The longest huddle of Matthew Stafford’s life took place not on a field but in a hospital waiting area. He was surrounded not by teammates, but by family. He wore no pads nor helmet, only street clothes. And the clock was winding down by hours instead of seconds.
What lay ahead for Stafford was not a distant end zone, but the rest of his wife’s life, and his life, and their children’s lives. In other words, his entire future.
“Did any part of you, while that was going on, say, 'We may have to change everything?' ” I asked Stafford over the phone last week.
“No question,” he said.
“And were you prepared, if you had to, to give up playing football?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I would have done anything.”
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has fun with his daughters Sawyer and Chandler while Kelly Stafford watches after training camp Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in Allen Park.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has fun with his daughters Sawyer and Chandler while Kelly Stafford watches after training camp Wednesday, July 31, 2019 in Allen Park. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
The NFL season will start today for the Detroit Lions, and the 31-year-old Stafford, entering his second decade in the league, will be scrutinized once again for how far he can take them. But let’s set the stage for the things he’ll be asked to do today, and slot it against what he was asked to do this offseason, when Kelly, his wife of four years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required quick and delicate surgery — with no guarantee of success.
Matthew and Kelly ran into the offseason the way they usually do, with plans for relaxation and enjoying the kids, now three of them, all girls, Hunter, born last August, joining the twins Chandler and Sawyer, who were approaching their second birthdays.
But something wasn’t right. Kelly was suffering dizzy spells, nearly falling over multiple times.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in a photo with his three daughters, Chandler, Hunter and Sawyer.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in a photo with his three daughters, Chandler, Hunter and Sawyer. (Photo: Kelly Stafford)
“Things that I had been doing my entire life,” she posted on Instagram, “were now, all of a sudden, difficult.” They thought it was vertigo. An MRI was suggested. The results revealed something worse: an acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous tumor that develops on the main nerve from the inner ear to the brain.
“It’s frightening when you get that diagnosis,” Matthew admitted. “And frankly I’m not the one getting it. The person you love the most is getting it, and that’s tough. I’m not a naturally great empathizer, and I was trying to figure out what was the best way to make her feel OK.”
There wasn’t much time. The tumor had to come out. It was a matter of weeks from the diagnosis to the scheduling of surgery. And before they knew it, the couple were on their way to University of Michigan Hospital, about to face the first serious medical threat of their young lives.
“It was such a stark difference between the morning and night of that day,” Stafford recalled. “Anybody looking from afar when (Kelly) walked in wouldn’t have had any idea what was wrong with her.”
She was brave upon arrival, but had predicted to her husband that the hardest part of the surgery preparation “is going to be when they take me away from you and my family.” When that happened, as it happens to anyone who has gone through such an ordeal, Matthew said, “I was trying to do everything I could to pull it together.”