It’s a Friday morning in mid-May, and it’s situation normal at the Warner home in Camas, Wash. That means three dogs, sized small, medium and large, are romping around. Austin, who has just returned after one of his CrossFit workouts, is yelling “Hello” and “Happy Mother’s Day” before heading upstairs to do something on the computer. Christian is wandering around the kitchen, wondering what’s next on the daily schedule.
“Mama!” Christian calls. “Mama! Mama! New floors?” He stuffs his hands into the waistband of his jeans.
“Nice hands, Christian,” Ana says. “Nice hands.” Christian removes his hands from his jeans. “We’ll get the new floors on Monday,” she continues. “I’ll do your schedule later.”
“Now?” Christian asks. “Now?”
“Not now. Later.”
Christian walks off, and Curt laughs: “Mr. Christian’s got to have a schedule.” The homemade schedule form, which the Warners print by the dozens, has space to record a specific time for each part of the daily routine: wake up, shower/clothes on, breakfast, lunch, dinner, shower/pajamas on, and bedtime. There are eight other lines to add additional activities—Austin’s work schedule, perhaps, or a community outing, which is labeled “fun.” Or, in this case, “new floors.”
“His day needs to be structured,” Curt says. “It has to have a regimen to it. He doesn’t like surprises—it stresses him out. But if you can see the calendar …”
Ana completes the thought: “The level of anxiety goes down.”
If Ana isn’t finishing her husband’s sentences, Curt is finishing hers. Twenty-four years of caring for the boys, as they always call Austin and Christian, plus 25-year-old Jonathan and their adopted daughter, 12-year-old Isabella, has forged them into a tight-knit team. That’s the first thing Boling, their coauthor, noticed. He had covered the Seahawks for a Tacoma newspaper for more than 20 years, but he didn’t know Curt, whose last year with the team was Boling’s first on the beat. (He’d always assumed that the Warners just wanted to live a private life—“off the grid.”) But when Curt asked the Seahawks PR department to recommend someone who could help with the book, he got Boling’s name.
They met in person, and the Warners began telling their story. Boling listened for less than 15 minutes. He didn’t need to be sold on the project. He was in, and he already had a vision. He told them, “This isn’t a book about autism, or about challenging parenting. It’s not a book for Penn State fans or about Penn State. I see this as a great love story.”
Boling remembers that both Warners laughed. They told him, “That’s what we think it is, too.”
Curt met Ana in the late 1980s, when he was the Seahawks’ star running back. He walked into a downtown department store one day and noticed Ana, who had moved to the U.S. from her native Brazil at 27 and was working as a fragrance model—and who had a less-than-positive impression of football players. But Curt, she sensed, was different. With an assist from one of Curt’s friends, he and Ana quickly connected. They got engaged on Valentine’s Day 1990, just as he was in the process of retiring.
“The timing of Ana’s coming into my life was perfect,” Curt writes in the book. (He and Ana alternate writing duties.) “I needed her; I just didn’t know how much. Back then, nobody prepared players to handle the twilight of their career. That’s why so many players got into deep financial trouble and had such a hard time dealing with the transition to life after the NFL. Here’s how it goes for a lot of players: All of a sudden, you’re not a professional football player. You have to be able to create a new identity—at age 30. When you’re not on the field, with your teammates every day, you lose touch with those close friends. And all that camaraderie that was so rewarding is gone. Ana helped me through those difficult transitions.”
Soon Ana was pregnant, and the Warners were thrilled. As the due date neared, the doctor needed to determine whether a Caesarian section was necessary, so they scheduled one final ultrasound on the day Ana’s family was flying in from Brazil. Then the doctor said they needed more tests. And then he told them that the baby had died. Shocked and grieving, Ana delivered their stillborn son, Ryan, that night.
“I had seen how strong Curt had been through the end of his football career, how squared away he was emotionally, and how he dealt with physical pain without ever complaining,” Ana writes in one of her chapters. “I knew he was made of some kind of inner steel, but this loss affected him so deeply. That night in the hospital, after the nurses had taken Ryan away, it seemed like the one thing in our lives we could count on was that we were together, there for each other. It was a certainty we each could carry with us. Our love for one another was forged and tempered to an even greater strength and depth through the experience.”
They needed the strength. Ana endured several more miscarriages before giving birth to Jonathan, whose name means “God’s gift.” Eighteen months later, the twins were born. Several months after that, Ana was diagnosed with postpartum depression. And then the twins began acting in a way that the Warners describe in the book as “menacing,” but no doctor could determine why.
“I’ve heard that parents often feel a sickness of their own when their children are hurting,” Ana writes. “I know I did. Every day that the boys dealt with these troubles was a day we hurt along with them. The doubts and confusion started consuming our lives.”
When the Warners finally got the diagnosis, they didn’t know what to think. The only thing they knew about autism was the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, and they didn’t think the boys’ behavior resembled that. They went home and logged onto the internet, looking for a way to fix it. They never found one. It didn’t exist.
“Especially in the first five years, when you’re going through the diagnosis, that’s intense,” Curt says. “She’s thinking, ‘Let’s fix it,’ I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t you fix it?’ That took us a while to figure that out. Then we got on the same page—or at least, I got on her page.”
“To be honest with you, every day is a struggle,” Curt says. “Because you get mad. You’re disappointed. Every day. So you pray …”
He tails off, and Ana picks up the thought: “A lot.”