“So in many ways, we’re blessed.”
The Irelands are blessed that one attack that defeats so many couples with autistic children did not overcome them. “Jeff and I, luckily we stuck together,” Rachel said. “So many of our friends that we know that had this happen to them, it tore them apart.”
But the Ireland marriage was forged in tough times, so it has stubbornly survived. The couple married 20 years ago. One month after their first meeting, Rachel was in an automobile accident in which she shattered her pelvis and collarbone. She wore a catheter for six weeks and her bladder nearly exploded.
“I was in a wheelchair when he proposed to me, so our life started out with some drama,” Rachel said. “It was three months after we met. He said, ‘I’ve been taking care of you so far, and I want to do it for the rest of my life.’ I was like, wow, if he can deal with all this, he’s a good one.”
Ireland soon landed a job scouting for the National Football League Scouting Combine in 1994. The twins came along unexpectedly, Rachel admitted, two years later.
“It was wonderful,” Rachel said. “Being a new momma is great. He’s a natural at parenting. Even though he’s gone a lot, he’d be home three quality days a week and we’d have summers off together. We’d have lots of picnics in the park and feeding the ducks, and then the autism happened.”
The autism affects practically everything. When Ireland was a candidate to leave the Dallas Cowboys and become the Dolphins’ general manager in 2008, it was a chance of lifetime. But for Rachel, it was a crisis.
The twins were in public school in Texas, where they enjoyed the benefits of an “individualized education plan.” That meant a specialist was on hand to help the girls if they struggled or acted out. Haley and Hannah were thriving.
“We had everything set, it was perfect, and then I said, ‘Um, honey, we’re leaving.’ ” Ireland said.
After Ireland was hired, then-Dolphins-owner Wayne Huizenga and his wife Marti took him and Rachel to dinner to get to know them.
“Marti asked me ‘what do you think about the prospect of coming to South Florida,’ and I just about broke down in tears,” Rachel said. “I had a network of support in Texas. I had it just about figured out.”
Marti Huizenga connected the Irelands with the Dan Marino Foundation that is closely associated with the Autism Societies of Miami-Dade and Broward and the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.
But the transition to South Florida was not easy.
“When we came to Florida, we struggled to find the right schools,” Rachel said. “We went through three schools in one year.”
That struggle continues. But it’s not the greatest challenge. Not even close.
“With us, it’s no longer about the girls becoming a doctor or a lawyer or even graduate from college,” Ireland said. “It’s about being able to have normal communication and try to find a skill, and if you need something, being able to ask somebody to help.”
The Irelands also have an 11-year-old boy, Riley, and 6-year-old girl, Annie, and they have no developmental challenges. But when the couple thinks of their future many years from now, their thoughts turn to the twins.
“They love ice cream. They love baking. They can bake cakes and cookies and decorate,” Rachel said. “I envision someday it’ll be Ireland’s ice cream shop and bakery.
“We’ll have a family business and they will be very involved and will be a part of it. They’re not going to sit at home. They’re going to be active and contributing individuals in our society.”