Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Groce takes leap of faith

        Clif Groce is way out on a limb, out past the point where the squirrels feel safe. The branch beneath him could buckle at any moment.

        The Cincinnati Bengals' fullback has tempted fate with an act of sheer audacity. He has signed a lease on a new apartment before the regular-season roster has been set. He has stuck out his neck in the shadow of the guillotine. He has dared to trust in a dicey tomorrow.

        “This is the first time I've ever had an apartment before the end of cuts,” Groce said Tuesday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium. “If you're not starting, you never know.”

Clif Groce runs against the Bears.
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        Groce understands uncertainty. This is his fourth year in the NFL, and he already has been cut four times by three different teams. The lowly Bengals waived him last August, and they must trim 12 more players from this year's squad by Monday.

        If it seems a strange time to be shelling out for a security deposit, it is. But Groce has gained the serenity that comes with occupying the top spot on the depth chart, and he is advised to enjoy it while it lasts. Bengals coach Bruce Coslet was cut three times during his career in pro football.

        “You haven't been in this league long enough if you haven't been fired,” Groce said. “It's part of nature ... the circle of life. Somebody has to die. One antelope gets killed so two lions can live.”

        The Bengals thinned their herd by seven bodies Tuesday, waiving six players and placing injured cornerback Charles Fisher on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. This reduced the active roster to 65, but it failed to ease the foreboding in the locker room.

Tension is high
        Though Groce is confident he has made the team, several of his peers are openly apprehensive in the presence of Bengals personnel executive Jim Lippincott. When he walks in, the raucous room grows instantly quiet, as if a strict teacher had returned to an unattended classroom. Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson and Lippincott have agreed to keep their distance until the last cut is made.

        For nine years, Lippincott has been the Bengals' designated bearer of bad news. In that time, he has cut close to 250 players, typically first thing in the morning, usually with a stock speech that begins, “The Cincinnati Bengals are putting you on waivers. That means you didn't make the team.”

        Frequent repetition has made the task no easier.

        “You're telling young people who've had a dream of being a pro football player that the dream is over,” Lippincott said.

Lippincott has hard job
        In training camp, Lippincott makes his grim rounds early in the morning so the player being cut can clear out with a minimum of embarrassment. Tuesday, Lippincott waited near the players' entrance at Paul Brown Stadium so as to intercept the unfortunate before they reached the locker room.

        Punter Brad Costello was walking in about 6:45a.m. when he read his fate in Lippincott's face. Before Lippincott could launch into his prepared remarks, Costello embraced him and thanked him for the opportunity.

        Some players are more argumentative. One Bengal registered his rage by urinating in the sauna. Most, however, are good enough at math to know when their number's up.

        “The big thing is to still have confidence in yourself,” Groce said. “If you can't play somewhere, there are still 30-plus more teams.”



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