“I don’t want to say I’m like a single mom. But I’m kind of like on my own. Then all of a sudden, he comes back and it’s hard to all of a sudden transfer the control.” Katrina Greer, wife of Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, on running the family while her husband is away
Jabari Greer stood behind an invisible line, ignoring the perspiration creeping down the side of his face.
“Y’all ready to race?” he yelled to his two pint-sized competitors. “I know y’all ready to race. ... Go!”
One of the runners took an early lead, which made Jabari smile. His wife laughed.
“You’re too fast, man!”
Known by most as a cornerback for the Saints, it’s Greer’s job as a husband and father of two that defines his existence. On this off day, he has traded in his football jersey and cleats for a burgundy T-shirt, khaki shorts and brown flip-flops, which allow him to chase sons Jeshian, 4, and Elias, 2.
While some professionals wait until after their careers to get married and start a family, he was ready to share himself.
“Ultimately, my family provides me with fulfillment that the league could never provide me with,” he said.
He would participate in family outings like this more often, but he can’t. Not now.
The rigors of the NFL force him to compete every practice to keep his starting job, prepare for opposing offenses with a detail-driven work ethic and sleep in hotels every Saturday during the season — the long hours away placing the parental workload on his wife, Katrina, be it taking the boys to school or weekend play dates.
Jabari is forced to share many experiences through picture texts and framed photos he discovers when he walks around the house: the trip to New York to see “Day Out with Thomas,” a fun time at Audubon Zoo, assemblies, even graduation at the boys’ school.
When he sees these pictures, he realizes they have a separate life that he’s not a part of. He and Katrina try to tell the boys what’s going on, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“Because they don’t get it,” Katrina said. “ ‘Why isn’t Daddy sleeping at home?’ Then one day, the boys wake up and he’s in bed. It’s like, ‘Hey, Daddy.’ ”
Problem is, Jabari has a limited amount of time to use his speed, instincts and fearlessness as an NFL cornerback to earn the millions that, if managed correctly, will secure his family’s financial future for generations.
“For people that are prone to not want to leave any stones unturned, it’s tough to know when to put boundaries,” said Steve Stenstrom, a former NFL quarterback who is president of Pro Athletes Outreach, a Christian-based ministry.
Meanwhile, Jabari’s boys are learning new words every day, experiencing potty training.
His is one of many family situations in the Saints locker room:
Benjamin Watson is a 10-year veteran who waited until marriage to have sex, the antithesis of the stereotypical view of today’s professional athletes.
Malcolm Jenkins is a newlywed and expectant father who is preparing to change diapers for the first time.
Chris Carr is an NFL journeyman playing in his fifth city; he came to town unsure if he’d be here long enough to relocate his family from Minnesota.
Kenny Vaccaro is a rookie who is searching for balance between earning first-time millions and being a long-distance father to his 2-year-old.
Three sons of former NFL players are on the roster, including Mark Ingram, whose father is in prison.
Luke and Katy McCown had their sixth child the day before he was in uniform for the Saints’ win at Tampa Bay.
Will Smith’s ACL knee tear ended his season early, an injury his wife considers a blessing for the family.
And then there’s Greer, now in his 10th NFL season. He and Katrina work at their marriage, which is why it works. They spend much of the offseason attempting to strengthen it. To keep spice in their marriage, they have a weekly date night. Cell phones are permitted — for now, Katrina said.
When Jabari returns from training camp and weekend stays away, he tries to integrate himself back into his family’s schedule without upsetting the dynamic of the household or being overbearing and controlling. After all, in a few days, he’ll be on the road again.
He’s head of his household, the breadwinner and, at times, a visitor of sorts.
“I don’t want to say I’m like a single mom,” Katrina said. “But I’m kind of like on my own. Then all of a sudden, he comes back and it’s hard to all of a sudden transfer the control.”
For the right reasons
Don’t mistake the Greers as future cast members on “Real Housewives.”
No, the drama at their residence revolves around selecting the DVD for Movie Mondays or the menu for Taco Tuesdays, Pizza Thursdays and on Sundays, the flavor of ice cream after church.
Ironically, many athletes say marriage for the right reason — and with the right person — could have helped many of their former NFL peers who, according to recent studies, suffer from bankruptcy not long after retirement. Others become culprits of the nation’s growing epidemic of fatherless households.
“Basically, I think I balance him,” said Rachel Smith, wife of Will, the Saints outside linebacker. They have three children and have been married five years. “Most of the guys are out all the time and doing these different things. And financially, they’re not thinking about what they’re doing. But having a family and a wife, it makes you think about your future, your kids’ future, your family in general.”
Professional athletes are different from other working adults who leave their families for days at a time because they have the financial means to make costly mistakes, and their fame makes it easier to seek inappropriate relationships. Sometimes, they are the targets.
Carr, a cornerback, embraces the concept of having to check with his wife, the mother of his two children, before making large purchases.
“It kind of holds you in check when it comes to spending, which along with my financial adviser, has been really good for me,” said Carr, who has been married for six years.
If it’s this simple, why don’t more NFL players jump the broom?
Because it’s not.
No marriage, no matter how good, is perfect, Watson said. He’s a 10th-year tight end who has also played in New England and Cleveland, long enough to realize marriage forced him to grow as a man, to mature — which is what’s scary about it.
“When you get married and you’re living with this woman, she’s going to know your junk,” said Watson, who married Kirsten, a Baton Rouge native, at age 24.
Not everyone agrees marriage is vital.
“I was single my entire career, and I think I had a pretty darn good one,” said former Saints safety Darren Sharper, now an analyst with NFL.com.
Weekdays during the season, Greer often leaves home before 6 a.m. He spends the day at Saints headquarters in meetings, practice, film study, more meetings and physical therapy designed to keep his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame healthy.
He’s home by 6 p.m., just in time to help Jeshian and Elias take baths or read them a bedtime story. Once the boys are asleep, Jabari and Katrina have dinner and decompress. He then watches film for 30 to 60 minutes. He’s in bed by 10:30.
Friday is a lighter day, allowing for a trip to the French Quarter or a search for a new eatery in town. An afternoon on the couch is also a favorite option.
Like Greer, quarterback Drew Brees finds family time during the season whenever possible. Last Halloween, he tweeted a picture of himself dressed up as Daddy Iron Man and his wife, Brittany, as a princess. Their son Baylen opted for pajamas.
“That stuff creates balance in my life and all of our lives,” Brees said. “You have to be able to get away from the job mentally and clear your head, and there’s no better way than to spend time with the family.”
On Saturdays, Greer’s family and friends are in town for home games, and Katrina plays host while Jabari starts his mental preparation for game day. Later that day, he’ll check into the team hotel. If it’s a road game, he’ll fly out of town with the Saints.
Smith is rehabbing his knee in Pensacola, Fla., while his kids attend school in the New Orleans area, allowing for time to help them with homework. He’s also taken them to catechism and cheerleader practice. He even participated twice in Donuts for Dads, an activity for students to spend time with their parents at school.
“I know his passion is football, so I know deep inside no matter what he says it’s hurting him, just a little bit because he’s been a part of the team for so long,” Rachel Smith said. Then she offered a perspective only a wife could: “I know it sounds funny, but I’m loving him at home.”
Jabari wonders whether his boys are adjusting too well to his absence.
“When they were younger, we had to distract them to stop them from crying,” he said. “Now (Jeshian) is like, ‘Bye, Daddy!’ ”
The great unknown
Greer is in the first season of a three-year deal that reportedly could exceed $23 million. Carr entered the 2013 season as a free agent, unaware of where he — let alone his family — would spend this fall and winter.
Carr was cut by the Saints late in training camp, putting him out of football until a season-ending injury to reserve cornerback Patrick Robinson in late September created a roster spot. The job could last the entire season. Or maybe days.
That made it hard for Carr to decide whether he should relocate his wife and two young kids from their home in Minnesota, where they had a month-to-month lease at a former NFL player’s residence. Before they decided to move to the area, Carr had to watch his son, who turns 2 later this month, speak his first sentence while he was on a webcam, more than a thousand miles away. Carr also has a 5-week-old daughter.
“It’s very difficult, especially when they’re younger and they change so much at this stage,” he said. “So when you see them again, or you see them on Skype or in photos, you notice they’re different. It’s hard. It’s very tough. Because once you have kids, you want to be there every day to see them. Even if you don’t have much time at the end of the day, you want to be there.”
A team effort
It takes a strong wife.
One who does her best to provide the stability that your children need. One who is willing to sacrifice her career, sometimes her selfish needs, for your athletic dream. One who shares in your burden after losses.
A wife who knows, from July to December, you belong to coach Sean Payton. Like it or not, you do. At other times, the public — from the media to Who Dat Nation — wants access to you, every reporter’s question or fan interaction representing time away from your family.
“You just have to kind of let go,” Katrina said.
Watson had to learn to manage the rage inside his chest when he transformed from an NFL tight end to a husband and father of four young children, all under the age of 4.
He wasn’t always like this.
“I was a jerk at home,” he said. “I was depressed, moping around. I was snapping at my wife because I didn’t catch the ball at practice or a game or something didn’t go well.”
Then he talked to Patriots teammate Tedy Bruschi, who told him to sit in his garage for 20 minutes and decompress if he had to — to make sure, when he walked into the house, he left football outside of his family life.
“That’s something I’ve really worked on,” he said before admitting, “That old stuff still creeps back.”
In 2010, Will Smith was arrested outside a Lafayette nightclub for a domestic incident with his wife, an incident they appear to have overcome. Earlier this week, they cohosted a charity event in New Orleans.
“(Like) football, you have your ups and down,” Rachel Smith said. “No marriage is perfect. You go through things. But that’s a part of marriage — getting through it and becoming stronger.”
Sometimes, the off-the-field issues can’t be controlled. Last Sunday, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 62 yards, just two days after his 2-year-old son died at a Sioux Falls, S.D., hospital, allegedly the victim of abuse by a man dating the mother of his child.
“Our pro athletes are no different than anybody else,” Stenstrom said. “They will bring however much baggage there is present in their personal lives into their work lives, and they’ll have to try to figure out how to deal with the balance themselves.”
Greer had to learn how to better respect his wife when they went out. He loves to share his time with others, enjoys hearing their stories. Sometimes, he would become so entrenched that he would forget the purpose of the outing, which was to spend time with Katrina. Other times, overly flirtatious female fans would ask him to sign their shirts, which offended Katrina.
“I didn’t know,” Jabari said. “And at the end of the night, I’ve neglected my wife.”
‘My real job’
The same way Jabari shares tips on breaking on passes and jamming receivers at the line, he also talks about his marriage with young players like Kenny Vaccaro. He has learned that, sometimes, he must push everything away and call his 2-year-old, let him hear his voice.
“One thing he said to me when he gave me a ride,” Vaccaro said, “ ‘When I get home every day, I start my real job.’ And that really hit me deep.”
Jabari is ready to raise his family, hands-on. Change some things in the household that may not be wrong; they’re just not the way he would do it if he was around more often. He’s ready to attend school graduations, swimming practice. Volunteer at the boys’ school.
Katrina joked that, when Jabari retires, she’ll go to work, and he can be a stay-at-home dad.
Whatever makes her happy.