As a longtime fan, I thought I knew most of what there is to know about football.
I know offense from defense, punters from kickers, wide receivers from tight ends. I know that no one in the South schedules a wedding on a Saturday in the fall.
And I know that, more than any other sport, football exemplifies masculinity and glorifies tradition – both of which are under fire today. It honors character and thrives on community. It begins with a show of patriotism – the posting of colors, the playing of the national anthem – and often ends with players from both teams praying together in the middle of the field.
But it turns out there’s a lot I don’t know. For instance, I didn’t know – until a recent episode of “The Bill Walton Show” – what a wishbone offense was. Or an undrafted free agent. Or, for that matter, what the inside of an NFL playbook looks like.
But I do know this: After talking with Jimmy Kemp and Lamaar Thomas on the program, I am convinced that, despite a spate of bad publicity, the sport will endure. And it will do so because of the fantastic football families who love and nurture it.
Jimmy and Lamarr are both members of such families.
We all know Jimmy’s family. His father, Jack Kemp, played 13 years with the Buffalo Bills, won two titles in the old AFL before the merger before going on to serve nine terms in Congress and in the Ronald Reagan White House. His brother, Jeff, played 11 years in the NFL, and Jimmy played eight in the Canadian Football League.
“Sundays were for religion in my house,” Jimmy said. “But football was part of the religion.”
Lamaar Thomas is the only member of his family to play pro football, but his is an impressive football family in other ways. They Thomas’ have come to dominate flag football in their Maryland community – they’ve won their local co-rec league three years in a row and place highly in numerous other leagues as well.
And all the Thomas’ are involved – even Lamaar’s mom.
“The coolest thing about my life right now is that I can play football with my dad, my mom and my brother,” Lamaar said.
She’s definitely the toughest Thomas. Years ago, when she was pregnant with Lamaar’s brother, she was forced into a game. The team was short on players and asked her to just stand on the field, so they would not have to forfeit.
Being the best athlete in the family, she decided to do a little more. “She goes and starts trying to make plays, and, being the competitive person she is,” she made a few and helped her team to victory.
“My mom is the most competitive person in the family, and she’s probably the best athlete in the family,” admitted Lamaar, who attracted 31 college scholarship offers.
Jack has to be the toughest Kemp. As Jimmy related, Jack’s middle finger got crushed during a game one time. The doctor said he could fuse the finger in place – which was in the position to grip a football for a pass – and Jack could play in a month, or he could surgically repair it, and Jack would be out for the season.
So, for the rest of his life, Jack Kemp’s middle finger was stuck in the football gripping position. “Any time you shook his hand, he’d have his middle finger sticking into you. He couldn’t straighten that finger.”
Injuries are a part of football, and Lamaar and Jimmy had their share. Lamaar said he broke bones in his back, foot and finger, pulled numerous muscles and even suffered a concussion. Jimmy had one concussion as well and one relatively minor knee injury, but otherwise escaped relatively unscathed.
But you can’t live in bubble wrap, the players both said, especially when there is so much to be gained. And, in my case, learned.