Off the Field

Being a Viking is rough this year, but Greg and Nicole Jennings aren’t sweating it.

Greg and Nicole Jennings
Portrait by Steve Henke

Last March, when Greg Jennings signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Vikings, he announced that he and his wife, Nicole, considered their move to Minneapolis to be a permanent one, and they were looking for a house and a school system for their three daughters and newborn son. The local media immediately moved on from this news to the stock Vikings-Packers “these two teams really hate each other” narrative. Sports writers know what sells, and reporters buttonholed the newly purplefied wide receiver after every workout to ask what it was like to defect from the great cheesy Satan. For maximum off-season juice, the hacks wondered aloud who was the better quarterback, Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers? The perpetually affable Jennings seemed to go a little WWF heel on the entire situation: referring to Rodgers in interviews as “number 12” and signing a spring training fan’s helmet “Packers suck.”

Meanwhile, as training camp was winding down and the media was switching gears from “Isn’t this entertaining?!” to a sober, more Murrowesque “Greg Jennings is a distraction,” Nicole and the kids quietly moved into the Rolling Green neighborhood in Edina. They bought the only mansion “big enough to fit the entire family” (Nicole says the house is full of folks from back home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, every weekend during the season) and enrolled the girls at Breck.

I interviewed the Jenningses on their new couch five weeks into their first Minnesota football season. A poster-sized family photograph sat on the carpet, awaiting the spot above the mantle. The burgeoning domestic bliss seemed worlds away from a workplace situation that was teetering on chaotic freefall. The Vikings entered the year with a patched-together quarterback platoon that seemed to have great potential to disappoint, and disappoint it did, right away. After starting the season 1-4, they proved the ability to lose under both last season’s underwhelming QB Christian Ponder and the stork-like veteran Matt Cassel they had signed as Ponder’s insurance policy. So on the eve of week six against the Carolina Panthers, management decided to sign yet another QB: Josh Freeman, a 25-year-old former first-round draft pick who had been let go after regressing in Tampa Bay.

In week six, with Freeman wearing a brand-new purple windbreaker, seemingly keeping his distance from Ponder on the sidelines, and Matt Cassel looking completely overwhelmed by the Carolina Panthers’ D, the Vikings were blown out at the Dome in embarrassing fashion. Depressing enough, but in the days leading up to the Panthers game, horrific news came out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Adrian Peterson’s son was beaten to death by the mother’s boyfriend. A pall was cast. The franchise, which was coming off a surprise playoff season last year and should have been looking forward to demolishing the Dome in January—the first step toward construction of a “People’s Stadium”—instead found itself beset by financial scandal, off-field tragedy, and on-field disaster. This wasn’t normal purple gloom—this was full-on purple apocalypse. To the Jenningses, Titletown must seem like more than a five-hour drive away.

To their credit, despite the crushingly bad start and all the personnel craziness that followed in the wake of their move—to say nothing of their first scheduled parent-teacher conference at Breck—the Jenningses honored their commitment to our interview. Among many topics, we discussed how long they’ve been together, how their partnership works in the high-pressure NFL, and whether their baby boy will ever play football.

Do you go into different modes depending on how the team is doing? Nicole: From a family aspect? No. Our family is totally separate. Greg: Yeah, when it comes to work and bringing it home, that’s a big no-no. The overwhelming emotions of losing and all that? That stays at the facility and at the stadium. I love on my kids and they love on me. They couldn’t care less about a win or a loss. They want daddy to be fun. Nicole: And be healthy. That’s the most important thing for us.

You guys have been together since college? Nicole: We went to our eighth-grade prom and our senior prom together.

Whoa. Nicole: We got married in college and we had our first child his first year in the league. Greg: Our first year in the league.

Greg was such a superstar in high school He wasn’t a millionaire, but he was dealing with statewide attention. How did you negotiate the relationship? Nicole: We didn’t really work it out—it kind of just happened! Greg: She kinda knew. She baited me the whole time. She, like, put something in my drink or something. Nicole: Is that what it was? Greg: She knew that we were going to end up together. I don’t know how she foresaw all of that.

When did you know? eighth grade? Nicole: I remember telling one of my friends . . . Greg: . . . all of your friends. Nicole: . . . like, “I’m marrying that guy. That’s my husband.” And that was in high school. Greg: Yes. Nicole: You just know. I was truly attracted to Greg Jennings the person. Greg: And I was definitely attracted to Nicole.

How did the proposal go down? Greg: It actually went down on Mother’s Day. You know, I’m like a modern-day Romeo, so . . . Nicole: [Laughs.] Greg: She was raised by her great-granny, so I disclosed the information to her. Didn’t want any shockers or anything.

You asked granny for Nicole’s hand? Greg: I did. I asked granny for permission. She said yes. And so on Mother’s Day, the entire family’s at my parents’ house. Nicole’s sitting on the sofa; my mom’s sitting on the sofa. So I’m talking about Nicole, but I’m looking at my mom because it’s Mother’s Day.

A deke! Greg: Yeah, a decoy. Then, after I’m done, I propose. Nicole: I’m thrown. Greg: Again, I’m looking at my mom, but everything that I’m saying is intended for her. So Nicole’s listening and she’s soaking it all in. She must’ve been thinking, “He’s an awesome son.”

Was your family down with him? Nicole: Oh, I definitely think my family is more down with him than they are with me sometimes. Greg: No, no.

He was the pride and joy of Kalamazoo. Nicole: He still is. My family’s always [telling Greg], “Oh, I told somebody you were my cousin!” No, Greg is your cousin-in-law. They bypassed me straight to him. They’re loving Greg.

Were you an athlete? Nicole: I was a cheerleader. Greg: No, no, super-no. Nicole: That’s an athlete! Cheerleaders are definitely athletes. Greg: [Strikes a mock thinker’s pose.] Nicole: But I wasn’t going to college off a sports scholarship; I needed an academic scholarship to go.

With athletics, or piano, or spelling bees, There’s usually a crazy parent involved. Greg: My parents were always in my life.

Both parents? Greg: Both parents. My dad is a pastor. They’ve been involved in ministry my entire life. The foundation was always there. But the thing that really clicked for me, honestly, was the fear of failure.

What made you afraid of failure? Greg: I was a little drummer boy at church. I used to play the drums all the time, and I started braggin’ and boastin’. I was arrogant. I would bring my friends to the church so they can see me play the drums. Had nothing to do with God—I wanted you to come to the church to see Greg play the drums.

Worship Greg! Greg: Exactly. I remember my mom. She said, “Son, God gave you the gift—he can take that gift away.” I remember coming back to the church a couple days later, and I could not play the drums as good as I once could. And I remember that humbling me.

Your mom got in your head. Good Coach. Greg: The best coach of my life.

What changes did you two encounter when you were drafted in the NFL? Greg: Everything being under a microscope. There was no more just her and I. It was her, me, and the world.

What was that first season like? Greg: Coming into the league and playing with Brett Favre, the face of football, that was a good thing for me, because nothing wowed me after that. The biggest stressor was her being pregnant and not being there the whole entire season—us being apart. That was the first year we had ever been apart.

Nicole was in Kalamazoo during that rookie year? Nicole: I had to finish my last semester of nursing school and I was pregnant with our first child. I was traveling to games on the weekends. That was difficult for us both, because we were newlyweds still and I was often hormonal, a wreck. And then we had our first child that last game of the season. Greg: That’s when life really started.

What did you learn from those Packers vets? Greg: You come in from college where it’s a brotherhood environment. The NFL wasn’t like that. You’re looked at like, “Oh, so this is the guy that they’re bringing in to replace me. To take my job. To take food off my plate.” I remember literally calling my wife in tears: “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.”

When did this phone call happen? Greg: When I first got there. This is immediate. Mini-camp in May. Right when I walk in. Nicole: You can feel those things in the atmosphere. Greg: I remember I’m about to go into team dining. And I walk in, and I literally take one step, and I see Brett and I see all these other vets, and they look like, “Don’t come in here right now.” And I start fumbling for my phone and I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t mean to come in here,” and I’m pretending I’m on a call. And then I call and I’m like, “Babe, I don’t know if I can do this.”

What gets you into the NFL brotherhood? Greg: Brett. I won the starting spot, and I’m making plays. Brett has his arm around me watching film together. He’s teaching me the ropes now, and everybody’s like, “That’s Brett’s guy.”

I went to my first game at Lambeau Field last year, and I was so jealous. Nicole: It was so amazing, and we have so many memories there. It’s a great organization, and it’s unique. The fans own it. We’re shareholders—all my kids have stock. We play for the Vikings now, but we’re [Green Bay] shareholders.

I don’t think the Vikings expected this season’s results. In unison: [Laughter.] Nicole: I love these types of questions. We’re just happy to be here! Greg: I don’t think any team expects to lose. Put that in the article.

Sure, but this wasn’t a “rebuilding year.” Greg: Being in the league for as long as I’ve been in it, you can’t take any year or game for granted. And I think if anything this is being taught to us and this organization: “Every year is different; every week is different.”

Are you bummed about the media attention? Nicole: I was just thinking that as we were sitting here answering those questions, if you’re gonna get ’em verbatim or . . .

This is a Q&A. And yes, it will be edited, But some writers push the context. Nicole: Or they take it and just [sound effect for explosion]. Greg: I’ve never been one to undermine anyone. I’ve never been one to separate myself from the team. I didn’t do that in Green Bay; I would never do that here. Now all of a sudden, I can be looked upon as a problem because people want to talk about Green Bay. I wouldn’t talk to you about anything but God if it were up to me. But I’m asked these questions and they’re interpreted—no, my words are manipulated in a way to where I’m negative. That’s not even who I am. Nicole: That’s the thing—everything can always be manipulated. Football doesn’t define who he is. I know who he is, and God knows. Media, they’re doing their job. I get it. It’s just that we’ve never experienced being thrown under the bus like that. Because of the rivalry, it’s huge.

Did the rivalry enter into your decision to come here? Nicole: No. Not even an ounce.

You didn’t think it was going to be funny? Greg: No. When I see those four kids there and that woman [points to family portrait], they’re thriving in Minneapolis, not because I’m with the Vikings. If I’m done playing with the Vikings right now, we’re gonna stick right here because my kids love the school—they’re thriving, we’re seeing growth, my wife loves the community. Nicole: The biggest thing for us was the head coach and his belief system. It’s so in line and in tune with ours. If you can get two people on the same accord from a spiritual standpoint, all other things matter less. There’s more to life than winning football games.

Coach Frazier has the same beliefs? Greg: When I sat down for my visit with Coach Frazier, we never once talked about football.

What did you talk about? Greg: Faith. Just faith. And that struck me, because I didn’t need to hear all the what we can do for Greg, how we can make this look for Greg. . . . Look, there’s no need to be a salesman. I’m well groomed, I can smell out foolishness when I see it. We had a fellowship on another level that with a coach I had never done before.

Do you think your son will play football? In unison: No! Nicole: Not my dude. Greg: Obviously, if he pursues football, I’ll . . . Nicole: I don’t really want him to, though. Greg: There’s a lot of things we don’t want our kids to do, but if they choose to do it and it’s not like it’s completely off the deep end, we have to support him. Nicole: He’s been trying to play with footballs. I’m like, “Greg, we gotta swap out some of these footballs for a basketball.” I don’t want my son to get hurt. I would be fine if he wasn’t even an athlete. I would be totally OK with that. Greg: Well, that right there is not gonna happen, because his dad’s an athlete.