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In the first of a four-part series with Sports Illustrated, NFL Sis Rachel Terrill, wife of former Seahawks DT Craig Terrill, details her struggle balancing a burgeoning academic career with the submissiveness of being an NFL wife.
When I first talked with Craig Terrill—on a cold night in October 2001—the NFL was the last thing on my mind.
I had just stood up from a couch in one of Purdue’s libraries when he walked over. “Are you leaving? I’ll walk out with you,” he offered. We were in a communication class together but, that night, I noticed him in a new way. He was dressed in a black suit that he later told me he had worn for a football banquet. On our way out of the building, Craig turned toward me and asked, “So what do you do for fun?”
“Not too much these days,” I answered honestly. “I’m taking six classes and starting to look at grad schools, so my free time is pretty limited.”
When we got to our cars, parked next to each other, I saw Craig’s guitar case lying in the seat of his truck.
“How about you?” I asked, “Do you play guitar?”
“Yeah, I play and sing in a band called The Strangers,” he told me.
“Will you sing a song for me before you leave?”
“What do you want to hear?”
He paused a moment and sang Peaceful Easy Feeling, one of my favorite Eagles songs. I tried to focus on every word of it, but my mind began to wander and to wonder…who is this guy and why am I suddenly so attracted to him? I didn’t say a word about liking him. He didn’t say a word about liking me.
Two years later, as I was settling into graduate school in Florida, Craig and I met for dinner. We talked about our hopes, our dreams, and our favorite musicians. I was smitten. So was he. When I asked him about his post-graduation plans, I imagined he would tell me about the career he hoped to have in journalism or maybe consulting. “I hope to play in the NFL,” he told me. I was crushed but in love.
In 2004, Craig was drafted by Seattle Seahawks in the sixth round. Unlike the young girls I knew who grew up wanting to marry football players, I was scared to death of Craig’s future profession.
“I still have four years of school in Tampa,” I reminded him on draft day. He was silent. “That’s my dream…to teach, to write, to be a scholar. And the path to that dream isn’t in Seattle.”
“I know that, and I love your dream. Everything will work out,” he told me, “I promise.”
I didn’t believe him. I did not want to be an NFL wife. I had never seen myself as a “girly-girl” or someone who sacrificed for relationships. But I was young and in love, so I relented.
My academic adviser shared his concerns. One year into a five-year doctoral program at The University of South Florida, I asked my advisor his opinion of me spending the fall semester in Seattle to do fieldwork on love in the NFL. “You can go, but I’m sure you’ll regret it,” he warned. “Most students who leave never come back.” But I knew I couldn’t stay. With the blinding cloud of new love surrounding me, I listened to my heart and followed my boyfriend to Seattle. My mission: write an academic paper about the circus show of NFL relationships.
A few weeks into training camp, I was invited to a team-wide baby shower—my first opportunity to meet my new peers. I was anxious. I looked at my nails—uneven and unpainted. I looked in my closet—nothing but jeans and college t-shirts. I walked to the mirror for a final assessment. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was not enough. I was not pretty enough or stylish enough to be an NFL wife.
I didn’t go to the baby shower. Instead, I spent that weekend, and many after, alone in our apartment, in the midst of our NFL love story, feeling sorry for myself. I did not know how to be an NFL wife. I initially resisted immersing myself into the NFL, considering myself an outsider playing the part of a researcher who didn’t fit in a strange new environment.But after completing my study, I saw that I was actually similar to most NFL wives, none of whom feel like they belong at first.
What surprised me most about the other women was that they also came to the NFL with big dreams of their own. They were intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished. Most were college graduates, and many had advanced degrees. Like me, they had dreams they’d been working hard to achieve which they paused once their boyfriend or husband was drafted.
As I watched the dreams of some of my NFL wife friends time out, I made a commitment to earn my Ph.D., no matter what. Football was not going to last forever. I knew I needed an identity of my own. It was a struggle.
I learned quickly that the values of the NFL and academia are different. Academia encouraged me to think like a feminist: don’t submit to a man, don’t dress up for a man, keep your own identity, hold strong to your dreams. The NFL valued women who were feminine. The messages were clear: let your man feel that he is in control, do everything you can to make his life comfortable, his job and health are most important, looking good for him and submitting to him will help keep him faithful. It seemed like as soon as I stepped into the NFL life, I began to feel the fears of other NFL wives—the fear of not looking the part or being a good enough wife—and I was afraid that even the feminist strength I had learned to honor in academia couldn’t save me.
Socialization in the NFL is largely about conformity. NFL wives fit in with other NFL wives as they become one with their husbands. Soon after Craig and I were married, we were playing bocce ball with one of his teammates and his teammate’s wife. When his teammate heard that I didn’t change my last name from Binns to Terrill, he slapped Craig’s testicles and said “Are you going to be Team Terrill today or Team Binns-Terrill?” His wife leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Remember, I told you that you really need to change your name to help him feel like a man.”
She was just passing along what she learned from her time in the league: individual identity and autonomy are not valued. To fit in as a “good wife,” I would need to sacrifice my personal identity for the betterment of my husband.
What would happen to my husband and his career if I resisted or completely rejected this advice? Didn’t loving him mean I had to be committed to these rules? I was confused. My husband, a professional athlete who plays one of the most masculine sports in America needs me to change my name to help him feel like a man?
Although I wore a “93” necklace year-round and Craig’s jersey on game days, I knew I needed to hold on to my dreams, and my name, before they disappeared forever. I didn’t want to give up on my dreams, and I didn’t want to become published with someone else’s name.
A couple years in, I thought I was balancing life as an NFL wife and as an academic. The night after the Seahawks lost the 2005 Super Bowl, I realized I had been wrong all along.
My husband was distraught about the loss. So was I. Meanwhile, my academic advisor was upset I had not asked in advance to miss a day of class to travel for the Super Bowl. I held my head in my hands as tears of sadness, disappointment, and confusion filled my eyes. I wondered, “Who am I and how did I get here?” I wanted to turn back time, even just a few weeks. Was there something more that I could’ve done at school to help my advisor understand my predicament? Was there something more that I could’ve done for my husband to help the Seahawks win? I read my advisor’s e-mail message again:
“I’m disappointed in the fact that your psyche is divided between football and your program here. … I admire your talents but I don’t feel as if you are sufficiently in touch with all the other people who your actions influence…”
The next day, I would be back in the classroom as a graduate student and instructor. But that night I felt like a failure for letting down my advisor and that I had failed as Craig’s partner, unable do anything to make him feel better about his Super Bowl loss. I was angry with my advisor for not recognizing the human side of my NFL life, although as an outsider it would have been difficult if not impossible for him to understand. For me, football had become more important than my studies. Winning the Super Bowl was the ultimate goal and the whole world seemed to be in agreement. No one cheered when I answered a question well in class. The world cheered when the Seahawks scored a touchdown. I was completely consumed by my life as an NFL wife.
Craig’s NFL dream was just about over in 2009, when he received a call from the team’s general manager telling him that he had been cut. When Craig got home, we cried together, tears of memories of his six seasons with the team, tears of loss of the only job he’d had since college and the locker room full of friends he would miss. We sobbed for the loss of his identity as well. No longer an NFL player, what was left for him? And for us?
I didn’t anticipate how hard it would hit me too. I sobbed for my connection to the team, for the plans I had made with the team that would never happen, and for my identity as an NFL wife. I was lost in the confusion I felt about what might come next for us. In the NFL, you can’t make plans beyond the next Sunday. Thrust from that world, there was nothing left when the NFL was gone. Outside of my academic dreams, we had no solid goals for after the game. It was a wake up call. I realized then that I had let academics slip too far into the periphery. Perhaps Craig being cut was just what I needed to get my academic gears back in motion. I knew that the time limit for finishing my dissertation and graduating with my Ph.D. was approaching and that if I didn’t act soon, my academic aspirations would fall to the wayside. A couple of weeks later, I was on a plane across the country to meet with my advisor.
Ultimately I published my final work on the study of love in the NFL as Rachel Binns-Terrill, somewhere between the feminist academic I was when Craig was drafted and the feminine NFL wife who I became during our time in the NFL.
Five years later, my maiden name has fully faded from my formal title. Perhaps without the shadow of Craig’s NFL career upon us, I no longer fear losing myself in the darkness.