“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
-Roger Caras, writer & photographer
Many of Kansas City’s top professional athletes surely agree with Roger Caras’ assessment.
While the cheers (and sometimes boos) from fans that accompany every move on the gridiron, diamond, or soccer pitch are fleeting, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza and Royals catcher Drew Butera are among dozens of local pros with ever-loyal adoring fans at home.
Best of all, Espinoza’s and Butera’s dogs don’t care a lick about the results.
For Espinoza — a speedy box-to-box midfielder, who relishes basking in cheers at Children’s Mercy Park — he can’t wait to get home and see Chulo, a 9-year-old English bulldog.
“He’s like an emotional companion for me,” Espinoza said. “You come home, and it doesn’t matter how sad or mad you are, they love you.”
Butera can identify. He and his fiancée, Hilary Turner, have two dogs — an 11-year-old miniature schnauzer named Cash and a 3-year-old Airedale terrier named Ziggy.
“They are just happy to see me on the best night,” Butera said. “And when I don’t have such a great night, they bring a whole lot of joy and happiness to life and they remind me that there is more to life than baseball.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that professional athletes, whose careers (and lives) often play out on a very public stage, appreciate the unconditional love pets give, particularly dogs.
“It’s man’s best friend,” said Chiefs offensive lineman Zach Fulton, who owns a 90-pound German shepherd-boxer mix named — appropriately — Chief. “They’re always there when you’re chillin’. They always listen to you.”
Various scientific studies have found that pet ownership has myriad health benefits — including lower blood pressure and decreased physical pain, stress, and depression.
One study, by the University of Arizona’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative (HAIRI), found that pet owners experienced elevated level of oxytocin — one our “feel-good” hormones — when gazing into their dogs’ eyes.
FC Kansas City midfielder Erika Tymrak didn’t need a scientific study to tell her about the joy she gets from Chai, a husky mix she rescued from a no-kill shelter while living in Denver.
“He definitely helps me de-stress,” Tymrak said. “Whenever I am in a bad mood, he can sense it and he cheers me up. Since we got him as such a scared dog, he has taught us patience, love and loyalty.”
Every pet owner understands that feeling, but the relationship isn’t a one-way street.
Dogs often behave very much like children, with the way they react to a pet owners’ absence, demonstrating a very humanlike attachment.
During one HAIRI experiment, individual dogs were placed in a brain scanner to see what areas activate in response to their owners’ voice, scent, or a picture.
“It turns out the areas that become active are parts of the brain that are associated with positive reward,” said H. Dieter Steklis, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences who runs HAIRI along with his wife and research partner, Netzin Steklis. “… They are rich in dopamine.”
Tymrak, the son of a Florida police officer, grew up with German shepherds and golden retrievers, and always planned to get a German shepherd of her own.
“But then I fell in love with Chai,” she said. “… (He) was kind of broken when I walked past his cage. … I spent a little time with him in this room. I just felt this enormous amount of love, and we had a really strong connection. Now, he’s the happiest dog in the world.”
Being active with animals is a big part of the appeal of being a pet owner for athletes.
Tymrak enjoys taking Chai — a protective and ever-watchful companion, with one gray-blue eye and one dark brown eye — to the park with her boyfriend, Marc Campbell.
“We go to Shawnee Mission Park a lot because he likes to swim a lot,” she said. “He is obsessed with water. He will literally jump into any water he sees. He loves the beach, playing in the sand and the waves.”
Such anecdotes are common among other Kansas City’s pro athletes/pet owners.
Chulo, who sleeps in Espinoza’s bed, might not seem like the most athletic dog, but don’t be fooled. He’s joined Espinoza on road trips to Yellowstone and Olympic National Parks.
“He did really well and even did a few hikes,” Espinoza said.
Another of Chulo’s favorite activities is skateboarding, which Espinoza occasionally chronicles on Instagram.
“He loves being on anything that rolls,” Espinoza said. “He knows when he might crash and jumps off.”
For fellow Sporting KC midfielder Soni Mustivar, taking his rescue-dog, Tequila, for walks is a way to clear his mind and has made him more patient, on and off the field.
“It helps me to think when we go on walks,” he said.
Tequila also brings much-needed levity into Mustivar’s life. She has two dog beds and sleeps with her feet in the air on both.
“I don’t know how she does that,” said Mustivar shaking his head.
What he does know is that Tequila’s unconditional love enriches his life.
“Every time I come back from a trip she jumps on me,” he said. “It’s the best feeling.”
Athletes’ four-legged friends also keep them on their toes. Take Butera’s dogs.
“They are both energetic and are polar opposites,” he said. “Ziggy is outgoing, curious and always excited. Ziggy is a counter surfer. He ate a pound of chicken one time and a dozen bagels. He is always, always hungry.”
Cash is more mellow — “the perfect angel and never does anything wrong,” according to Butera — but he loves to play fetch.
Among professional athletes from foreign countries, the concept of pet ownership once seemed foreign.
Espinoza didn’t grow up with pets in Honduras, but he saw plenty after moving to Denver and throughout college in the U.S.
“When I turned pro and I had the money, I knew I wanted to have a pet,” Espinoza said.
He fell in love with English bulldogs after reading a newspaper article about the breed.
“I liked the wrinkles,” said Espinoza, who played for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League during 2013-14. “They’re the funniest dogs.”
Chulo proved challenging those first few months for the neophyte pet owner. He chewed on furniture and shoes, really anything he could get his teeth on, like many puppies.
“You just have to teach them and he learned pretty quick,” said Espinoza, who had his own learning curve to manage.
But he’s convinced that journey paid dividends on the field, too.
“Ever since I got a dog, I’ve learned more about responsibility and discipline,” he said. “… And I started playing better.”
Mustivar has a similar story. He didn’t grow with pets in his native France but always loved animals.
He adopted Tequila through the KC Pet Project.
“They came here with pups that needed to be rescued,” Mustivar said. “She was black and white and I fell in love with her. My girlfriend wanted a dog too, so she came at the perfect time. … We named her Tequila because it’s sweet and a little spicy, like she is.”
Mustivar said house-breaking Tequila was difficult at first, but “now she knows all of her commands in English and French,” he said. “I am happy with her.”
Chiefs rookie Jehu Chesson, who emigrated from West Africa to St. Louis as a child with his family, didn’t grow up with pets either, but he couldn’t resist adopting a German shepherd named Ace as a senior last year at Michigan.
Of course, it’s not also easy fitting a pet into a pro athlete’s schedule, especially high-energy breeds.
Chesson — whose father, Jehu Sr., is a director at MasterCard Worldwide — had a hard time finding enough time to train Ace as he balanced football and studying for a his MBA last season with the Wolverines.
He hired a trainer and also enrolled him in classes with a canine law enforcement officer then left Ace with his parents to train for the NFL Draft.
They became quite attached. Chesson’s mom, Yvette, makes him gourmet meals and his father walks him every day.
Every few weeks, they bring Ace to Kansas City for a visit and Chesson occasionally FaceTimes with his dog, hoping for a reunion “once I get my feet under me,” he said
“When I get him back I will have to adjust the budget,” Chesson said. “… (But) when I FaceTime with him he cocks his head like he knows me. … He’s just a great dog.”
Chiefs long snapper James Winchester had a similar revelation after he and his wife, Emily, bought a miniature Australian shepherd named Gunner from a Dallas-Fort Worth breeder.
“We got the first dog in my first year with the Chiefs, then we realized that the breed is one that has lots of energy so we needed a buddy and got the second one,” said Winchester, an Oklahoma native.
That’s when the couple added Gray to a family that now includes an infant son, Jase Michael, who was born Monday.
Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia knows about transitioning from “fathering” pets to the real thing. His wife, Kristen — who recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter — got two cats, Kenai and Koda, when he was living in Salt Lake City and she was living in Connecticut.
“She went to the pet center to get one cat (Kenai), but Koda fell asleep in her arms,” Melia said.
Felines can be a bit more finicky than dogs.
“Kenai is a really good cat,” Melia said. “He is like a little dog almost. He follows you around, wants you to rub his belly. The other cat only likes my wife. He’s a mama’s boy. … Koda hides until my wife comes home; Kenai you cannot get rid of him.”
Both cats recently had to make room for baby Rowan — who they approach with caution, mostly smelling her as she sleeps.
Eventually, Melia, who grew up with a variety of pets in New York, hopes to add a dog to the mix.
“We both grew up with animals and love animals but we move around, so right now we probably won’t add any now but maybe in the future,” he said. “It’s just company when you come home. They’re always glad to see you.”
The travel demands of a professional athlete can make owning a dog, in particular, tricky.
Sinovic often pawns off Sophie on his parents, who still live in Kansas City, when he’s on the road or at preseason training camp.
Meanwhile, Mustivar enrolled Tequila in a doggie day care, “so she can be familiar with other dogs,” he said.
Other dogs become road warriors, like Schwartz’s furball, Cupcake, who often travels with Squires and leads every bit as busy of a life.
Squires chronicles Cupcake’s exploits on an Instagram account that has more than 83,000 followers, nearly 11 times the number of followers Schwartz has on the social-media app.
It’s not uncommon for Cupcake to receive more than 5,000 likes in a day, whether he’s going for a swim, snuggling in the couple’s bed or eating ice cream.
“He loves to snuggle,” Schwartz said. “He loves a good carrot and his preferred method of eating is by hand. He doesn’t like his bowls. He’s very much loved and spoiled. He’s a big fan of treats.”
Another Chiefs offensive lineman, Parker Ehinger, grew up with retrievers, but he hesitated to get one until a knee injury landed him on injured reserve last season.
That’s when Ehinger bought a golden retriever named Oakley form a Kansas breeder.
“The timing seemed to be right, because I was home more,” he said.
It’s a decision he doesn’t regret, even though he’s returned to the field this fall.
“It’s something to come home to,” Ehinger said. “He thinks he’s a lap dog. He loves to be loved and always wants attention.”
That affection is a universal need, even for the seemingly invincible modern-day gladiators of pro sports, but sometimes the athlete/pet pairings make for odd couples.
At 6-feet-5 and 320 pounds, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is one of the biggest pro athletes in Kansas City.
He’s also got one of the smallest dogs in town, a 6-pound Pomeranian named Cupcake.
Schwartz and fiancée, Brooke Squires, got Cupcake at nine weeks old from a breeder two years ago.
“We both wanted dogs,” Schwartz said. “I leaned toward the 100-plus pound black labs and she wanted a Pomeranian. With all the traveling we do, a small dog was perfect.”
By contrast, Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic is only 5-feet-10 and weighs 170 pounds, less than double the size of the 4-year-old Leonberger named Sophie he bought from a breeder in Springfield.
Sinovic — a Leawood native, who grew up with a St. Bernard named Maggie — adores hulking dogs.
“I am a big fan of big dogs,” he said. “I randomly searched online, and I liked what I read about (the Leonberger’s) temperament.”
Then, there’s Charcandrick West, who is small by NFL standards (5-10, 205 pounds).
He adopted a 9-month-old dachshund — which he named Shawty Lo, the same name as an Atlanta-based rapper who died in a car crash last year — after finding her at a kennel in Oklahoma online.
“She was the runt of eight,” West said.
It’s understandable why West — a Louisiana native, who grew up with a pit bull named Bone — would root for the underdog. He’s in his fourth season with the Chiefs after going undrafted in 2014 out of Abilene Christian, a Football Championship Subdivision program in Texas.
It might seem strange to go from a pit bull to a dachshund, but West adores Shawty Lo — ornery traits and all.
“She’s always into something,” West said. “… (But) how can you look at a wiener dog and be mad?”