Thanks to the sacrifices of Jennifer Kruger, family is the ultimate team sport for famous football family
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
OREM — When Jennifer Kruger closes her eyes and considers her most cherished moments as a mother, she doesn’t see her oldest son, Paul, tackling San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl.
“Sports are always there, so it’s probably a sports moment,” she said, choking with emotion as she tries to describe her favorite experiences as a mom. “But the memories aren’t the ones people would know. It’s a child, all the children, and yeah, they probably have something to do with sports, but they’re hard times, quiet times, trying to figure something out, trying to overcome a problem, in a hospital room, pulled over in a car talking through things.”
As the mother of six athletic children, including three sons who’ve played at the University of Utah and in the NFL, Kruger has logged some spectacular experiences, as well as significant time, in bleachers and ballparks.
But it isn’t the sound of a packed stadium that makes her heart swell with pride.
It is, instead, the sound of a diesel truck pulling up in front of her Orem home, knowing the banter of boys, her boys, will soon fill her house.
It’s the sound of her daughter, Erica, calling out to her when she returns from school each day. It’s the sound of her grandkids giggling as they run into her house eagerly searching for their Grammy.
“Those are the precious times,” she said, wiping away tears. “And I’ve had some awesome experiences. I’ve met some world-famous athletes. But the most treasured moments to me are the quieter ones.”
She cannot stop the tears as she describes the very ordinary moments that make her feel more gratitude than she can express.
Her love for her family is overwhelming. It has driven, even defined, her life. Being a mom isn’t something she does — it’s who Jennifer Kruger is.
“When I think of the word mother, I think my mother describes the perfect mother,” said Jessica Kruger Bergstrom. “I’m 26 and I still, even as a married person, come to my mother for anything and everything. Her support for her children and her love is completely unwavering.”
Jennifer Kruger acknowledges that hers is not a path everyone might choose.
But since the time she married Paul Kruger Sr. in the Salt Lake Temple in 1985, she’s devoted herself to building the kind of home that is both a foundation for a fearless life and a shelter in any storm.
Sitting in her living room with her two daughters and granddaughter, Kruger likens her philosophy on motherhood to how women have had to fight to be taken seriously in their chosen professions. They have to find their place of power, their confidence, their purpose, in order to be successful.
“I have always felt that way about being a mother,” she said. “People in the world sometimes trivialize being a mother, and particularly those who choose staying home to raise their kids. I had six kids. I decided that’s my career, and I’ve been blessed enough that I haven’t had to work outside the home. I respect and admire women who do both.”
But at the same time, she’s unspeakably grateful that she didn’t have to find a way to balance her own career with her desire to be a mom. She and her husband started their family when he was still playing college football, first at Ricks College and then at Oregon State.
Their oldest son, Paul Jr., was born in 1986, followed by Jessica in 1987.
She said there were difficulties being married to a student-athlete with two small children, but there were far more joys.
“You just embrace it,” she said. “This is how it is.”
When her husband played in Oregon, it rained a lot. She felt it wasn’t just important for her to be in the stands to support her husband, but to have their children at each game as well.
Jennifer carried Jessica in a pack that she wore on her stomach, and then she and Paul Jr, who was about 18 months old, would both poke their heads out of a rain poncho as the three of them huddled under an umbrella during the games.
“It’s the only way I know it,” she said. “Really what it did for me in that way was it became our experience. It wasn’t just him playing. It was us. We were playing football. We were trying to graduate from college.”
Over the years, more children — David (1990), Joe (1992), Mark (1995) and Erica (1996) — simply meant a bigger Kruger crowd traveling to events and activities.
Jessica, who is married to Paul’s former Utah teammate Tony Bergstrom (currently a lineman for the Oakland Raiders) and Erica, who is a senior at Pleasant Grove High, laugh as they recount the hours they spent watching their brothers practice everything from baseball to football.
Their father coached little league football while their mom chauffeured — and cheered.
To this day, David Kruger, who played at Utah and a year in the NFL before going to work with his father at their company Greenlife Labs this winter, said in a stadium of thousands, he only hears one voice.
“I could hear my mom more clearly than my coaches — and that’s high school and college,” David said laughing.
His younger brother, Joe, said having unconditional love like he enjoyed gave him the confidence to chase the kind of goals some people don’t even consider.
“I think it can make all the difference in the world,” Joe said of having a mother like his. “It is one of the strongest forces of life. It can carry you through life. Some people have tough lives, bad times, but if they have a mother and family that loves them, no matter what, that gives them all the hope in the world.”
Erica Kruger said her mom takes the time to call or communicate with every child every day.
“She takes the time just to make sure their day is going well, to make sure they’re OK,” Erica said, “even though we’re all basically adults. The best times, for me, are when we’re all just here laughing, talking, making memories.”
Jennifer Kruger said cultivating a sense of loyalty and support among her children was always a priority. For the Krugers, family is the ultimate team sport.
“We have a family motto that we’ve had since the kids were little, and it’s, ‘Where we go one, we go all,’ ” said Jennifer, who tweets about her children and the Kruger Cares foundation at @KrugerMomma. “Paul played in the Super Bowl, but we all went to the Super Bowl. We’re all on a mission in Australia (with Mark); We all ran the Salt Lake City (half) marathon (with Erica).”
Jennifer Kruger laughs when she considers the schedule of activities and athletics she juggled for her children when they were young.
“I look back and I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “It’s amazing. We think, ‘How did we do that? That’s crazy!’ I did it different than some moms do, but you’ve got to do whatever works for you. I took everybody everywhere.”
She said when her oldest children were in high school, the family car became storage space for balls, bats and football pads, as well as a changing room. She’d pack a cooler with snacks and drinks and they’d take to the road.
The boys would watch their sisters dance or play volleyball, and the girls watched countless hours of baseball, basketball and football — especially football. When Paul Jr. started Kruger Cares to help children struggling with illness or tragedy, it was his siblings and parents who pitched in and helped him succeed.
“If you see one Kruger, there are probably going to be a couple more with them somewhere,” Jennifer laughed. “If they’re alone, it’s probably because they’re in another state.”
Jennifer points out a Saturday the family shared in April. Paul Jr., who plays for the Cleveland Browns, and Joe, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, both flew home that weekend. The entire clan got up early so they could be at the finish line in Salt Lake City as Erica finished her first half marathon. That night, the entire family attended Jessica’s debut mixed martial arts bout.
Jessica said her mother wasn’t thrilled when she decided to take up MMA competitively.
“I can see in my mother’s face that this is not something she really understands,” Bergstrom said, who has two children, ages 3 and 18 months. “It’s a little tough for her, but she knows that it’s something that I want. So she’s front and center at my fight.”
And when it was finished, she jumped the fence and found the always-accepting embrace of her mom.
When Paul helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl two years ago, he had a replica of his ring made into a necklace and had “Momma” engraved on the back of it.
“My mother has probably sat through more games and more practices, she’s been there through times in the hospital, through surgery, when I had great experiences and when I was struggling,” Paul said. “She has just really been dedicated to me and my other siblings, so I wanted her to know that she won the Super Bowl too. She was there and it was just as much a victory in her life as it was for me. That was her moment too, not just mine.”
Her children said among the lessons she taught them are how to live with integrity and the importance of being loyal. Her commitment to her faith has sustained them, and her dedication to each of them has made her children more devoted to one another.
“Just seeing how much dedication she puts into each child,” Paul Jr. said of what impresses him most. “It really has been eye-opening as I’ve gotten older. Her care and concern for each one of us, I don’t know how she stayed sane.”
Both David and Joe recounted how their mother didn’t allow them to wallow in self-pity, even as children.
“She would let you cry for a certain amount of time, but she toughened us up,” David said. “She helped us become strong men. When we were older, we could mentally handle things. When we had challenges, we were already prepared, we’d already been taught that there are going to be hard times in life. You can feel sorry for yourself, but you eventually have to get back on your feet and get going.”
David said she emphasized being polite and respectful to women. Joe said when he and his brothers would fight, his mom made them hug each other, apologize for hurt feelings and even exchange I love yous. Jessica and Erica said they’re grateful their mother never allowed fights to fester.
Jennifer Kruger, like most moms, has struggled. She’s been frustrated, overwhelmed, baffled and blind-sided.
But never, not even for a minute, has she ever regretted her decision to make motherhood her career.
Suggestions that she’s somehow less accomplished don’t bother her because nothing diminishes how she feels about her choice, her life and her children.
“It would if I allowed it,” she said of feeling marginalized because she doesn’t have a career outside her home. “But I don’t allow it. There is power in being a mother. There is power in the influence a mother has in the lives of her children. And if you take it seriously, and you dedicate yourself to it, just like you would a career that you’re earning dollars for, it’s amazing what can happen with your children.”
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