July/August 1998 WSU Alumni News

Last Man Standing


Geathers on Cover of WSU Alumni NewsAfter 14 grueling seasons in the NFL, James “Jumpy” Geathers fs ’84 leaves the field with two bad knees, a ruined right Achilles tendon — and one regret.

He wants to rumble through one more season. Despite his age. Despite his knees. Despite the pain.

Listed as retired from the world-champion Denver Broncos, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound defensive tackle says he’d like to be playing pro ball when Shocker football returns. But Cessna Stadium remains silent to the clash of helmets and the cheers of fans, and Geathers’ football career is hanging by a thread, or rather, a rehabilitated Achilles tendon.

“I’m working on rehab and waiting to see if anyone calls me up as the pre-season continues and players get injured,” says Geathers over the phone from the home he shares with his wife, Debbie, and their three children in Andrews, S.C. “If nobody calls, then I guess I’m retired.”

Last summer, it was Geathers who suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a routine pass-rushing drill while in training camp with the Broncos, who had signed him a year earlier to a two-year contract with a salary cap for 1997 of $900,000.

In the millisecond it takes a grenade to detonate or a running back to fumble, the biggest defensive tackle in the history of the Broncos was out for the season. In all likelihood, at age 37, he was out for good.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told the Denver Post, “I don’t think he will come back and ever play again. That’s my first guess, but I’ve been proven wrong many times. We’ll have to wait and see. At that age, it’s very tough to come back.”

But Geathers has weathered injuries before, rebounding from no fewer than 12 knee surgeries to play smarter, stronger and with as much disciplined fury as ever. “They’ve counted me out a lot of times,” he says, “but God has the last say.” God and Geathers himself, who wields determination, perseverance and plain old gumption as if they were heavy artillery.

Before he was picked up by the Broncos in 1996 to bolster the pass rush, he did battle for the New Orleans Saints (1984-89), Washington Redskins (1990-92) and Atlanta Facons (1993-95). With the Falcons, he proved his mettle as one of the team’s top pass rushers, despite his knee woes. Earlier he had relied on his 4.7 40-yard-dash time to rush the passer, but after being injured he turned to strength and a new move, the forklift, to smash through offensive lines and squash quarterbacks.

“With the forklift,” he explains, “you lift the offensive lineman up, run back to the quarterback and throw the lineman into the quarterback.” Named the NFL’s strongest player in a 1993 Sports Illustrated feature, Geathers perfected the move in 1988 while trying to work effectively against the Dallas Cowboys’ 325-pound guard Nate Newton.

During his pro career, the former Shocker recorded 62 sacks, including seven in 1995, his last season with the Falcons, and five in 1996, his first with the Broncos. He snagged 306 career tackles, of which 210 were solo efforts, and forced 22 fumbles, recovering nine. He captured two Super Bowl rings, the first as a Redskin in 1991; the second, for Denver’s victory in Super Bowl XXXII. That one is a bittersweet acquisition, coming as it did in 1997, the year he played nary a tick off the clock in regular season. His work that year was in rehab, preparing for a comeback in 1998.

Whether or not Geathers returns to the playing field, he stands as the last of the Wichita State football players to play professionally, a distinction he is well aware of. In 1996, he told one reporter, “There are no more players from Wichita in the leagues, only me and the coach for the New England Patriots.” Bill Parcells ’64 now coaches the New York Jets.

Geathers used to have some fellow Shockers bouncing around in the NFL, including former WSU teammate, tight end Anthony “A.J.” Jones ’83, who played five years with the Redskins before moving on to the San Diego Chargers. But for several years now Geathers has been the lone vestige of the Shocker football program that was disbanded in 1987 after 89 years and a 375-402-47 record.

James Geathers was born June 26, 1960. His childhood home was a tobacco farm outside the small coastal town of Georgetown, S.C. Nicknamed “Jumpy” by his grandfather for his penchant as a youngster of leaping into the arms and laps of relatives, he is the second of Martha and Robert Geathers’ eight sons — eight very large sons.

“I think they’re all over 6 foot 4,” says Willie “Jeff” Jeffries, who has coached three of the Geathers brothers, including Jumpy at Wichita State. Now back at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, where he also coached before his stint at WSU, Coach Jeffries works with the youngest brother, Brian, a receiver. Jeffries’ first contact with the Geathers family was through the oldest brother, Robert, who posted a spectacular collegiate career at SCSU before playing professionally for the Buffalo Bills.

Jumpy didn’t immediately follow in Robert’s football footsteps, but was a basketball star at Choppee High School and Paducah Junior College in Kentucky. “Jumpy wanted to play basketball, but I told him, ‘Your future’s in football,’” recalls Jeffries, who left SCSU in 1979 to become the first black head coach at a major university when he accepted the position at Wichita State.

Jeffries has stayed in contact with Jumpy through the years and has come to respect him for far more than his actions on the field. “He’s a great person,” Jeffries says, “honest, down-to-earth, full of integrity. He’s a giant of a man, buy very low key.” And, Jeffries adds, despite appearances, he sports a gentle, generous nature, giving back to his hometown community, for instance, by sponsoring an annual basketball tournament to help raise funds for equipment for five high schools in South Carolina.

At WSU, Jeffries inherited a football program that hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since John F. Kennedy was president. But he had a game plan. Starting with offense, he recruited an unknown quarterback from Muskogee, Okla., and a big offensive line to protect him. For three years, Jeffries’ offense centered on Prince McJunkins ’86. In 1981, WSU easily led the Missouri Valley Conference in offense, but finished with a losing record because it owned the most porous defense in the league. Shocker fans at the time would ruefully joke that WSU was exceptional at “pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

Jumpy GeathersThen came Geathers, whom Jeffries red-shirted in 1981, his first year at WSU. That year, Geathers applied himself to studying, posting a grade point average of 3.2, and focused on reshaping his body for football, adding 30 pounds of muscle to his frame.

“Jumpy was a raw talent when he came to Wichita State,” remembers Jones, who played at WSU from 1980-83 and is now assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Ga. “He has great athleticism, and he developed into a tremendous football player.”

Another former teammate, defensive cornerback Maurice Foxworth ’86, who is a principal in a technical management firm, Foxworth & Dinkins, Washington, D.C. recalls Geathers’ drive to be the best. “Jumpy used to tell me he was going to play in the NFL. Now remember, he hadn’t even played football before, anywhere,” says Foxworth, who was Geathers’ roommate in 1981. “Today, the biggest admiration I have for Jumpy is his determination in the sense of setting a goal and attaining it. When he started playing football, he wasn’t the best player. He made himself the best player.”

At the start of the 1982 season, Jeffries unveiled his prize defensive weapon. Geathers’ pure physical force was felt first by his Shocker teammates. Offensive guard James “Jay” Hull ’83, now an account manager for Goldsmith’s, Irving, Texas, remembers practice clashes with him on the field. “Games were almost easy compared to practice,” Hull says with a laugh. “I hated practice.”

Geathers unleashed the full measure of his ferocity in the second game of the season against the University of Kansas. Besides using his size to harass the KU quarterback, he plugged the middle against the run, taking on at least two blockers and creating more tackle situations for the linebackers. He was the major defensive force as WSU held the Jayhawks to 10 points.

“Jumpy and Lonnie Kennell did a bunch of damage that game,” recalls McJunkins, now a senior probation officer with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Muskogee. Foxworth and Hull also remember Geathers’ fierce play that day, describing his hits by spewing out a string of verbs: “punished,” “pummeled,” “bounced,” “bruised,” “clobbered,” “trounced.”

Even so, the Shockers were trailing 10-6 early in the fourth quarter when cornerback Steve Perkins intercepted a pass deep in Jayhawk territory. But Perkins fumbled, and fans grumbled that WSU couldn’t find the winning edge. With two minutes remaining, the Shockers found it. A block by Mark O’Neal allowed McJunkins to spot Don Dreher alone in the KU secondary. Catching the pass, Dreher dived over the goal line for the still-lauded 13-10 win. “That win,” McJunkins says, “was one of the greatest.” Geathers agrees, “To me, the KU game ranks up there like the Super Bowl.”

The 1982 season was a record-setting one for the Shockers. Attendance hit an all-time high, averaging some 23,000 fans per game. The team finished 10th nationally in rushing offense, and WSU’s 8-3 record was the school’s best since 1961. But the 1983 season flip-flopped to 3-8. The Prince was gone, the Jayhawks took revenge with a 57-6 massacre and the closing home game drew only 3,911 faithful to Cessna Stadium. Still, Geathers kept his balance and posted such impressive play that he was the second-round draft pick of the Saints in 1984.

Looking back on his collegiate years, Geathers stresses that his experiences at WSU helped shape his future. The ups and downs of his two seasons with the Shockers taught him how to win and lose, he says, and so prepared him for the NFL — and for life. And his favorite academic subject, psychology, “helped me know how to take people, how to deal with the bad ones and the good ones. It takes all kinds to build a team.”

WSU also introduced him to a score of friends and mentors, too many, he says, to name them all, but certainly Jeffries, Foxworth and Roland Banks, the WSU equipment manager and director of stadium events who “always can pick up my spirits,” deserve a mention.

Now faced with possible, even probable, retirement from the sport he’s excelled at for 16 years, Geathers responds philosophically: “When you lose one thing, you go to another.” Yet he’ll always be fiercely loyal to his chosen sport.

“There’s more to football than just football,” he says. “It can put a smile on people’s faces. It can pick up people’s spirits. I don’t know why it’s like this, or if it should be like this, but NFL players have status. People recognize us. I try to take advantage of that to do positive things for people, visit kids in the hospital, things like that.”

And Jumpy Geathers wouldn’t be Jumpy Geathers without a parting shot, hurled with great affection and loyalty, at his alma mater: “WSU should challenge itself to bring a (football) team together. I’m looking forward to having one of my kids play as a Shocker.”

After all, this gentle giant adds, “Never give up on life — or your dream — until the Lord says, ‘No more, no more.’”


Last Man Standing

After 14 grueling seasons in the NFL, James “Jumpy” Geathers fs ’84 leaves the field with two bad knees, a ruined right Achilles tendon — and one regret.

The Greater Good

Through community service projects, large and small, on the job and off, Shockers everywhere are working for the greater good.