Robert Geathers stood staring at a small, boarded up building deep in a wooden area in the Browns Ferry Community of Georgetown.
It was built from a combination of clay, pinewood and bricks. It stood decades after it was last used, maybe because it was held together by memories Geathers holds fast to when talk about his family’s success becomes too pervasive.
He doesn’t want to forget and wants others to know that the path was long and hard and far from certain.
That day as he stared at that old barn, he wanted to touch the place where it all began for two generations of Geathers that have had nearly unrivaled success in professional football.
It was a barn where he and a younger brother, James “Jumpy” Geathers Jr., had to spend some nights curing tobacco in 100-degree heat and others sleeping after a house fire destroyed their home and took the life of their only sister.
He was visiting the barn in late November, about two weeks after his father’s death.
“Thinking how far we came, we came from such a tragic point, to make something out of nothing,” he said. “Many people doubted we had it in us to make it this far, but we had a lot of praying people in this community, too.”
The Grand Strand’s attention will turn to Miami on Monday night to follow former Myrtle Beach High School football star Everett Golson in college football’s biggest game as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame against Alabama in the national title game.
Golson will be trying to establish himself in a matchup of two of college football’s titans.
But the Geathers family has already established itself as one of the most prolific families in the history of football.
They will be making waves again this weekend.
Two in the league, a third on the way?
Robert Geathers Jr., a veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line, is scheduled to try to slow down one of the league’s top offenses during a national NBC broadcast Saturday afternoon in the first round of the National Football League playoffs.
His younger brother Clifton will take to the field for the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a team that has been one of the most profiled this season for being led by a phenom rookie quarterback and a head coach battling leukemia.
Kwame Geathers, the youngest of Robert’s sons – but the biggest at roughly 6 feet 6 inches tall and 350 pounds thick – plans to sit down with University of Georgia’s Mark Richt and other coaches on Sunday to tell them what he has decided about his immediate future.
His brothers will be fending off block attempts from offensive linemen and running backs while he’ll be busy wading through different recruitment pitches, from Georgia coaches who want him to anchor next year’s defense, and from others anxious to see another Geathers in the NFL.
Since the end of his bowl season, his phone has been ringing constantly.
For a few hours Saturday, though, they plan to block out all of the noise and just enjoy watching Robert Jr. play.
“I was wishing my dad was here,” Robert Geathers said. “He never played football but always got excited by it.”
Late in the season before a game against Georgia Tech, Kwame said he had not yet decided what he would do.
His father, while being careful to not get ahead of his son, said that he expects, come next fall, he will have to find a way to attend NFL games in three different cities.
“At the last game Georgia had, it hit me that this was maybe my last college game,” Robert Geathers said.
Kwame was a co-starter on the defensive line for Georgia this past season, his fourth year in college and third on the field. ESPN NFL draft analysts have speculated that he could be a second or third round pick in this summer’s draft.
Making football history
According to pro football historian Ken Crippen, with Kwame’s entrance into the NFL (and maybe a cousin the following year from Central Florida), the Geathers’ professional football pedigree would rival that of the much-better-known Matthews clan, which includes All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, who will take this field this weekend for the Green Bay Packers against the Minnesota Vikings.
The only family that has put more men into the NFL was the Nessers, with 9 players – and that was about a century ago.
A writer for the Bengals a few years ago said Robert might be the only NFL draft pick to have at least three sons also drafted, though it couldn’t be confirmed through Elias Sports Bureau records.
Members of the family have also played in the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League, and the United States Football League, which is why the family name is known all over, in Vancouver and Washington, Omaha and Oregon.
Another Geathers made it into an NFL training camp.
Clifton played much of last season in the $1 billion Cowboys Stadium before catching on with the Colts.
Jumpy and Robert played for Willie Jeffries, one of South Carolina’s legendary college football coaches.
“People need to know more about that family,” he said while attending James Geathers Sr. funeral in November.
Robert Geathers once roomed with Hall of Famer Howie Long after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1981.
This past summer, Jumpy joined other former Washington Redskins in a reunion with Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs.
“While the Matthews family is potentially smaller (depending on whether the younger Geathers’ play in the NFL), they do have a Hall of Famer,” Crippen said. “None of the Nessers are in the Hall, but there should be one or two. I would rank the Nessers first, Matthews second and Geathers third. If Jumpy went into the Hall, the Geathers would go higher, due to numbers. It is that close between second and third.”
Jumpy was one of the fiercest pass rushers of his era. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Washington Redskins, as well as with the Denver Broncos. Hall of Fame coach and TV analyst Joe Madden called Jumpy “the forklift” because of his ability to routinely pick up and move 300-pound men to get to the quarterback they were trying to protect.
Robert’s career was shortened because of back problems.
Robert Jr. has been making his mark as one of the most consistent and important members of the Bengals defensive line for the past decade, while Clifton recorded his first sack during the final game of the regular season.
Kwame can best them all by being drafted in the second round of the draft, or higher.
His family suspects that he will.
‘We knew we had to work hard’
All that talk about pro football is good, but Robert Geathers wants people to know about that old tobacco farm and the times he and Jumpy used Myrtle Wax to sweep the yard, that family members were farmers and sharecroppers and picked cotton and watched as the public school bus passed by with white students as they walked to a segregated school on a road blacks were warned not to be seen on after dark.
“Our parents didn’t teach us to hate,” said Deborah Geathers, Robert’s wife. “We just did what we had to do. We knew we had to work hard.”
Robert doesn’t mind the attention that comes from weekends such as this, when two of his sons will begin the journey towards a Super Bowl ring to match their uncle’s accomplishment and the other is contemplating a life-altering step into the NFL.
He knows that when he began playing football for Choppee in the mid-1970s, the NFL wasn’t the behemoth that it currently is.
A job at Georgetown Steel paid just as much and seemed the better, more practical course at the time. Now, the NFL is a cash cow and the mill in Georgetown – and many others around the nation – has undergone decades of downsizing.
But back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mill jobs were plentiful and feeding families and providing salaries large enough for them to purchase homes and cars and save some for retirement.
Robert worked in the mill when he was a teenager during the summer.
He loved working with molten steel and didn’t mind the hard work, because that’s what his parents prepared him for, a skill he said that is as important to the family’s success as their God-given size.
He wasn’t a boy who dreamed of becoming the next big thing in the NFL. During much of his youth, though, the sport was growing – the first Super Bowl was played when he was a 2nd grader – it hadn’t reached the point where it would capture the entire country’s interest for a week every year and a great chunk of the American public’s attention for months on end.
But Robert was intrigued by his neighbor Jackie Reid, who had become a star running back for the fairly-new Choppee football team. Though his primary after-school duties involved slopping the hog, chopping woods, killing chickens and hunting, Reid’s example and the urging of a few friends and a Choppee coach captivated by Robert’s size, convinced him to find a way to work his chores around football practice.
He wasn’t supposed to go. His parents had forbid him. He had work at home to do.
He was the oldest child. He had to set the example.
He kept going, though, and kept his whereabouts from his parents, who only found out when he came home one day with a swollen knee from a particularly tough day on the dusty practice field at Choppee.
“They beat me,” he said with a wry smile. “They told me not to go back.”
But he did.
He knows his act of teenage defiance set the stage for the success the Geathers are reveling in this weekend just as much as that old tobacco farm.
“You start from little league football and enter into a different high school and have different coaches and principals and teachers, to this,” he said. “It is a blessing.”