NORFOLK - Three decades ago, when Betsy Hasselbeck was the wife of a professional football player and not yet the mother of two NFL quarterbacks, she learned the value of keeping one's eye on the ball.
Don Hasselbeck, her 52-year-old husband, played tight end for the New England Patriots. During the off-season, the former University of Colorado star sharpened his skills by catching 500 balls a day in his backyard. Practice sessions were family affairs. The footballs were fired from a machine operated by Betsy. Hut, hut, zing! The couple's three young sons got the ball back to Mom after each pass. You stand over there, Matthew, then flip the ball to Tim, who laterals to Nathanael, who. . .
There was one ironclad rule: If Dad dropped any of the last 100 balls, he had to start again at 400.
Suffice to say, late meals at the Hasselbeck house were not uncommon.
"After 96 or 97 throws, the pressure would get intense," recalls Betsy Hasselbeck with a smile. "Maybe that's why our boys have always been good under pressure. They've been immersed in the world of football all their lives." Pause. "So have I."
Hasselbeck is sitting on her porch on one of those October afternoons made for waving pom- poms and running post patterns in the shade of a shedding maple tree. Over her driveway hang flags bearing the Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, and New York Giants logos. They constitute a family affair, too.
The Pats flag is self-explanatory. The Seattle banner waves for Matt, the Seahawks' Pro Bowl QB. The Giants were one of three NFL teams Tim played for, as did Don. Released by New York this year, Tim signed with the Arizona Cardinals earlier last month after briefly joining the Fox Sports broadcast team. Matt and Tim also starred for Boston College during their collegiate careers. If not the first family of New England football, then the Hasselbecks are one of its dynastic clans.
Betsy Hasselbeck isn't done with yet football herself, though the JUGS machine was retired long ago. Twice a week, she helps run workshops for current Pats players and their wives. The workshops focus on faith, marriage, and family, three pillars of her own life. Meetings take place at the home of defensive lineman Ty Warren. Eighteen Patriots wives participate. For Hasselbeck, the sessions are a way to pass along wisdom and perspective she acquired when she was a young NFL wife and mother.
"We live in an upgrade world where temptation and fame can threaten any marriage," Hasselbeck says. "What we're trying to do is teach [couples] how to strengthen their marriages and commitment to God." While the discussions center around biblical scripture, "They're also about identifying the burdens we all carry through life and need to walk away from," she says. Topics include family finances, communication, and time management.
Youth sports is another arena in which Hasselbeck continues to play long after her children have emptied the nest. She's joined a nationwide campaign seeking to tighten background checks on youth-sports coaches. The campaign is spearheaded by USA Football, the national governing body of youth, high school, and international amateur football, and is allied with the National Center for Safety Initiatives. Last June, Hasselbeck appeared at the US Capitol to publicize the initiative. According to figures complied by the NCSI, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually victimized before adulthood. Although breakout figures are not available for young athletes, the group says anecdotal evidence suggests they are especially vulnerable to predator coaches.
"I was lucky, because Don was our boys' coach for nine years," she says. "But I thought, OK, if I've been placed here for a reason, it's to help people. This is one way I can give something back."
USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck says Hasselbeck came highly recommended by the NFL Players Association.
"We view her as the quintessential football mom, frankly," says Hallenbeck. "Her passion as a mother and her concern for children's safety really ring true. She's been a terrific spokesperson."
The lighter side of Team Hasselbeck is also on display these days, in a pair of Campbell's Chunky Soup commercials costarring Betsy and her son Matthew, 32, (she never calls him Matt). Shot in Toronto last spring, the ads feature eight NFL stars and their doting, soup-loving moms (on view at chunky.com). Another little Hasselbeck is on the way as well. Tim, 29, and his wife, Elisabeth, cohost of ABC-TV's "The View," are expecting their second child (and fifth Hasselbeck grandchild) this week.
"Now that we have grandchildren," says Betsy, "it's all about protecting their safety."
A family affair
Betsy Rueve Hasselbeck grew up in Cincinnati in a family of 12 children. Seven of her brothers played high school football. Six were quarterbacks. When she says football is in her blood, it's no idle boast.
"After church on Sunday, I'd sit on my dad's lap watching Packers and Cowboys games," Hasselbeck recalls. Although her father died in 1993, she said, "When Matthew was drafted, it would have been one of the happiest days of his life."
Betsy and Don started dating during his junior and her sophomore year in high school. They married while Don was at Colorado, and Matthew was born during his junior year in college. The couple had never visited New England before the Pats picked Don in the 1977 draft. "It was a hard transition for me," Betsy says. "The early years were not a pleasant stretch for us. Don was living more of the football social life than you'd imagine. He wasn't at peace with himself." Eventually he began attending couples' meetings with her, she says, "and that helped us get through it."
In hindsight, says Don, "A lot of it was selfishness on my part. Going out with the boys for a beer after practice was part of what we did back then. But when you have a wife at home with three kids, she needs your help. I had to change my ways and become more of a parent who's around for his family, and with Betsy's help and faith I did."
Beyond football there was always a bedrock foundation built on religion and faith, Betsy says. Raised a Catholic, she attended services at a local Baptist church with her family when Don still played. The Hasselbecks are congregants at the New England Chapel in Franklin, a Christian reform church established in 2004. "We've never cared about labels," she says.
When their sons grew old enough for organized football, Don volunteered to coach them and did so for nine years. Betsy was the unsung hero during their early careers, said Tim Hasselbeck, never getting the credit she deserved.
"First of all, she's a really good athlete herself, so she's half of the gene pool," he says. "But my mother was also the one who made sure we ate right and had our equipment together, that sort of thing." If either parent were anti-football, he adds, it was Dad, who knew how physically punishing the sport could be.
Don retired from pro football after the 1985 season and started an architectural design firm before going to work for Reebok, where he now serves as director of NFL sports marketing. The transition to post-NFL life was surprisingly easy, Betsy says, having spent years focusing on the more important stuff, like what it takes to be loving spouses and solid parents.
They are lessons the Hasselbecks now generously share with younger NFL couples, according to Paul Friesen. Cofounder of Home Improvement Ministries, Friesen and his wife, Virginia, have been leading discussion groups for Pats players and spouses for the past six years.
"Don and Betsy are a big part of the support these couples give each another, on and off the field," Friesen says. "They've been in their shoes. They've worked through the special challenges these families face. They're wonderful partners in this effort."
Although the group meetings may not officially be part of the organizational playbook, says Betsy, "I like to think they're proud these players are working to become better people, too."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.