You think you've got problems at work. How about trading places with Ken Ruettgers?
His profession is second only to the military in its discipline and the physical demands it places on its personnel. And talk about pressure. Once a week during the busiest months in Ruettgers's work schedule, 60,000 or more people show up to critique his performance.
It's his job to protect the man acclaimed to be the most valuable person in the entire industry. When Ruettgers fails to do his job, not only do 60,000 critics start yelling, but hundreds of thousands of others second-guess his work from the comfort of their living rooms. But when he does his job well—which is most of the time—few people notice. It's the man he protects who gets all the glory.
And after a hard day of work, when all a guy wants to do is take a hot shower and relax, Ruettgers has to hurry up and get his clothes on before he's surrounded by TV cameras. Smile, you're naked as a jaybird on the 10 o'clock news!
For the past 12 years, Ruettgers has earned his living as an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers. Protecting quarterback Brett Favre's blind side and opening holes for running backs is a grueling job that requires strength, agility and quick wits. But Ruettgers says it's when he gets home—back to his wife, Sheryl, and their three kids—that the real work begins.
"I really believe that being a player in the NFL is easier than being a godly husband or father," the 290-pound tackle says. "At work, there's instant feedback. You do something wrong, your coach tells you about it. The day after a game you review the film, and your coach yells at you again. Then at practice, your coach reminds you that you goofed up. You're getting feedback all over the place."
That's easier than being a husband?
"At home, you have to be more proactive in your approach to being a good husband," Ruettgers explains. "Obviously, the Bible is a great manual. But unlike a coach, the Bible's not going to seek you out. You have to seek it out.
"The other thing that helps is having an accountability group. These guys can say, 'Hey, how's your marriage?' or 'You know what, you need to be more consistent with your date nights.' Your accountability group kind of acts as a coach."
School of Hard Knocks
It's not just accountability and coaching that have gotten Ken and Sheryl Ruettgers through nearly 11 years of marriage. Like any successful team, they have established ground rules that keep them from repeating mistakes of the past.
During his second season with the Packers—and married less than a year to Sheryl—Ken had a coach known throughout the NFL for his bare-knuckle approach to football. Ken had missed training camp the previous year due to a contract dispute, and he hadn't become a starter until late in the season. So, as he prepared to enter training camp the summer before his second season, he wanted desperately to prove his worth to the team.
Sheryl was pregnant, and she asked Ken to go with her to a doctor's appointment. Since they were expecting a routine check-up, they took separate cars so Ken could make a racquetball date. (In his line of work, off-season conditioning is as important as what happens during the season.) But the prenatal examination turned tragic.
"They couldn't hear the baby's heartbeat," Sheryl says, "so they wanted to do an ultrasound. But first I had to chug all this water. We hadn't expected this delay, and Ken said, 'I have a racquetball game. This is part of my job and I really need to keep the appointment.' So he left.
"I stayed for my ultrasound, and afterward the doctor told me I was not going to carry the baby to term."
Sheryl called Ken to tell him the news, hoping he would come immediately to the doctor's office. But he decided to finish his racquetball game, and Sheryl had to drive herself home.
"I was hysterical," she recalls. "I don't even know how I got home." And just when she thought things couldn't get any worse, they did.
"The doctor, instead of telling me to come back later for a D&C, wanted to see if I could go ahead and deliver the fetus on my own," she says. "We were living in California, away from my friends and family, and Ken was supposed to leave for training camp in Wisconsin the next day. I started bleeding that night, and I begged him to stay until it was over. But he left anyway."
Ken knows now that his priorities were upside down, but it wasn't apparent to him back then. Why didn't he feel more of a responsibility to support his wife?
"Football is very duty-oriented," he says. "There's an urgency about everything you do, every day, every practice, every game.
"I'm not the greatest athlete," he continues. "My strengths are that I'm very committed and consistent and very rigid about my training. Back then, I was so focused on keeping in shape that I didn't see the bigger picture. I was really out of touch with what I should have been doing as a husband."
Ken's singleminded pursuit of success on the football field paid off professionally, but it took its toll on his marriage. After several years of putting his work ahead of his wife, and seeing the failed results at home, Ken came to the realization that football was the way he made his living—but life was a lot more than football. The premature birth of their youngest child gave him an opportunity to test his resolve.
"When Susan [now 4] was born five or six weeks early," Ken says, "I called the coaches and told them I'd have to miss the team's mini-camp."
That took some guts, considering Ken was working under a brand-new head coach.
"It was the most difficult situation I'd been in in a long time," he says. "There were some things from past seasons that were haunting me. The year before I had a hamstring injury, and I missed most of the year. Then I had to have my knee 'scoped [repaired by arthroscopic surgery] at the end of the year. In football, if you're not playing your position, somebody else is. So I really needed to be at mini-camp.
"Plus, I wanted to start off with a clean slate with the new coach. But I realized I needed to be at home just then. I had to make a difficult decision, and the family won out."
Says Sheryl: "Ken redeemed himself."
Teaming Up for Success
Job stress continues to be a challenge, but last season the Ruettgerses' marriage was sidelined by a book project. As soon as Ken's book, The Home Field Advantage (Multnomah), was released, the pressure started to build again.
"Since God had laid the burden on Kenny's heart to write a book to help fathers," Sheryl says, "we felt we were responsible to do everything that was thrown our way to help promote it. I admit I was really feeling bitter. The added demands of interviews and extra speaking opportunities took away what little time was available for Ken to spend with me and the kids."
One of the speaking invitations they accepted was a Promise Keepers event.
"We were in the bathroom getting ready," Sheryl says, "and we exchanged a few sharp words. Ken felt he was being pulled in so many directions, and he said, 'I'm going to lose it. I can't do this by myself.' He was having a breakdown right there in the bathroom, and we were supposed to leave to go and give our talk."
It wasn't just the added demands on his time that was pushing Ken over the edge. A few weeks earlier, he had broken four bones in his lower back. He missed one game, but the following Monday night he played on network TV against the Chicago Bears.
"Later that week, we did the Promise Keepers event," he says. "I just couldn't keep going at that pace."
Once they reached the breaking point, things started to change.
Sheryl says, "I realized I'd been saying, 'Here are all of your phone messages. Here are all of these people who want you to do things. You wrote the book—this is your responsibility.' I wasn't being his partner in all of this.
"So I started praying. And in a devotional one day I came across Ephesians 6:7-'Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.' The message to me was: Whatever you do in life, do it like you're serving the Lord."
"Sheryl took over the scheduling of speaking engagements and interviews," Ken says, "which took a huge burden off me. And it gave her ownership of what we were doing. Before, we were each doing our own thing. Now each of us has ownership of the other person's endeavors."
"When Ken and I started working together, the change was amazing," Sheryl says. "It was so simple that I couldn't believe we'd never tried it before."
The Ruettgerses say their marriage had become such a challenge that they had forgotten how to have fun together. During the season, Ken has Tuesdays off. So he and Sheryl started spending that day together every week, doing things they enjoy. Sometimes they dress up for a formal date. Or they drive to a nearby town to enjoy the Christmas decorations. But one of their most memorable dates took place at Sam's Wholesale Club. Ken says it wasn't particularly romantic, but Sheryl begs to differ.
"A lot of times when we go somewhere, people want my autograph," Ken says, "and it interrupts our time together. For some reason we went to Sam's and saw a yard swing set up off in a corner. So we just plopped down and talked for about two hours."
"We ran into a couple we knew," Sheryl says. "And they said, 'What are you guys doing here?' We said, 'It's our date night.' And the wife said, 'And you're at Sam's?' I said, 'This is Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but don't tell anybody!'"
They had such a good time that Ken went back later and bought the swing for Sheryl's birthday. Now they can have a swinging date any time they want.
A Game for Young Men
With his marriage operating at an all-time high, it's ironic that Ken's career in the NFL may be nearing its end. After beginning his 12th season, Ken's future with the Packers is in limbo.
"I'm getting older, especially for a lineman," he says. "And we've been praying about the direction God wants us to go when football is over. No matter what you do, football takes little pieces from you physically. And I want my quality of life with my wife and kids to be enjoyable after I retire."
For as long as Ken has played in the NFL, Sheryl has prayed for his health and safety.
"There was a guy who played on the Packers defense for several years," she says. "After he retired, his knees hurt so bad that he has to hold onto a handrail when he walks down stairs. His wife told me that in the mornings he has such a grip on the handrail that once he snapped it in half. I hear stuff like that, and it makes me wonder, 'Will Ken be able to throw the football around with the kids after he retires?'"
Last spring, Ken had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and at the beginning of this season the Packers put him on the physically-unable-to-perform list. That means he was removed from the active roster for at least six weeks. At presstime, his future was still undecided. But the Ruettgerses are ready for whatever happens.
Says Sheryl: "We've all heard the statistics that two years after leaving the NFL, 80 percent of players are either unemployed, broke or divorced. We've seen marriages that we thought would be together forever, but after football they were over."
"Fame is fleeting," says Ken, "but if your marriage is strong, you'll be able to fight through the adversity of that. Being a Christian helps out as well, because our perspective isn't limited to what goes on in this world."
Ken might leave the Green Bay Packers, but he's determined that he'll never retire from the team he and Sheryl have formed. That's one contract that's good for a lifetime.
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.