I know I started this blog with the intention of being honest and sharing our day-to-day lives, especially as it related to being a college football family. So, can I be honest? I had taken for granted how the spring and summer feel different than the Season. I had forgotten the level of intensity that Football brings to our home. I had forgotten how hard it is to hear other people comment on our season, our players, our husbands. I had just forgotten. And then the season happened…and to be honest, I forgot about writing. That’s not entirely true. I forgot how to think about non-football things long enough to write about them. But here we are. On the other side. And I remember.
This past season was so intensely hard. Just yesterday as my husband and I took a quick walk around the neighborhood after he got home from work (on his last day off…because…there is no off-season, folks), I was able to wrap my own brain around the difficultly of this season. But we made it. We wrapped up our year with a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City. Before we left for the trip one of our daughters spoke what we were all thinking, that without a win it would be hard to look back with joy on the trip. And while she wasn’t wrong…I do want to look back with joy. Because our adventure to NYC for Christmas was so joyful.
The joy began with some planning emails and a meeting of the wives of the coaching staff to sign up for the bowl events we were hoping to attend. At first sight of the events list it was clear that this bowl was going to be incredible. After our bowl destination was announced a couple well-meaning people talked to me about the bowl trip using the word “vacation”. Bowl trips are a lot of things, but they will never be vacations. At the end of a long season, one that was successful enough to get us to 8 wins and bowl eligibility, we were planning a trip over the holidays to play in another football game; we would have all of our children and our husbands would be working. It was a business trip. We were thrilled to be going and especially excited that we were going to the Pinstripe Bowl for the first time, but we were not vacationing.
You can tell the difference because we were issued an itinerary, work schedule, and a rules handbook for the trip. Although I’m sure my family would love this addition to our future beach trips.
Step one involved packing for 7 people in 7 carry-on sized suitcases…for a week which included Broadway Shows and culminated in an outdoor sporting event. We were warned over and over that NYC can be cold this time of year and that we needed to bring WARM clothes. I bought long underwear and handwarmers. We purchased snow boots and gloves. I even upgraded to a “real” winter coat from my North Carolina-appropiate winter coat. And then I made lists. I went through each event on our schedule and planned clothes for each kid. The one note about dress code was that most events were casual, so jeans were acceptable, but sweatpants would not be. I don’t know if you have a 10 year old son. But MY 10 year old son owns 2 types of clothing that can be worn on his lower half: shorts and sweatpants. I purchased and packed jeans and khaki pants (that I know are unlikely to see the light of day again before he outgrows them). It was especially delightful that our luggage would make the trip to NYC two days before WE would so that it could travel by equipment van rather than on the airplane. So we had a Saturday and Sunday where most of my children’s acceptable clothing was in another state, and they still had to be dressed for life. And yes, Lucas wore sweatpants and a polo shirt to church that Sunday.
Fortunately our luggage made it to New York without any drama, (a pleasant perk of the equipment truck method!) and we arrived the following Monday ready to experience all the Big Apple had to offer. I should mention that I am a fan of hyping up a trip before it happens so that everyone knows what to expect and is excited for what lies ahead. In the case of the bowl trip this meant listening to Alicia Keyes belt out “Empire State” for weeks on end and reading through NYC guidebooks while marking pages of what we were planning to see. The kids were thrilled. They couldn’t wait! I am not really a “city-girl” by nature…I was raised in Indiana with a literal cornfield in my backyard, but I watched enough Sex and the City and Gossip Girl in my past to be excited for my first trip to the Empire State, too.
When vacationing with a family with 5 small children, we have found that renting houses or multi-bedroom condos tends to work best. For bowl trips we are in hotel rooms. We had adjoining rooms with 2 double beds each. In hindsight, I suppose I should have guessed that my husband and I would not fit perfectly into a double bed; he is 6’3″ and a former offensive lineman, but as I was planning I was just trying to get kids in beds. We decided that we would put the kids to sleep each night with one kid laying on bedding on the ground with the beds full in one room so we could watch tv and talk until we were ready to sleep in the adjoining room, knowing full well that at least the child on the floor would wind up in bed in the parents’ room by morning.
We didn’t just arrive in NYC and go to bed. The bowl actually hosted an event for the coaching staff and families at Yankee Stadium for our first evening in the city. William, in his first week as a 4 year old, was not ready for the excitement of the day and quickly fell asleep on the bus ride from Times Square to the Stadium…which any parent of littles can tell you is a recipe for disaster. So we entered event number one with a cranky, just-woken-up little boy. He stayed that way (except when he saw the fried shrimp skewer appetizer that was available) most of the evening. Even while eating the delicious shrimp he stayed glued to me with a grumpy look on his face. Until he met the Snowflakes. This welcome event, like all good welcome events, was complete with carolers and costumed versions of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building…and 2 beautiful Snowflakes. William had found a reason to smile. He spent the REST of the evening holding the hand of one snowflake or dancing nearby.
The older kids found joy in having their caricature drawn. On the surface this seems like a completely fun and risk-free activity…but not to this mom of girls. I knew that we were one over-exaggerated facial feature away from tears…we were nearly there when one of the girl’s round Polish cheeks came out a little rounder than she would have liked…but the joy of the evening was not lost.
Day 2 of the trip found the coaches’ wives and children, or many of them, at the 9/11 Memorial. I was nervous about taking the kids to this very difficult site, but its impact was greater than I could have imagined. Sometimes my children surprise me with the depth of their appreciation for the gravity of an event, even one they were not alive for, and explaining the events of that day to them gave me a chance to really see it through their eyes as well. I answered difficult questions and gave lots of hugs, but at the end of the day I know it was the most important part of the trip for our family. Their understanding of why we still remember 9/11 will be with them forever.
The one part of my trip that my kids, especially my girls, were most looking forward to was ice skating in Central Park. We have a roller rink near our house and all of my kids own skates, so I wasn’t too worried that we would suffer horrible injury or embarass the family name. But it was even better than I could have hoped for. The kids were great. They could move around on the ice without fear and my sweet Grace, who struggles in some environments to find peace, found her perfect occassion. She was a unicorn-earmuff-wearing ice princess. It was cold (she hates the heat), the earmuffs blocked out the noise (she’s a fan of quiet) and the movement soothed her little soul. She had very intentionally packed herself a turtleneck and tutu, because she was planning her Meryl Davis Olympic moment. My husband called while we were at the rink and said their meetings were done…at no point did I really expect him to show up…but show up he did. In ice skates. He grabbed some of our kids and circled the ice with them which just made the whole thing even more magical. Because Daddy time is magical anyway!
It is hard to keep track of actual days on this sort of trip, but it was Christmas Eve, and we had a little time with the coaches and players in the evening. We had a beautiful dinner. (Which William declared was his birthday dinner since he was able to drink out of a fancy, real glass cup.) I had to laugh that they mentioned there were chicken tenders and fries for any of the kids who didn’t want the regular buffet food. Because I looked at my kids’ plates: salmon, chicken pot pie, ham and brisket. They were in heaven. I did see some football players happily enjoying tenders and fries, though. At the end of the night we walked with the kids to Rockefeller
Center to see the Christmas Tree. Here is where my rose colored glasses allow me to remember just seeing a beautiful tree and not the real emotions of the evening. We had 5 kids, 1 wearing brand new shoes, who we walked through NYC at their bedtime, through crowds and faux designer purse sales all to see a tree…but looking back we got a beautiful picture, and we can say we did it! (Also, upon returning home, during the homily at church the priest mentioned that he grew up in New York City and every year at Christmas his family went to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree. My kids looked over at me with very important looks of relating to the story now that they were city kids and all.)
The downside of Christmas morning in a hotel room, on a business trip, is that it is hard to really make it feel “Christmas-y.” I had wrapped up a new book for each kid to unwrap in the morning, but the staff meetings began well before the kids were awake…so we started the day without Nick. We did get to have our pictures taken with Santa, who brought the kids Pinstripe Bowl t-shirts! After meeting Santa we did a bus tour of NYC called “The Ride” and there really is no way to describe it beyond it is a moving comedy show that drives through the city, interacts with actors and real people along the street and surpassed all of our expectations. If you are ever in NYC…it’s worth the time!
My fellow coaches’ wife, Tracey, and I decided to let the kids relax post-Ride at the hotel in the game room the bowl had provided. The kids could play Twister or cards or arcade games or just relax with their friends while the moms caught our breath. We realized the kids were going to need to eat (again!!) and decided to attempt to go out for pizza. In case you wondered if NYC restaurants were made for big families, our attempt at getting Ray’s Pizza for lunch tells me “no”. One of my beautiful children had plopped herself down on the floor in the tiny area where the line formed to order food. As I was waiting in line a man came up and stood next to me and gestured to the cashier like he had a quick question, the North Carolinian in me said he probably just needs napkins or something, so I let him go ahead and then he proceeded to order his full lunch. Ah, New York. At this point my patience was waning, and my 6 year old had had enough. I calmly asked her to stand up and she politely listened, and we walked outside the restaurant without creating a scene. Or somehing like that. Anyway, I’m glad we went to eat with a group because I was able to hand my receipt off to another mama and ask her to grab our food so that I could head back to the hotel with my very over-whelmed 6 year old and her siblings. Lunch in the game room was lovely though.
The kids enjoyed the entire adventure of NYC. They learned so much and experienced the depth of intensity at 9/11 and the awe of Broadway. And so after the trip, when I asked our 4 year old what he loved most about New York I was not at all shocked to hear him say “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Arcade game in the playroom.” Because we are building young minds all the time and kids always appreciate the most important parts!
That evening, after the coaches finished up at work, the wives and kids met up with them, and we walked to Radio City Music Hall to watch the Rockettes. Our tickets were for the 3rd Mezzanine so we got the bonus of a great stair workout, too! One of the employees told me on the way in that he thought our seats were the best for that particular show, and I politely thanked him and assumed he was lying. But The Christmas Spectacular took up every inch of Radio City’s stage, walls and ceiling, and our seats allowed us to take in everything. When I was a little girl, my grandpa, the original TIVO, would use his VHS recorder to tape specials from the television so we could watch them again. I still own the VHS tape with “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” written on the side (with an orange dot that indicated it was a family show, because my parents were organized in a next-level Pinterest-y way when it came to VHS tapes.) Seeing the show live was a bucket list moment I didn’t know I had, and I loved every minute.
That night the kids were exhausted, and so was I. I started to wonder if I had made the best decision when I signed up for the wives only tour of NBC Studios the next morning. I did. It was the very best decision I have made in a LONG time. I am not shy necessarily, but sometimes I am also not particularly brave. I grew up loving to perform, but never really sought out the spotlight except with my family, and some ill-adviced Spice Girl performances my bestie and I put together. But I don’t hate an audience. (Thank you for reading!) And so at the end of our incredible tour of NBC Studios, when they asked for a volunteer to play the role of Host for our very own Late Night Show…well…I jumped at it. It was silly and scripted, but it was honestly the most fun I have ever had. At the end of my senior year of high school we were supposed to write down the things we hoped to accomplish someday in our lives. To be honest, most of us put down big, lofty, hard-to-actually-achieve things. I wrote that I wanted to be the next Oprah Winfrey. I did not account for 5 children and a college-football-coaching husband. So I will absolutely count my very brief stint as Jimmy Fallon. But we brought the house down, my fellow coaching wives and I. The very lovely tour providers told us we were one of the best groups ever. (We know they really meant THE BEST!) Trust me.
My friend and I had bit the bullet and purchased tickets to The Lion King, and we quickly gathered up our crew after the wives luncheon and took to Times Square to head to the show. I truly have no words that do justice to how phenomonal the show really was. I couldn’t have wrapped my brain around how they would accomplish the animals needed for the story, especially the wildebeast stampede, but oh my goodness was it so much better than I could have guessed! The talent amongst the cast (especially the young actor and actress who played young Simba and Nala) and the drama of the story was Epic. We have a healthy obsession with Disney’s Lion King in our house. We own and watch all the movie versions. My youngest son has spent many a day in his lion costume and the songs are frequently sung at full volume (or demanded of our Alexa). I am so glad that we made the show a part of our trip. Although I did nearly decide to leave a couple of my kids to clean bathrooms or something similarly horrible after the show based on their grumbling about each other during intermission. I was reminded of words my father often spoke to us as children when we were being rotten “This is why lions eat their young.” So appropriate. Thankfully, by the end I got a tearful, “I’m so sorry for my attitude, Mommy! Thank you for bringing us to Lion King.”
Our show ended about an hour before we were supposed to meet back up with the group for our dinner at Buca di Beppo. Tracey and I trudged through the growing Times Square crowd with our 7 children and nearly made it back to the hotel when we realized we were just going to turn right back around because the restaurant was a few yards down the street from the theatre we had just left. We made an executive decision to head a block off our course to avoid some foot traffic and found a pleasant hallway to stand in while we waited. There were moments next to a giant Forever 21 ad when we questioned our decision, but in the end everyone finished the evening stuffed with Italian food and happy.
One of the exciting things about bowl trips is that they often include gifts and surprises for the coaches. They had a bag of New Era gear and a few other lovely things that now had to be added to our luggage because this was our final night in NYC and the luggage would have to be on the bus for its return to North Carolina at 9am the next morning. I don’t know if it is a marketable skill or not, but I was able to fit the entirety of our things, including souvenirs and bowl gear, back in our bags for the return…and we didn’t even have to leave a kid behind.
The last day of the trip was the one that really mattered to our hearts. Our guys, who we had watched put their hearts and souls out on the field all season, had one last chance to play together. I always struggle with my emotions as I think about the group of seniors taking their last snaps of college football. This group of seniors was no exception. They had been with us through the hard years, and they had brought us through to these record setting years. And more than that they had been a part of our lives and our family. They are men we will cheer for through whatever they do next in life. So after a hard game, as we sat on the bus waiting for the players, so we could head to the airport and return home, I wasn’t ready to feel positive about the trip. But if there is one thing I have learned in football it is this: it’s always bigger than the wins and losses. So we will remember this team. We will remember this trip, and we will remember what matters.
And I will try to remember to write.