The Secret Lives of the Players' Wives
Kim Brown doesn't know where she is. Her husband picked her up from Logan last night and brought her here, to his unassuming condo in an unassuming complex in Norton. But she doesn't know the address. Doesn't know the phone number, either. So forget about navigating the local roads to grab some lunch.
And, anyway, if it were up to her, she'd rather eat at McDonald's than this tablecloth-and-cutlery establishment. She'd also rather be in sweatpants. As it is, she's decked out in slim jeans and a chic brocade jacket — but don't let that fool you. “I'm a bargain shopper. Everything I buy is on sale. People are like, Why don't you go to Saks? I'm like, why? I can get the same thing at Marshalls for a lot cheaper,” she says without a touch of flush creeping across her perfect caffè latte complexion. “I shop at the same places I shopped at when I didn't have a dime.”
Of course, Kim Brown has vast piles of dimes these days, married as she is to former Patriots star wide receiver Troy Brown — not that his fat salary and endorsement payola have changed the way they live. “He never made a lot of money as a football player until recently, so we said that we'll create a lifestyle that we can maintain when this is all gone,” she says. “So we live way below our means. When he finishes playing football or if something happens, we can maintain our lifestyle on my salary. We just decided that's how we're going to live.”
And the way they live, well, that's just flat-out logistical Ping-Pong. She works as a chemist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and raises their two young sons in West Virginia, a place where Troy lives only two months a year. She does fly to Boston at least once a month and burns up the phone lines every night, but, still, it's hard. “From April all the way to February he's gone, either part-time or full-time. Then this year, because of the Super Bowl, he was gone all the time doing public appearances — so we didn't see much of Troy this year.”
In other words, she says as she picks over some crab cakes, don't think this superstar life is all glitz. “The pressure is unbelievable. He's played this game for 12 years, and every day he comes home wondering, 'Am I gonna have a job tomorrow?' And I wouldn't wish that on anybody. People don't realize the stress. They think, 'Oh, they just go out there and play football and there's nothing to worry about.' You're worrying that you're going to be able to walk in five years. Taking all the hits — is your mind going to be right? It's not what people think it is. They can think it's wonderful and glamorous, but we don't think like that.”
Certainly not these days. Barely a month after her husband won the Super Bowl, culminating a season in which one Globe sportswriter called him the greatest Patriot to ever play the game, Troy Brown was unceremoniously released from the team. Without even a courtesy call.
It's all part of the sometimes wonderful but not always glamorous world of being the wife of a professional athlete.
Sure, there are Playboy Playmates (Mike Piazza's wife), Swedish uberbabes (Tiger Woods's wife, among the many), and pampered young things (can you say poor, predictable Vanessa Bryant?). But those wife-of-a-pro-athlete images don't square with women like Kim Brown, Bianca Wilfork, Karen Varitek, and Kristin Mirabelli. They're all age-appropriate, literate, and fully clothed in public. They're moms. Soccer moms, really. And barring the playful diamond and gemstone concoctions anchoring the talon-tipped fingers of Bianca Wilfork, there's no Bennifer bling to be found. These women look and act like they could be married to your brother. In other words, not like starry-eyed groupies who bagged their multimillion-dollar superstars and morphed into yet more trophies for them.
For the most part, that's because their husbands weren't stars when they got together. Karen Varitek met Jason, now Red Sox catcher and team captain, her junior year at the University of Georgia through a sorority sister who grew up with him. “If someone had told me I would [marry a baseball player], I would have never believed it,” she says.
Kristin Mirabelli — an easygoing blonde who played college softball — met Doug, also a Red Sox catcher, their freshman year at Wichita State. “The athletes just kind of stayed together,” she says. “Sort of like a sorority or fraternity — we had the same parties.”
Bianca Wilfork was a 23-year-old single mom working two jobs — one at Taco Bell — when Vince, the Patriots' first-round draft pick last year, contacted her through the website www.blackplanet.com. He was a freshman at the University of Miami, saw her web page, and wrote, simply, “My name is Vince. Call me.” “I was busting my ass for real,” she says, having recently kicked out her son's father. But having grown up in football-crazy Gainesville, Florida, she had major reservations when she found out Vince played ball. “I didn't want to date a football player,” she says. “Not to be stereotypical, but they're whores.” Still, for some reason, she did call, they met (and she found out that Wilfork actually weighed more like 350 pounds, as opposed to the 220 he had claimed), and have been together ever since. And while the other players stayed out all night at strip joints, 20-year-old Vince was home with Bianca. “I was like, what homework do you have? Don't you have a paper that's due? I would be in contact with his teachers,” she says. “I was like, don't screw up with school.”
Kim Brown, who is seven years older than Troy, was already out of college when they met at a party his junior year at Marshall University. They danced, even though Kim says “he was kinda nerdy looking.” A gunfight broke up the party, but Troy scored Kim's phone number by tricking her friend into giving it to him. “I had a job, I was starting my career, and I thought, well, maybe I shouldn't be dating a guy in college. But he was so sweet. I had just bought a new little sports car, and I think that's why he liked me, because I had a nice car,” Kim says, laughing. Though Troy played football when they met, he was no standout that first year they were together. “He was just a football player and that didn't matter to me. I didn't care,” she says.
Normal stuff, meeting their future husbands. But folding their lives into their spouses' major-league dreams demanded major adjustment and sacrifice. Karen Varitek quit her advertising gig in Atlanta after getting engaged to Jason in 1996. Though he was still in the minors, she wanted to be with him. “It was hard to leave home, though,” she says of her move to Tacoma, Washington, for Triple-A ball. “That was the farthest I had ever been away from home. My sister had her first baby and I wasn't there for the birth and that was really hard. But it's just the way it is. You just do it,” she says.
Bianca Wilfork had only three days to set up a new life in Franklin for her family after Vince was drafted by the Patriots last April — a month after he and Bianca exchanged vows in Las Vegas in front of a film crew from the NFL Network. It's been a difficult adjustment for this “Hey, y'all!” southern girl. “People up here are rude,” she says of New Englanders. “That was the hardest thing for me moving up here.”
It's a little easier when Vince is around. “It's different, because we're in an Escalade, he has diamonds on his neck, he's big, he's black — in this area where there's maybe four black kids that go to my son's school — so he's got to be somebody,” she says. “So it's a different reception.” Of course, that, in and of itself, “is very hard to deal with.”
For Kim and Troy Brown, it took seven years of dating — four while he was with the Pats — before they realized that they could mesh their lives, even if they were separated by 800 miles. She looked at his NFL gig as a quixotic quest; he expected her to quit her job and marry into his. “I love my job, and I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world,” Kim Brown says of her career. “For financial reasons I don't have to work, but for my peace of mind and for my own self-worth, I have to work, and he understands that.” Once he got it, they married in 1997. Two short weeks later, “he had to go to minicamp, and he was gone for the year.”
That might be the hardest part of being the wife of a professional athlete: Your husband's gone all the time. To try to retain some semblance of normality, these women have been forced to tailor pretty unconventional lifestyles.
Karen Varitek and Kristin Mirabelli say they live nearly identical lives — namely, they live in three different states during the course of the year. “We're professional movers,” Mirabelli says. During the off-season, from October to February, home for the Variteks is Georgia, for the Mirabellis, Michigan — where the women have extended families. They consider those their “real” homes.
“We always laugh that we have two lives,” Karen Varitek says. “We have our lives at home during the off-season, and you don't really talk to your baseball friends until the season starts again.” They both love the off-season. Their husbands are around, “so I can do my own thing and he can watch the kids,” Varitek says. “Whereas during the season we really are on their schedule. They have to be at the field at a certain time, they have to be out of town from this time to this time. So in the winter, it's really kind of our time.”
That might seem a little schizophrenic, but Varitek says it's just normal. It helps that the couple's children are only in preschool, because come March, they pack up and head to Fort Myers for spring training. Each April, they pack up again and move to Newton for the long season. A juggling act, to be sure. “You try to make it as normal as you can while you're here,” Mirabelli says. “Then we go home and try to make it normal there.”
Of course, with their husbands playing ball most of the year, a “normal” married existence for these wives more closely resembles the life of a single woman. Varitek went to her high school reunion alone; Mirabelli almost always does weddings solo. Kim Brown even had to induce her sons' births around her husband's schedule. (Troy arrived an hour before she delivered their youngest and had to jet off the next day.)
It's the family life, rather than married life, that suffers most. “It's been tough especially since we had kids because they want to see their daddy. Troy misses his kids desperately,” says Brown. Varitek adds, “[They] get used to him being home and then all of a sudden Daddy's leaving again, and they don't like that so much.”
While the families wait patiently for the off-season, well, that's not all it's cracked up to be either. “When Troy's home, I'll come home from work, there'll be bowls with hard oatmeal sitting in the kitchen. The kids won't have any clothes on; they're just running around half naked. Nothing's done, the bed's not made, and I'm like, what have you been doing all day?” Brown says. “And just when I'm getting used to him being there, he has to go.”
But hold the violins. “We can hardly complain,” says Varitek. “We can't complain about our life. We don't have a bad life. It's just a different life.”
With her husband having signed a $40 million contract with the Red Sox, Karen Varitek's life is different indeed. “We've been really lucky,” she says simply.
Bring up the big bucks, and the women say they're blessed. “It provides a lot, coming from where I had to work and I had to worry. The only time you'll see me at Taco Bell again is if I'm ordering a burrito,” Wilfork says, laughing. “But we live within our means. Now our means are a little higher, but we live within them.” They do that, she says, because this money has to last forever.
Sure there's the new Chrysler 300C with the Mrs. 75 tags (“it's so Mafia,” Wilfork says, pointing to the release latch inside the trunk) and the fancy purses (“My first Gucci!” she squeals, holding up her bag). Still, Wilfork claims, “If I wanted something before, I'd take my ass to work and get it. So it's not a big deal to me. I've always been self-sufficient.”
With the salaries these women's husbands make, they could live pampered lives of visits to luxurious spas and leisurely lunches and shopping binges. “But I don't just sit around and twiddle my thumbs and get my hair done and spend lots of money shopping,” says Brown. And forget nannies and maids. “I don't have any of that,” she says. “I have me. If it weren't for convenience food, my kids wouldn't eat.” Brown doesn't even have a joint checking account with Troy. “If I want to splurge on something, I'll use my own money,” she adds. “I've never known what it would be like for someone to take care of me.”
The Red Sox wives, on the other hand, do get taken care of. Karen Varitek says she's fortunate she hasn't had to work since she was married. “I always say it was meant to be for us to be together,” she says, “because I never had this need or desire to do a certain career and I think it would have been really hard to keep our marriage together if I was off doing all my stuff with his crazy life, too.” That's not to say that she and Kristin Mirabelli do nothing. The amount of time they put into charity work rivals any 9-to-5 full-time slog.
These women consider their husbands' careers to be their careers, too. It's always when we won the Super Bowl, when we were drafted, when we won the World Series. “His only job is to play football,” says Wilfork. “I do everything else. I talk to the people at the Patriots more than he does.” As head of Wilfork Enterprises, she also coordinates her husband's schedule for autograph signings and such.
Still, the stereotypes remain, and they can be hard to deal with. “Our life is very normal — we go to Costco,” says Mirabelli (although, adds Varitek, when you're a player's wife, you have to make sure you brush your hair first). But that's not what other people expect, and deflecting that can be difficult. “I think the biggest thing I notice is friends who I haven't seen in a long time [wondering], 'Has she changed? Is she different?'” says Varitek.
That's not the only stereotype these women have to deal with. In a post-Kobe world, everyone assumes that athletes' long absences involve on-the-road hanky-panky. Perhaps surprisingly, these women say they don't worry about that. Groupies throwing themselves at their husbands is just part of their lives. “It's hard to say you get used to it, but it's kinda like you just have to deal with it,” Varitek says. “Everyone's got to understand, though, that he's a married guy with a family.” She says she knows about other guys on the team cheating. “But after talking to friends, I've pretty much figured out that it happens in the business world, too. [Our husbands] do have more opportunity because they're away a lot, but so do businessmen who travel.” Anyway, she says, she and Jason are strong Christians who go to Bible study even during the season (along with the Mirabellis). “And that's really what keeps us going: our faith in God, and you've gotta have faith in each other and trust each other.”
“Even though I know that I am not out of a Glamour magazine, I'm not a model, I'm not a size 8, I don't worry about that at all,” says Wilfork. She adds that she would have “shoved that $4 million ring [that Kobe bought his wife] right up his ass.”
The women are all too aware that this life — the sacrifice and the glory — can end at any time. “The one thing that everyone says with baseball is that you have to enjoy it, because it's not going to be forever,” Varitek says. “We can complain about it with each other, but we would all miss it if it was gone.”
“I think about that a lot because for most of our married life we have not been together full-time,” Kim Brown said before she learned her husband was released. “I tell my friends all the time, 'Well, when Troy retires we're probably going to get divorced because we don't know how to live together,'” she says, laughing. “We're not. It's going to be hard. It's going to be a transition. But we'll work it out. I'll kick him out to find a job, and we'll work different shifts so we'd never be together.”
She knows the end will be bittersweet. “There's a part of me that will be happy when this is over so he doesn't have to go through [the stress] anymore,” she said. “And then there's a part of me that's like, this is what he wants to do so I don't want it to be over because I want him to keep doing what he loves to do.”
Christiane Bourque knows the feeling intimately. But as she sits in the mahogany library of her enormous house in Topsfield — with her Hockey Hall of Fame husband, Ray Bourque, milling about and shushing their two Shih Tzus — she couldn't be happier.
Until four years ago, Christiane Bourque was where these women are now. Her sacrifices may have been even greater. After marrying Ray at 21 (they knew each other from the time they were 11-year-olds growing up near Montreal), she left her six siblings, left her job, and moved to Boston so he could play for the Bruins. She spoke not one word of English. She couldn't work because she didn't have a visa. “It was really hard,” she recalls with her French accent.
During the interminable season — stretching from September to April — Ray would be gone a lot, sometimes away two weeks at a clip. It was a huge adjustment, Christiane says. With three children, she felt like a single mother eight months out of the year. “That was my job for the 22 years that he played,” she says. “I was always behind him and always supportive of him.”
She loved her life. But still. “I didn't have a job. I didn't have something for myself,” she says. “For me, just to have my husband and my three children, they're healthy, we're happy, that's all I needed at the moment. But I remember being a little girl, and my dream always was to have something for myself.”
When Ray retired, she started talking about her desire to open a spa. “I said I would like to have my dream now. You did it for 25 years, and now it's my turn.” In March, she opened Maison Esthetique Christiane Bourque Spa, a high-end European-style beauty spa, in Danvers. “I couldn't have done it without him. He's doing it with me,” she says. “Now it's his turn to be behind me. It's our project together, just like his career was.”
“Ray had his career,” she says. “And now he's giving me my dream.”