Wanda Durant, Annie Apple and Wilma McNabb show how the moms of pro athletes can be equally amazing
Forget kicking back with bonbons — Mama is doing it for herself
It’s mama’s turn.
We know the narratives — they’re all too familiar. The sacrifice, struggle and sometimes the suffering of some of the world’s best, and best known, athletes. Their origin stories read like many of our own: humble beginnings, but with an anchor of support coming from moms who dare to believe in the unlikely. Fast-forward and through hard work and commitment to dreams, big contracts are signed and the work in professional arenas begins. And that’s when — finally — mama really gets into the game.
In some cases, while their superstar offspring are in the big leagues, moms develop their own brands. Kevin Durant’s mom and inspirational speaker Wanda Pratt Durant, for example, has had pairs of her son’s signature sneakers — the Nike KD 6s (a colorway never released to the public) and KD 4s (designed by Wanda herself for Kevin to wear on the court) — designed in her honor. Now, there are the “Racer Pink” KD 9 Elites (with callouts to her on the inner lining), which are the first of his shoes dedicated to his mother that will be available to the public. And just in time for Mother’s Day.
This Amazing Mama Thing isn’t new, of course. It was, after all, a short 15 years ago when former NFL superstar Donovan McNabb’s mother, Wilma (a former pediatric nurse), starred with her son in ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup commercials. Mama McNabb was everywhere. Her on-the-field role serving up her son a bowl of hot, chunky soup became synonymous with her son serving up nightmares for defenses.
Wilma McNabb was parodied in 2005 on Saturday Night Live — all in good fun, of course — and it was a testament to how far her star had risen. And she was trailblazing, as the campaign later would feature Gladys Bettis, mother of Jerome Bettis; Louise Strahan, mother of Michael Strahan; and Lavoyda Lenard, mother of Brian Urlacher.
“I think it brings it back home,” Wilma McNabb said from her home in Illinois. “It grounds players that have been put so far up on a pedestal. When you bring their mothers into it, it reminds, it touches the heart in some way, that these are real people. They have a mother that stands behind them and that supports them.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house in 2014 when NBA All-Star Durant paid homage to his mother at the end of his MVP speech. And now it seems she’s nipping at her son’s famous heels — Mama Durant is an in-demand speaker. She has dates in Missouri, Maryland and Washington, D.C., in the next few weeks alone. And her Queen Latifah-produced Lifetime Movie Network biopic, The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story, is out on DVD this month.
“Mothers are the foundational points for these athletes, especially when you have a mother like myself and Mrs. McNabb, who were instrumental in their sons’ athletic success, and a part of them being the men that they have become,” Durant said. “It’s important that there’s … a blueprint on how to deal with these young athletes … to be worldly, to be responsible citizens. It’s a mother’s responsibility to form that foundation, for their sons to rise.”
And even though you’d think now would be the time for these women to enjoy some rest and relaxation, Wanda Durant, as with other mothers, is only getting started. Now she can shift her focus — well, after her son, it is hoped, finishes this season with an NBA championship.
She said the best advice that her sons gave her came when they both wanted to separate from her with their business endeavors. “They told me to go enjoy my life,” she said. “I took it as a negative. … I wanted to continue to work with them. … I didn’t see myself as an individual at the time. I always saw myself as a mom.” She said she assumed they just wanted to be away from her, that she should just go shop and travel. “And eat bonbons!” Durant said. “But really, they wanted me to become Wanda and know what my other purposes in life are.”
And now she’s found it. Her dream is to create a nonprofit foundation, develop a school for underprivileged kids and start a school for pregnant teenagers.
A similar mission is close to Annie Apple’s heart as well. Her son is Eli Apple of the New York Giants, who won a national championship with Ohio State in 2015. As he was being talked about as a first-round draft pick last year, it was Annie Apple who was the rising star. She was writing for Sports Illustrated regularly, and last year she began work on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown as a contributor. Her biting humor is hilarious and thoughtful; they love her on Twitter.
And as for sitting back and living off her son’s newfound wealth?
“That’s his money,” she said. “I feel like for the first time in my life — and I’m 42 — I’m really actually beginning to live my life. I’ve been a mom since I was 16. So from the time I was 16 years old, it’s always been about my kids, which is great. At one point Eli said to me — I was doing stuff with ESPN, and I had to travel to two cities in two days — and he’s like, ‘Why don’t you just relax and I’ll take care of it?’ I love my son, but I’ve never been willing to sit around and wait for a man to take care of me.”
Now she’s shifting gears and recently started a nonprofit called Raising A Pro.
“It has nothing to do with athletics. It’s all about revising and restoring visions for African-American kids in the inner cities that I grew up in and to help them equip that vision,” Apple said. “Not everybody can be a pro athlete or a pro entertainer. Each kid has what it takes to become a productive and professional citizen, so I’m partnering with different organizations. I’m doing a lot of research, but I look forward to piloting curriculum and after-school programs this summer.”
Chances are good we’ll see Apple on TV again soon or, quite frankly, doing anything she desires to do — she’s just that focused. Same with McNabb. She no longer is doing the Campbell’s Chunky Soup campaign, but she’s got some other things cooking.
“I have a recording, a CD. I wrote the song and had it produced: ‘When Your Heart is on the Field.’ This song had been ringing in my head for the first two years while Donovan played as an NFL quarterback,” she said. “Listen to the words of the song and you’ll see how I feel and how I’m sure many other parents of athletes feel.”
Apple said it beautifully: “Eli didn’t allow his new fame to change who he is. That’s a reflection of who we are — who I am,” Apple said. “It encourages me because I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve raised a young man who is comfortable being who he is.’ I’m more proud of that than I am any amount of money he will ever make in this league.”