GEORGETOWN, S.C. — On an unseasonably hot Thursday afternoon in late May, Robert Geathers Sr. sits behind his desk at Browns Ferry Motors.
He’s handling calls about used cars he needs to buy and to sell.
On the desk sits a large, blue, well-worn King James Bible opened to the Old Testament, Psalms 27:14.
“Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, on the Lord.”
He reads from the Christian scriptures daily. The daily devotion guides him, he says.
That he can read the Bible at all is a testament in and of itself.
It was just last year that Robert Sr., the first of more than a half dozen Geathers to either play in the National Football League, be invited to camp or play in other professional leagues, finally got the nerve to tell his sons that their football dynasty, birthed in the 1970s in a segregated rural community in Georgetown County, almost ended as it was beginning. He finally got the nerve to tell them he could barely read and write.
A family member had advised him against making the revelation, thinking the sons would be ashamed of their father’s struggles. But those sons describe him as “resilient” and a “genius” for having become successful anyway, for learning to read anyway, for showing them the path, too.
For Robert Sr. and son Clifton, who is vying for a starting spot on the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line this year, the risk of sharing that story is worth it. They believe that talking openly about their own literacy struggles can help young students and players suffering the way Robert Sr. and Clifton did, students who have been beaten down by the fear and shame that lead too many to give up and walk away from school before graduation day.
Robert Sr. didn’t walk away. But he well remembers the spring afternoon 35 years ago, when he walked across the stage for the 1977 Choppee High School graduation ceremony – a day he received a diploma he could barely read.
Robert Sr. grew up during an era of a South painfully transitioning out of segregation, but still deep in its clutches.
He attended and played football for an-all black Choppee High School that suffered from the kind of underfunding segregated and rural schools long have in South Carolina.
The school did produce future entrepreneurs, lawyers and PhDs, such as Gloria Tinubu, the 2012 Democratic nominee for the S.C. 7th Congressional District. But in the mid- to late 1970s, students also were pushed through the system even if they couldn’t read and write well.
It’s not unlike what many students faced across the rural Southeast, a hodgepodge of educational opportunities, many contingent on transportation and family economics.
Robert’s father, James, had a third grade education. An aunt made it to the seventh grade, which was the top level offered to children in the area who couldn’t make it into the heart of Georgetown for high school.
“If they tried and they really tried, I gave them a ‘B.’ And if they tried somewhat, I gave them a 60,” said Thad Hendley, Choppee’s football coach during that era. “It was kind of the status quo at that time. I couldn’t teach them reading. I tried. And most of them had given up by that time. I can’t say the whole high school was like that, but there were enough of them to make you wonder why they hadn’t gotten it earlier on.”
Segregation complicated things, but literacy problems touched blacks and whites, and not just the poor, said Sally Hare, professor emerita at Coastal Carolina University who once was hired by a college coach in South Carolina to teach a team of white players to read and write.
“The Southeast has always, since the Civil War, had a reputation of having poor education,” said Hare, founder of Still Learning, Inc., an education, teaching and leadership development program.
But what Robert Sr.’s parents could not provide in formal education, they made up for by instilling an unquenchable work ethic in their children, which has manifested itself in two generations of NFL players, a bevy of owners of small businesses including car lots, farms, pulp wood trucks, and a plumbing business.
“I can’t stand still,” he said one day in June while talking to an 80-year-old aunt. “Y’all got me programmed to work. I can’t stop.”
‘I ain’t going back’
He chose what is now S.C. State over the likes of Clemson because S.C. State was all-black and felt more comfortable to a man who had grown up in the segregated South.
He was sitting in an English class during his freshman year when his professor instructed him to read aloud. He called out the few words he recognized as the rising sound of his beating heart began flooding his ears, making it difficult to hear anything else. But the beating inside his chest couldn’t drown out the giggling emanating from his classmates.
That’s when what would become the Geathers football dynasty almost came to an end as it was beginning.
Geathers left school, hitchhiking all the way home, with no bags, no money.
“I ain’t going back,” he said to himself.
Willie Jeffries, S.C. State football coach at the time, wouldn’t let Robert Sr. quit. The coach had grown a program that was, at the time, a bigger NFL-feeder than Clemson and the University of South Carolina.
After finding out Robert left school, he called Robert’s Browns Ferry home and told him he’d be sending a football assistant trainer to bring him back to S.C. State.
Then he made Robert Sr. a guarantee.
“I promise you, son, if you stick it out, I’ll get you into the NFL.”
Robert Sr. was placed into S.C. State’s Pep program for athletes who needed extra academic help. It included a dozen tutors who met with athletes every day. Students couldn’t stay in school or play football if their GPA dropped below a 2.0.
The program helped Robert Sr. get enough of a handle on course work that he was able to survive at S.C. State for three years. He struggled with reading but found ways to cope and excel. His memorization skills were stellar, as was his ability to copy sentences flawlessly when someone showed him.
“All students can fly; some of them just need a longer runway,” Jeffries said.
The next generation
Robert Sr. was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the early ’80s, but a one-year detour into the short-lived USFL led to a back injury that effectively ended his career. The league didn’t provide insurance coverage in those days.
Three decades later, Robert Sr.’s second-oldest son, Clifton, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, struggled with literacy, too, even while attending an up-to-date, well-funded school, Carvers Bay High in Hemingway, S.C. He struggled even while getting help nightly from his mother, a math teacher.
The symbols on the page just didn’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.
“I don’t want to read and write,” he told his parents during a particularly frustrating night of study. “I could hunt, fish and sell things. I could farm; I don’t have to read and write.”
“My mom was heartbroken,” Clifton said weeks ago before going into pre-training camp workouts with the 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.”
His struggles weren’t caused by an unstable home with absentee parents, or because he didn’t try, or because he was in an under-resourced school, factors most often cited by educational professionals when discussing high illiteracy rates.
He had a learning disability that went undiagnosed until his parents sent him to Mac Testing and Consulting in New Jersey.
“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. “It is also apparent that this is an average high school student who, for whatever reason, has been educationally deprived.”
He was fitted with corrective glasses and scored in the 86th percentile in a standardized statewide test when he returned to school. He went on to score high on the ACT and studied at Hargrove Military Academy after leaving Carvers Bay.
He spent three years playing football at South Carolina for Steve Spurrier. His academic potential was evident on the football field. His playbooks were full of visual diagrams of plays, which made his mastery of angles and geometric shapes useful. He carried nearly a B average while at USC, he said. “It was actually easier than high school.”
Building on success
By every logical measure, the Geathers have evolved into a successful family. In addition to its gaggle of professional football players, their ranks include entrepreneurs, teachers and counselors.
The family was featured in the June 3 edition of Sports Illustrated, which said this fall it could become the only one in history with a former player having three sons as active players.
Only the Matthews clan, which had five NFL players over three generations, and the Colquitts, a family of kickers, could match or come close to the Geathers in the modern NFL. Football historian Ken Crippen said only the Nesser family from about a century ago had more members play professional football.
In addition to Robert Sr. and his three sons – Robert Jr. with the Cincinnati Bengals, Clifton in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles and Kwame on the early San Diego Chargers roster – the family tree includes two-time Super Bowl champion James “Jumpy” Geathers; Clayton Geathers at the University of Central Florida, who is expected to make it into the NFL; and Jeremy, who flirted with the NFL and is now playing in the Canadian Football League.
“Y’all just breed ’em in the Geathers family,” ESPN college football analyst David Pollack joked with Robert Geathers Jr. at the 2013 University of Georgia pro day, during which Kwame Geathers joined about a dozen other Bulldogs in an audition for members of every NFL organization.
“I love the Geathers,” Rob Ryan, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, said as the players went through drills on that brisk March weekend in Athens, Ga. “I love tough guys.”
Their unique skills elevated them during a period in which a contracting manufacturing industry was making it harder for many in the South to land good-paying jobs with benefits.
The family’s success presents one of the most vexing questions about an educational system that did not educate Robert Sr. well and allowed his second-oldest son to become a senior in high school with the literacy skills of a fourth grader, at a time when S.C. legislators are debating whether students who aren’t reading on level by the third grade should be held back.
Are students who struggle in the classroom but have a unique set of other skills and a propensity to find a way to thrive in most environments better served by being held back or matriculating and getting out of the formal educational system what they can?
The goal is to educate them well, particularly because a formal education is becoming more vital as technology transforms the global workforce. But when such students slip through the cracks any way, what should be done about them?
Robert Sr. was allowed through — and it made all the difference for his family.
“We did him a disservice by not teaching him,” said educator Hare. “But at least we didn’t punish him because we didn’t teach him. We didn’t hold up our end of responsibility, to give kids the tools they need to succeed, and he was able to do that on his own.”
Today, family members want to deepen their outreach in the community to inspire students to fall in love with reading and learning.
They want to do that despite the potential pitfalls that come with revealing unflattering details about their struggles, knowing it could trigger images of racial and regional stereotypes. They believe that their story, the painful, less glory-filled part, just might force a deeper discussion about heritage, the emerging economy, football and literacy in the heart of the South.
They know that mastery of formal English skills has become not only a means of communication and cultural and economic capital, but a proxy used by some as a mark of intelligence.
Robert Jr. sponsors an annual football camp for young boys that is as much about instilling discipline and an awareness of the importance of education as it is about blocking techniques. His dad and brother Kwame helped with the camp in May, along with several other NFL players.
Clifton said it is time he spoke out about his struggles, and how he overcame them, because “there are so many other students out there like me.”
In July while driving home from a car auction, Robert Sr. passed a field like the ones he used to work in with his mother, picking cotton and earning $5 for every 100 pounds.
A pale-skinned man was sitting in the bed of his Chevy under a straw hat.
He was overseeing a group of eight dark-skinned workers — workers who may have struggled in school the way Robert Sr. had, but did not have football or another unique skill to pull them into something better.
“It brought back memories,” Robert Sr. said.
He plans to continue improving his own literacy skills to be a better example as he mentors more boys and speaks to groups of educators.
“It’s still happening,” he said to himself as he drove past the man and his Chevy truck. “Man, something’s gotta change.”