Family business


Robert Geathers

Even though they have eased off the throttle a bit in the teeth of the recession and the family business is becoming more and more geared to football, there are times you can catch Robert Geathers Senior answering the phone at Browns Ferry Motors in Georgetown, S.C.

If you want to know why the Bengals so highly value the man he named "Robert Geathers Junior," now you know. If you want to know how Senior has raised two NFL draft picks and the 6-6 shadow of another looming in Athens, Ga., now you know.

"This is actually my third time coming in this morning," he says with a laugh Tuesday.

Work ethic.

Junior, or just plain "June," was in a crib next to Senior in the 12 by 12 building on the lot while his mother was the secretary.

"I did everything," Senior says. "Retailed them. Detailed them. That's what I put in the advertisements."

It turns out that his son grew up to do everything but windows on the Bengals defense.

Junior was just 20 when the Bengals drafted their left end out of Georgia in the fourth round in 2004, getting that pragmatic farmer's advice from Senior.

"If you can go early, go because you never know what's going to happen," says Senior, whose NFL shot gave out with his back.

Junior and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff are the only men left to play for all three of Marvin Lewis' defensive coordinators. Junior is the only defender to start both the 2005 and 2009 Wild Card games. He is the only Bengal in the last 18 years to log a double-digit sack season. In the last 35 years he's the only Bengals defensive lineman to score two touchdowns. In the 2007 opener, he made a mark in every category of the defensive stat sheet.

"He's a great leader on the team; whatever they want him to do, man," says defensive tackle Domata Peko. "He plays end, tackle in the nickel, he plays linebacker in some of our defenses. They move him all over the place, so he always does what the coaches want him to do. That's what everybody loves about him. And he does it with a smile. He reminds you a lot of J.T. (John Thornton). Always on time. Always ready. A real professional."

Eyebrows were raised back in April when the Bengals drafted Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the second round. Had they selected Geathers' heir apparent? Not now. Dunlap was not only the highest rated player on the Bengals' board at the time, but he also fit into their desire to jack up a pass rush facing six games matched against 4,000-yard passers without having to blitz every snap.

At the moment, Dunlap is being talked about as an inside rusher and a complementary piece to a rotation. After watching Geathers gut through a season he started all but the regular-season finale following delicate microfracture knee surgery, the Bengals think he'll benefit greatly from taking some breathers now and again. He doesn't turn 27 until after the preseason opener.

"Junior played a lot of snaps; he hardly ever came off the field," says defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "But because of the other injuries we had to Antwan (Odom) and Domata, we really had no choice. If we can add to the rotation with those guys now healthy, plus the new guys, it should make everyone fresher and better, and it should really help a guy like Junior."

Geathers says this spring is the best he's felt "in a long time." As he suspected, the knee feels much better than it did last year following the procedure, which came after he missed the last five games of '08 when he wrenched his knee on the Heinz Field slop masquerading as grass.

"It feels strong; best I've felt in a while," Geathers says. "I'm looking forward to it."

Besides, Geathers was keeping tabs on another defensive end in the draft. Clifton Geathers, his 22-year-old brother from South Carolina. He was there when the call came from Cleveland in the sixth round.

"I've always looked up to June," Clifton says. "He's been a big help. I've always wanted to follow in his footsteps."

And then, of course, there is the little brother. Isn't there always? Kwame Geathers, not exactly the baby as a 6-6, 312-pound nose tackle, followed June to Georgia where he is a redshirt freshman. Could Robert Geathers Sr., a  third-rounder of the 1981 Buffalo Bills, be the first NFL draft pick to ever sire three other selections?

We may never know. First, although no one doubts him when he kids his other family members about being the one to go in the first round, Kwame has to make it. Second, Elias Sports Bureau doesn't have such records because they don't track players that were drafted but don't play in the league.

Senior, another 6-6, 320-pound end, got cut by the Bills before the regular season and failed a physical with the Raiders after playing in the USFL. Senior had a buddy on that Raiders team, future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, the Villanova product that was his roommate at a scouting combine. But when doctors told him they had open up his back to fix it, Senior said no thanks and felt it was time to put his young family on that back that now had a toddler named Robert Junior.

"When it came to football, I wanted to make sure that the next Robert Geathers had what I didn't have," Senior says.

So he came home and not only built Browns Ferry Motors, but little league football in Georgetown County. Choppy High School didn't have a practice field back in the '70s and the coach had to draw lines under an oak tree. When they did play on the field, Senior recalls, opponents hated it because there was virtually no grass. Only hard dust. When he went to South Carolina State, he was shocked when they gave him a playbook.

"And then when I got to the Bills, there was only more," he says.

Junior followed Senior everywhere he went with a football he gave him. His first memory is running around the house at about three years old with it.

How great of a high school athlete was Senior?

He walked by the track one day and saw kids throwing a strange contraption. The discus, he was told. When he threw his first bid across the football field, he was the school's discus thrower.

Senior had a brother three years younger. They were two of eight kids raised in a two bedroom house and James was able to learn football earlier and more in-depth from Robert's progression in the sport. He went a round sooner to the Saints three drafts later and stuck around for 13 seasons, 62 sacks, and the nickname "Jumpy."

"I don't think if we were raised the way we were raised," Senior says, "I don't think any of us wouldn't have made it. It's the work ethic."

They come from a rural community tucked near the South Carolina coast with about 9,000 people. Senior's grandfather was a farmer and so was his wife's father. There was a lot of farm work, tobacco picking, and not much time to watch the neighbors' TV. Senior's dad detailed cars while also working for the parks department and his mother worked in a factory before moving to the high school cafeteria, where she would greet everyone from Jumpy to Kwame before retiring two years ago.

They had no running water and when James "Jumpy" Geathers later added on to the home, he made sure the hand pump was still in place.

"I had never really seen the NFL on TV. I think the one guy I remember seeing is Tony Dorsett," Senior says.

So when the assignment came in a Bills preseason game to work against the guard, Senior went about his business and ran into him and knocked him over.

"He got very upset. He threw his shoe at me and yelled, 'You stupid rookie, what are you doing?' '' Senior recalls. "I asked someone who he was and they said, 'That's Conrad Dobler, the meanest man in football.' But I didn't know. I was just going straight ahead."

Solid, unvarnished advice and now he's got a son that is a solid, unvarnished player. Former Bengal Willie Anderson once said of Junior, "Here's a guy you never know he's around until he goes out and gets two sacks on Sunday."

"Don't celebrate when you sack the quarterback," Senior says. "That's what you're supposed to do."

There would be no question that Junior and Clifton would get a taste of the work ethic. ("Kwame didn't do what the oldest had to do," Senior says with a chuckle.) They went to their grandfather's farm when they were around 11, 12 and 13, and picked tobacco in long, hot summers they can still feel.

"That's how I got the quick hands," Clifton says. "You have to pick it off the stalk and make sure you get it in the tractor when it's still moving."

When they weren't doing that, they were working at the dealership.

"We'd be washing cars two at a time when it was pollen season and they'd be covered by those yellow polyps," Clifton says. "June would kick me out. He'd send me home, I guess because he thought I fooled around too much. He's always acted like he's more mature."

He certainly has since he's been here. Junior didn't turn 21 until his first training camp and at the tender age of 23 he had earned his second contract on the strength of his 10.5 sacks in 2006. He hasn't come close to that number since and while that disappoints him and the fans, his teammates and coaches realize some things.

In that season he was playing for a different coordinator (Chuck Bresnahan) and in a much more different role (primarily third down) than he is now as an every-down player who moves around.

"Of course we'd like more sacks and if you look at last year he came close a bunch of times," Hayes says. "That's going to happen. A lot goes into getting sacks."

Is there anything wrong with being a solid player who is very good at a lot of different things?

"I really don't listen to what people have to say," Junior says. "I play for the guys next to me. I play for the name on the back of my jersey. I play for the respect of my peers. And I play to win."

It is a farmer's pragmatism. A down-home-no-frills-old-school dollop of pride in the work place.

"We like that laid-back style," says Clifton, who cared more about fishing and hunting than football until he was 16. "I had always followed June, so when I got older football was something I really wanted to do."

Football just always seems to be around. It is all Kwame knows, so he can get on Uncle Jumpy about how he's going in the first round and needle Clifton with, "I'm not going to sit around and wait all day like you."

"I still can't believe I've got two that have been drafted," Senior says. "It's almost like it isn't real. It's been real busy here on Fridays and Saturdays. Now we've got two playing on Sundays. I don't know how to work out that Bengals-Browns thing yet."

Junior knows exactly where the family business stands. He's heading into his seventh season with 26.5 sacks. Uncle Jumpy with those 13 years and 62 sacks was so colorful and good as a player, a lot of people call Junior "Jumpy," even as he tries to make a name for himself.

"That doesn't bother me," Junior says. "I'm halfway to him. I've got a lot to play for."

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