Sat, 25 Jun 2022

How lessons from pro football dads impacted current Rams

Los Angeles Rams
20 Jun 2022, 18:24 GMT+10

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - For multiple current Rams players, the apple didn't fall far from the professional tree.

Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, wide receiver Van Jefferson, tight end Kendall Blanton, defensive back Quentin Lake and defensive back Russ Yeast are all the sons of former NFL players, and now going through or in the midst of beginning their own NFL careers.

For each of them, that pro football pedigree played a defining role in shaping them into who they are today as players and as people. Their NFL dads still remain invaluable resources to them today, too.

Whether one grows up while their dad is playing in the NFL or after their dad's NFL playing career is over, they get used to one or both of two things:

Tough love, and time away.

"It was rough because it was a lot of tough love," said Blanton, whose father Jerry played linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs for seven seasons. "Now looking back, seeing where I'm at, he knew what it took to get here. Growing up, I didn't understand that a lot of times, like, 'Why is he like this? Why is he like this?' But it was very, very beneficial and I'm grateful for it, to have that."

Blanton was born in November 1995, 10 years after his father's final season, so he learned about his dad's NFL experience through stories. The standard was always clear, too, as Blanton became a standout two-sport athlete at Blue Springs (Missouri) South High School.

Kendall credits Jerry's tough love for making him a coachable player, recalling the feedback Jerry would provide him in high school as his toughest critic.

"I remember growing up, I could have a great game in whatever sport I'm playing, and he gonna say, if I was playing basketball, 'You missed two free throws. Y'all would've won by 20 if you would've made those free throws,'" Blanton said. "Or when I used to play defensive end, 'If you would've got your hands inside on this, you could've had three sacks.' Things like that. I was like, 'Man, am I good?' But it just pushed me to continue to work hard and really never settle."

Jefferson, meanwhile, was born in July 1996, more specifically the summer before his father Shawn's sixth NFL season. With Shawn going on to play a total of 13 years, all Van knew for the first seven years of his life was his dad being gone a lot.

"My dad wasn't home a lot, but it was good, it was a good learning experience, my dad being in the league and now coaching in the league, I learned a lot growing up," Van said. "I knew seeing him play in the NFL, that was something I wanted to do too. He kind of set the foundation for me."

While Van may have missed out on a lot of father-son time as a kid because of Shawn's playing career, Shawn made up for it when Van got older and set a goal for himself.

"He always used to say, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' And I always used to say, 'Be a football player,'" Van said. "That was when I was a kid. But as I got older, I told him what my goal was, and then my dad told me later on in life, 'Once you told me what your goal was, I put everything in my heart to make sure you got to that goal.' So that's just something that always stood out to me, because he was just so adamant about me pursuing my goal and me getting to this level. He did everything he possibly could to make sure I ended up here, so I can't thank him enough for that."

Rams rookie defensive backs Lake and Yeast also had fathers who set that foundational example.

Like Jefferson, Lake had a father who both played and later coached in the NFL, and that inspired him along his own football journey.

"It was something that I really thought was important, to kind of follow in his footsteps," Lake said. "Obviously, I wanted to make my own legacy and stuff like that, but, why not try and do what he did? He laid the groundwork for me, so it was awesome."

Playing safety and cornerback during a career that spanned 1989-2001, Carnell Lake earned a spot on the NFL's 1990s All-Decade team, was a First-Team All-Pro in 1997 and a five-time Pro Bowler. True to those words, Quentin is now a defensive back in the NFL, too.

Quentin was born in January 1999, ahead of what would end up being Carnell's second-to-last NFL season (Carnell missed the entire 2000 season with a foot injury), so his clearest memories are from his dad's coaching days.

He remembers attending a Steelers practice while his dad was their defensive backs coach once and getting the chance to talk to All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and other Pittsburgh players.

"I ended up being able to break down the practice at the end, so that was kind of a memorable moment for me," Lake said.

Yeast likewise was around the game at a young age.

Born in May 1999, he was just an infant when his dad, Craig, began his NFL career. Craig played two seasons for the Bengals (1999 and 2000) then one season for the Jets (2001).

Russ was aware his dad played in the NFL, recalling when he would be at the facility during training camp as a 3-year-old running around with the players.

"I've always been around professional athletes and professional football, so kind of been schooled up on it from an early age," Russ said.

While the pictures from that young age aren't too clear beyond that training camp memories, what did stick with Russ was how relatable the players in the locker room were.

"I would say the most defining thing is just knowing what type of people was in the locker room. They're dudes just like us, too," Russ said. "It always made it feel like my dream to play in the NFL was actually achievable and possible, having been around those guys before."

However, some learnings came after their fathers' playing careers ended, too.

One of the lessons Kupp's father Craig - who spent time with the Giants, Cardinals and Cowboys in two NFL seasons (1990 and 1991) - passed down to him likely came from Craig's own NFL experience.

A fifth-round pick out of Division III Pacific Lutheran in 1990, the 6-foot-5 Craig was walking through the hall at the Giants' facility one day when he crossed paths with then-head coach Bill Parcells - known for being hard on his players - and decided to introduce himself.

"Bill kind of shook his hand, looked at him, and just said, 'Boy, you're going to get yourself killed out there,'" Kupp said with a smile, recalling the story Craig told him. "And that was the first words that were spoken to him. But kind of a unique situation, unique experience - the first time you meet the head coach, you just get a little nudge, 'Hey, you might want to hit the weight room a little bit, bulk up a little bit.'"

It was perhaps fitting, then, that one of the things Craig encouraged Cooper and his three siblings to do was be confident in themselves and who they are, and also told them that God places them.

"We were intentionally given the opportunity to step into this place, and so, not to let the grandeur of the whole thing overshadow just what it is - that you get the opportunity to play football," Kupp said. "It's what you were created to do. You were given these talents, these passions, and people that let that stuff go, let that stuff shine.' That, to me, was the greatest encouragement he's given to me."

As Cooper shows, it wasn't necessarily X's and O's advice that shaped them. Whether through words or actions, those dads made an impact.

For Russ, it was by his dad simply being present.

"It's a blessing to have a father in your life, especially as a young African American in today's day and age," Russ said. "So him being around my whole life, being able to school me (up) on and off the field has been huge for my development."

Quentin said being around his dad solidified his goal in life to be a professional football player. He remembers writing that down when he was in either the second or third grade, and has a photo of it on his Instagram as proof.

"It inspired me to do that, but also in terms of me being a man, being around guys like that - high-quality guys, high-level athletes - it showed me, one, that I'm always going to have to work hard to do what I want to do and be what I want to be," Quentin said. "And then two, I saw guys like Troy Polamalu, specifically, he's respected by everybody, and that's something I wanted to take into my life. Because leaving a good impact on people, you don't know what those connections can do for you later on in life, so I thought that was really important."

Even as he's busy serving as associate head coach and wide receivers coach for the Cardinals, Shawn Jefferson still finds the time to call during the season to be a resource for Van while Van navigates his own NFL career with the Rams.

"I mean, he's very critical of my play sometimes," Van said with a smile. "So he's always calling me like, 'Hey, what did you do on this route? What did you think about this route? What's going on?' So he's always still watching, he's always catching my games and correcting me on things."

Quentin, meanwhile, credits that time spent helping turn him into an NFL-caliber player.

If there is anything Quentin is struggling with or confused about, he said he always goes to his dad, which was especially "big" his last two years in college. Quentin said they would come back home after games on weekends and go through and review the whole game.

Part of the reason Carnell was that accessible? He chose to step down from his job as the Steelers defensive backs coach in 2018 so he could watch Quentin - then a sophomore at UCLA - play.

For other Rams players, the conversations with their dads these days are not as football-formal. Sometimes it's just about the journey and the everyday experiences.

Kupp said his dad "loves everything football," and as time has gone on, it's been conversationally about the things that happened within it.

Being able to share that passion is something Kupp cherishes.

"It's just been a lot of fun to be able to have those kind of conversations," Kupp said. "When you have a father that shares in your passion and can speak the same language in some ways, it's a fun thing."

Other times, they are reminded of their dads' enduring impacts in more subtle ways - in some cases, without even talking to them.

"I find myself doing stuff just walking around the house throughout my day where I'll be like, 'Damn, man, my dad would've did this. I used to be mad at him for doing this,'" Kendall said with a smile.

Kendall and his dad do still talk often, whether it's sports or something else. Jerry has even dialed it back a lot on that tough love now that Kendall is in the NFL.

Well, maybe it depends on how you measure "a lot."

"He still calls me, like, 'I watched every play, I remember that play where you did this and that,'" Kendall said. "So he still does that, but he's always been that kind of earpiece for me."

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