we decided to head off to Indy. What was supposed to be a trip to Indy, turned into a family vacation that included 2,500+ miles, 6 states, and we came home with an additional child. My bride has a 13 year old sister who lives 6 hours south of us. We picked her up on our way home and have the absolute privilege of her staying with us for a while. All made possible by nice people doing nice things.
Before the Monday Night Football game was a trip to a small town in Indiana for a visit with my aunt and cousin that I hadn’t seen in 20+ years. I never thought an email in 2012 would lead me to my cousins house. An email would take me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As we approached the steps leading into greatness, I knew we wouldn’t get here again. Little things like watching my daughter fit her entire body into a mold of Jerome Bettis’s thigh or taking pictures of my oldest daughter wearing shoulder pads as she makes her “tough guy” face. Walking hand in hand with my bride surrounded by greatness are all things that are thrusted in our memories forever. All made possible because there are good people out there.
The NFL is under scrutiny because of some awful things that have happened in the league. I gotta believe that for every one horrible event that gets national attention, that there are hundreds of stories like mine. I love the NFL. I’ve seen the good people in this league first hand. People like Mr. Smolenski who understand that game is bigger than just Sunday. People like Dave Spadaro that take an extra second to do something nice for someone. These stories are largely passed by national media for this reason or that.
My 13 year old son stands on the sideline at Lucas Oil and watches as players warm up. Brent Celek, his favorite player, waves at my son and my son will never forget that. Celek made an impact and he doesn’t even know it. Jeremy Maclin is receiving passes just an hour or so before the game. He’s getting both physically and mentally prepared. As his head bobs up and and down and his knees flow with the rhythm of the music, he takes a second a throws a pass to my oldest. My son throws it back and smiles drench my families faces. Zach Ertz runs by and gives all four of my children high fives as he sprints down the sidelines. These are good people doing good things. None of this is possible if a couple of guys didn’t do what they did.
So while you turn on your tv tonight and you listen to suspension talks and possible jail time, please know that there are good people out there. I’m blessed enough to have met just a small percentage of them. My oldest doesn’t want to be a football player or baseball player when he grows up. He wants to be in the business side of the NFL so he can pay forward the blessings that my family has received. Kids are impressionable and when surrounded by good people, good things will happen.
A memorable Monday Night Football game was concluded with a last second field goal by an undrafted rookie kicker. The game was awesome and finally we were in attendance for a win. That kick essentially ended our trip and our time with the Eagles. While pictures and memories will always be remembered, the impact of getting my family together will continue for years. On the way home I asked all my children and my bride “What was your favorite part of the trip?” The answers are exactly what you would expect. Things like catching the pass from Maclin, and Ertz giving high fives. My favorite memory? Spending 2,500 miles in a car with the 5 most important people in my life. All made possible by one man.
As I search for a close to this amazing experience, I’m reminded of our first few steps in Lucas Oil Stadium. Right as we walk in, we see Mr. Smolenski about 50 feet from us. My oldest chases him down and we visit for a little bit. My oldest daughter, who is 9 and the cutest thing you’ve ever seen in your life, extends her hand to give Mr. Smolenski a brand new bracelet. This wasn’t just any bracelet though. This was a homemade star burst bracelet with green and black bands. She spent plenty of time on it as she wanted to perfect it for him. As Mr. Smolenski smiles and receives his gift he says to my daughter “It’s a good thing you brought this, because mine is broken” He then reaches into is suit coat and pulls out the bracelet she gave him in Minneapolis 9 months earlier. He had the bracelet the entire time. My entire family was overly impressed.
Through an email, unbelievably nice people, and some hard work, I got my family back. It’s ok that this story likely won’t reach national attention because the magnitude of it will forever live with us. In a different piece I wrote “Any given Sunday, a not so good team can beat a good team. On that given Sunday, a father and son became best friends for life.” Well, I like to think that any given day your life can change and you can be impacted by people and things that you never thought possible. My story is a tale of redemption, perseverance, and the love only family can truly understand. Together with football, a family was brought back together and made whole again.