Ten miles south of Carvers Bay High, across the sluggish, meandering Black River, Dab directs a visitor to take a right off Browns Ferry Road onto a lot owned by his younger brother Jerryl. "They won't bite," he says of the yapping dogs who follow close behind, into the woods behind Jerryl's house. There, obscured by spring foliage, is a wooden structure in its final stages of collapse, a ramshackle barn with a single timber wedged against its north-facing wall to prop it up.
"Lot of memories here," says Dab.
This barn, built for curing tobacco, sometimes doubled as living quarters for young Dab and Jumpy, whose parents were sharecroppers. James Rufus Geathers—Slim to his friends—and his wife, Martha, had eight boys and a girl. Cathy died in a house fire when she was three. Dab, who was six at the time, remembers his father running into the burning building to look for the girl, who would pass away the next day. Slim missed the funeral; he was in the hospital recovering from his burns. (The Geathers's patriarch died last November at 75.)
During tobacco season, says Dab, "Our job was to stay in the barn all night." To cure the tobacco, the boys had to keep the barn at 100°. And that required frequent trips into the woods with a cross saw for firewood, which they would haul back behind a mule.
"Cut wood, slop the hogs.... All this before we went to school," Jumpy remembers. Choppee High, the all-black school they attended, was less than 10 miles from the Geathers's house as the crow flies. But because there was no bridge nearby across the Black River, the bus ride each morning took 45 minutes. And along their walk to catch that ride, Dab recalls, they would be passed by the bus carrying white students to a separate school, farther away.
Getting home after football practice was even more of an adventure. With the buses long gone, the boys had to find their own transportation. "We'd try to catch the end of the shift at a nearby steel plant," says Dab. "If we couldn't do that, we were walking for a looong time." And no one looked forward to a long walk in the dark. "The South back then was getting better," remembers Jumpy, "but you still had some good ol' boys who didn't give a s--- about black people."
When school was out, Dab and Jumpy would spend long summer days in the fields cropping tobacco—work that left few fond memories. "Hornworms be biting your back," remembers Jumpy, "and you don't know it's a worm—you're thinking it's a mosquito."
"At lunchtime we had a 30-minute break," adds Dab. "That was a Honey Bun and a soda. On your feet all day long, and end of the day they'd give you 10 dollars." Which the boys would surrender to their mother when they got home.
Hard manual labor was what they knew. "It was all we did," says Dab. And so football, though not easy, was not exactly daunting to them. "The heat didn't bother me," says the older brother. "I'd run by the coach in 90-degree weather, telling him, 'This is fun!' What bothered me was the snow."
There was no snow in his immediate future—Dab played his collegiate ball a hundred miles west of Browns Ferry, at South Carolina State, where he became the first member of his family to attend college. In 1981 he was the first of five Bulldogs to be selected in the NFL draft, going to Buffalo with the last pick of the third round. At that first Bills training camp one veteran approached him and asked, "Hey, rookie, is it true you rassle alligators?" He, in fact, did not. He just saw no upside in denying it.