The day Jennifer Leno left the only place she'd ever called home started before sunrise. She got her baby daughters, just 13 months and 2 months old at the time, settled in the back of their family's truck. Her husband Charles got into a packed-up U-Haul with their two bull dogs. The Illinois landscape, infused with memories of childhood, career beginnings, and falling in love, shrunk in Jennifer's rearview mirror as she drove toward their new life out east. Music from "Moana" and "The Little Mermaid" fueled the exhausting one-day trip which finally came to an end in Virginia at 1 a.m.
"Our movers backed out last minute. He had to be at camp the next day. We had no choice." Jennifer recalled. "Like I tell everyone, it might be rough in the moment, but, at the end of the day, these are the stories that we will have the rest of our lives to share with our children. And not not many people get to experience this, so we're just grateful."
The move in many ways was representative of this unique journey Jennifer and Charles have been on. The road ahead was uncertain, filled with questions about how this move to the Washington Commanders would unfold for their little family. They faced it the same way they've faced many twists and turns of their whirlwind of an NFL life -- side by side, leaning into the love that's grounded and empowered them for the last seven and a half years.
It wasn't long into dating Charles that Jennifer knew he was "The One." She remembers the moment during the Christmas of 2015. Charles met her grandpa, a longtime Chicago Bears season ticket holder who she describes as a "father figure" and her "best friend growing up." Her grandpa spent that entire Christmas glued to Charles' side.
"That night, after everyone had gone home, my grandpa called me and said, 'I loved him. He's great,' and, I'm like 'I see that you loved him. I didn't get to talk to him all night,'" Jennifer said with a laugh.
The next morning, Jennifer's grandma called to tell her that her grandpa had fallen and ruptured a hernia. He died a few days later.
"I really felt like it was his blessing. He met him. He told me he loved him," Jennifer said. "And, it's just crazy, because we weren't very serious at that point. But, that's always been something."
Falling in love with Charles came with a learning curve. Having grown up with a soft spot for the defensive linemen, Jennifer now found herself paying more attention to the offensive line, grasping the intricacies of the right hand and foot placement. She learned that Charles is quick to get up off the ground -- and that if he doesn't, there's something wrong. And she became intimately familiar with the pressure and fragility of his career.
"There was a time in 2014 or 2015 where he thought he was getting cut from the Bears, so he literally called and told me his goodbyes," Jennifer said. "He thought he was gone."
Shortly after that, an injury saw Charles become a starter on the team. He never looked back.
"The ups are awesome. Watching him do that was amazing," Jennifer said. "And the downs can be very difficult."
When Charles plays poorly or the team suffers a bad loss, Jennifer is often the first person he turns to support.
"My wife is absolutely the best when it comes to someone I can relieve all my stresses to," the Commanders offensive tackle said. "I can tell her about anything -- coaches, players, technique."
In addition to always offering a listening ear, Jennifer expresses her love and support through acts of service, such as cooking his favorite meal or just staying up with him until early in the morning to watch film.
"I just want to make him feel good, and then also remind him at the end of the day that it's just a game and tomorrow's a new day."
She doesn't take any of those days being alongside her husband while he achieves his biggest dreams for granted. It's an understanding gleaned over years of watching how quickly things can change, how fast the time passes in this league where careers are so short.
Before she knows it, Jennifer will be gearing up for the start of Charles' second season with the Commanders and his ninth in the NFL. This new season, like each one before, will bring new faces.
"I feel so old now, I'm not even 30, but a lot of these girls are like, 21" Jennifer said. "But, I always tell them the same thing: Just enjoy this."