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NFL fathers distancing from stereotypical past

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Through Father's Day, CBSSports.com writers will present a series of articles portraying fatherhood and sporting figures.

Derrick Ward says he hesitates to tell the story. He shouldn't. It's a touching story. In many ways, it's an NFL story.

Ward plays running back for the Houston Texans and could squeeze the life out of a tree trunk with his biceps. But he melts in his daughter's hands. One day, at his Los Angeles condo, Jaida did what young kids do -- she dipped her toe in mischief.

Derrick Ward is among the majority of NFL fathers who make their children a priority. (Getty Images)  
Derrick Ward is among the majority of NFL fathers who make their children a priority. (Getty Images)  
When Ward wasn't looking Jaida had consumed a small amount of oil from an organic candle. Ward panicked and called a poison control hotline. It's OK, they said. There's no danger. Just give her plenty of water and she'll be fine. And she was.

Ward had never spanked Jaida. Never thought about it. Never wanted to, but now he considered it. When Ward maneuvered his hand for the possible spanking, Jaida saw it, and then said: "Hi five!" Again, he melted. No spanking. Not this time. Probably not ever.

This is the day in the life of an NFL dad. It's getting kids ready for school, learning the alphabet, and soccer practice. It's swim meets, homework and catch in the backyard. It's being a good father to a daughter who likes to snack on candles.

The state of fatherhood in 21st century football remains one of the biggest topics in the sport; discussed as much privately by players as nearly any other subject. Players face a parental landscape far more complicated than the average American dad and more layered than situations involving former players like Travis Henry.

It was Henry who only a few years ago became a faux symbol of the NFL dad after fornicating himself out of football by having nine kids with nine different women across four states. Henry was a caricature, and while issues of paternity and wedlock remain viable across all of sports the current snapshot of NFL fatherhood post-Henry is far more complex.

Four NFL fathers spoke to CBSSports.com about the modern state of football fatherhood: Ward (one daughter), Arizona's Jay Feely (four children), Seattle's Chester Pitts (two) and San Diego's Philip Rivers (expecting his sixth child).

Those four are cited by many other NFL players as exemplary dads. Despite the group being a mix of ethnicities, political backgrounds, and marital statuses they each had the same message: the NFL father is changing beyond the Henry stereotype and into a newer area of fatherhood where more players are taking responsibility for the children in their lives while gaining a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a father.

"Fathers in the NFL are portrayed one way publicly and that portrayal is not always accurate," said Pitts, an offensive lineman for the Seahawks. "We're not a bunch of bums that don't take care of our kids."

Ward said: "There are good fathers and there are bad fathers in the NFL just like in society. But my bottom line has always been if the individual wants to do right by their kid, they'll do it."

This is the picture of the NFL father that emerges based on interviews: genuinely seeking a balance between fatherhood and football; worries their stardom can impact their kids' safety; and is more committed to remaining in their kids' lives post-divorce or breakup.

Ward said he remains friends with his daughter's mother, for the sake of Jaida. "There are guys who want nothing to do with the exes," he said. "But keeping a positive relationship with Jaida's mom is important for Jaida, so I do it."

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The portrait of the NFL father isn't without blemishes or unhappy endings. Several players and league officials said the issue of players having children out of wedlock remains a problem. This isn't a surprise since the NFL is some 60 percent black, and government statistics say 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock. While Henry was a gross anomaly, some NFL players nonetheless may not be shielded from that stubborn issue within the Black community.

Infidelity, in some cases, also remains a problem. "Some players still [expletive] around too much, to be sure," said one player, "and this fact threatens standings as fathers and husbands."

"The quickest path to financial and personal ruin is infidelity," Feely said. "No question there are some women who want to sleep with an athlete regardless of the fact that they are married. The only way to combat the problem is to deny accessibility. Don't put yourself in situations where you will inevitably fail. If I put out a dessert every night at some point I'm going to eat it. If you consistently go to clubs or talk to women on Facebook, you will inevitably fail to temptation. I try not to put myself in those situations."

Some players still cite the tragic case of quarterback Steve McNair as a cautionary tale. McNair was shot dead, police said, by a longtime mistress. McNair was married at the time of his death and had been for 12 years.

But overall there remains a sense that NFL fatherhood is in a better place now than it has been certainly since Henry -- and perhaps longer.

"We have advantages as football players, but we also have that same balancing act between work and kids that everyone else has," said Rivers whose wife, Tiffany, is expecting their sixth child.

Rivers skipped the Pro Bowl last year because of the birth of his daughter Sarah.

"Most guys in the NFL make that balance work," he said.

In many ways, Pitts is one of the NFL's great fatherhood success stories. He has two children (14 and 5) and became a dad at 16. Pitts beat the odds facing a young single father and today, all these years later, is viewed as an exemplary dad by Seahawks teammates.

"I made the decision to bring kids into this world," he said, "so I have to live up to that responsibility. I think a lot of fathers in football feel the same way."

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