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BIGGEST HEROES OF THE NFL SEASON: KELLY STAFFORD AND GISELE BUNDCHEN
As close games feed bigger TV ratings and record gambling revenues, a football wife (and an ex-wife) have been sharply outspoken about brain trauma and the superstar quarterbacks in their lives
Even as background noise, even as a mood muffler for dinner-table political quarrels, pro football is especially integral to American life on Thanksgiving Day. What it says about us as human beings, I’m not sure we want to know. Regardless, it seems the perfect occasion to salute the two most important people of the 2022 season.
Sit down, Jerry Jones. Both are women.
First Gisele Bundchen divorced Tom Brady, sending the G.O.A.T. out to pasture in part because he didn’t share her concerns about his long-term brain health. Then Kelly Stafford used her weekly podcast as a harangue about cognitive impairment, this while her husband, Matthew, becomes the NFL’s latest guinea pig for concussion protocols.
“I truly love watching my husband compete and do something he loves. It's what gives him joy, therefore it gives me joy. But would I give it up in a heartbeat? One thousand percent,” Stafford said. “I’d give up the football, the money, the fame, everything. I don't need that. I just need the man I fell in love with to be the same man for my kids and the life that we are going to live.
“I fell in love with Matthew because he was funny, witty, cute and a little chubby and kind and patient and just f—king smart. It's scary to think that Matthew may not be around.”
They should be showered with gratitude. As billions flow through the most prosperous, profitable and popular entertainment machine in this country’s history, the league continues to short-shrift its most critical existential issue. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy isn’t nearly as fun for Roger Goodell and the owners as hailing another year of monster broadcast ratings. Or smiling about a dizzying flurry of close games — so far, a record 125 within one score in the fourth quarter, 71 decided by a touchdown or less, 35 featuring comebacks from a deficit of 10 points or more — that only feeds the legal gambling craze/epidemic. Sometimes, the NFL feels bigger than America itself. And if parity often leads to parody, low scoring and a shoddy quality of play, the moguls in charge have little incentive to address an ongoing crisis: the quality of life of the men wearing pads and helmets.
It’s time to listen to their loved ones. With apologies to Patrick Mahomes, the Eagles, the Bills Mafia, Christian McCaffrey, the studio-to-sideline story of Jeff Saturday and, yes, Jerry, the long-belated arrival of the Cowboys, no story is bigger than the cries for help.
“Obviously, I have my concerns — this is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present,” Bundchen told Elle magazine earlier this year, as the divorce attorneys were contacted. “I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again.”
“The head is not something to be messed with,” Kelly Stafford said. “And I hope as this sport develops, so does the concern for head health and the research around it. … And no, I am not OK. I have every emotion running through me. Concerned, angry, sad, tired — all of them.”
To some degree, she was upset that her husband stubbornly insisted on playing through the peril. She also was irked about the coach who brought Matthew to Los Angeles, after a dozen years of Detroit hell, and led him to the Super Bowl trophy ceremony in February at SoFi Stadium. Sean McVay said he didn’t know Stafford was suffering concussion symptoms during the Rams’ Nov. 6 loss to Brady and Tampa Bay, not realizing it until the team’s medical staff examined him and placed him into protocol three days later. When a doctor suspects something is wrong, how does a coach not know? The age-old, meat-on-the-hoof football answer: The coach wants to win the game first, then worry later about the star quarterback’s possible brain trauma. We saw it in September, when Tua Tagovailoa was slammed around like a rag-doll in back-to-back games, but Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins’ first-year coach, was slow to realize what the rest of us clearly knew: Knocked unconscious with head and neck injuries, Tagovailoa had a concussion and needed time away.
Finally, mercifully, McVay and his 34-year-old quarterback have reached the same conclusion. Stafford missed a Nov. 13 loss to Arizona and returned last weekend in New Orleans, but another head-smack sack in a season of uncommon bodily abuse put him back in the tent for another evaluation. He returned to concussion protocol Wednesday and won’t play Sunday in Kansas City. In a lost encore year for the 3-7 defending champions, there is no reason to prolong his agony and risk. He knows it’s time to rest his head, wait until next season and recapture the glimmer of his wink in the AT&T commercial. His wife, naturally, had more thoughts on her podcast.
“I’m sitting here to tell you what this feeling is and how it could get better if the NFL put some time and money into it,” Kelly said. “Everyone can just sit down and say, ‘This is a big deal. It's happening. We need to figure out how to keep these guys safe.’ ’’
She wishes he would retire to a family life with their four daughters. And Kelly speaks as more than a worried wife and mother. Three years ago, she underwent a 12-hour surgery to remove a benign brain tumor and had to re-learn how to walk. “I remember sitting down with (the doctors) in the waiting room and just losing it, just thinking about our girls and everything I’ve known,” she said after the procedure. In an ESPN story, she wrote, “If there's anything I want people to take away from my story, it's for mothers. If you ever feel the slightest bit off, you need to take the time to get it checked out. You don't have to put everything on your back. Sometimes, you need to take some time to make sure you are OK.”
Her husband’s retirement isn’t happening, yet — not with three seasons remaining on an extension that guarantees him $120 million. “I think this was probably a stack-up of hits. I think his head finally said, ‘I just need a break’ and made him aware of it,” Kelly said. “I think it's a really hard thing to admit to yourself — when you have this beautiful mind that is witty and my favorite thing about him — that something is going on and it's not just a bad day. I'll give him a lot of credit. He came to me and immediately spilled what he was feeling.
“I know he's not ready to give it up. He has to be the one to make that decision, and I know he's not ready and I know there will be a time when he is. Matthew is not going to be the Tom Brady of the world. But I know right now is not the end, and that's a hard thing to wrap my head around.”
Said McVay, who didn’t rule out shutting down Stafford for the final six games: “I think you want to be really careful. It’s going to be about the person first and foremost. You can’t be too careful with this stuff. I’m not going to be reckless, and we’re going to be really smart with Matthew. … He’s so tough. He’s such a great competitor and that’s probably one of those deals where if he’s cleared, you definitely want to make sure that I’m making a smart decision for him and our team, not exclusive to this year.”
Oblivious to dementia risks, Brady marches on without his ex-wife, still overwhelmed by a competitive inferno that prioritizes a would-be eighth championship over common sense. He has nothing left to accomplish that would elevate his standing as the Greatest Quarterback Ever. Yet, going on 46, he’s eyeing another playoff appearance with the Buccaneers and giving no indication that retirement is forthcoming. He thinks his personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, is a god. In truth, he’s an alternative medicine practitioner whose work with Brady eventually will give way to Father Time. Between hits to his body and the pain in his heart, his stress levels are not healthy, as he acknowledged on a recent podcast.
“I think there’s a part of us that are held to a certain standard that we’re almost inhuman. You hear this a lot from people that say: ‘I’m only human.’ We are only human. We’re not inhuman. We’re not immune to a lot of the things that life brings us,” Brady said. “It’s life. And you learn to grow up and you learn to deal with life. And that’s what we’re all trying to do.
“Everyone has different situations in their life, you know, children. You worry about their mental health, worry about your parents, obviously yourself. I think I’ve had to learn a lot of things over a long period of time in sports. I think there’s an intense amount of stress we all deal with, and how do you relieve stress so you’re not inflicting so much damage on yourself through stress response? You wake up every day trying to do the best you can do, understanding that life has its stresses and to deal with them with a great support system and understanding and having some introspectiveness where you can look at yourself and say, where do I need to commit my time and energy? How can I lessen some of the stress and lessen the burden?”
The season also has included a growing crusade against artificial turf, which leads to higher injury rates and more serious harm than that of grass fields. In a league that will cash $113 billion worth of media checks over the next decade, there’s no reason to have slit-film turf in Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New Orleans and New York. The league is non-committal, of course, preferring to focus on Germany, Spain and France. Goodell and the owners care more about global revenue growth than the well-being of their employees.
“I do think it’s time to go all grass throughout the league,” said Aaron Rodgers, finally making sense after his anti-vaccine rants and general diva behavior. “A lot of money in this league. It’s about cost. I don’t know how much that would cost, but the league’s been doing pretty well.”
Does he think the NFL will spend? “No, honestly,” Rodgers said. “I don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to the league making that decision without some sort of big vote and gripes from certain owners who don’t want to spend the money. This would be putting your money where your mouth is if player safety is important.”
Coaches agree. “I prefer natural grass,” Kansas City’s Andy Reid said. “I’ve listened to all the studies, density studies, I’ve seen all the different compounds they’ve put in there. I still like grass.”
Players agree. “You kind of feel the difference when you’re running,” Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook said. “If we can fix it, let’s fix it. Let’s get the safest atmosphere for us to go play in.”
Said Carolina tight end Tommy Tremble: “Guys get terrible injuries from that stuff. I get the usability of it, but this is a billion-dollar business, and I think where we should put the money into should be for the players because if we got grass fields and can keep playing, the money keeps rolling in. You see star guys go down all of the time because of it.”
Grass is a daily mission for JC Tretter, president of the NFL Players Association. His loudest megaphone is — who else? — Kelly Stafford. “@nfl do something,” she wrote on social media. “Show that you wanna make it better for future generations. Saying it doesn’t matter what these men play on is complete negligence on your part.”
On this holiday, as football’s concussion watch continues, she deserves a nationwide thank-you for speaking above the TV soundtrack. We hear her over the $18-billion-a-year hum.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.