The longest huddle of Matthew Stafford’s life took place not on a field but in a hospital waiting area. He was surrounded not by teammates, but by family. He wore no pads nor helmet, only street clothes. And the clock was winding down by hours instead of seconds.
What lay ahead for Stafford was not a distant end zone, but the rest of his wife’s life, and his life, and their children’s lives. In other words, his entire future.
“Did any part of you, while that was going on, say, ‘We may have to change everything?’ ” I asked Stafford over the phone last week.
“No question,” he said.
“And were you prepared, if you had to, to give up playing football?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I would have done anything.”
The NFL season will start today for the Detroit Lions, and the 31-year-old Stafford, entering his second decade in the league, will be scrutinized once again for how far he can take them. But let’s set the stage for the things he’ll be asked to do today, and slot it against what he was asked to do this offseason, when Kelly, his wife of four years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required quick and delicate surgery — with no guarantee of success.
The demands are remarkably similar.
And completely different.
Run onto the field. Huddle up your teammates. Tell them what’s coming …
Matthew and Kelly ran into the offseason the way they usually do, with plans for relaxation and enjoying the kids, now three of them, all girls, Hunter, born last August, joining the twins Chandler and Sawyer, who were approaching their second birthdays.
But something wasn’t right. Kelly was suffering dizzy spells, nearly falling over multiple times.
“Things that I had been doing my entire life,” she posted on Instagram, “were now, all of a sudden, difficult.” They thought it was vertigo. An MRI was suggested. The results revealed something worse: an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous tumor that develops on the main nerve from the inner ear to the brain.
Kelly was just 29.
“It’s frightening when you get that diagnosis,” Matthew admitted. “And frankly I’m not the one getting it. The person you love the most is getting it, and that’s tough. I’m not a naturally great empathizer, and I was trying to figure out what was the best way to make her feel OK.”
There wasn’t much time. The tumor had to come out. It was a matter of weeks from the diagnosis to the scheduling of surgery. And before they knew it, the couple were on their way to University of Michigan Hospital, about to face the first serious medical threat of their young lives.
Break the huddle, walk to the line, survey the field, see what you’re up against …
“It was such a stark difference between the morning and night of that day,” Stafford recalled. “Anybody looking from afar when (Kelly) walked in wouldn’t have had any idea what was wrong with her.”
She was brave upon arrival, but had predicted to her husband that the hardest part of the surgery preparation “is going to be when they take me away from you and my family.” When that happened, as it happens to anyone who has gone through such an ordeal, Matthew said, “I was trying to do everything I could to pull it together.”
Yet they were pulled apart. Kelly was wheeled into an operating room. Stafford took a seat several floors and a world away.
The medical part began for her.
The waiting part began for him.
Check the defense, be alert for surprises blitzes …
Stafford sat in that waiting room chair with his family and in-laws and “didn’t really do anything. Didn’t eat much. Didn’t watch anything.”
All he did was think. For hours. Think. Check his strategy. Prepare for anything. “The best outcome (with brain surgery) is normalcy within months and you’re doing great and life will go on,” he said. “The worst outcome is … she’s not gonna make it.”
Not gonna make it?
“We’re talking about the brain,” he said.
How many times had Stafford landed on his own noggin? How many defenders had driven his helmet into the dirt, or fallen ever so conveniently on top of him? How many violent collisions had rattled his ears and jaw and cranium? And yet here was his wife, the non-contact-profession member of the team, and she was the one with the brain issue? She was the one being cut open?
He began to think about life if Kelly were to be limited, or incapacitated in some way, her hearing gone, her facial muscles affected, her balance forever wobbly. As an NFL quarterback, his work had been the wind in their sails, and they followed its lead. They scheduled their lives around the NFL season. They made accommodations for training camp, potential playoff games. Sundays were paramount.
But what if those priorities had to change?
“You don’t really know what’s gonna happen or how (the surgery is) gonna end up,” Stafford said, when asked what he would have done if the worst had transpired. “But it would have been a decision that, I think, would have been easy for me. I could learn to do anything to help her.
“And I knew if something did go wrong — I knew she wasn’t gonna give up easily. She’s a tough person and has a lot of willpower. I’ve seen a million things try to keep her down in her life, and she’s done such a great job of just pushing herself.”
An hour passed.
Hut! Drop back, check the receivers, see who’s coming open, be aware of the rush, don’t get blindsided …
A beeper was all he had to go by. The quarterback, used to seeing the whole field, had his vision narrowed to a small device flashing a few words at a time. At one point, those words indicated they’d hit a small hurdle, and the surgery would go even longer.
“There was an artery that was out of place,” Stafford recalled. “And it was basically right over the part of the brain — the auditory part — they’d have to go through to get to the tumor.”
This “hurdle” was extremely rare. The surgeon, Dr. Greg Thompson, had only seen it once before in a career of over 2,000 surgeries. Fortunately, that one time had given him reason to dive deeply into researching such anomalies, and he was fully prepared when he saw it again.
Six hours went to eight.
When they told Stafford that Kelly was out of surgery, it was a while before he could see her. The longest minutes of all. He braced himself.
Make your decision, remember your fundamentals, pull back, let it go …
“What I saw coming out of brain surgery,” Stafford recalled, pausing, “(Kelly) couldn’t sit up without almost falling over. People were holding her. She couldn’t stand. It was a long night — a long couple of nights there.”
The good news was the surgeon was confident. His expertise with that artery had saved Kelly’s hearing. Greg Thompson is a big guy himself, with a composed demeanor and a wealth of knowledge, the type of doctor who, if he says it’s going to be OK, you’re going to believe. Even if it takes a while.
And so the long road to recovery began. There were setbacks. Hard days. A return to the hospital. The relaxing offseason that the Staffords had once planned for fun and relaxation was swallowed by doctors and nurses and nannies and rehab specialists.
Then, suddenly, less than four months after the surgery, Matthew was back in training camp.
And today he starts the season.
Trust in your throw, take a hit, listen for the crowd reaction if you’re down on the ground …
As a quarterback, Stafford has his fervent fans and, as with any quarterback, his detractors. As a person, and a family man, there should be only, in my view, admiration. I have worked with Stafford on charity endeavors, he has built a football field at the SAY Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park that he visits periodically to throw passes to kids from challenged neighborhoods. As such, I try to stay away from frequent heavy analysis of his play in print, in the interest of objectivity.
But there are no such limits when talking about his humanity, because we are all human. I know Dr. Greg Thompson. He’s my doctor, too. And as someone who has sat through one of those waiting rooms hanging on news of a loved one whose brain is being opened, it’s safe to say there is no comparison to football or any other job. It’s you and the bitter truth: that we are all just flesh and bones and cells and blood, a human machine that can break down unexpectedly.
So when Stafford lines up under center today, there is nothing he will see that will rattle him, nothing he will stare at that compares to that beeper updating him on his chances of a healthy life for the woman he loves, the mother of their children, the person he plans to be with long after football is done.
“It was definitely an offseason where I thought not only about Kelly and the family but about myself,” he concluded. “I love the game of football. I love the challenges of it. But watching (Kelly) battle through what she battled through kind of inspired me. I’ve had my fair share of nicks and cuts and bruises she’s helped me push through. And I’m sure when she watches me she thinks, ‘Man, this guy goes through a lot. It’s pretty crazy to keep doing what he’s doing.’
“But to watch her come through that really inspired me to understand that a strong will is a very powerful thing.”
Strong enough to endure the toughest yet most grateful offseason of their young lives. Strong enough for NFL football. Strong enough to know the difference.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.