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SiS had the pleasure recently of connecting with Brandi Winans, former NFL wife to Jeff Winans, who played for Buffalo, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Oakland. Jeff passed away unexpectedly in 2012 but that has not kept Brandi from maintaining her commitment as his wife to continuing what they started together – a fight for pension & disability rights for all those deserving and helping others in need. Brandi is an incredibly inspiring and amazing author and advocate. Learn more about Brandi below…
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you and Jeff meet? Tell us about your family.
I met Jeff through my roommate at a local bar called Molly Maguire in April, 1979. We were both going through divorces from marriages that had only lasted a few years. I wasn’t really interested in meeting anyone at that time. The owners were friends of Jeff’s from when he played at Buffalo. There was an immediate connection from the first night we met, and it scared me because I hadn’t felt like that before, and we started hanging out together in his off time, getting to know each other. We took Jeff’s Saint Bernard to the beach one day with some other friends and had a car accident on the way home. Jeff brought me home to his house to take care of me and we realized how much we loved each other. Jeff planned a surprise wedding in Reno. I thought we were flying up to see Smokey Robinson, which we did, but didn’t know he and his best friend’s wife had been planning a wedding too. We were married Dec 19th, 1981. We have a son Travis, born in 1985, who has recently gotten engaged to a wonderful gal, Jessica, who is an RN. Travis is a natural athlete, like his father, and excelled in basketball and pretty much anything he tried out for. He is a certified Personal Trainer/Manager at Golds Gym in St. Petersburg. Jeff’s parents and two sisters live in northern California and Oregon. My parents and one brother are all deceased. I grew up here on St. Pete Beach and Jeff grew up in Turlock, California. I have one brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, here in the area and one cousin and family in NC and South Carolina. Travis’s God Parents in California have become our family.
Me w/ my son Travis, his wife Jessica & her mother, Laurie
What is one of your favorite memories of Jeff’s playing days?
My brother worked at CBS and I would get sideline passes to the home games and take photographs. It was so exciting to be on the field. After the games, all the players and their wives, or girlfriends, would get together and have dinner at a local restaurant that would give us a private room. When Jeff got waived and traded to the Raiders, I would love to fly out for some of the games and hang with some of the other player’s wives and girlfriends. The comradery and connections the players and families had with each other were priceless. Months after Jeff went back with the Raiders, I made the move to California.
Jeff playing for Tampa Bay, 1978
Jeff’s NFL career came to an end early after several physical Injuries. This must have been difficult for the family. Tell us about this time in your life as a spouse.
Jeff had several injuries from Buffalo which included torn ACLs, surgeries, back and neck injuries, foot injuries from Tampa and ankle injuries from the Raiders. He had waived his back to play for Oakland in the 1980 season. In 1981, after his training camp physical, they asked him to waive his ankle. When you sign a waiver on any part of your body, if you reinjure it, you will not be compensated for it. He called me and said he had his physical and the doctor wanted him to sign a waiver on his ankle and his back. I told him to pray about it, and the next day, I heard the garage door open as I was cooking. When he walked in the kitchen door, I walked over and just held him. No words were needed. It was one of the hardest day of his life. He was 30 years old. I became the sole supporter of our family while battling his transition. I had to travel with my job, no cell phones back then, and I worried about him constantly. I was already noticing some cognitive problems, but at that time attributed it to his transitioning of being physically disabled and being on pain medication. I never thought about his psyche being a problem.
How was the immediate transition period from the NFL – for Jeff as a player, and for you as a spouse?
I loved him and nothing else mattered except trying to stay positive, instead of depressed. He was angry at himself, and he was so lost. All of his livelihood and who he was, was taken away in a heartbeat. We called his Players Rep, they referred us to one of their local NFLPA attorneys, and we filed a disability claim. Jeff was very distraught as he didn’t know how he could support us and I told him I didn’t care, I loved him, and I didn’t mind working. They also sent him to a psychiatrist in Oakland to help him transition.
What were the ripple effects of the physical injuries and concussions, or Traumatic Brain Injuries, and how did they affect the family?
We were turned down for disability 4 times with the NFL and one time with Social Security over the next three years. Jeff became so distraught that at times, he thought suicide would be a way he could take care of me and let me move on with my life, because he didn’t want to be a burden.
Every time we were turned down, I would appeal. At the end of 1983, they decided to send us to arbitration. Former NFL player, and now attorney, Alan Page was assigned to us, and in July 1984, we won Total and Permanent Disability. It was what Jeff needed. He felt like they did what they said they would do, “take care of their own.” We decided to try and have a baby. Everything seemed to be back on track and Jeff was excited at the thought of being a father.
In November 1984, we were moving from one house to another and Jeff grabbed some jeans out of the closet and didn’t realize there was a 357 derringer there. As he got into the foyer, the gun fell and discharged. Hitting him just below the right knee. The armor piercing bullet took his leg out. He drug himself over and called 911 and with the jeans he had, made a tourniquet around his upper thigh. He had almost bled out by the time he got to the hospital. Three days later, while he was in critical condition, I found out I was pregnant with our only son. The Blessing.
A year later, Jeff had to go to a neutral physician to continue his disability. We tried to postpone it, as he was still recovering from the gunshot wound, but they told us we had to go or lose the pension. The NFL doctor told them he was no longer disabled from football, but by the gunshot accident, and they took his pension away. We had to start all over again. We were devastated since arbitration was supposed to be binding.
You wrote a book about this part of your life – “The Flip Side of Glory”. What motivated this book? Is it true that you have a sequel in the works?
We went through so much in our marriage, from the struggles as an athlete coming out of the game totally disabled, dealing with his transitioning, fighting for disability from the NFL, winning in arbitration – only then to have it taken away was bad enough. I would not give up. I kept reapplying. I wasn’t just fighting for Jeff (he had given up) but for the future of our family. During the time of his gunshot accident, my company, who was self-insured, called me at work and told me if Jeff didn’t have his leg amputated, they would not pay for anymore of his medical bills. We went through so much and I knew that we never wanted any other athletes and their families to have to go through what we went through, so I wrote the book. It was more about love, acceptance, hope and never giving up. There were a few chapters that Jeff was not happy with, but he said “if it will help one family”, then it needs to be published. READ AN EXCERPT FROM “FLIP SIDE OF GLORY” ON THE SIS FAMILY PAGE. CLICK HERE.
The first book timeline went from 1978 to the end of 2007. By that time Jeff and I had separated and were divorced. Too much to go into here, but when you read the book you will understand. The sequel, “The Flip Side of Glory: The Final Chapter, Coming Full Circle” will be out at the beginning of 2015. That timeline starts in 2008 and will entail how we divorced, got back together, and came full circle before his unexpected death in December 2012. You will discover what happened after his death, and when we finally found out that he did have Chronic Traumatic Ecephalopathy (CTE) just this past January 2014. It will also detail the positive progress the NFL and NFLPA have taken to improve former player’s lives today.
Jeff was the love of my life, a wonderful man, loving father and husband and I want to honor him in this way. Our goal is to never let any other player or family go through what we went through.
Tell us about your work as an advocate for disability pensions for NFL players and their families? Did you and Jeff ever receive benefits? Where is the momentum now with this fight?
As you can see, I started my advocacy work in 1981 when Jeff first became disabled. As his behavior problems continued and deteriorated, I started to become a sponge, learning everything I could on behaviors, addictions, manic depression, and physical disabilities. I read his annual benefit booklets, looking for any revisions, collective bargaining updates, etc. I kept re-applying every year, looking for any loophole. I continued to appeal every year, and in 1989, we were given Non-football related pension, which was $870 per month and $100 for Travis. In 1984, we were turned down for Social Security disability and I appealed. I waited 18 months for a SSI Circuit Judge to come to Modesto where I represented Jeff and took in 56 exhibits of why he was physically and now emotionally disabled. In 1986, we won his SSI, but had to wait another 2 years to get medical benefits. It was the same year we had to file bankruptcy. In 1995, a new collective bargaining agreement added a new disability category called Degenerative Disc. It was $3,200 a month.
Every year, Jeff continued his NFL Neutral Physician physical to continue his non-football related category. Even then there was never anything on the physicians report about head injuries or headaches, although Jeff lived with severe headaches and complained to them. I wrote a letter asking for re-classification. It took another two years to get re-classified. All of Jeff’s reports stated that he had Degenerative Disc disease. The end of 1997, we were awarded that category. I don’t think Jeff ever got over the fact that he had been deemed totally and permanently disabled from football July 1984, after they took it away. Total and Permanent Disability at that time was around $8,000 per month.
Anytime I can help educate a player or family never to give up, I do. Especially the spouses. They are the backbone of the family. They need to read the benefit books, talk with the agents and understand everything they can about these things, in case it happens to them.
You feel strongly about education for the family around TBI’s. Can you share more about the importance?
It’s hard enough for a player to deal with the day when he will have to transition from a professional athlete, so it is vital that you are there to support your husband or boyfriend. You live with that person, and if you understand what TBIs are, and the symptoms, you can know how to help them make the right choices.
It wasn’t until after Jeff and I had separated and were going through a divorce, after 26 years of marriage, did I ever think that concussions, or TBI’s, could have been the demise of my marriage. I assumed it was prescription drug addiction that was creating the memory loss, erratic behavior, anger problems, etc. I was watching an HBO special one night and they were talking about the signs and symptoms of concussions. Every single one one of them was Jeff. A knot in my stomach, I knew I had to find this young man being interviewed. His name was Chris Nowinski, and the following year he co-founded Sports Legacy Institute with Dr. Robert Cantu. I now serve on the Family Advisory Board with SLI.
You have also recently become involved in the “prevention” initiative. What steps are being taken to protect our children from head injuries in sports?
Sports Legacy has some programs described below, and you can go to www.CDC.gov, or you can go online and search Heads Up Program and get concussion kits for parents and coaches. Education is the key. They are trying to get Pop Warner from ages 8-12 turned into Flag Football. Check your local state and city and see what else is available. The Florida law requires the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to adopt guidelines to educate coaches, officials, administrators, student athletes and their parents about the nature and risk of concussion and head injury, to adopt policies requiring a candidate for an interscholastic athletic team to sign and return an informed consent annually prior to participation, to develop guidelines providing for the immediate removal of a student suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury and prohibiting return to practice or competition until a written medical clearance has been received from an appropriate health care provider.
You are involved with so many remarkable organizations, from the charity you founded with Jeff, “Day for Our Children”, to The National Football Players Women Association (NFPWA), to Sports Legacy Institute. Can you share with us a little about these organizations and any other programs in which you are involved?
Day For Our Children, Inc. formed in 1992, (a 501©3), was Jeff’s idea after we moved here, to help abused and neglected kids and families that would fall through the cracks. We also became a wish-granting organization for Give Kids the World in Orlando. We put on Celebrity Golf and Softball events to raise money. In 1998, I took over as President and I formed our Wannabe Outreach Programs and Ministry. I am on the board for the Department of Juvenile Justice Steering Committee and work with teens and young adults. Our biggest concern is around teens aging out of foster care and having no place to go after 18, so they can finish their education and become productive citizens. No salaries are taken. www.dayforourchildren.com
In 2013, I was asked to be the speaker for The National Football Players Women Association, founded by Sylvia Mackey and Irene Pridgen. Our goal is to educate, inspire and empower players and their families that support current and former football players. www.nfpwa.com
I have been involved with Sports Legacy Institute since its inception and came on board as a Family Advisory Member after Jeff passed away. There is an icon on their website that you can scroll down to titled “Legacy Donors” and you can not only find Jeff there, but many other professional athletes whose brains were donated for research on this, what I call an epidemic. You will see all ages, including high school, college, and pros, and from all sports.
There are a lot of wonderful programs to help educate parents, coaches and our children:
SLI Hit Count®: Inspired by Pitch Counts in youth baseball, and the quantifiable self movement, the goal of the SLI Hit Count® is to develop and promote guidelines to regulate the amount of brain trauma that a child is allowed to incur in sports. SLI is working with technology companies who have developed sensors in helmets, headbands, chinstraps and mouthguards to measure brain trauma in real time.
SLI Concussion Checklist: The premier online resource designed to help parents, coaches, administrators, and athletic programs evaluate their programs on concussion safety and identify new ways to provide the safest possible environment for athletes. www.sportslegacy.org
Brandi w/ Chris Nowinski, his wife, Nicole, and friends at 2014 Sports Legacy Institute Huddle
How do you balance all of these commitments?
It’s easier now that our son Travis is out on his own. He is a Personal Trainer and is looking eventually to opening up his own high performance facility. It was he and his father’s dream before Jeff passed away, and we were three months from getting re-married when he passed. It’s also easier when it is your passion and these two are my passion. Of course, I have to give credit to my Lord and Savior.
What advice or guidance do you give fellow spouses or NFL families who find themselves in a similar situation to the one you & Jeff were in?
Know that you are not alone. Although no story is the same, there will always be similarities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We are protectors by nature. We want our men to walk out the door with integrity and dignity. They are heroes in our neighborhoods. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors when the shoulder pads and helmet come off. Organizations like this Spouses in Sports can provide the unity, yet privacy.
I work with families and former players because I have lived it. I understand it. I got my MBA from the school of hard knocks and experience. You can’t buy that at a four year university. Be proud of who you are, remember that we are all just people. Life is not about your net worth, it is about your self-worth. firstname.lastname@example.org
How do you think Spouses in Sports can be a resource for the “better halves” in pro sports?
See my answer above and thank you so much for allowing me to share a part of my life. It’s amazing that wives or girlfriends who have read my book tell me I am telling their story. I think that is the greatest compliment anyone could give me!