They arrived at the big house in Leesburg still numb with disappointment, offerings of vegetable casserole and mixed green salad in their arms, forced smiles on their faces. It was Thanksgiving dinner at the Spurriers'.
Only it wasn't Thanksgiving. It was Saturday afternoon, two days after the actual holiday. On the actual holiday, there was football, which trumps everything in this household. On the actual holiday, there had been a painful loss to the Dallas Cowboys, one that essentially brought an end to any hope that Steve Spurrier's first season in Washington would be a success.
Dinner was Jerri's idea, of course. Jerri Spurrier, Steve's wife, got off the long, brutal plane ride home from Dallas and set to work preparing two huge turkeys, a mammoth pot of mashed potatoes, stuffing to feed dozens. She invited the whole extended football family: assistant coach Steve Jr., his wife and the triplets and all the other assistant coaches and their families. All the people who invest their lives in her husband's success.
"Sometimes I second-guess myself on things like that," Jerri says. "These guys spend so much time together, so when they have three or four days off, I wonder if it's the right thing to do. But I think especially after that loss, for all the children to be together, for all the families to be together. . . . It was Thanksgiving."
Jerri signed on for this life 36 years ago, when she was a college senior in love with the star quarterback. The first 10 years, she was a professional football player's wife, moving from place to place, always uncertain about the future. That has been followed by nearly 25 years as the coach's wife, much of that time at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It's a role not dissimilar to that Washington staple, the political wife. His job is her everything. It controls where they live, how happy their household is on a day-to-day basis, when they get to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Her job is to make everything else in their lives work.
"I'm the reactor," she says. "I don't make any waves. I just keep peace in the house. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. And it's year-round. It's not just during the season. All the time. There are very few times you take a break from those emotions. And you have to sometimes. You have to, or you'd be crazy."
And so, Thanksgiving dinner. Almost 40 people came. Miserable or not, they came. They placed their dishes on the long counter in the basement, in the huge recreation area the Spurriers use for entertaining. College games played on the big television set. Steve carved one of the turkeys.
"Everyone was enjoying the meal, and watching the game, and talking," says Geri Collins, the wife of assistant coach Jim Collins, who has worked with Spurrier for 16 years. "And all of a sudden you forgot how you felt when you walked in. You forgot Thursday. All of a sudden you forgot football for a moment -- or at least our part of football -- and you talked about the children, and getting the Christmas tree, and getting your shopping done."
And that was all Jerri wanted. To see people relax. To put the grandchildren in Steve's path, so that, at least for a few minutes, he would stop pacing. To erase the football field -- the center of their universe -- and create a happier place.
The Maternal Instinct
During last week's ice storm, the power went out at the Spurriers' house for 24 hours, taking the electric water pump with it. The cordless phones didn't work either. The car was iced over, the road slick, and though Steve drove to work at Redskins Park as always, Jerri, raised in the South, didn't trust herself to drive.
So she camped out with Scotty, the youngest of the Spurriers' four children and the only one still at home. She wrapped presents. Scotty, 15, hung out. Late in the afternoon, they went downstairs, made snacks and talked for hours. "I don't usually sit still, so it was good for me," she says. "You get a chance to have those conversations with your kids that you just can't have when you're driving them to school."
Jerri asked Scotty what he wants to do with his life. Not an easy question. Scotty did the obvious thing and turned it back on her. What did you want to do with your life? What did you want to be when you were growing up? Jerri, whose only paid job has been teaching aerobics, answered honestly:
"Married with kids," she said. "I said, 'When I was your age, all I ever wanted to do was get married and have kids.' How weird, huh? No goals. No industries. No high goal. That was it."
Raised in the Fort Lauderdale area from the age of 2, Jerri grew up in a household filled with women. She was the oldest of three girls, and her father died when she was 7. She met Steve in a biology class at the University of Florida. They eloped during their senior year, the year he went from being a local superstar to being a national name. The year he won the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the best college football player in the nation.
She ran their off-field lives from the beginning. Seven years ago, when Spurrier turned 50, there was a roast in Florida. One of the skits portrayed Steve at home alone with Scotty, trying -- and failing -- to figure out how the microwave works.
"He doesn't know," Jerri says. "We laugh about a lot of that. Really, he doesn't. I've always said, 'I won't tell you how to coach, and you don't tell me how to cook.' "
He handles the football. She handles the household, the lawn, the finances, the food, the laundry, the kids' schooling, the holidays, the vacations, the broken appliances, the gift shopping, the telephone messages. She works in the office at Scotty's high school so she can get to know the teachers, his classmates. She answers the letters people write to her husband.
"I guess I do all the areas, except coaching," Jerri says. "But he does pay the taxes, and those kind of bills. The big bills."
Asked what his wife does to make his life work, Steve seems almost taken aback.
"Jerri's very good about organizing everything," he says, after a moment's pause.
When they built their house in Gainesville, she made every single decision, from room design to flooring to materials, and never asked for his input. He accepted it without question.
And when the Spurriers' first three children -- Steve Jr., Lisa and Amy -- were almost grown and Jerri found herself unhappily facing an empty nest, Steve didn't balk when Jerri told him she wanted to adopt. This was something that was necessary to Jerri, and he understood that.
"He doesn't talk me out of very many things when I've made up my mind," she says, and she calls their decision to adopt Scotty "one of the best we ever made."
The trade-off, for Jerri, is that she gives Steve total control over job decisions, moves, major shifts in their lives. Even when those decisions have been hard on the family. "Steve needed to make decisions in his life that were based on his gut feeling," she says. "I told him that no matter whether I say I'm going to leave him and never see him again, he shouldn't listen to that. You have to make decisions for yourself, decisions that are good to you."
One of those decisions was to accept the job as head coach of the Redskins. It meant Jerri had to move at age 58, leaving both her now-married daughters and their children behind in Florida.
"It was a big change for her, for all of us," says Geri Collins. "Just the NFL itself is a whole new world."
A Tightknit Inner Circle
It is cookie-baking day, a Tuesday, and Jerri is holed up in her house, arm-deep in dough.
Once a month she makes batches and batches of chocolate chip cookies and takes them to Redskins Park. These are the birthday cookies. Jerri keeps track of the birth dates of every Redskins player and staff member. Once a month, she distributes the cookies to those who have birthdays coming up. It is a tradition she brought with her from Florida.
"Those cookies are pretty popular around here," says receiver Chris Doering.
It may seem a bit silly, baking cookies for professional football players, but it's not really about the cookies, of course. It's about being a part of the team. Being a part of her husband's life.
There are two ways to exist in this kind of marriage. You can be like the political wife who remains in the home district, who builds a world distinct from her husband's profession. Or you can be like the wife who moves to Washington, who joins the spouses' organizations, who campaigns, who does the charity work, who stands beside her husband in the photographs at important parties. Who becomes a part of it.
Jerri and most of the other wives of the Redskins coaching staff are the latter type. They drop by Redskins Park to visit. They occasionally come out and watch practices. They get together on home game days and ride a chartered bus from Redskins Park in Ashburn to FedEx Field in Landover and watch the games, anxiously. They speak about the team with the pronoun "we."
Thanks to arrangements made by Steve, who encourages his wife's involvement, the coaches' wives have been invited on several of the team's road trips, which is unusual for the NFL. (Jerri goes on all of them, even if she has to buy the ticket herself.)
Then there are the Tuesday night dinners, when all the coaches' families and some staff families gather at Redskins Park to eat while their husbands take a break from work. There was a barbecue for the whole team in September, a Halloween party in October. Jerri sent personal invitations to every player, addressing them to all the members of the households, including the pets.
"I didn't realize all the things that were going to be new for me," she says. "Everything. A lot of new responsibilities. Trying to get organized. Trying to get the players' wives organized. Working with Tanya [Snyder, the wife of team owner Dan Snyder] on charity things. It is a lot. And I don't want to be crazy."
It has meant some personal sacrifices. In Florida she taught aerobics six days a week. Here, she has yet to find the time. She used to take classes, just for the stimulation. She enrolled in two this fall at Northern Virginia Community College, but dropped them because there just wasn't time. Next fall, she says, she'll go back to those things. For now, her daily runs will have to suffice.
That, and her friendships with the other coaches' wives. "It's hard being a wife because you just internalize it so much," says Kristy Speronis, wife of Jamie Speronis, the Redskins' director of football operations and a longtime Spurrier friend. "And it affects you."
They are a tightknit group, the wives, and together they form Jerri's inner circle, the group of women she turns to when things are getting ugly. This extended family is a carefully crafted one, something Jerri finds essential. They live near each other, they carpool together, they get together for monthly meetings. At Florida, all the coaches' families went on an annual vacation together, organized by Jerri and paid for by the Spurriers.
"It's just nice to have people around you who understand what's going on and not just what people are hearing on the news," says Cathy Holland, wife of assistant coach Lawson Holland. "You don't have to even talk about it, because you're around people that know."
The losing hurts Jerri as much as it hurts her husband. With the team's record at 5-9, there have been rough patches this fall. She watches her husband pace, lose sleep, struggle with decisions. She knows she can't really help him. What's going wrong is going wrong on the football field, and that's the one part of his life she can't fix.
"I think she's doing okay with it," Steve says. "It's not exactly what we had planned."
The Saturday before the Redskins game against the St. Louis Rams, when the season was already in disarray, Steve invited Jerri to stay with him at the Marriott in Greenbelt, where the team stays the night before home games. Scotty comes with him often, but for Jerri it was a first. The Skins won that game and Steve asked her back again the next time the Redskins played at home.
Asked about it, the coach plays down the invitations.
"Oh, she actually came two or three times this year, I think," he says. "Otherwise, she'd be staying home by herself. The other assistant coaches have small children, but she'd be home by herself."
When Jerri speaks of it, though, it is clear that it meant something to her, something special. To her, it was an invitation into the football part of his life.
The Long View
The week after the Thanksgiving party, the first snowfall of the season hit. The Spurriers would not lose their power, but Jerri still found herself forced to stay home for the day. Scotty, who had never seen snow before, was home from school, thrilled. Jerri sat down to write letters.
It wasn't easy to focus. There were four games left to play, but the season somehow felt over. And so Jerri was moving on -- thinking about the annual vacation, and how much time she should give the men to get over the season before they all went away together. Thinking about getting more buses on game days next year, so that the players' wives could join them in the caravan to FedEx Field. Thinking about new charities she was going to work on with Tanya Snyder next season. Thinking about ways to make her second season in Washington better than the first.
The football, well, that has to be left to Steve. She has to figure out the other things.
"There are so many things I didn't know, that I'm going to change," she says, and she's off on a litany about buses and other stuff. Then she stops.
"For Steve to have to give up on a season -- which he still hasn't done -- is just too hard," she says. "For him to have to talk about 'next year' instead of this year, it's very hard for him. But that's where I've gone, because it's easier. It's a happier place."