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They say, “No one is from Los Angeles, but once you move there, you never leave.” I’ve heard the term “melting pot” used frequently, which has always been ironic since we are originally from Louisiana. Folks like to say Louisiana is a melting pot, too.
Two years ago, almost to the very day, we were sitting comfortably in our Fort Thomas, KY, home, less than 5 minutes from downtown Cincinnati, in what I still consider one of the best cul-da-sacs in America. After spending more than a decade as the Cincinnati Bengals left tackle, my husband, Andrew, was an NFL free agent. That meant any team in the NFL was free to sign him. The buildup was intense. The little people in our house didn’t know what was coming. We hadn’t told them anything yet. Why would we? We were almost certain Andrew would re-sign with the Bengals and we would remain where we had always been. He would finish his career where it all started. This was our hope. It didn’t exactly happen how we had hoped.
Free agency bidding began around noon that day. We hunkered down at home, stoked the fire and waited on the phone to ring. My parents had flown in from Louisiana “just in case” we signed somewhere besides Cincinnati. They would watch the baby if we needed them to. “We won’t need them,” I told Andrew. “You’ll re-sign here but Dad will be a great calculator during this process because he’s a numbers guy. He can help us figure out exactly what each and every offer boils down to and if it’s worth us packing up our kids and moving. He will be able to tell us what our best options are.”
As I remember, the first team to call was the Los Angeles Chargers. They made a good offer. The next was from the Bengals. It wasn’t a good offer. At all. “It’s just the first day,” Andrew’s agent, Pat Dye said. There was another offer that first day from the Los Angeles Rams. A really solid offer. We knew they wanted him. They had come to play, for sure, but as my Dad put pen to paper and calculated the cost of living in California, the tax bracket, the gigantic pain in the you know what it would be to move our family to the West Coast, and the fact that Andrew would have to start all over with a new team, we all agreed that day, it wasn’t worth it. We went to bed a little unsettled. “It will really ramp up in the morning,” Pat said. “Y’all don’t worry about this.”
The next morning, less than 24 hours into the free agency process, it did ramp up. Offers came in from Denver, Minnesota, the New York Jets, and another one from the Rams (an even better one). Each time, Dad would put pen to paper and make his calculations. We would all talk and weigh our options. Andrew called Pat back at dinner that night and said, “I really don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to finish my career in Cincinnati, but their offer isn’t even competitive with the others. Can you reach out to them and see if they will increase their offer?” The answer hit us like a ton of bricks… “Andrew, here’s the text I just received from Troy Blackburn (one of the Bengals’ owners),” Pat’s text read. “I wanted you to read it for yourself. I’m sorry.” “We don’t have Andrew valued at that price,” Blackburn said. “He is an aging left tackle. Our offer stands. It will not increase. If he chooses to leave Cincinnati, all good things must come to an end, I guess.”
Wow. That was it. Cincinnati didn’t “value Andrew” the way other teams seemed to. It was hurtful and felt personal. We sat in silence for a few minutes not believing what we had just read. Andrew finally broke the tension in the room and called Pat on speaker phone, “Well Pat, I’m still not sure these other offers are worth me leaving Cincinnati.” He REALLY wanted to stay. Pat said, “Let me call the Rams back. They want you badly. I’ll tell them to make an offer you can’t refuse.” Less than 30 minutes later the phone rang. Andrew put Pat on speaker as we all held our breath… “Whit,” he said, “the Rams came back with 3 years $36 million. $15 million guaranteed. That good enough for you? It’ll make you the highest paid left tackle at your age in history.” I looked at my Dad. He tossed down his pad and pen without anyone else saying a word. Dad said, “I don’t have to do the math on that. Y’all are moving to Los Angeles.”
The next morning, the news broke. “Andrew Whitworth has agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Rams. He will leave Cincinnati.” My phone flooded with texts, “Ohhhh no, this can’t be true. Please tell me it’s not true!” The twins’ kindergarten teacher texted me. People in Cincinnati were angry. Some at ownership for not doing enough to keep Andrew, some at us for not being “willing to stay for less.” They called him a sell-out, another money-hungry NFL player who strictly thought of himself. Not his teammates in Cincinnati, not the fan base, just himself. Oh, if they only knew. Had anyone ever told them in their job, after more than a decade of blind loyalty, leadership, and sacrifice they weren’t “valuable enough to keep?”
We knew better than to respond. Even if we did, there would always be people who didn’t understand. When I took the kids to school that morning I was met with mostly sad faces, some people just looked away from me. “I’ll come back and get them at noon today,” I told their teacher. “We have a flight to LA at 2.” We were all crammed into the back two seats of the airplane. Andrew sitting with the boys, Drew and Michael. Me sitting with Sarah directly behind them. We left the baby at home with my parents. She was too young to make the trip. It would be a quick one. About half-way to California, Andrew turns to me and says, “You realize this means my Super Bowl dreams are over. I’m going to the Rams to help them rebuild with a new coach, a new mentality, play a leadership role in that locker room.” I nodded. “What do I even know about Los Angeles?” I thought. I had only been to California a handful of times. We did get married in Orange County because it was beautiful and we wanted to stay in the states, but Los Angeles? I knew nothing and I knew no one. At the time, LA may have been the last place on earth I wanted to live.
When we landed at LAX, we were met by a greeter, “Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Whitworth. We are so happy you’re here.” As we walked through the airport, I realized no one seemed to notice Andrew. This enormous, behemoth of a man who draws so much attention everywhere we go, got none from the locals. We learned quickly in LA everyone is someone famous and if they aren’t, the old adage, “fake it till you make it,” seemed appropriate.
The next morning Andrew left our hotel early for his physical. Two MRIs on his shoulders, two on his hips and one on his knee. Five altogether. He had a long morning. I was getting the kids ready to go to his press conference when Sarah ran into my room crying uncontrollably. “Mommy, why does daddy have to leave the Bengals? I don’t want to leave our house and our school. Why do we have to move?” The boys were right behind her asking the same questions. I’ve never really lied to my kids. Even about the hard things. When they were really little, I would tell them Chick-Fil-A was closed when it wasn’t because I didn’t feel like taking them in to play, but other than that, I mostly tell them the truth. “Baby, daddy didn’t choose to leave Cincinnati. They decided to let him leave. He wasn’t as important to them as we thought he would be. But we are in a new city and this will be an adventure. Let’s dry it up and go smile for Daddy. This is exciting for him but it’s also hard. We have to be tough,” I said. My answer seemed to quiet the questioning for the meantime, and we headed down the PCH to what would soon be our new home. No one in the car said a word. Not one word. I think we were all still in shock. We walked into the Rams facility in Thousand Oaks and were greeted by new head coach, Sean McVay, along with several other coaches and front office staff. They were beaming. So thrilled to have Andrew. They were genuinely grateful. Sean said, “Man, I didn’t think we would get you. I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s go do something special together.” Sean and Andrew immediately understood one another. There was a bond in that first meeting. It was clear to everyone in the room. These two people were wired the same way. If anyone could turn this team around, the two of them working together could get it done.
The next day we took the kids with us to meet a Realtor and find a house. Meantime, I called my parents and said, “Get the house ready to sell. Now.” Our plan had always been to let Andrew go back and forth, and we would remain in Cincinnati until the kids finished that school year. Then we would move in June. While we were driving to look at our 3rd possible home, Andrew said, “I’ve got to do this interview with Hobson (the Bengals Beat reporter). I’ve been putting him off. Not ready for it.” He called Hobson and had about a 30-minute conversation. After the first 10 minutes, tears began streaming from underneath his sunglasses. I could tell he didn’t want Hobson to know he was emotional, so he was doing his best to hide it. They got off the phone and he looked at me and said, “I can’t go back there. It’ll hurt too much. Can you please go without me and sell the house and get here quickly? Not wait until June?” I hadn’t considered that at all, but I knew in that moment I had no other choice. My husband needed me to handle this. He needed to start fresh, and not go back. I nodded, “Of course I can. We will be here as soon as I can get the house packed up.” The kids and I took a red eye back to Cincinnati and the next morning, I woke up to a letter in my mailbox. It was addressed to Andrew from Mike Brown (the long-time Bengals owner). It read something like this, “Andrew, you were a great player for us and one of the best locker room leaders I’ve ever been around. I am sad you’re leaving. Good luck with your new team and thank you for your time and commitment to the Cincinnati Bengals.” I took a picture of the handwritten note and sent it to Andrew. “I’ll frame this for you. It’s a treasure.” I said. He wrote back, “I really do love Mike Brown. I don’t care what anybody says about him. He has always been good to us and I will always love the Cincinnati Bengals.” I agreed.
Three weeks to the day he signed, we were all on a plane to California. Me, the kids, and our live-in nanny Krista Howard. To say she’s our “nanny” isn’t fair. She is our family. My sister. My touchstone. There are many days I’m not sure I would have survived without her. We had found the kids a school and a wonderful home to rent in a great area called Westlake Village in Thousand Oaks. Andrew had found his love for football again. He really loved his new team. It wasn’t a job to him anymore, it was an all-out mission. He would prove the doubters wrong. He would lead by example. He was the first player in the building and last one out. Every single day. When the season started, we all held our breath. “What in the world will this be like?” I thought. It was amazing. The Rams weren’t just good. They were really good. Winning the NFC West and hosting a home playoff game. Andrew was named 1st team all-pro and went to the pro-bowl for the fourth straight year. The oldest player at his age to accomplish both awards at his position. It was simply amazing to see what the Rams had become in just a few short months.
The 2018 season brought with it even more anticipation. We won our first eight games. Our offense was the top-scoring offense in the NFL. Andrew was still playing at an elite level at 37 years old. In November, our community experienced what so many others have around the United States – a mass shooting. It was less than 10 minutes from our home. Twelve people were dead, including a police officer. Twenty-four hours later, we were evacuated at 2 a.m. from the wildfires. Told several times throughout the next two weeks our neighborhood was surely next. We would go to bed at a hotel in the city not knowing what news we would wake up to the next morning. The month of November in Thousand Oaks was awful and tragic, and I hope and pray I never see anything like it again in my lifetime. Yet, football still came, every Sunday, and our guys still had to play. Our coaches still had to coach.
We earned a first-round bye and would host the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoff game. We won that game. It was Andrew’s first playoff win after eight attempts. Two days later, my precious grandmother went to be with Jesus. Krista and I packed up the kids and flew home to Louisiana to say goodbye without Andrew. He was working. After the funeral, we all drove to New Orleans for the NFC championship game. We won. We were going to the Super Bowl. It was magical.
To say the “fallout” from the Rams/Saints game was difficult for us would be an understatement. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The internet trolls seemed to come from everywhere. “I hope Thousand Oaks catches fire again and every one of the Rams players houses burn with them in it. Cheaters.” “Never come back to Louisiana Andrew Whitworth. We don’t want you and your (bleeping) kids here anyway.” Within three days, I had been unfriended from Facebook by my college sorority president after politely asking her privately to stop viciously attacking the Rams as it was incredibly personal to me, and I “thought” we were friends. What so many of our “friends” didn’t realize was their continued anger and frustration brought out all the crazies. And the crazies were violently threatening our family, personally. My children were not excluded in their vile hatred. Some things I simply cannot and will not repeat because I hope they never have to see it.
People who had personally benefited from the hundreds of thousands of dollars Andrew and I had poured into our home state through our own charity and other charities were sharing petitions online wanting to have the Rams “stripped of their win.” WOW. How could they not realize how personal that was to us? They are fans. I’m not saying fans aren’t important, but this is our real life. Our livelihood. My husband’s body, his time away from our family, all the baseball and football games he misses. All the school plays and dance recitals he can’t be there for. All the parent/teacher conferences I went to by myself. All the nights I spent at the ER with sick kids and broken bones and he wasn’t there. The time I had a baby and he left an hour later to go to work. We aren’t fans. This is our family, our everyday lives, and the Rams are our family. How could our “friends” not see that? At first, I deleted and blocked the comments from my Facebook page, and then I decided to just leave them for everyone to see.
To be fair, the hatefulness probably derived from a small representation of the Saints fan base. In fact, we were Saints fans every day of the week except the day we happened to play them. Sean Payton and his girlfriend, Sky, were two of the first to offer congratulations to us. Sky sent me a text a few days after the game, “I’m so sad for my guy, but we are both also so happy for Andrew. He deserves this.” They will probably never know what that text meant to us in that moment. I can imagine there aren’t many people who felt the loss more than Sean and Sky and yet in the midst of all of those feelings they understood. It’s not a just a game. It’s about personal relationships and people. We will always root for Sean Payton. We will always root for Louisiana and the people there no matter their thoughts or opinions toward us because of the outcome of a game. We will forever be proud to tell people we are from Louisiana.
As hurtful as it was, I chose joy. We were going to the Super Bowl. It was a blessing. Thirteen years of never winning a playoff game and now we are going to the Super Bowl. The experience was once in a lifetime. We spent the week in Atlanta with our entire family. We soaked it all in. Obviously, the result of the game wasn’t what we wanted, and my 6-year old son, Michael, cried his eyes out for most of the 4th quarter. He cried so hard his nose bled. But as I watched my husband walk up to the New England players and congratulate them, the same way many of the Saints players and coaches had done for him two weeks before, among the disappointment and sadness he felt, I was overcome with emotion and pride. Everyone else had run off the field. He stayed amid the confetti and cheering New England fans and congratulated them one by one. As he ran off the field, he spotted us in the stands (I was holding Michael). He said, “Turn him around. Let me see him.” Then he held up his arm and flexed his muscle. He yelled at Michael, “You be tough. This isn’t that bad, we got to play in a Super Bowl.” I can’t imagine how much strength it took for him to do that, but I’ve come to learn that husband of mine is a pretty special man. It may not have been a Super Bowl win, but in the end, it didn’t have to be.
We always thought of Los Angeles as a “stop along the way home to Louisiana.” A fun experience for a few years. Now, it feels like home. We spend Christmas Eve with friends in Encino and Christmas Day with friends in Agoura Hills. Los Angeles is no longer a stop along the way, it’s our home, and for now our journey from LA to L.A. is complete.