Chiefs LB Justin March-Lillard honors his father with jersey nameplate
The child’s shoulders slumped, his head down. He stopped halfway through the football drill and was ready to quit before Justin March-Lillard headed his way.
The Chiefs linebacker was holding his second annual football camp a summer ago in his hometown of Danville, Ill. March-Lillard’s younger brother, Logan, had been trying to teach the kid a classic agility exercise that called for him to shuffle through some heavy bags.
Logan Lillard wondered how his brother was going to pull off what he could not, then saw a 30-second moment that reminded him of their father. As March-Lillard encouraged the child, the message stuck and he completed the drill.
“I thought that was pretty inspiring,” Logan Lillard said.
Nothing about this story would surprise anyone in the Chiefs’ organization. March-Lillard is always among the first linebackers to volunteer for community service, and multiple teammates, unprompted, use the word “genuine” to describe him.
“He’s a good person … I know that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Whoever touched (his life) taught him the right way of doing things.”
You don’t have to dig too far to figure out who that is.
“The way he gains respect by giving respect, that’s my dad written all over him,” Logan Lillard said, referring to their father, Randy Lillard Sr. “It’s that type of character my brother inherited from our Pops.”
Justin March-Lillard embraces the comparison to Pops, too. Named Justin March by his maternal grandmother, who wanted her family name to live on, he asked the Chiefs before last season to change the nameplate on the back of his jersey to March-Lillard.
Before his father died in November, while every organ in his body failed, March-Lillard made a promise to keep fighting after his dad couldn’t.
“I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to repay him for everything he’s done,” he said.
Randy Lillard Sr. used to puzzle Logan, his youngest son, when he honked and waved at everyone while driving down the block.
“I’d be like ‘Pops, you don’t even know him,’” Logan Lillard said. “He’d be like ‘Well, I probably just made his day. You never know.’”
Some neighbors in Danville even took to calling Lillard Sr. the mayor of the block. But that gentle side belied a toughness that could swell when he needed it to, particularly when it related to his five children — Justin, Logan, Collis, Ashley and Randy Jr. — and his wife, Michelle Lillard.
When Justin was 13, he was hanging with some neighborhood friends who got into a scuffle with another kid, who was hurt in the melee. But instead of running away with his friends, Justin’s conscience told him to stay with the injured kid.
The police asked questions but Justin was exonerated because he didn’t participate in the fight, which had been caught on camera. But Lillard Sr. didn’t let him off the hook.
“I got into some trouble with him,” Justin said. “That’s what I feared the most.”
As punishment, Justin’s father made him clean up their local church three times a week, including Sundays. He did that until his sophomore year of high school, when his father’s lessons about accountability, humility and faith had taken hold.
“My head was on straight by that time,” Justin said.
Lillard Sr. told Justin he was destined to go to college, so when he blossomed into a football star at Danville High School and at the University of Akron, no one was prouder than “Pops.”
“If you know the kind of man Justin March is — mannerly, respectful, courteous, polite — those are the kind of traits he had to have gotten from his father,” said Akron coach Terry Bowden, who encouraged NFL coaches to take a chance on the 5-foot-11, 227-pounder in the 2015 draft.
Justin wasn’t drafted, but when the Chiefs called and offered him a free-agent contract, Lillard Sr. soothed his son, who wasn’t convinced he’d get a fair shot to make the team.
“Give it all you’ve got,” he assured his son, “and never look back.”
Justin March-Lillard knew those weren’t empty words. Though his father used a cane for several years, few would guess the extent to which his body had been failing.
“You would have never been able to tell,” he said.
When Randy Lillard Sr. developed congestive heart failure over 20 years ago, he continued to work. He was diagnosed with lymphoma and prostate cancer but beat those diseases too.
Multiple heart surgeries. Diabetes. Bone marrow transplants. A broken back that forced him to quit his construction job. Through it all, he remained kind, patient, loving.
“He never let us see a different side of him, which was good,” March-Lillard said. “We never saw weakness.”
Through multiple health scares, his father grew to trust him as a confidant. Even though he was the second-youngest sibling, March-Lillard would be one of the first to know of his dad’s medical setbacks, just so he could help his siblings absorb the news.
“That’s an aspect my brother always had — he knew how to get to each and every one of us,” said Logan Lillard, 22. “He’s like the voice of reason, the mitigator. Any situation, he knew how to calm it down.”
March-Lillard, 23, also had a way of lifting his dad’s spirits, too. Last summer, after he learned his father had developed cancer for the third time — this time, the largely incurable pancreatic type — he asked the Chiefs to add his dad’s last name to his jersey nameplate.
“Now you’re gonna start making plays like I used to,” Lillard Sr. told his son over the phone. “Now you’re a complete athlete. You’ll get more leaping ability.”
He was joking, but in an upset, March-Lillard earned the starting inside linebacker job next to Derrick Johnson. He beat Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander, two players who were drafted by the Chiefs the same year March-Lillard signed as an undrafted free agent.
But it wouldn’t be long before March-Lillard would have to deal with more pain.
March-Lillard’s tenure as a Chiefs starter lasted five games before he broke a bone in his hand. The disappointment was magnified because of how hard he had worked after missing his rookie season because of a torn meniscus.
Even worse, his father’s cancer was spreading. Lillard Sr. was in the hospital and the outlook was bleak. His kidneys and liver started failing.
Because March-Lillard was on injured reserve, he was allowed to visit his dad in Danville when the Chiefs went on road trips.
“I kind of saw it as God’s way of giving me more time to spend with my dad,” March-Lillard said.
Those conversations were deep. They talked about everything, not just football. But March-Lillard remembers one thing in particular before his father became unresponsive.
“Never give up,” Lillard Sr. told his son, firmly.
March-Lillard understood and made him a promise.
“The overall gist of it is … not being mediocre at life or football,” March-Lillard said. “My goal is to win a Super Bowl and go to a Pro Bowl, and in life, my goal is to impact as many people as I can positively. That’s the overall theme of what I promised him, to strive to be the best at what I do.”
Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 19, Randy Lillard Sr. died in his hospital bed at age 56.
“It took every organ in his body before he passed away,” March-Lillard said, proudly. “It took his liver, his kidney, his heart … all that. And that’s what killed him, all that. Not just one.”
Before he died, Lillard Sr. left a message to all his kids.
“He never left anything unsaid, that was his big thing,” March-Lillard said. “If he loved you, he was telling you.”
One day before his father’s death, March-Lillard returned the favor and told him he was going be a grandfather again. Justin’s newlywed wife, Paige, is set to give birth to their first child, a boy, on July 28. His middle name will be Randy.
“He was on life support at the time, so there wasn’t a lot he could say,” March-Lillard said. “But his face lit up, he looked at me … grabbed my hand.
“It was kind of the light in a dark situation. The perfect ending to that story.”
On the day of his father’s death, March-Lillard sought out and comforted his siblings at the hospital. At the funeral, he sat next to their mother and did the same.
Later, March-Lillard hosted a Christmas gathering. His mother, fiance and four siblings packed into his Kansas City-area home, along with friends and an assortment of nieces and nephews.
“He held the family together,” Logan Lillard said of his brother.
On Sunday, Father’s Day, the Lillard family plans to convene in Kansas City again.
“We’ll just celebrate the good,” March-Lillard said. “Not so much him being gone.”
When he needs a tangible reminder, something he can feel, he does one of two things.
He can look down at his right wrist, to a purple rubber wristband embossed with the letters “KWKP,” which stands for “Keep Working, Keep Praying.”
That’s Justin March-Lillard’s motto, one that was born out of several conversations with his father, who wore the very same wristband before he died.
“I’ll never take it off,” March-Lillard said.
He’s made it the motto of his foundation, which will host another kids football camp on June 24 in Danville.
March-Lillard can also look to his right bicep to feel his father’s presence — and for a reminder of the promise he made him.
Two months ago, March-Lillard trekked to SkinQuest KC to have his father’s portrait tattooed on his arm, and he looks at it 10 to 12 times a day.
“If (I make) a small mistake on the field, when I get to the locker room I’m like ‘I got you, I’ll get it right,’” March-Lillard said, looking down and tapping the tattoo twice.
“He’s right here daily. Whenever I look down, he’s right there.”