DOVER — The phone call was sudden, like those kinds of calls always are.
James Kilby’s sons, J.J. and Jakwon, had just contacted him to say something was wrong with their grandfather.
“When I got there,” said James, “he was already gone.”
James Kilby Sr. was 70 when he died of a heart attack in April. James Jr. worried about how the loss of their grandfather would impact his two sons.
“He died in their arms,” said James Jr. “He never missed any of their games. That was the big thing, how they would adjust. ... I’m proud of them.”
Out of that tragic moment, the Kilbys have put together a pretty memorable season as a tribute to their grandfather.
With J.J. and Jakwon as two of its top players, the Dover High football team has gone 6-4 and earned the fifth seed in the DIAA Class 3A state tournament. The Senators will play at No. 4 seed St. Georges (7-3) on Saturday at noon in the tourney quarterfinals.
A senior defensive tackle, J.J. was named the Lineman of the Year in Class 3A’s District II while Jakwon, a sophomore, was a first-team all-district running back after rushing for 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns this fall.
And their dad, James, is part of it, too. A former standout himself for the Senators, he is Dover’s secondary coach.
“There’s not a lot of similarities when you first take a look at them,” Senator coach Chip Knapp said about the Kilby brothers. “But the thing that’s similar is their desire to be great football players, their knowledge of the game and their work ethic. It comes from their dad and playing a lot of football growing up.”
Jakwon and J.J. said their grandfather — who they called ‘Pop Pop’ — is never very far from their thoughts. They know he really enjoyed watching them play.
“It made me want to work harder,” J.J. said about losing his grandfather. “I wanted to make him happy. I think about him every day. We always talk about him — all the fun memories we had.”
“Everything that we do on the field is mostly for him and for the team and the coaches,” said Jakwon. “He used to be at all our games when we were younger. Not seeing him here now is crazy. But he’s still watching over us and making sure we’re doing our thing.”
While Jakwon was on varsity as a freshman, this is really the first big season the Kilbys have had together as starters,
J.J., who stands 5-foot-11, 300 pounds, was a third-team All-State pick a year ago. He said it’s been fun watching his little brother have a big season.
“He’s running the ball hard,” said J.J. “All the stats he’s putting up on the board right now, coming in as a sophomore, it’s good.”
For the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Jakwon, the feeling is mutual.
“Playing with my brother is fun,” said the younger Kilby, who also lines up at linebacker sometimes. “I get to see him do well and watch him be great at his position.”
Of course, James Kilby may enjoy watching the two play more than anybody.
A 1998 Dover grad, James was a running and defensive back for the Senators. He was an All-State and All-Henlopen Conference pick, who played in the Blue-Gold All-Star Game after his senior season.
The 43-year-old Kilby spent a year at Lackawanna (Pa.) Junior College and was planning to play for NCAA Division I Temple when J.J. came along. Kilby said there was some disappointment in not finishing his football career at the time.
“A little bit,” he said. “But then you’ve got to take care of life. Things happen — they happen for a reason.”
From a football standpoint, Kilby says this season couldn’t have gone much better for he and his sons.
“It’s a dream come true to have both your boys on there and get to coach,” he said. “We have a lot of talks. We have talks about college. We have a lot of talks about them going on to the next level.”
Of course, the hardest part of this year has been adjusting to life without their grandfather. Thursday is the first Thanksgiving the Kilbys will have without him.
But they also plan on keeping his memory alive with everything they accomplish on the football field. They know he really would have enjoyed watching them play this season.
“If he could have seen now,” said Jakwon, “he would have been pretty happy.”