Playing in last weekend's Super Bowl were three men whose fathers helped put them on that championship field. The backs of their jerseys read Manning, Wilson and Sherman, and their stories seem very different. But what they share is the emotional bond that unites father to son, and the powerful influence that a dad has in steering the wild energies of a young man into becoming a champion and good man.
I did not reach the football peaks that those men did, but I share the same bond with a father and the love for the game. Before entering politics, my father Jack Kemp played in the NFL. For my brother and me, and now for our sons, there has been a huge bond around football. But it's always been bigger than the sport.
I played eleven seasons in the NFL, but like my dad, we both fell one championship loss short of playing in a Super Bowl. I've made it to a few as a spectator, and for a former Seahawk this year's game was an avalanche of celebration. But one of my indelible memories was in 2006 when I brought my son Kolby to watch the Seahawks challenge the Steelers in Detroit.
On the flight we talked with two maniacal Seahawk fans. They were brothers in their late twenties, decked out in full team gear. Their passion for the Seahawks went back to their dad, who had taken them to every game since they were little. And now they gushed about taking him to a Super Bowl. "Where is he?" I asked.
"Oh, he's up in the overhead compartment. We got his ashes in a blue and green urn up there. We're so pumped!"
My wide-eyed 15-year-old whispered later, "Dad, that's weird!"
"Yah, it is," I whispered back. But I totally get it.
Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman each carried an equally deep-rooted legacy from his father into SB XLVIII.
Russell Wilson's father, Harrison, was one of the early African-American student leaders at Dartmouth, playing football in the four years before I joined that team. Harrison's old teammates confirm that he always helped lift up and build the team — and before he died in 2010, he'd given Russell the qualities any champion needs: confidence, commitment and caring. Russell recalls his dad waking him every morning at 5:00, and encouraging him to "make it a great day." Acclaimed for his uber-preparation and team-lifting leadership, it's clear Russell does that every day, including last Sunday!
Richard Sherman's father, Kevin, was a dependable dad in a blighted neighborhood (Compton, California) that needs a lot more men like him. Kevin focused on keeping his children safe and promoting their education. Local gang members respected a family that stuck together with love. In fact, they saw that Richard's family and future looked so bright that they left him alone. The tight Sherman clan is infectiously affirming and Richard swells with respect when speaking of his dad, who worked 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. as trash collector for more than twenty years — until after Richard had graduated from Stanford.
Peyton Manning's father, Archie, helped raise a family that built Hall-of-Fame character, leadership and humility. As an NFL quarterback, Archie labored valiantly for the long-suffering New Orleans Saints, but his greatest achievement was shaping Cooper, Peyton and Eli into hard-working, stand-up guys. (Peyton Manning was recently voted by his NFL peers as the most respected player in the league.) In fact, the Manning boys' football careers were never their dad's top priority. "We just tried to raise good kids and have a good family," Archie says. "I don't like the perception that ... I've got these boys and I'm going to mold them into being NFL quarterbacks. Not so. You might do that, and they might be NFL quarterbacks. I'm not sure you're going to have a great father-son relationship. That's what I wanted."
An infectiously intentional Ivy-league father who died too young…. A trash-truck driving dependable dad from the 'hood…. An iconic quarterback patriarch from the Mississippi Delta. Each man helped pave his son's path to the Super Bowl — and more importantly, showed his son how to be a man. That's what fathers do. And each in his own way (like those two brothers with their urn) took his dad along with him to the game last Sunday.
When my own legacy–laden dad was about to pass, after many successes in sports and public life, he told us that the only legacy he cared about was his family.
Millions of us dads watched the game with our kids last Sunday. The game is now a memory, but what will be the memory of how we lived? Will our sons and daughters remember us as mentors who dedicated ourselves for the sake of our families and their futures? That's the legacy of these men's dads, and my own. It's one we men can strive to pass on.
Jeff Kemp is a former National Football League quarterback. He and his father, Jack Kemp (the former vice presidential candidate and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), were the first of only six sets of father/son NFL quarterbacks. In 2012, Jeff joined FamilyLife as a vice president and national ambassador for Stepping Up…A Call to Courageous Manhood. He can be reached at www.mensteppingup.com and www.jackkempfoundation.org.
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