NFL's Clifton Geathers wins, shares his literacy fight

August 13, 2013 

  • Editor’s note

    This is the fourth in a series by Issac J. Bailey about the Geathers family of Georgetown, one of the most prolific professional football families in U.S. history. Bailey, who spent nearly a year doing research for this project, is working on a book about the family and how it reflects important social, educational and economic changes in our region.

    Next in the series

    Buried in the pageantry and exponential growth of college and NFL ticket sales and TV rights is the sort of competitive environment young boys need, the kind they often do not get to experience inside today’s classrooms. There are a host of reasons a student does not reach his full potential in school, including an unstable home life, poverty and undiagnosed disabilities. But one of the least discussed is how the classroom is often set up to discourage the type of environment a boy needs to succeed, an environment football offers in abundance.

    Online

    View photo galleries of the Geathers family, Carvers Bay football and life in Georgetown County and read installments you missed at MyrtleBeachOnline.com/1508.

In the middle of another grueling night of homework, Clifton Geathers finally had enough. It was too hard.

He was frustrated, as was his father, Robert Sr., and his mother, Debra, who had been struggling to help him to master reading.

They had been involved parents all of his life, providing the kind of intact home education officials insist is a necessary ingredient in academic success. But Clifton couldn’t get it.

The symbols on the page just wouldn’t make sense.

He would skip over words and bounce around the page in a haphazard fashion for reasons he didn’t understand and couldn’t control.

His father had similar problems, making it hard to keep track of his place while singing from a hymn book in church.

“I don’t want to read and write,” Clifton told his parents that night. “I could hunt, fish and sell things. I could farm; I don’t have to read and write.”

“My mom was heartbroken,” he said weeks ago before going into pre-training camp workouts with the Philadelphia Eagles. “My dad couldn’t read and write for a long time; when you can’t read and write, it gets to a point where you want to give up.”

He wouldn’t find out until years later that his eyes -- not his academic or intellectual abilities -- were the cause of his struggles.

Now he wants to step out of the shadow of silent shame he and others like him have long felt. Highlighting the reality of too many students having literacy problems is now one of his goals.

He’s telling his story now, about a year after his father confided his own literacy challenges to his sons, because Clifton knows “there are many other kids out there like me.”

When hard work isn’t enough

Despite his parents’ best efforts, Clifton had been falling through the same cracks in the educational system as his father, who graduated from high school in the 1970s barely able to read and write.

Robert Sr. was able to use football, hard work and a host of other skills and talents to overcome his literacy challenges to help kick start one of the most prolific professional football families in the country’s history.

Clifton used a similar combination to overcome his while unlocking the secrets to literacy as well.

During his elementary years -- when he was too big to play football -- learning was fun “because you actually wanted to get things right;” he earned mostly As and Bs.

Things began to change in the middle school. Late-night homework sessions with his mother, a math teacher, couldn’t overcome what they did not know was an undiagnosed learning disability.

His grades began dropping, to mostly Cs.

Besides, he didn’t want special attention paid to his difficulties. That could lead to “being in that class with no windows,” the one with the washer and dryer, with other kids who had more obvious and pronounced problems.

There was also pressure from classmates to not do well.

“In my school, it was cool to fail tests some times,” he said. “If you read in class, you were made fun of. If you put the right answer on the board, you got made fun of.”

Even without that pressure, “I really struggled with reading and writing” well into high school, he said.

Reading was unlike any chore he had undertaken, unmatched by any he faced on the football field during an All-American high school career, or when working on his father’s used car lot or in the fields of rural Georgetown County.

He wanted to give up.

But like his father, who almost quit college over struggles that lasted longer and were more pronounced than his second-oldest son’s, he didn’t give up. His parents wouldn’t let him.

They got him to Sylvan Learning Center in Myrtle Beach, which helped, then to Mac Testing and Consulting in New Jersey, which is where he received the breakthrough.

Learning style differences that had gone undetected during his march through the public school system were diagnosed, whittling down what had been a mountain of frustration into more easily navigable mole hills.

“It gave me a jump start,” he said. “All of it was simple things and techniques.”

Identifying the problem and adapting

Clifton credits Mac Testing with turning around his academic career.

The firm was named one of the top learning centers in America by Inside America and attracts athletes from around the globe. It is headed by Jean D’Arcy Maculaitis, who earned a doctorate in the measurement and evaluation of the English language, with a concentration in applied linguistics and secondary education from New York University.

She has also taught “every grade from third through post-doctoral in virtually every type of community -- urban, suburban and rural, including three New York state federal prisons.”

It was at Mac Testing that Clifton learned eyesight and vision are not the same thing, and that understanding the difference was the key to his academic success.

First, he had to face some cold, hard facts about where he stood on the cusp of graduating from Carvers Bay High School, laid bare by a series of cognitive, psychological and other tests at Mac Testing.

His IQ score was average. His verbal ability, a measure of language development that “includes the comprehension of individual words and relationships among words,” was within the average to high average range “when compared to others in his grade.”

He was average in written expression and broad written expression, which includes spelling, writing fluency and quality of expression.

What stood out most was his overall reading ability: A semester from completing his high school career he had the reading skills of a fourth grader.

That’s not a surprise to Coastal Carolina University professor Paul Peterson. He also was a member of the Horry County Board of Education and taught at four universities in three states.

These sorts of academic realities are not confined to athletes, he and other educational observers and consultants have said.

“There has been a precipitous drop in basic literacy since I started teaching,” Peterson said. “A statement I often hear from people who teach elsewhere is that about 20 percent of their students should not be in college and they do not have the skills and background necessary to do well in college. I have even heard that from people who teach at some fairly elite institutions.”

An erosion in the work ethic, avoidance of the most rigorous courses, and teachers’ tendency to avoid giving too many Fs for fear of being seen as poor teachers are all factors, he said.

“The family and our local communities, nationally, are in disarray,” he said. “Over 40 percent of American children today are born out-of-wedlock. When we factor in the divorce rate, we see that the traditional two-parent family is definitely in the minority.”

None of those factors applied in Clifton’s case.

It wasn’t because he was in an unstable home with absentee-parents, or because he didn’t try -- though he said there were times he did not understand the urgency and importance of a good education -- or because he was in an under-resourced school.

He attended Carvers Bay High School, which was only 5 years old when Clifton graduated and was the result of a merger between Choppee and Pleasant Hill high schools, a merger forced by the Department of Justice and concerned parents and community members such as Clifton’s mother.

The facilities and other resources were a major upgrade from what his parents experienced at Choppee in the mid- to late-1970s.

Aynor High School was the highest ranked Grand Strand area school in the 2012 national rankings by U.S. News and World Report. About 62 percent of its students were proficient in reading.

Socastee and St. James high schools were ranked nearly as high but had a higher proficient rate, with 73 percent of their students scoring at that level.

Carvers Bay was not ranked, and a little less than half - 49 percent - of its students were proficient in reading, according to the report.

Georgetown County school district has an 86 percent graduation rate, Superintendent Randy Dozier said after rattling off a long list of Georgetown County students who had gone on to productive and impressive careers in college and beyond.

“Just about all of our teachers are highly qualified,” he said. “We don’t throw anybody away. We try to keep them in school.”

Academic ascent

“Despite his best efforts and subsequent tutoring, Clifton has had difficulty surviving three and a half years of high school requirements, that is, until his long-term visual problems were diagnosed and treated,” learning disabilities teacher and consultant Elizabeth Koch said in a May 2006 letter. “Throughout high school, Clifton’s grade point average has been particularly marred by his grades in reading-dependent courses. ... It seems apparent that [he] will do well in college and beyond if he directs his selection of courses and profession towards his strengths, ... his considerable people-skills and mathematics. It is also apparent that this is an average high school student who, for whatever reason, has been educationally deprived.”

Mac Testing officials made Carvers Bay aware of Clifton’s diagnosis and recommended changes in the way he was taught.

Mac Testing helped show Clifton that his eyesight, which was average, was not the problem, but rather his vision, which is the “learned ability to understand what we see.” Officials made Carvers Bay aware of Clifton’s diagnoses and recommended changes in the way he was taught.

He was fitted with corrective glasses and scored in the 86th percentile in a standardized statewide test when he returned to school.

He had tests read to him, could take them without time pressure, received one-on-one tutoring and had computer-assisted instructional tools, accommodations that are required to be made available to all students with particular learning disabilities.

He went on to score high on the ACT and studied at Hargrove Military Academy after leaving Carvers Bay.

He then spent three years playing football at the University of South Carolina for coaching legend Steve Spurrier, until his suspension from the team following his arrest after being involved in a bar fight and moved on to the NFL. “I was not in the wrong when the bar fight happened,” he said.

His academic potential was always evident on the football field. His playbooks were full of visual diagrams of plays, which made his mastery of angles and geometric shapes useful.

“Clifton Geathers is an academic sleeping giant through no fault of his own,” Maculaitis told USC’s compliance assistant in a letter. “He is now fully awake and is steadfastly determined to fill-in the ‘holes’ in his background as expeditiously as possible.”

He began as a business major at USC before switching to African-American studies. He carried nearly a B average, he said. “It was actually easier than high school.”

He had tutors, was able to use the techniques Mac Testing recommended and “there were people who cared, who would say, ‘Hey, Cliff, you gotta pass this class.’”

“Their job was to help you make good grades, so they cared,” Clifton said. “It helped me out a whole lot.”

Many strengths to call on

There were people at S.C. State decades ago who cared about Clifton’s father, Robert Sr., as well.

The school has had numerous headline-making problems during the past several years, but S.C. State put a premium on academic excellence during the era Robert Sr. was a football player at the school, said Willie Jeffries, who coached S.C. State at the time.

Robert Sr. and other athletes like him were provided extra help in the Pep Program, which included a dozen tutors. They met every day outside of class for extra instruction, as well as for time management and other skills-building exercises. They couldn’t stay in school or play football if their GPA dropped below a 2.0.

“We wanted them to stay in school,” Jeffries said. “All students can fly; some of them just need a longer runway.”

Robert Sr. struggled with reading, but he found ways to cope and excel any way. Reading and other tests were hardest when they were timed, the same difficulty Clifton had decades later at Carvers Bay High School.

But his memorization skills were stellar -- which enabled him to thrive in his driver’s education classes -- as were his ability to copy sentences flawlessly when someone showed him.

His work with tutors and his roommate, John Alford, made it possible for him to get by in classes, particularly the ones that relied upon multiple choice tests.

“I prayed a lot,” Robert Sr. said. “I did a lot of memorizing.”

He could dismantle and explore engines and other electrical devices as though it was second nature. He was an industrial education major who was good with his hands and had an electrician’s mind. He became the de facto dorm cook after splicing together a hanger with a hot iron, upon which he made grilled cheese sandwiches and other culinary offerings.

He became a study in attentiveness, rallying professors and others to his side.

“He survived well because he did what was required of him,” Jeffries said.

“He even straightened up the blinds and chairs and dusted the erasers in every class,” Jeffries said a bit hyperbolically to drive home the point.

Robert Sr. took that same outlook into the NFL, though a one-year detour into the short-lived USFL led to a back injury, effectively ending his career because the league provided no insurance coverage. A deal with the Oakland Raiders fell through when he failed a physical because of his back.

From there, Robert used some of the money he earned from the NFL and bought a bus and began a touring business, following in the footsteps of other entrepreneurs in his family. He then opened Browns Ferry Motors, a used car lot where he sometimes spends 15 hours a day and where he instilled an indefatigable work ethic in his sons.

His wife helped him with paper work, though he believes his business would be more successful had he the literacy skills to match is work ethic, which is why his sons have been urging him to get out of the business and to continue improving his reading.

His problems with literacy haven’t stopped him from participating in the community. He has served on several boards, including the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

He’s even a Justice of the Peace who has finalized four marriages.

“He’s one of the greatest guys I ever coached,” Jeffries said.

During a stint coaching a young football team, Robert Sr. came up with the strategies and had a young boy help him write them down during practice; that young boy grew up to become a head football coach while about a dozen others later earned football scholarships to college.

The knack for innovation he cultivated in rural Georgetown in the 1970s -- a requirement for survival for many families -- helped him compensate for his reading difficulties.

He’d wait until everyone else at the table in a restaurant ordered before he would. He’d pretend to be reading the menu but would instead listen to what others said and order one of those dishes, the one he disliked the least.

At car auctions when it was time to fill out a check, he would ask someone else to fill it out after pretending he couldn’t see because he had left his glasses in the car.

“I knew how to figure things out,” Robert Sr. said.

Like father, like son

His second-oldest son, Clifton, picked up those life lessons as well.

He was taken in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns, lower than he expected, probably because of the suspension after the bar fight.

The Browns cut him from the team during training camp. That was just the beginning of another illustration of survival in the Geathers family.

He caught on with the Miami Dolphins for 9 games that year before being cut again, this time right around the Thanksgiving holiday.

He had a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks, then was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, where he finished up the season.

He was one of the last defensive linemen cut by the Cowboys during the following season’s training camp and was out of the league for a few weeks before getting the call from the Indianapolis Colts, where he finished out the season and got his first NFL sack.

He’s landed with the Philadelphia and signed a 2-year, $1.17 million contract with the Eagles this past offseason, though is hoping to land a more stable, long-term contract. Early reports from training camp suggest he has a shot at as a starter on the defensive line.

To pull on a uniform for another NFL season is the fulfillment of a life-long dream, Clifton said.

He realizes that the God-given physical abilities he and his brothers were given helped him make it into the league, but that the passed-down work ethic and relentless pursuit of success was just as important.

“In ninth grade is when I got real serious about football,” he said. “I knew that I didn’t want to work here in South Carolina for the rest of my life. There aren’t many outlets and I’d probably be doing something that I shouldn’t be doing.”

Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at ibailey@thesunnews.com or at Twitter at @TSN_IssacBailey.

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