James Allen Geathers will be 53 this month. And while the man better known to football fans as Jumpy may no longer possess the strength required to execute his patented forklift maneuver (in which, as a defensive tackle and end with the Saints, Redskins, Falcons and Broncos in the 1980s and '90s, he jacked offensive linemen off their feet and carried them into their quarterbacks), he still brings the scowl, that basilisk-like glower that disturbed the sleep of those very opponents.
This is an article from the June 3, 2013 issue
Jumpy is a minute or so into his oration at the annual Geathers Elite Performance Football Camp in Georgetown County, S.C., on the morning of May 4, when he notices that he does not have the undivided attention of all 160 of the campers gathered on the field at Carvers Bay High.
"I don't like people talking when I'm talking," he says, fixing his pitiless gaze on a group of chatty 10- and 11-year-olds wearing the camp's PAY THE PRICE T-shirts. "Now somebody please talk, 'cause I'm getting upset."
No one obliges him.
You can't blame the kids for getting antsy. They signed up for a football camp but have spent the first 20 minutes resting on a knee, listening to speeches from former and current NFL players who urge them to choose their friends wisely, to mind their parents and to walk with the Lord.
"Stay prayed up," implores one speaker, who had earlier assured the kids that they could do great things. "It's not about where you start. It's not about who your family is."
Really? If that were true, then how come one can't swing a yard marker at this clinic without hitting a member of the Geathers family who played, is playing or will soon be playing in the NFL?
Jumpy's older brother, 56-year-old Robert—or Dab, as he's known—had cups of coffee in the early 1980s with the Bills and then the USFL's Boston Breakers. In '81 he married Debra Grimmage (whose father, according to family lore, was a giant of a man with hands like catcher's mitts). That couple had three sons: Robert Jr., now 29 and a defensive end going into his 10th season with the Bengals; Clifton, 25, a third-year defensive tackle with the Eagles, his sixth NFL team; and Kwame, 22, who made a slight miscalculation by entering the April NFL draft following three seasons at Georgia. Hurt by his ponderous 40 time at the combine—he trundled across the line in 5.44 seconds—the 6'5", 342-pound baby of the family went undrafted. Yet he appears to have landed on his feet. He signed as a free agent with the Chargers, whose 3--4 scheme and dearth of down linemen present an ideal fit for the prototypical nosetackle.
Of the 348 sets of brothers who have played pro football, according to an exhaustive list compiled by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are only 26 groups of three or more. And of those, only the Nessers (Al, Frank, Fred, John, Phil and Ted), the Rooneys (Bill, Cobb and Joe), the Kinderines (Hobby, Shine and Walt), the Browners (Joey, Keith and Ross), the Baldingers (Brian, Gary and Rich) and the Gronkowskis (Chris, Dan and Rob) have ever had three siblings on active rosters at the same time. Should Clifton and Kwame make their respective clubs (Robert, who signed a three-year, $9.5 million deal with Cincinnati in March, is a slam dunk), the Brothers Geathers would join that elite group.
But among those bros the Geathers are special: They would be the only active threesome begotten by an actual pro football player. With two generations of professionals, the Geathers's dynasty arguably would be surpassed in NFL history only by the Matthews clan, which boasts five NFL players over three generations.
Until such time as Clifton and Kwame make their respective teams, however, that debate is on hold. We are left instead to reflect on how much help, if any, a name can be in a player's quest to crack an NFL roster. Clifton, traded from the Colts to the Eagles in March, has an interesting take:
"It's a blessing and a burden. Maybe [coaches] want to see the same moves" from him as those they've seen Robert use. "But I'm four inches taller and 40 or 50 pounds heavier. So I don't use those moves. Or they might look at my uncle and say, 'Well, you've got the same frame....' But I'm a different player."
If he didn't have the same name, coaches wouldn't expect Clifton to be someone else. On the other hand, he adds, "If I didn't have this last name, maybe I'd never get the chance."
The notion of siblings in the NFL raises questions of heredity and environment, nature versus nurture. Of course it helps to hit the genetic jackpot. "But just because you have the genes," Debra Geathers says, "that doesn't guarantee you anything if your character and your work ethic aren't there. That was my song to them."
Singing from the same hymnal is Bruce Matthews, a Hall of Fame guard and center who played 19 seasons for the Oilers and the Titans from 1983 through 2001, and who remembers well his battles with Jumpy, a "big strong guy who didn't say a word out there, just brought it every play." Matthews's father, Clay, played in the NFL. As did his brother Clay Jr. And his nephews—Clay Jr.'s sons—Clay III of the Packers and Casey of the Eagles, are in the league today.
"I'm sure that every one of us, the Geathers and the Matthews, have been told our whole lives what the expectations are," says Bruce, who has stayed true to his other family, joining the Titans as offensive line coach in 2011. "There's a standard that comes with having a name on your back."
"As a group we're probably going to outwork anybody," says Robert Geathers the Bengal, who's better known around the family as Junior. "We all paid the price to get where we are."
Pay the Price, as noted, is the slogan for this year's camp, which is underwritten by Junior. But sitting on a bench on the sideline, grumbling like Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop, Jumpy suggests that it wouldn't kill his nephews to pay a little bit more of a price.
"They have been training hard," he allows. But he cannot help adding, "I think they've eased up a little bit over time."
It's in the natural order of things for the elderly to believe that the generation coming up is softer, more coddled. That is certainly the view held by Jumpy and Dab. And in this case, they're absolutely right.
Ten miles south of Carvers Bay High, across the sluggish, meandering Black River, Dab directs a visitor to take a right off Browns Ferry Road onto a lot owned by his younger brother Jerryl. "They won't bite," he says of the yapping dogs who follow close behind, into the woods behind Jerryl's house. There, obscured by spring foliage, is a wooden structure in its final stages of collapse, a ramshackle barn with a single timber wedged against its north-facing wall to prop it up.
"Lot of memories here," says Dab.
This barn, built for curing tobacco, sometimes doubled as living quarters for young Dab and Jumpy, whose parents were sharecroppers. James Rufus Geathers—Slim to his friends—and his wife, Martha, had eight boys and a girl. Cathy died in a house fire when she was three. Dab, who was six at the time, remembers his father running into the burning building to look for the girl, who would pass away the next day. Slim missed the funeral; he was in the hospital recovering from his burns. (The Geathers's patriarch died last November at 75.)
During tobacco season, says Dab, "Our job was to stay in the barn all night." To cure the tobacco, the boys had to keep the barn at 100°. And that required frequent trips into the woods with a cross saw for firewood, which they would haul back behind a mule.
"Cut wood, slop the hogs.... All this before we went to school," Jumpy remembers. Choppee High, the all-black school they attended, was less than 10 miles from the Geathers's house as the crow flies. But because there was no bridge nearby across the Black River, the bus ride each morning took 45 minutes. And along their walk to catch that ride, Dab recalls, they would be passed by the bus carrying white students to a separate school, farther away.
Getting home after football practice was even more of an adventure. With the buses long gone, the boys had to find their own transportation. "We'd try to catch the end of the shift at a nearby steel plant," says Dab. "If we couldn't do that, we were walking for a looong time." And no one looked forward to a long walk in the dark. "The South back then was getting better," remembers Jumpy, "but you still had some good ol' boys who didn't give a s--- about black people."
When school was out, Dab and Jumpy would spend long summer days in the fields cropping tobacco—work that left few fond memories. "Hornworms be biting your back," remembers Jumpy, "and you don't know it's a worm—you're thinking it's a mosquito."
"At lunchtime we had a 30-minute break," adds Dab. "That was a Honey Bun and a soda. On your feet all day long, and end of the day they'd give you 10 dollars." Which the boys would surrender to their mother when they got home.
Hard manual labor was what they knew. "It was all we did," says Dab. And so football, though not easy, was not exactly daunting to them. "The heat didn't bother me," says the older brother. "I'd run by the coach in 90-degree weather, telling him, 'This is fun!' What bothered me was the snow."
There was no snow in his immediate future—Dab played his collegiate ball a hundred miles west of Browns Ferry, at South Carolina State, where he became the first member of his family to attend college. In 1981 he was the first of five Bulldogs to be selected in the NFL draft, going to Buffalo with the last pick of the third round. At that first Bills training camp one veteran approached him and asked, "Hey, rookie, is it true you rassle alligators?" He, in fact, did not. He just saw no upside in denying it.
Buffalo waived him in short time, but the just-midwifed USFL provided a soft landing, and against the Denver Gold at Mile High Stadium in March 1983, Dab recorded one of the first sacks in the history of that short-lived league. What else does he remember about that game? "Gomer Pyle sang the national anthem," he says. "Did a great job too."
Forced out of football eventually by a back injury, Dab returned to Browns Ferry. There he bought a car, fixed it up—he and his sons are handy that way—and sold it for $150 profit. "I thought, Man, that was easy. No one yelled at me, and I didn't get hit in the head." So he opened a small used car lot.
Newly married by this point, Dab purchased and settled into a spread three miles up Browns Ferry Road from that wreck of a barn. Here his vast yard backed up to the Black River, and he built a gazebo and a wooden walkway out onto the water. Eventually he planted three pine seedlings and named one after each of his sons, Robert Jr., Clifton and Kwame. The trees grew faster than the boys, but just barely.
Meanwhile, around the time Dab was settling down with his family, Jumpy was starting to blow up. Despite the brothers' sometimes contentious relationship ("Me and him would fight every day," recalls Jumpy, "that's how I learned my moves"), Dab made sure his sibling stayed in school.
Make that schools. Jumpy matriculated at three different small colleges before settling on Wichita State, which had offered him a basketball scholarship. Already on the team—"and playing my position!" says Jumpy—were forwards and future NBA first-round draft picks Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Xavier McDaniel. So he switched to football. And there, Saints coach Bum Phillips liked what he saw. New Orleans took Jumpy in the second round of the 1984 draft, and he played 13 seasons, piling up 257 tackles, 62 sacks and a pair of beefy Super Bowl rings—bling that he would later dangle in front of his campers.
"I came up the same way y'all came up," he is now reminding his adolescent charges at the football camp, before imploring them, "Don't be a knucklehead. I used to be a knucklehead."
A jovial TV reporter from Myrtle Beach appears, asking for comment on the possibility that three of Jumpy's nephews might be playing in the NFL next season. "If all three of 'em make it, I might come out of retirement," he deadpans. "I'll probably want to chase down the Redskins' quarterback, Three G"—he mangles Robert Griffin III's nickname on purpose, for comic effect—"just to test my speed again."
The sportscaster laughs, but there's a trace of uncertainty there, as if he's thinking, Good God, he might be serious.
For every Geathers to make it in the NFL, there's another one on the outside looking in, unwilling to let go of the dream. Also working the camp on this May afternoon are Jumpy's sons, 26-year-old Jeremy and 25-year-old Jarvis. Jeremy, a former sack-artist end at UNLV, has bounced around between Arena Football, the NFL and the CFL, where he is currently a Toronto Argonaut. Jarvis had 11 sacks as a senior tackle at Central Florida in 2009, but he tore a quad muscle getting ready for the Knights' pro day and ended up playing Arena ball.
Clayton Geathers Jr., on the other hand, looks like the real deal. The son of Jumpy and Dab's younger brother Clayton, he'll be a third-year starter at safety for Central Florida this fall. With 53 tackles in his last four games as a sophomore, he is the epitome of a rising junior.
And then there are the outliers, like cousin Carlton Geathers, a 6'10", 255-pound sophomore at South Carolina. Carlton's not working this camp. "He doesn't play football," Dab explains. "He plays basketball."
When the event comes to a close, a modest battalion of Geatherses and friends descends on Debra and Dab's place, where vast amounts of chicken are already sizzling in a barrel-sized grill in the backyard. Nailed to the wall of the garage, out of company's view, are the pelts of two raccoons recently bagged and skinned by Clifton, the family's designated outdoorsman. Earlier in the spring he took his brothers skeet shooting, with mixed results. "Robert only hit three clays out of 30," reports Clifton, unable to suppress a grin, "so he got pissed and sat down."
He enjoys the role reversal. While Robert is now the longest-tenured Bengals player and a key cog in coordinator Mike Zimmer's defense (which has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in three of the last four seasons), Clifton is perpetually on the bubble. And perpetually upbeat. "Nobody's gonna outwork me," he says. "That's why I'm still in the league."
This afternoon the brothers are going for a short ride on two of the ATVs that live in Dab's garage, bouncing around the property, huge men dwarfing their vehicles like Shriners in a parade. Neither is wearing a helmet, which makes their father nervous.
"Lord help us," says Dab. As he speaks, he's standing near the pines named for his sons. The trees are well over 100 feet tall, and flourishing, and it's clear that he is already blessed.
Heads Will Roll
A (not-even-close-to-exhaustive) hit list of QBs who have been sacked by a Geathers over the years
Danny White, Cowboys
Phil Simms, Giants
Joe Montana, 49ers
Dan Marino, Dolphins
Brett Favre, Packers
Jim Kelly, Bills
Troy Aikman, Cowboys
John Elway, Broncos
Steve McNair, Ravens
Donovan McNabb, Eagles
Drew Brees, Saints
Joe Flacco, Ravens
Eli Manning, Giants
Tim Tebow, U. of Florida
D-Line of Succession
From sharecroppers to sack hoarders—the descendants of Slim and Martha Geathers make one hell of a defense
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