From Struggle To Glory In Minor League Football

Jamie King's NFL dreams never took off, but he got a second chance when he was asked to coach the Fredericksburg Generals, a little-known team in Virginia. He talks with guest host Jacki Lyden about helping a group of misfits become champions, and how it changed his life in the process. King is profiled in this week's The Washington Post Magazine.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And we stay on the topic of football for this next story, but instead of blockbuster ads and multimillion dollar stadiums, we're looking at the less glamorous side of the game and perhaps one just as - more compelling.

Jamie King played football in high school and for a semi-pro league for three years, but his NFL dreams never exactly took off. He got his second chance when he was asked to coach a little known team in a little known league, the Fredericksburg Generals in Virginia.

King recruited among men like himself, men with unfulfilled athletic dreams who had a lot to prove. But King even got a former NFL MVP to join the effort and the story of how Jamie King pulled them together and this team in the mid-'90s and turned them into champions is the cover story in this week's Washington Post magazine. It's called "The Generals' Last Charge" and Jamie King joins me now in our Washington studios.

Welcome to the program, Jamie King.

JAMIE KING: Well, thank you very much for having me. It's an honor to be here and I appreciate you guys having us on and it's exciting to talk about what happened so many years ago. And it's still relevant, and people still enjoy the story, so...

LYDEN: It is a really good story and we'll get to it in just a second, but I do want to say, Jamie, for people not familiar with the team, who are the Fredericksburg Generals? And tell us, even, about this league. Perhaps some people don't even know about it.

KING: Well, the league is called the Mason-Dixon League out of - it's based, actually, in Richmond, but the entire league is called the American Football Association with over 500 teams in the nation. And we are based in Fredericksburg, Virginia and Fredericksburg Generals formed in 1994 and we had an incredible run shortly thereafter.

LYDEN: And let's just sidestep for a moment. This piece begins with you as a child watching your beloved Redskins and a father who was abusive and he told you you weren't going to amount to anything. How did football help you get through this?

KING: Well, I think football's a common denominator for a lot of things in life, especially you, you know, believing in yourself and, you know, able to dig through some tough times and just continue to battle. You're going to have ups and downs and everything in sports and, fortunately, I was able to kind of fortify myself within the sports world and kind of give myself something to believe in and this team definitely helped me with that.

LYDEN: And a lot of your players were men who, like yourself, needed another chance, but one of the people that you got on was your favorite player, the place kicker, Mark Moseley. Eventually, you got him to sign up with your team and he was 47. Tell me how that happened.

KING: Well, like I say, it was pretty remarkable. Mark - I'd known him. Actually, I watched him as a young guy and admired him as just a fan, like most Redskins fans, and then was able to meet him and he came to a couple of football camps. Got to know him a little bit and then I invited him down to help us with the team and he was kicking pretty good. And I said, hey, we need help. And would you consider it?

And it took quite a bit of prodding, but he came on and just an amazing thing at 47 years of age to work with guys half his age in some cases and to provide the leadership that he did and all of the things that he provided for us outside of football. It was just an amazing thing and it came at a great time in his life and it was very big for us in the community.

LYDEN: Well, he needed you as much as you needed him.

KING: I didn't know. Well, actually, I knew that he'd been going through some tough personal things and a lot of people didn't. He confided some things in me and I know he'd been having some tough things go in his life and this team really helped him get a resurgence in his life and have a bright future. And we were excited about that and it all worked out with him in the lineup. We were 20 and 0. We never lost a game.

LYDEN: It's such - it makes me think of a play. You had two championship seasons.

KING: Yes, ma'am.

LYDEN: 19...

KING: '95 and '96.

LYDEN: And after that, why did you all disband?

KING: Well, you know, once you've climbed the mountaintop and you've done everything and the view is as beautiful as it gets and so many of those guys, I think, had fulfilled everything they wanted to and basically said, hey, we're going to go out on top and they walked away from it. But it was an incredible group of guys and an incredible accomplishment that we achieved.

LYDEN: Jamie King, what are you doing today? What do you think is the lesson? This all happened more than a decade ago, but there's something kind of timeless about it. What's everyone doing now?

KING: Well, as far as lessons, I mean, for me, personally, you know, there's a lot of kids out there that have dealt with abuse, whether it be physical and verbal and so forth and one thing I hope from our story - and my story, in particular - that they learn is, you know, never give up on yourself. Never give up on your future, that there is going to be a brighter day if you believe in yourself.

And one thing I like to tell parents out there is, you know, for step-parents, I admire the ones that do it the right way and it's not an easy thing to take families on that, in some cases, you never knew about. And for parents who do it the right way - the regular parents - I admire them more than anything, to see parents and the sacrifices they make.

Sometimes, as I tell kids all the time, if you've got two great parents or one great parent in your life, really be proud of that and make sure you tell them.

LYDEN: Jamie King is the former coach of the Mason-Dixon league team, the Fredericksburg Generals. He's now the owner of the King Management Group, a sports management company. And thank you so much for joining us in our studio.

KING: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Just ahead, what does it mean to be black in America? That's a tough question and author and comedian, Baratunde Thurston, says that's one of many.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Many a black person has been blindsided by the - what do you think about - insert potentially black-related topic here - question.

LYDEN: Baratunde Thurston discusses his new book, "How To Be Black," just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The term, working mom, may seem like a badge of honor, but recent data suggests that professional moms make less money than other women. Is it discrimination or do some moms choose to put parenting before career? We put these questions before our panel of moms in our weekly parenting roundtable next time on TELL ME MORE.

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