For a professional athlete, very little is supposed to intrude on the protective bubble that allows them to compete at the highest level. But life isn’t always so easily controlled.
Sometimes athletes, with careers that are short in duration by nature, are faced with weighing the effect of making a selfless personal choice against possibly skipping parts of peak wage-earning years in which every game is precious.
Many athletes, such as men whose wives are giving birth or who have had relatives die, choose to walk away for a bit, and the reactions — from expectant and oft-impatient fans, a scrutinizing media and occasionally other athletes — aren’t always predictable.
Baseball player Daniel Murphy found the blowback harsh when he chose to miss a few outings in a 162-game season due to a family matter; NFL legend Brett Favre received a warm reception when he decided to play in a football game immediately after the death of his father.
Last weekend, Jrue Holiday, an NBA all-star in 2013 who currently plays for the New Orleans Pelicans, announced how he plans to handle the news that his pregnant wife is dealing with a benign brain tumor: He is taking a leave of absence that will force him to miss the start of the NBA season.
Lauren Holiday, who was part of the U.S. women’s two-time Olympic gold medal-winning soccer team, retired from the sport last year in part because, at 28, she was ready to start a family. She and her husband were thrilled to learn that they would become parents of a daughter in the fall, but then were given what Jrue calls the “devastating” news of Lauren’s tumor. The tumor, which is operable, will not threaten their daughter’s health and Lauren is expected to make a complete recovery.
The matter is further complicated for the Holidays because the surgery is being postponed until about six weeks after the baby is born in October. The Pelicans’ season, however, opens on Oct. 26. Until surgery, Lauren Holiday requires care as the tumor grows and restricts her movements.
“Obviously, we were and are still very excited about the birth of our first child, but our focus shifted from having this magnificent blessing to making sure everything is going to be okay with Lauren and the child,” Jrue Holiday, 26, told Nola.com’s Jeff Duncan. “Our priorities right now are being able to manage Lauren’s symptoms and still have a fairly healthy pregnancy.”
As for Holiday’s basketball career, weighing the decision to miss games may have been arduous but the conclusion was clear. Although he is healthy for the first time in three years with the Pelicans and thus eager to suit up, he knows where he needs to be.
“My family comes before basketball,” Holiday said. “I’m obviously blessed to play this game and be in the position I am in, but my wife is the most important thing in the world to me. She comes before anything else.”
For players with other urgent, significant issues, such as the birth of a child, taking time off from playing a sport — with its extremely finite timespan, coupled with external expectations to produce and justify massive salaries — is a heavy decision.
Some athletes prefer to play in spite of births, illness or the death of loved ones. Big stars, those in the hottest of spotlights, must sometimes face criticism for taking time off for personal matters. Less-decorated players can often slide under the radar when needing a break, with merely a press release from the team filtering out.
Just one day after the death of his father, Favre played in one of the most memorable games of his career, leading the Green Bay Packers to a “Monday Night Football” comeback win on Dec. 22, 2003. Favre recalled balancing the pressure to play well with the overwhelming emotion he was feeling over the loss of the man who had taught him football. It took him only a few minutes to decide to play, he said, but he admitted that he was “the most nervous I have ever been.”
“I do not wish this on anyone,” Favre said. “My dad has been to every game from fifth grade, and he coached me in high school. You never expect it to happen like that. I’m going to miss him. He was so instrumental not only in football, but in life.”
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco chose to play in a 2013 game after learning, while still in warmups, that his wife had given birth to their second child. That same year, all-star forward Zach Randolph left a Memphis Grizzlies matchup mid-game to be with his fiancee during the delivery of their child. The Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green recently announced that he plans to be with his wife whenever their first child arrives, even if the NFL schedule does not cooperate. Green’s baby is due Sept. 30, a day after the Bengals play the Miami Dolphins.
Last fall, Wayne Ellington of the Los Angeles Lakers took a leave of absence after his father was shot to death. After 11 days away from the team, he returned. “It’s been tough, but basketball has really been keeping me afloat,” Ellington said. “It helps me stay locked in on something instead of having my mind wander a lot of times.”
T.J. Oshie, now of the Washington Capitals, returned to the U.S. a hero after the Sochi Winter Olympics and shortly afterward his daughter was born with a condition in which an infant’s intestines are outside the body. She was healthy and her birth was normal, but she required immediate surgery and hospitalization as she recovered and her body began to work normally. Oshie and Lauren, now his wife, were able to prepare for the birth and he continued playing for the St. Louis Blues while spending his days at the hospital. (Daughter Lyla is the healthy, thriving big sister to Leni.) Their situation was more manageable and followed a predictable, if still frightening, path.
“It was scary going through it all, but the doctors and surgeons were doing such a great job,” Oshie said at the time. “We met with them beforehand. I guess it’s as comfortable as you can be with your firstborn having to go through something like this. I think we did a pretty good job of staying positive and just kind of taking it day-by-day and hour-by-hour, and spend as much time with her as you could.”
For some athletes, it’s sometimes best to step away, even if the result is criticism.
During his playing days with the New York Mets, Murphy, now with the Washington Nationals, endured criticism for leaving the team the day before the 2014 season opener to be with his wife in Florida as she delivered their first child via an unscheduled Caesarean section. He joined the team three days after the opener and addressed the suggestion by amateur obstetricians on New York sports talk radio that the couple should have taken care of the matter of bringing their child into the world before the opener. (No matter that Major League Baseball has offered players up to three days of paternity leave since 2011.)
“I got a couple of text messages about it, so I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I didn’t hear about it,” Murphy said, “but that’s the awesome part about being blessed, about being a parent, is you get that choice. My wife and I discussed it, and we felt the best thing for our family was for me to try to stay for an extra day — that being Wednesday — due to the fact that she can’t travel for two weeks.
“It’s going to be tough for her to get up to New York for a month. I can only speak from my experience — a father seeing his wife — she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off. … It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.”
For the Holidays, there really is only one answer for their situation and they have found strong support in the New Orleans community, from the Pelicans and around pro sports.
“Lauren has her good days and her bad days,” Holiday said. “Some are better than others. She’s obviously a fighter, the toughest woman I know. That’s the reason why I married her.”