When Oneida opens the 2018 football season at Claiborne on Friday, there will be more Lamberts in action than just the one pacing the sidelines.
All three of Tony Lambert’s sons will be pitching in on the effort to help the Indians to a season-opening win over the Bulldogs. Upstairs, in the box, will be his oldest son, Zach, and his middle son, Jacob. And on the field, of course, will be his youngest son, Benji.
Even as the Oneida head coach’s oldest sons have graduated high school and moved on to the things adults move on to, football Fridays in the fall remain a tight-knit affair for the Lamberts.
“It’s been awfully special to be able to spend Friday nights in the fall as an entire family,” Lambert said. “It’s been an awesome thing. It really has been a family affair.”
This year, though, is bittersweet for the Lamberts. The youngest of the family, Ben, is starting his senior season of football. Friday’s game will be his final season opener, after being on the sidelines with his father since he was in second grade.
"I wish I could slow it down, but I can’t,” Lambert said. “Senior night will be a struggle for me and my wife. Ben has been on my sideline since he was just a little boy.”
Lambert had the opportunity to coach all three of his sons in some capacity. Zach, the oldest, moved into a starting role as a sophomore at Anderson County, where his father was defensive coordinator under Larry Kerr. When Lambert made a parallel move to Oneida in 2005, Zach came with him, and started his final two seasons for the Indians, where he was a quarterback and defensive back.
Later, Jake Lambert started two seasons for his father, playing as an undersized defensive end with an oversized heart. He actually began his high school playing days at Scott High, where his father was the head coach for a single season in 2011, then transitioned back to Oneida, where he had played in middle school, for his final three seasons.
Like his older brother, Jake Lambert played some quarterback for the Indians, in addition to his role on the defensive side of the ball.
Ben Lambert moved into the starting lineup last year, as a junior, starting at cornerback. Like his two older brothers, he is a vocal leader on the field — likely due in no small part to the fact that he’s a Lambert.
“They’ve all been vocal leaders,” Tony Lambert said of his sons. “It’s alright to be a vocal leader, but they didn’t miss practice, and that’s more important. Even throughout injuries, they were still there. They had no choice. They accepted the fact that, ‘We gotta be there. We gotta do this. We gotta set the standard.’”
When Jake Lambert moved into a starting role in Lambert’s second season back at Oneida, there were some who scoffed — as they will always scoff when a coach’s son sees the field. They’re only out there because of the family ties, the naysayers reckon. But the middle Lambert quickly silenced the doubters by emerging as the unquestioned leader on the defensive side of the ball.
“These boys haven’t always been the most talented, but I feel like they played with big heart, and that’s probably the thing I look for in my players the most,” Lambert said. Then he repeats something he’s said over and over since becoming a head coach, something he’ll undoubtedly say more than once in postgame interviews with media this season: “God never measures the size of a man but he does measure the heart. And that’s probably the characteristic I’ve most appreciated in my sons. You can’t fake passion.”
As he prepares for his final season coaching one of his sons, Lambert knows it won’t be long before he doesn’t have a son on the field or in the wings, waiting his turn, for the first time since way back in his defensive coordinator days at Anderson County.
“A father likes to be involved in everything his children are involved in, and God has just created an avenue for me to be able to be involved with my sons,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to emphasize the games and the life lessons of football, not only a daddy but as a coach.”
Lambert credited his wife, Faith, for her role along the way — “Sometimes the battles and struggles at home haven’t been smooth because I’ll still try to coach at home, and Faith does a good job refereeing and keeping that in balance,” he said. “She lets us know when to save it for practice. You have to have a strong momma and she’s been that.”
He also credits the men who have coached alongside him through the years.
“I’ve had excellent men and excellent coaches who could play the same role for my sons as I did,” he said. “Sometimes when they couldn’t talk to me, because I was coach, they could talk to their position coach as a buffer.”
As for what comes next, time will tell. Lambert hopes his youngest will join his older brothers by pitching in on Friday nights even after he’s graduated. But, for now, there are 10 games remaining, and the head coach is going to savor each of them as a father.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “Not many fathers get to go to their sons games and get in free. And there’s been a huge price to pay at times, but I’d do it over again if I could.”