This is a story of fathers and sons. Or, rather, it’s a string of anecdotes about fathers and sons, with a highly personal take on the stories only because that personal take on them may help elucidate some themes that are not personal but universal. Or nearly so.
That anticipatory disclaimer is necessary to explain why it is worthy of note that Monday night I found myself musing that I have been privileged to witness at closer-than-usual range the nation’s two most striking stories of big-name sports fathers whose footsteps are followed not just by one son each, but two. (More on my connection to all this a bit later.) Almost every sports fan in the country, and even many non-fans, knows the story of quarterback Archie Manning and his two quarterback sons, Peyton and Eli. Less known nationwide, but growing in public consciousness, is the story of former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson and his sons John III, now the GU head coach, and Ronny, the first-year head coach at Ball State University.
Monday night, JTIII coached against Ronny in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., while the elder Thompson watched from courtside. To add to the father-son aura of the event, JTIII’s team features Patrick Ewing Jr., whose namesake father led the elder Thompson’s Hoyas to the national championship in 1984. The current Hoyas also feature point guard Jeremiah Rivers, whose father “Doc” Rivers is a former NBA all-star who now coaches the Boston Celtics — the team for which the elder Thompson played.
At the press table, radio man Rich Chvotkin was earning public recognition that very night for serving his 1,000th game (exactly) as announcer for the Hoyas, an inspired avocation for him rather than vocation. His son, Evan, sits by his side and assists with the broadcasts.
A bit dizzying, isn’t it?
Evan Chvotkin also happens to be my MRI technician, whose excellent MRI work showed the tear in my rotator cuff that will necessitate shoulder surgery next week. He’s the one who told me in advance about the simultaneity of his father’s 1,000th game and the Thompson vs. Thompson fest.
And Thompson vs. Thompson, with GU’s John Thompson III coaching another Patrick Ewing, had particular significance in my own little world because I was sports editor of the Georgetown HOYA newspaper during the same year that the elder Thompson and the elder Patrick Ewing won that national title — which I witnessed, as a blue-and-gray clad fan truly sleepless in Seattle, from the first row of that city’s Kingdome, over the head of CBS’s Brent Musberger. Until my wedding, that national championship night laid claim to being the most joyous celebration of my life.
Sometimes it happens that a son follows his father into big-time sports. Rarer is it that two sons do so, and rarer still that both sons assume the same position in the same sport as their dad. Rarest of all is for all three to achieve success at the highest level — the sort of success JTII began enjoying last year when the Hoyas advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Give both JTIII and Ronny Thompson another year or three, and they might each be knocking on the championship door their father once kicked down.
IN FOOTBALL, MEANWHILE, the Manning boys are both setting NFL marks (such as playoff appearances) that their father Archie, superb but star-crossed as he was, never achieved.
The Mannings grew up across the street from my closest friend (whose mother was my godmother). Archie used to take his sons to my friend’s yard to toss the football around — videos of which (including my friend’s little brother) are still seen somewhat regularly on ESPN. When Mardi Gras parades passed by, my friend and I always stood near the Mannings, so we could make off with all the excess beads and doubloons that every rider on every parade float showered on the ever-popular Archie.
And once my friend Hugh and I even used Mrs. (Olivia) Manning’s tickets to take Peyton Manning and older brother Cooper (another football star until an injury sidelined him), then ages 4 and 6, to a Saints game during the year the Aints went 1-15 and fans wore paper sacks on their heads to hide their embarrassment. A moron behind us, with one of those weird Brooklyn-like accents that is at least as common to New Orleans as Southern accents are, kept yelling insults at the Aints quarterback, not knowing that it was the quarterback’s sons who sat two rows in front of him. No matter: Young Peyton knew who “Archie” was, but Olivia’s melodious, Mississippi-sounding “Arrrrchie” was so different from the moron’s Brooklyn-like “Ahh-chee” that young Peyton had no idea, whatsoever, that the moron was blasting Peyton’s own father. Around the end of the third quarter, then, after one more outburst from the moron, Peyton stood up and, trying to be helpful, yelled, “Yeah, Boo Ahh-chee!”
Cooper covered Peyton’s mouth and loudly whispered: “Stop, that, Peyton: Ahh-chee is Daddy!“
Peyton looked stricken. But he’s been “doing Archie proud” ever since. As a sports reporter for the Times-Picayune, I covered the game in which Peyton threw his first-ever varsity touchdown pass. Archie, as he exited the stands, jokingly worried that the milestone would make Peyton’s helmet size grow. But his smile made his pleasure clear nonetheless.
NOW IT IS TRUE THAT NOBODY would find much in common, in terms of personalities or backgrounds, between the black, Northeastern Thompsons and the white, Southern Mannings. But they are both, in their very different ways, among the most admirable families anyone will ever come across — admirable not merely because of their athletic prowess, but because of their character.
Archie Manning is beloved in New Orleans not because he won games (surrounded either by bad offensive lines or by bad defenses, he didn’t win many), but because of the way he handled his very public citizenship. He didn’t just lend his name to charitable endeavors galore; he actually showed up. He gave, and gives, back to the community in so many ways, almost innumerable ways, and with such good cheer and approachability, that he is the very model of the athlete-turned civic icon — for all the right reasons. And like father, like son: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Peyton and Eli showed they share the same ethos by chartering a cargo plane for relief supplies, on their own initiative, that arrived faster than even some of the FEMA assistance.
As for the elder Thompson, his character is of a different sort. Far less approachable by strangers, far more intimidating not just in height (6’10”) but often in demeanor, his integrity remains far too little appreciated by the nation’s sports fans. In an age where college sports headlines far too often involve cheating, payoffs, and educational fraud, Thompson never forgot his role as educator. I can attest, from first-hand experience, that unless his players were at a road game, they always, always attended class — or else Thompson kicked them off the team.
His first-hire as head coach was of a former nun as tutor for his players — to make sure they studied, and eventually graduated.
So respected was he that when he heard one of his players who grew up here in D.C. was still being seen in company with childhood friends who had gone bad — associates of one of the city’s top known drug kingpins — Thompson sent word out on the street that he wanted to see that kingpin. Sure enough, the kingpin showed up at Thompson’s office as instructed. And, as the story was reported, Thompson ordered him to leave Thompson’s players alone.
And the kingpin said “yes, sir.” Or words to that effect. And the problem was solved.
Meanwhile, Thompson’s freshmen players didn’t live in separate athletic dormitories — they shared the dorms with other students (on my own freshman dorm floor), and wrestled and goofed off and studied with all the rest of us.
Like father, like son: When JTIII arrived from Princeton to take over the Hoya program in 2004, among his first gestures were to make various overtures to the Georgetown student body.
And the sentiment once known as “Hoya-motion” is back on campus. The winning is back, and the program’s integrity never disappeared.
FORGIVE, THEN, THESE rambling vignettes. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers. Fathers and sons and sports — at high levels, or decidedly low ones. Watching the three Thompson’s at the Verizon Center Monday night (while wishing I had a radio to listen to the Chvotkins describe the game), after watching Peyton Manning win yet another game on TV the day before, I could not help but think of how fathers and sons and sports and good examples are so often tied together.
I remember the long, long autumn afternoons in the park throwing the football with my own father. And the summer afternoons where he took huge baskets of used tennis balls to pitch to me for baseball batting practice, always at my behest, so his undersized son could learn how to hit the singles and occasional doubles I wanted to hit in order to be more asset than hindrance to my Little League teams. Good memories, those. Among the best I have.
Which leads us….where, exactly?
Perhaps it leads us in the neighborhood of an essay that is somewhat inelegantly organized. But certainly it leads us somewhere in the realm of gratitude.
Gratitude to the Thompsons and the Mannings. Gratitude for their good examples. And gratitude to all good fathers, most especially my own.
To honor all good fathers, may the sons also rise.