Eagles and their kids balance love of football and family

Darren Sproles has two daughters. Like the 69,594 other fans who filled Lincoln Financial Field two weeks ago, Devyn and Rhyan Sproles watched their father get pummeled by Redskins safety Deshazor Everett.

"They didn't know what was going on," the Eagles running back said of his daughters, ages 7 and 4. "But when they saw me after the game, they were like: 'OK.' "

Sproles, who was knocked out and suffered a concussion, said his daughters don't know anything about head injuries. His wife, Michel, does.

"That's why when I went in the locker room that was the first call I made, to tell her I was fine because she worries," Sproles said last week. "She's a worrier."

Sproles said recently that his wife would like him to retire. He said that his most recent concussion - he suffered another in 2007 - hasn't made him more inclined to call it a career. But the 33-year-old running back said last month, before the injury, that if there was anything that would have him hang up his cleats this offseason it was fatherhood.

"When your kids get to a certain age, you really want to be there for them all the time," Sproles said. "The reason why I wasn't here during the spring as much was my little girl was running track. So if I missed a track meet she feels bad about it. In the offseason, I really try to spend a lot of time with them."

The seasons, though, are difficult. There are 19 players on the Eagles who are fathers. While almost all of them said that becoming a father made them more motivated to play football and play it at a higher level, they also conceded that being a professional athlete and parent - especially for those living with their children - can be a struggle.

The Vikings' Terrence Newman, who at 38 is the oldest cornerback in the NFL by five years, recently acknowledged in a New York Times story that being single and childless has had some influence on his longevity. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who is married with a daughter, said that he, too, would try and last as long as Newman, if single.

"For all the guys I know with kids that have transitioned out of the league, when it has been time to leave, all of them have looked forward to more time with their kids," Jenkins said. "I don't know if that was the determinate factor to walk away from the game, but it definitely makes walking away from the game a little easier."

There are certainly benefits, the players admit. Many are able to provide more than they ever had as children. Their sons and daughters have experiences few children will ever enjoy. They're famous, after all, and even a losing season in Philadelphia doesn't make the Eagles that much less beloved.

The offseason also allows for the fathers to make up for time lost. But there are negatives. The weeks and days are long during the season. Weekends and the big holidays, like Christmas, typically, are work days. In most cases, players rarely stay with the same team over their entire careers, even if they last longer than the 31/2-year average. So families are often in transit.

Allen Barbre, who has two sons, started his career in Green Bay, and had brief stops in Miami and Seattle, before settling in Philly in 2013. He maintains a property in Missouri, were he was born and raised, but his wife, Callie, and his sons, Knox and Beau, have been here with him during the season.

The Barbres have yet to decide where to send Knox to kindergarten next year because his father's future with the Eagles isn't guaranteed. Allen Barbre eventually plans to settle in Missouri. He's building a home on his land, but on the day after Thanksgiving the shop where he and his wife were storing most of their belongings burned down in an accident.

"There was quite a bit of personal stuff. All my football memories and stuff like that over my career," Barbre said. "I try not to let it bother me. I was pretty upset at first."

So was Knox. Most of his toys were destroyed in the fire.

"He knows what he lost," Barbre said.

Sproles, who started his career in San Diego before trades to New Orleans and the Eagles, still resides in Southern California. For the first time in his career his wife and daughters haven't lived with him during the season. The Sproleses wanted Devyn, who is in first grade, to stay in the same elementary school throughout.

This offseason, the Eagles extended Sproles' contract through 2017. There was a report that he missed voluntary workouts because he wanted more money, but he said that his reasons for staying away were strictly familial. Sproles has said that when it comes to retirement he's taking it one season at a time.

"I'm not going to let the kids decide. But my wife is like that now," Sproles said. "The thing is, I still love the game, and I'm still chasing the ring. It's kind of tough at times, though."

Give and take

Like any other cross section of society, there is no rhyme or unified reason why the Eagles' 19 fathers decided to procreate. Many said they always knew they wanted to become fathers. For some, the birth of their children wasn't planned. Ten remain single, although a few are together or engaged to the mother. Nine are married.

Trey Burton's daughter, Ariella, was born just days before he was to play in the 2013 Sugar Bowl during his junior season at Florida. The tight end and his wife, Yesenia, also have a 2-year-old son, Jaxon, and are expecting another daughter.

"I grew up without a father, so having kids was something that I was really looking forward to, especially at a young age, just knowing that I wanted to have the energy to be able to run around and play with them," Burton said. "I just knew the void that I was missing in my life without having a dad."

Nigel Bradham also grew up without a father. Like fellow linebacker Najee Goode, whose daughter was born in June, Bradham said that his son, Nasir, has given him a boost on Sundays.

"You're always playing for your name, but when you have a child you want to leave even more of a legacy," Bradham said. "So when he grows up people will be like, 'Your dad was something at football. He was the guy.' "

Brandon Graham said that he wanted to have a child early enough in his career so that he or she could be old enough to see him play. The defensive end and his wife, Carlyne, welcomed daughter Emerson into the world in February. The timing was no accident. They had planned for an offseason birth.

Brent Celek, whose daughter, Odessa, was born in April, said that he and his wife, Celeste, took the same approach. Goode said that he lucked out because, aside from a three-day minicamp, he didn't have a team commitment for the first month-and-a-half of his daughter's life.

But some deliveries can't be planned.

Matt Tobin's wife, Shawna, went into labor three weeks early, the day after the Monday night Packers game last month. The Eagles were off, but she didn't have their daughter, Reese, until early Wednesday morning. Tobin said that he sent text messages to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and Eagles director of security Dom DiSandro, informing them that he would miss that day's practice.

"They didn't say don't come in, but they didn't say stay there either," Tobin said. "And even the next day they didn't say anything. I just came in on time. But I don't think they would have been upset if I didn't show up."

Sleep is precious during the season, so most of the players said they hardly ever get up in the middle of the night for feedings or to care for stirring babies. Bradham and his fiance had their son in September 2014 at the start of his third NFL season.

"It was during the season for me, so I'm like, 'I can't get up. I can't. I got to go to work. Just take care of the baby,' " Bradham said. "And that's the way we've been playing it. At first she didn't like it, but she made the adjustment."

There are many adjustments that need to be made during the season. The players, during a normal work week, have just Mondays off. Wednesdays and Thursdays are the longest days. But schedules are subjective. A quarterback is going to have to spend more time at the NovaCare Complex than, say, the punter. Some players work out more or watch more film than others, too.

"Some guys when they're done here they go home and they're present. Somebody like myself, I've got to take care of my body, I've got to watch extra tape," Jenkins said. "I try to set it up so that when I do go home, I can actually be present. So I might get home at 7."

Donnie Jones said that he's usually home by 4 p.m. - early enough to help his 9-year-old son, Weston, and 7-year-old daughter, Addison, with homework. The 36-year-old punter has been an NFL father for more seasons than not.

"A lot of things you miss," Jones said. "Like if [Weston] is playing a football game on Saturday, you're in-season and we're [at the NovaCare]. We're busy Sundays. But on the flip side, you have several months off in the offseason when you can be there and be hands on. There's give and take."

Dad's help

Burton said that he likes to carve out family time on Monday off days. So he'll set up dates with his wife or his daughter, who likes to go to the movies. On some days, he'll head to an indoor trampoline park with safety Chris Maragos and his two sons, Micah and Mason.

The players are often sore the day after games or tired after physically exerting themselves all day at practice. Maragos said that his sons don't often know when not to jump on him. Five-year-old Micah, his oldest, is the Energizer Bunny of the family.

"All he wants to do is play when I get home," Maragos joked. "And I'm like, 'Man, I just got done playing for the last however long.' That's my job."

But the job has its perks. Most of the fathers bring their children to home games, particularly for 1 p.m. starts. Sometimes they'll get to hang out together on the field before or after. Families sit in Section 120. Goode and his daughter share the same birthday. He said he wears two wristbands during the games with the words "Geminis" and "June 5" emblazoned on them.

"Just before every kickoff I look up to [Section 120] to see if I can see them," Goode said. "And in the Minnesota game I did."

There's a room under the Linc stands, not far from the Eagles locker room, reserved for families. But when the players run through the tunnel after the game, the wives and children are barricaded off to the side. Burton, after the Redskins game two weeks ago, broke through to kiss both his wife and children.

Dorial Green-Beckham's son, Drelyn, lives with his mother in Missouri. They aren't a couple, but he said they remain best friends. She brought Drelyn to Philly to see his father play in the Packers game. And Green-Beckham's stepparents brought his 1-year-old son to Dallas when the Eagles played there in October.

The Eagles receiver said that he communicates with Drelyn daily during the season via video call. He said that he thinks his son knows what he does for living.

"They sent me a video after I scored a touchdown [against the Seahawks] and he was just excited, screaming," Green-Beckham said. "So I'm pretty sure he knows what's going on. I think he can point me out on TV."

The players say their children, of course, are all Eagles fans. Jenkins' daughter, Elle, will often wear team garb to preschool and talk about Daddy's job to the teachers. She weaves the Eagles fight song into almost every other song she sings, per her father.

Maragos' eldest son is old enough to remember when his father played for the Seahawks. The seventh-year safety signed a contract extension in October that could potentially keep him in Philly through 2019. The news went over well with Micah Maragos.

"He was all excited," Chris Maragos said. "He was like, 'So I get to keep wearing my Eagles jersey? I can still do the Eagles chant?' "

Maragos' son just started playing flag football. Almost all the Eagles fathers who have sons said that they have enjoyed playing the sport with their sons once they're old enough, but that they don't force it. Barbre said that his youngest son hasn't taken to football, though.

"I think it's tough on him," Barbre said. "Sometimes I'm around. Sometimes I'm not around. I don't think he wants to like football because he knows it takes me away. I understand that. He'll probably change his opinion on that. But if you asked him right now if he wanted to play football, he'd say no."

Jones is the only father on the team with a son who is already playing tackle football. He said that his 9-year-old plays multiple positions, but like dad, has an affinity for punting.

"But he doesn't want any of dad's help. I don't know anything about it," Jones said. "He wants to do it on his own. He's got a really good leg."

None of the fathers interviewed for this story said they would not allow their sons to play tackle football. Maragos said that he planned to wait until third or fourth grade before he allowed Micah to play. He said there was almost nothing to be gained by starting earlier, but he thought the technological advancements in equipment have helped to decrease head injuries.

"When I first started playing tackle football it was a little doughnut," Maragos said as he pointed inside his own Eagles helmet. "There were like a couple of foam pads and then the shell of the helmet."

There likely wasn't any kind of padding that could have prevented Sproles' concussion. He said he doesn't have to worry about his daughters' wanting to play football, although he may not be able to stop them even if they tried.

"I'm not hard on them," Sproles said. "In fact, I spoil them."

The Eagles are one of four NFL teams fortunate enough not to play on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year. So the players, many of them for the first time in their careers, had the holiday weekend off. Sproles' family flew in this week and his daughters will wake up Sunday to presents.

"But the big stuff is back in California," Sproles said. "A doll house, bikes, and all kinds of stuff."

Barbre's son, Knox, asked Santa for the toys he lost in the fire.

"There was a scooter, skateboard, and pogo stick," Barbre said.

There's a good chance a big man with a beard will tuck those toys under the Barbre tree early Christmas morning.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane