Then comes Riley, his 11-year-old son. The jock. The one with the quickness and the raw athletic ball skills to play defensive back someday and the desire to be good at every sport he tries. The only son. You can see the pride in Jeff’s eyes. That’s a big hug Jeff Ireland gets from Riley.
Finally, there are the twins: two beautifully talented 16-year-old girls about to turn 17. Haley and Hannah, both special needs children with autism. But you wouldn’t know it. Not by seeing them. Not by watching them greet their father at the front door.
“The greatest feeling in the world is walking through that door,” Jeff Ireland says.
He pauses and tries to gather himself. “That’s the most special moment I have on a daily basis.”
It is Father’s Day weekend and this is a story about a side of Jeff Ireland you may not know about, you may never see.
The warm, fuzzy side. The fatherly side. The private side. The side that anguishes when he can’t attend every important event, every graduation, every soccer match. The side that devotes so much time to autism research and awareness. The side that wakes up at 5:30 in the morning just to shoot hoops with his son or just to go bike riding with his daughters.
The side that leans so heavily on his pretty wife Rachel, his own personal Most Valuable Player. Oh yes, Rachel. Always on the move. Mind racing. Caring. Loving. Feeding. Reminding Jeff what he needs to do, where he needs to be. You want warmth? Hers lights up a gloomy room.
Father’s Day is one thing; Rachel is Every Day.
It is Rachel who helps spearhead the effort to recognize autism, who along with Jeff has helped raise well over a million dollars over the past two years, working closely with the Dolphins and the Dan Marino Foundation on a January event: WalkAbout Autism as well as Co-Chairing the Autumn Moonlight Event each October since 2008 to help raise awareness and money to benefit the Nova Southeastern University/University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD).
No wonder, after 17 years of marriage, Jeff Ireland still affectionately calls Rachel “my bride.”
But that’s for another column. This is a Father’s Day column and it is about a man who proudly says: “What does it mean to be a father? It means everything to me.”
It is tough being General Manager of the Miami Dolphins. Some days are long. Some are even longer. Some never end. It is even tougher juggling that job with his most important job, being a good husband and a father of four very active children.
This is a story about a man who came from a broken home, whose mother was divorced two times and married three times, a story about a man who went eight important years of his young life without a father figure, a story of a man who is determined to offer his four children the stability that he never enjoyed.
Everyone knows how important Jeff Ireland is to the Dolphins. Decides who to draft. Who to sign in free agency. Coordinates a massive scouting operation. Runs the day-to-day football side of the operation. A self-proclaimed “work-a-holic.”
But do we really know what makes him tick? Do we know how he anguishes when he misses his little daughter’s kindergarten graduation, how he rushes to a sporting event or a performance, just so his kids can see him there, even if it’s for one quick photo and about 10 quality minutes?
Do we know how his family sets a place at the dinner table for him every single night, knowing all too well that most nights nobody will be sitting in that seat, because dad is working so late? Do we know that on many nights Jeff Ireland races home just to get those four hugs and kisses before the kids shut their eyes? And, of course, one from Rachel as well.
“It’s not easy,” Ireland confides, sitting behind the big desk in his second floor office at Dolphins camp. “The juggling is the most difficult part. I have a great bride. Sometimes she’s mother and father.”
That’s why Friday afternoons during the season are so important. That’s when Jeff can usually get off a few hours early. A few hours can mean everything with Rachel and the four kids. “We tried to establish four o’clock Fridays,” Ireland says. “Unfortunately, sometimes it becomes five o’clock or six o’clock.”
Home games are always special. “That way I know I’ll get to spend at least one night with them.”
On this day, Jeff Ireland is wearing a short sleeve shirt and a relaxed look. He just got done playing golf with Riley, a special moment. Ireland figures if Riley can take up golf, then he might be able to steal a round or two as well. Nobody ever said Jeff Ireland isn’t smart.
“I love to play golf,” Ireland said. “I love to dive. I love to snorkel. I love to spend time in the outdoors. But you figure out you don’t do those things when you have four kids.”
As for the guilt of not being able to be there all the time for Rachel and the kids, Ireland deals with it as best as he can.
“It’s hard. But I do have some flexibility. My house is close. Their school is close. I can escape sometimes for an hour. I’ll let them see me. Sometimes I don’t get to stay long. Once they see me, I’ve got to go. I’ll make sure they know I’m there.
“But if I do miss something I’m going to make up for it by giving them my undivided attention next time I see them. If the phone rings, I’m going to let it ring. There is nothing more important than spending quality time with your family, as a group and individually.”
There are quality moments. There are scary moments. Like when the twin girls got real sick last year and the doctors weren’t sure what it was and they ended up in the hospital undergoing numerous tests. “They never go in the hospital unless I’m travelling,” Ireland said with obvious frustration.
But the twin girls are OK now, everything worked out, and Jeff and Rachel are back to their normal, non-stop, crazy lifestyle. Ask Jeff Ireland to talk about each of his kids and he could go on and on all day. No, he doesn’t offer 40 times or vertical leaps. Just a glistening eye and the words of a very proud papa. “My son is going to make a pretty good safety someday,” he said. “Picked off a pass from Jason Taylor’s son one day at camp.”
Ireland’s four kids are slowly and surely getting a true understanding of what their father does for a living. For a long time, though, they thought he worked at the airport “because Rachel dropped me off there so much.”
It always comes back to Rachel. The constant. The strength. The source of comfort. “You don’t always do it very well,” she says, “but you do it and you do it with love and you hope, as I do, to have a good support group.”
See, there are times when Jeff Ireland doesn’t see his kids for a couple of weeks in a row. That’s what late nights at the office and long scouting trips will do for you. That’s when he makes the biggest effort to find more time in his day, more hours to spend special moments with the kids both individually and as a group.
“I don’t have hobbies anymore,” Jeff says. “No easy chair. I’m all go.”
Added Rachel: “Jeff has an amazing heart. He didn’t have much of a childhood. He had to grow up at an early age. Jeff is a big kid. He’s getting to re-live a childhood that he didn’t have. He’s a kid in many ways, but he’s also an amazing father. We are blessed.”
It is Father’s Day weekend, a good time of the year for Jeff Ireland and his family. Football season is still a few months off. The offseason practices are just about over. It is family time. The Irelands are heading to a dude ranch in Wyoming the end of this month. They’ll be there a week. Just the six of them. Fishing. Hiking. Quality time. The perfect week. Can it get much better than that?
The most rewarding part of being a father? Jeff Ireland leans back in that office chair and thinks for a minute. He thinks about the sporting events and the school graduations and the family outings and those quiet moments he can spend alone with each child. It can be any of those. Or all of those. But it’s something else.
It’s those hugs and kisses each night when he walks through the door. Four kids, youngest to oldest, racing into their father’s arms.
“Knowing they are there waiting at the door for me at night, waiting to give me that hug and a kiss, it’s so special,” Ireland said. “I love being a father. Gosh, it means everything to me.”