The Challenges Of Juggling Football And Fatherhood

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Both the longest tenured player and coach on the Dolphins will not run short of things to do on Father’s Day.

Because John Denney and Darren Rizzi both have five kids. Three sons and two daughters each, to be exact.

No current player or coach on the Dolphins has as many children as these two so it makes sense why I approached them this week to talk about the challenges of residing in the demanding, time-devouring world of pro football and raising a handful of children – literally a handful – at the same time.

Makes them pretty special fathers, don’t you think?

Makes their wives pretty special as well. I’m sure they are the MVPs of their households.

“No doubt about it,” said Denney, a 13-year veteran. “Saturdays are the worst for Christy, driving each kid to a different game. It’s a marathon.”

Added Rizzi about his wife Tracey: “She keeps everything together.”

But that’s for another day, another column. This is Father’s Day weekend and both Denney and Rizzi talked openly about the moments they have missed during football season – maybe the Little League games or the school functions — and how they try to make up for it by being there every chance they can.

Every father, I know from first-hand experience, has work-related challenges. But there is no flexibility in being an NFL player or coach. Arrive early. Stay late. Spend six weeks mostly away from home during training camp. Road trips on many weekends. Your mind has to be thinking football almost every waking moment. If you’re a player, your body is usually sore and tired.

When is their time to be a dad? How can they make each of their children feel special? Are they doing enough? Can they do more? Having one or two kids is challenging enough. But five? All searching for your attention? It’s got to test your resolve day in and day out.

Welcome to the worlds of John Denney and Darren Rizzi.


Time to take roll call in the Denney house. There is Austin (12), Brock (10), Wes (7), Gracie (5) and Bailey (3). What’s really neat about being John Denney is that at least Austin and Brock are old enough to totally understand and enjoy what their father does for a living, the long-snapper for the Dolphins.

The entire Denney family goes to every game. The kids haven’t missed one in years. Christy only missed one game and that had everything to do with childbirth.

“It’s so much fun that they follow my career,” Denney says. “It’s their norm now. They were born and raised in pro football. They have 100 percent awareness of the game.”

He added, “I always want to make sure I am there for them. They are still young, they need a father for so many things. Sure, you miss some of the everyday things and I do feel guilty at times. But I take a lot of pride in trying to be the best father I can be.”

There are times, very rare in number, when for some reason Denney finds himself alone at home. Maybe for a day or two if Christy takes the kids on a road trip. It is then, when he is alone, that he realizes what he has and what it might be like if he didn’t have it.

“It gives meaning to your life,” he said. “What would life be like if I was a single man with no family? I wouldn’t want to have that.”

This Father’s Day in the Denney household will be like many others. The family will go to church in the morning; then have a barbeque in the afternoon.

“It’s just a day,” Denney says, “when you have to treat dad extra special.”

But, even if it’s just a day, you could tell by the look in Denney’s eyes that he savors every minute of it.


Now let’s take roll call in the Rizzi house. There is MacKenzie (19), Alexandra (16), Christian (14), Casey (11) and Cameron (10). Rizzi proudly says he has made every communion, confirmation and graduation, then quickly ads, “but there are still a lot of times when I’m an absentee dad.”

Rizzi used to be filled with regret during those times. But not anymore. His kids are older now, they understand the landscape and they have many interests that don’t always include dad.

But even with all of that, Rizzi says with a smile: “They still ask me, ‘Dad, are you going to be there?’ even if they already know the answer.”

Rizzi is one proud papa. He rattles off one accomplishment after another, from his oldest in college at Penn State to his daughter a starter on the St. Thomas basketball team to his two youngest sons, each playing three sports.

I asked him to give me one sentence on each of his children and he had a great time with that, especially when he suggested his daughter Alexandra “is the toughest kid in the family…and my boys won’t like hearing that.”

There are moments when Rizzi thinks back to before he was Associate Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator of the Dolphins. When he actually had time to coach a few Little League games. Now, some days have no end. Some days he leaves when the kids are still asleep and gets home after they’ve gone to sleep.

Rizzi is just happy that Father’s Day comes in June. “It’s one day of the year when I can always be there,” he says. “If Father’s Day was in October or November, you may as well forget it.”

The Rizzi family, all seven of them, caught a flight on Friday for a weeks vacation in the Caribbean. They’ll spend Father’s Day together on the beach, doing things families usually do on vacations and, you just know for Darren Rizzi, there is no place he’d rather be.

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