Jeff Pearlman

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Dawn Neufeld

#74
She was a cast member of the short-lived VH1 series, Football Wives. But, away from the camera, life alongside a retired athlete ain't glamorous or easy. POSTED November 1, 2012

If life, itself, is random, than life on the Web is 8 million times more random.

In other words: A couple of weeks ago I was tooling around Twitter when I happened upon a political comment from Dawn Neufeld, TV personality/former Football Wives cast member/wife of retired NFL tight end Ryan Neufeld.

I replied, she replied back, I replied again, she replied back, I mentioned The Quaz … and here we are. With, what the wife and I both consider to be the most riveting, most complete of 74 Q&As to appear on this website.

Pre-political Tweet, I’d never heard of Dawn or, for that matter, Football Wives. What I discovered, though, is an absolutely wonderful woman—intelligent, deep, open, understanding. Here, she speaks—in detail—about the complexities of being married to a professional athlete; about the complexities (and difficulties—as well as joys) of raising an Autistic son; about the myths that come along with an NFL career, as well as the painful aftermath. Dawn, Ryan and their two beautiful children live in Texas, where she practices law and appears in myriad media ventures. Her fantastic blog can be visited here, and you can follow Dawn on Twitter here.

Dawn Neufeld, Queen of Quaz, the forum is yours …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m gonna start with a question that I’m sure many people wonder, even if they don’t ask to your face. You’re a licensed attorney with, clearly, a rather large and functioning brain. You’re a college grad, a law school grad. In short, you’re accomplished. So why, two years ago, did you agree to be a cast member of VH1’s Football Wives? I mean, I’m looking at the show’s website, and I’m immediately hit with an unflattering photo alongside the headline DAWN EXPLODES WHEN MELANIE JOINS TEAM PILAR. What, exactly, were the benefits? Was it money? Exposure? Fame? Ego? Fun? I don’t mean this as any sort of insult—just genuinely curious.

DAWN NEUFELD: All of the above …

I had a couple of reasons for appearing on the show. The primary reason for doing it was to show our reality, that life as a “football wife” isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. We’re not all driving around in $100,000 cars living in 20,000 sq.ft. mansions. We don’t all shop at Neimans and have nannies taking care of our kids. Our lives are actually pretty normal – we have the same struggles as everyone else. Our husbands get injured. They lose their jobs. We have financial problems.  Ryan and I were very candid on the show about the struggles were were facing post-football. If it could happen to us, it could happen to anybody. A lot of our football friends thanked us for telling it like it is.

I actually think though that being too real was one of the reasons the show wasn’t renewed for a second season—people want to believe that our lives are all glitz, glamour and fighting. What they got was some real life with a little production thrown in the mix and next thing you know we were being called depressing and churchy. I thought I cussed enough on the show to be called anything but churchy. It’s all good though. In a way, I guess you can say we accomplished what we set out to do—to show that in football, the highs are high, but the lows can be really, really low and some people just weren’t interested in that.

Ryan and I also appreciated the international platform the show gave us to spread autism awareness. Our son, Will, was diagnosed around the age of 3 and we hoped that our story could help others dealing with it. We got tons of messages from people thanking us for sharing that aspect of our lives. People were getting their children evaluated or talking to friends about the impairment. We were definitely able to spread awareness by participating on the show.

I have a television background and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. We were riding the coattails of Basketball Wives and knew the exposure would be tremendous. Appearing on the show definitely provided me with new opportunities. And there were definitely perks–an all-expense paid trip to NYC was one of them. But most importantly, I have an amazing group of friends I wouldn’t otherwise have because of the show (aside: that group does not include Pilar Sanders. Or is it Pilar Biggers? Maybe she’ll keep Sanders. Who the hell knows …)

I am not a fan of how the show was edited at all though. I think the producers tried to focus too much on drama between the women instead of what our lives are really like. The fights and disagreements seemed forced (they were in some situations) because most of us got along for the most part and people just weren’t buying it. Melani Ismail, wife of Rocket Ismail, has actually said she thinks I was unfairly portrayed in the show (she’s the one I was yelling at in that picture—we’re incredibly good friends now). I knew editing was going to be involved—people only watch shows like that because of the drama. Someone had to be the bad guy, and in some situations, that was me. I’d do it again in a heartbeat—I’d be a little smarter about some of my choices the second time around though.

And yes, the pay was really good. It supported us that year.

J.P.: So I’m currently working on a book about a sports team where many of the wives seemed fully aware that, when their husbands were on the road, well, hey. Stuff happens, and they didn’t want to know. Your husband Ryan had a lengthy NFL career. I’m sure he, like all athletes, checked into hotels lined with women in the lobby; gained fame and attention for being young and athletic and handsome. I guess what I’m wondering is—does being married to a pro athlete require a high level a trust or a high level of acceptance of infidelity? Or neither?

D.N.: There was absolutely no acceptance of infidelity in our relationship. Ryan and I spent the first couple of years of his career apart—he was in Dallas with the Cowboys and I was in law school in California—so yes, there was definitely a high level of trust involved.  But before Ryan left for Dallas, I told him point blank—”If you cheat on me, I’ll find out. When I do, I will walk away and never look back. It would just mean we weren’t meant to be together. You might be able to find someone comparable to me, but you won’t find anyone much better. So if you think it’s worth it, you go right on ahead.” Yep, that was pretty much the speech word-for-word. I guess you can say I had a certain amount of self-confidence that allowed me to be comfortable with him being in the pro-sports world without me by his side all the time. Part of that confidence came from the fact that Ryan is such an amazing guy with an incredible faith-based foundation who was raised right by his parents. He never gave me any reason to be concerned.

J.P.: You are the reigning Mrs. Frisco, and have competed four times in the Mrs. Texas America pageant. The wife and I watch some of these reality-based pageant shows, usually with 8-year-old girls caked in makeup and dressed like brides, and want to vomit. How do you feel about pageants? The pageant world? Can one be involved and still disapprove?

D.N.: I’ve always loved watching pageants growing up—I guess you can say competing in one was on my bucket list. The first year I competed in Mrs. Texas, I was stressing out waiting for my Texas bar results and decided to enter so I didn’t lose my mind. I was also trying to lose a little bit of leftover baby weight too and having to strut across a stage in a bikini was great motivation to get to the gym. I enjoy the experience and make new friends every year which is why I keep going back. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually pull off a win. But Texas is a tough state—lots of women compete in the pageant that have been competing since they were kids. I’m the one that shows up with a Sonic chili cheese dog—I just go with the flow.

I’ve never been a big fan of child pageants. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with telling a 5-year old that she has to wear fake hair, fake teeth, fake eyelashes and a fake tan to be pretty. But I will say this—I judged two full glitz pageants recently and it gave me a new appreciation for the girls competing. What I saw behind all the makeup was a bunch of little girls and phenomenal young women who loved playing dress up and running around with their friends. A lot of the teen girls had been bullied, and participating in the pageant made them feel accepted and special. I think as long as the parents keep some perspective (i.e. they shouldn’t be spending $2,000 on a dress if they can’t afford a college fund for their kids), then why not?

I will say this—you won’t be seeing my daughter Bryn in any pageants any time soon.

J.P.: Your husband Ryan was a tight end who played for the Rhein Fire, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Seattle Seahawks, the Buffalo Bills, the Florida Tuskers and the Omaha Nighthawks. I always hear, “It must be so hard on [fill in the athlete’s name]. What I’m thinking is—it must have been REALLY hard on you and your family. How did you cope with the geographic instability?

D.N.: Don’t forget Dallas! That’s where the pro-football journey began! Ryan actually tried to figure out how many times we moved in a ten-year period. I think it was right around 10 times. And unless your traded, your moving expenses are out of pocket. The constant transition can be expensive. I was in law school Ryan’s first three years in the league, so he did a good portion of that moving around by himself. He was always living out of suitcases.

If you told me Ryan was going to spend five seasons with one team (Buffalo), I would’ve told you to stop lying. Even then, we couldn’t settle in—we moved four times just in Buffalo as our family expanded and our needs changed! But moving is part of the game. It’s rare for someone to have a pro-football career that didn’t involve moving.

You get really good at saying goodbye (and packing boxes) in the league. Leaving Buffalo was probably the hardest move. Both of our children were born there. We developed so many incredible relationships and ties to the community and the people working in that organization are a class act. I cried on our last plane out of western New York.

J.P.: You have a truly unique buffet of music video appearances on your resume. You were “Pool Girl” in n’Sync’s “U Drive Me Crazy,” “construction worker” in LL Cool J’s “Hot Hot Hot” and the Mermain in Snoop Dogg’s “Thug Girl.” Whenever I watch hiphop videos, and I see the hot woman withering around, I think (honestly, I do), “What is it really like for that woman?” So, Dawn, what’s it like?

D.N.: I went to college at UCLA and modeling was an easy way to generate income. There were always music videos casting. Some of the gigs were awesome! In the Thug Girl video, I got paid very well to swim around a tank for two days (I was a former competitive swimmer and was also a lifeguard). There were other videos that required a lot of “withering” that didn’t pay well. Those weren’t fun at all. I actually refused to audition for certain producers because I knew it wouldn’t be a good experience. Most were awesome experiences though. For the LL Cool J video I did, we played sexy construction workers. We basically got to play in the mud all day and get paid for it while LL was walking around. Not a bad day at the office.

I will say that groupies on set were inevitable. I didn’t have patience for them then and I certainly don’t have patience for them now. I think it’s pathetic to see grown women literally throwing themselves at a man because he’s famous or has money.

J.P.: I have some experience with TV, and it often strikes me as extremely surface and banal. It’s rarely about what’s said, and often about how it’s said. Interviews are conducted, and the interviewers rarely listen to the replies; they’re just thinking about the next question. You clearly want to make a career out of television. Why? What about the medium does it for you?

D.N.: I wouldn’t say I clearly want to or can make a career out of television. Sure would be nice though! The nature of the business is that every new interview or gig is going to be different from the last and the excitement of it all intrigues me. I’ve been in the industry since I was young. I appeared in episodes of Punky Brewster and Webster and just loved everything about the production of televisions shows. I realized several years ago I have a talent for hosting and I truly enjoy being able to interview people. I’m totally listening to what they are saying—if you can get good at really listening while being able to formulate your next question, your interviews become more interesting and meaningful.

My dream job would be to work on a show like The View. You can probably tell I’m pretty opinionated and I like keeping it real. I’d love to get paid to share my opinion on everything for politics to pop culture. I guess a Judge Judy kind of gig wouldn’t be so bad either.

But here’s the funny thing—I hate watching myself on television. I am my own worst critique and I’m pretty tough on myself. I always think I can improve and do something better. You will never here me say, “Hey, let’s pop in that interview with Mark Cuban and see how I did.”

J.P.: I know a lot of lawyers, and very few of them enjoy actually being lawyers. The story is often the same: I went to law school because I didn’t know what to do, found myself in the hole for $40,000, so I had to finish the three years. Then I became a lawyer because I needed to pay off the debt. And here I am. You are a corporate attorney with Graham, Bright and Smith in Dallas. Do you enjoy it? Are you passionate about law? And, if so, why?

D.N.: Good question (and I should probably be careful how I answer it). I always knew I wanted to become a lawyer. The law has always intrigued me—I think it all began on an elementary school trip standing on the steps of the Supreme Court. Shows like L.A. Law and The Practice were always fun to watch. I enjoyed trying to figure out how the lawyers were going to solve the case. Of course, the reality of practicing law is completely different from what we see on T.V. and in the movies. The hours are long, the work is difficult and it can take a lot out of you. But I’m good at what I do and don’t anticipate leaving the practice any time soon (unless one of those really good television gigs comes up).

J.P.: You met Ryan when both of you were undergrads at UCLA. But how, literally, did you meet? What’s the full story?

D.N.: Ryan and I actually met our first year of college—we had mutual friends and would run into each other occasionally. But we were both dating other people at the time so there was no chance of a connection as freshman. Then on the first day of our fourth year, we ran into each other in the student union and just started chatting. A couple days later, Ryan’s friend (and eventual best man) said he had a friend who was crazy about me. When he told me who, my first reaction was, “Really?” Ryan was the strong, silent type—he was a man of few words. I was surprised that he’d taken an interest in me. But we chatted on the phone that night and the rest, as they say, is history. He proposed the following year and we were married in 2001.

J.P.: You have 7,000-plus Twitter followers and a blog, The Gridiron Goddess, where you write regularly about your family and, particularly, your 8-year-old autistic son. I’m wondering how you came to the decision to write so freely about what many would consider to be personal matters. Also, it seems autism awareness is very important to you. What does the public, generally, not understand about autism?

D.N.: One of my mottos in life is—it is what it is. I have a son with autism. It’s hard. It kicks our asses sometime. We tried to go bowling a couple months ago and it was such hell that we all might’ve shed a tear or two by the time we got home. I tell my story because I want people to know that when I don’t tolerate bull and my patience level for ignorance is low, it’s because I’ve got this amazing kid with special needs at home who needs me. So my blog is about telling our story—this is me, things can be hard, but there are some really cool things going on in my life that I want to share with people.

I’ve always believed that God gives us our talents and challenges for a reason. If we can learn from our experiences and help others going through the same thing, then I believe it’s our responsible to share and be open because we can. Ryan’s position as an ex-football player and mine as a “television personality” provide us with a platform to spread as much awareness as we can about autism. We want people to know what to look for—babbling, pointing, eye contact—so that if they see anything worrisome they can get their child tested. Early intervention is key to helping out kiddos with autism.  Visit www.autismspeaks.org for information regarding signs to look for and steps to take if you suspect your child has autism.

What I’ve begun to realize recently is that people who haven’t dealt with autism don’t really know what it is. If you see commercials or ads for Autism Speaks or if you see my kid in pics, the kids are cute and happy. My son looks “normal.” I often think people think, “what’s the big deal?”

Well, we have no idea what kind of care Will will need the rest of his life. Which is why I say I can never, ever die. It’s just not an option because I need to be here to take care of him. Will is moderately affected by autism. He is learning to use language but he still sleeps in diapers at night and only learned to go number 2 on the potty recently. We have to tune out Will’s constant humming. Everytime we head out in public were worried if he’s going to fall out. We constantly get the stares—we get judged all the time. I’ve learned to give folks the side eye and keep it moving—I can’t get mad every time someone is ignorant. I don’t have time for that.

But Will is also such an amazing gift. He is the sweetest kid on the face of the Earth. He loves to sing and knows geography all over the world. He’s pretty much a genius. I cannot imagine my life without him. He’s accomplished so much that I can’t wait to see what’s to come. I even made a little youtube video about it recently. You should check it out.

J.P.: Much has been written about the physical and mental battles retired football players face. How is Ryan? Is he, physically, worse off than when he first entered the league? And how has he adjusted to life after the NFL? Hell, how have you adjusted?

D.N.: Ryan is hanging in there. His transition out of pro-football wasn’t easy. His last NFL season was ’07. He stayed in shape and was ready to go in case someone called the following season. They didn’t. In ’09, he had the chance to play for the Florida Tuskers of the UFL. It was a good experience for him but he got hurt. The UFL season is only 6 weeks long so he missed several games. The following year he went to camp with the Omaha Nighthawks and tore his PCL almost immediately. The constant injuries was the sign Ryan needed to hang up the cleats.

The years went by and Ryan was having difficult deciding what he wanted to do next. He tried some things here and there that never really panned out. I took and passed the Texas bar exam so I could go back to practicing. I wasn’t making enough to cover our expenses so we watched our savings quickly dwindle. It was scary. We thought we were prepared for the transition. Ryan had been forced out of football for two seasons before he ended up in Buffalo and he knew how hard the transition was then. We both vowed that it would be different. You can plan as much as you want but until you’re in the thick of it, it’s really hard to know how you’re going to handle it.

Ryan had a lot of injuries during football—plantar faciitis in both feet, torn PCLs in both knees, three hernia surgeries, the last of which resulted in a total pelvic floor rebuild, he broke just about every one of his fingers, he has a torn thoracic nerve in his left shoulder that keeps him from raising his arm above his shoulder, and his neck is so jacked up he pretty much has to turn his whole body if he wants to look to his left or right. There are other injuries and they’ve taken their toll. He is constantly stiff and in pain.

More troubling are some of the post-concussion issues we’ve seen more recently. Ryan develops migraines, is sensitive to light, has difficulty remembering things and finds it hard to focus on tasks. We realized he was having some issues that needed to be addressed when he failed the exam to get his teaching credential. This is a guy who used to be able to memorize a playbook—now it was difficult for him to remember eighth grade-level math. We knew he had some issues he needed to get checked out.

Ryan is now on disability at 36 (which always just sounds so crazy). Since I work and am involved in all kinds of nonsense, Ryan is the primary caregiver for our children. And let me tell you—caring for an 8-year old with autism and a 4-year old who thinks she runs the world, a la Beyonce, his stay-at-home-dad duties are no walk in the park! But he loves being with the kids. I know he misses “working” in the real world, and in time I think he will come to peace with what a seven-year NFL career cost him.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAWN NEUFELD:

• Who’s going to win the presidential election? By what margin?: Obama, not by much—it’s going to be close.

• Five reasons to make Dallas your next vacation destination?: Dallas—home of Southfork Ranch; Cowboys Stadium, tons of shopping and good food (check out Marquee Bar & Grill in Highland Park), Lake Lewisville, Ft. Worth Stockyards—and a side note, if anyone is a reality show fan, Dallas is quickly become a reality show mecca.

• Do you think an openly gay player could survive in the NFL?: I sure would hope so. Generally most of the guys are cool and respect each other because they’re teammates. Unless the player has to deal with a full on, outspoken bigot (there are some out there), I think the gay player could survive. Will it be easy? Probably not. But we’ve come along way and I hope a guy’s sexual preference wouldn’t be held against him if he’s an awesome athlete.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Sarah Palin, BBQ ribs, Ray Rice, Minute Rice, Cosi’s salty bread, your cell phone, Bananarama, chocolate soda, hairy ears, butter, the new Seahawks uniforms, Troy Aikman, Mitt Romney’s haircut, Bugs Bunny: Bananarama, Bugs, Bunny, BBQ Ribs, Troy Aikman, butter, Cosi’s Salty Bread (I don’t know what that it, but I really like bread), my cell phone, the new Seahawks uniforms, Ray Rice, Mitt Romney’s haircut, Minute Rice, chocolate soda, hairy ears, Sarah Palin.

• As I write this, the manager of the restaurant (I’m sitting in) is berating an employee in front of customers. What should I do?: Call the manager over to my table after he’s done, tell him as a customer that I don’t appreciate him berating the employee in front of everyone because it’s unprofessional and uncomfortable. And unless it’s a place I really love, I’d consider discontinuing my patronage.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: Yes. I knew a girl and her entire family who died in the TWA Flight 800 tragedy years ago. For a while, I couldn’t fly at all. Ryan and I had to fly back to California from Jacksonville once and we had to take a small propeller flight down to Miami to catch our long flight. When I saw a guy manually crank the propeller, I almost passed out. I actually did end up hyperventilating on the plane and cried all the way to Miami. We might it. But that didn’t help my fear of flying.

• Names you were considering (but didn’t use) for your kids?: Another boy—Owen or Decker, a girl—Carys or Decker.

• Does prayer really work? If yes, why?: I believe so. I believe as Christians were called to pray to God with thanksgiving and our needs. I have had many prayers answered, others that were not. Like when I prayed a lot about that last big Power Ball lottery jackpot and we didn’t win. Clearly God thought I couldn’t handle a couple hundred million dollars (in my Dr. Evil voice) so I’ll have to keep praying for a big lottery win.

But seriously, at the very least I think prayer allows us to express our concerns and needs—in essence, it gets it off our chests. The Bible actually directs us to let go and let God. Telling him what we need through prayer is the “let go” party. If we truly relinquish control and trust that God will take care of everything according to His plans, what comes next is peace, regardless of how the prayer is answered.

• Why do most celebrity marriages last 16 months?: Is it only 16 months? Did Kim Kardashian’s marriage lower the average? Celebrity marriages are under a microscope. If they have a little spat in the car or out at lunch, we might read about it in People or the Enquirer. There is so much pressure to be perfect and to be perfectly happy with our spouses. That’s not reality of course. The pressure, the perfection, work schedules that may keep them apart of weeks or months at a time—not allowing those things to destroy your marriage takes work. I think about a story Garth Brooks told us once. We support his charity Teammates for Kids and were chatting with him out in Vegas. Part of his deal with the Wynn Hotel where he’s performing is that he could use the Wynn’s jet to get home on time to make sure he could take his girls to school. I bet hopping on that plane after shows was hard, but his family is so important that he’ll make that sacrifice. That’s why his marriage to Trisha works—family first.

• Five nicest celebrities you’ve ever met: Justin Timberlake, Rodney and Holly Robinson Peete, Junior Seau, Garth Brooks, Nancy O’Dell.

  • Adam Michael

    Terrific interview – had never heard of her before. Some fascinating info.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life