Saturday, December 09, 2000

Childhood tales of pigskin passion

In the midst of a trying season, Bengals players remember how they fell for football

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bengals fullback Clif Groce in his flag football uniform.
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        Before they were in the NFL, before football was a business and their livelihood, Bengals players were children who followed and played football simply because it was fun.

        As children, they went to high school games in their hometowns but didn't watch. They were too busy playing their own makeshift football behind the stands.

        Twenty years can't diminish the thrill they experienced the first time they put on a full football uniform. Some still have their first helmet.

        For some, football is tied to their fathers — and mothers. It's about family.

        As another difficult NFL season winds down in Cincinnati, a dozen Bengals reflected on a joy that knows no season — their love of the game.

        Fullback Clif Groce grew up in College Station, Texas, where football is king.

        But children can't begin playing tackle football there until fifth grade. Third- and fourth-graders have to play flag football.

        “It was great, but it wasn't real football,” said Groce, 28, who went on to play college ball for his hometown Texas A&M Aggies.

        He couldn't get enough. He played in the yard by himself. He played whenever and wherever he could.

        “I remember as kids, the Friday night high school games,” Groce said. “We didn't sit still. We'd go behind the bleachers and take three or four balled-up Coke cups and throw 'em up in the air, and whoever got 'em, that's who got tackled. And you were just one against 16, and that's how you learned. I remember that like it was yesterday. I loved it.”

        Center Rich Braham was another kid who went on to play college football in his hometown. He grew up in Morgantown, W. Va., and was an offensive lineman for West Virginia. He was second-team All-America as a senior and played his final college game in the Orange Bowl.

        But before all of that, he was a walk-on who started his first game as a redshirt freshman for the Mountaineers, at home against mighty Penn State.

        “Going out there and playing in front of all the fans and stuff, it's, "Wow, everybody's coming here to see us,'” said Braham, 30. “Penn State had great defensive linemen. I was nervous. You're walking out knowing you're starting and playing against some of the best college players in the country. It was a great opportunity. From that point, I knew it's what I wanted to do.”

        Free safety Darryl Williams, 30, is in his ninth NFL season. He has started 133 of the 138 games he has played in, but he didn't play youth football in his hometown of Miami.

        It was his father, Charles Williams, who taught his son to love football.

        “I was like 8 or 9, and we'd watch the Sunday game and go out and play football in the yard,” Darryl Williams said. “I was a Cowboys fan. And once they'd go off, we'd go out and be Tony Dorsett or Roger Staubach.

        “My dad didn't play. He was just a fan. He was a Colts fan. On Sunday, you'd go to church and go home and watch TV. In the yard, we'd play touch football.”

        Rookie Brad St. Louis grew up in Belton, Mo., the son of his high school's principal.

        “It was those Friday night lights that got to me,” said St. Louis, 24, a seventh-round draft pick who has played well as the team's long snapper on punts, field goals and extra points.

        “The whole town got into it. Belton is about 19,000 people. Everything closes down, and everybody's at the game. And you just want to be a part of it.”

        The Belton Pirates wore purple and gold uniforms. St. Louis remembers the first time he ran onto the field with the marching band playing.

        “I always looked up to the high school guys as a kid,” he said. “I had butterflies so bad that first night. But once I got that first hit out of the way, I felt better. We had a great tradition. We won eight games every year.”

        St. Louis is the first player from his high school to make the NFL. His father, Mike, played professionally in Canada.

        Cornerback Tom Carter took football for granted until his second year in the NFL, when he separated his shoulder and missed some playing time with the Washington Redskins.

        He had starred at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., and in college at Notre Dame.

        “We come through college believing we're going to make it to the league and nothing's going to stop us,” Carter, 28, said. “My second year, I just stopped and realized how fortunate and blessed we are to be here. That's when I said: "Man, I've got a great job. I like to do it. If wasn't doing this, I don't know if I'd want to do anything else. Now I know this is what I was called to do.'”

        Offensive tackle Rod Jones wanted to be a basketball player. He was 6-foot-4, 260 pounds at Henry Ford High School in Detroit.

        But his father and mother, William and Jewel Jones, wanted him to play football.

        Rod Jones tried to skip football as a freshman in high school, wanting instead to prepare for basketball season. But his mother took him to football practice one afternoon, walking onto the field and telling the coach she wanted her son to play.

        “I love and respect my father, and you know, you always want to follow suit. The more I played, the more I understood and loved the game. There wasn't any focus until I got to college,” he said. “When I got to the NFL, it was a dream come true for him. That was really my motivation for doing everything, my love for my parents. I wanted to make them happy.”

        Defensive end Vaughn Booker, 32, a Cincinnati native who's out for the season after undergoing knee surgery earlier this week, attended a football camp as an elementary school student and got hooked on football.

        “Where I really started thinking about playing professional football was when I went to a camp at UC,” he said. “Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson came down from the Cowboys. We saw Staubach's fingers and how they were bent up. I was intrigued how hard it must be for him to be a quarterback and have hands like that.

        “I just went out and did my best at the camp, and those guys just gave us a good talking-to. It kind of lifted our spirits up. They talked about keeping our grades up and keep going after our dreams. I was a Cowboys fan back then. I was just in awe to see those guys. That's when I realized I wanted to be a professional athlete.”

        Booker played football for Taft High School and the University of Cincinnati. He is the third player to attend a Cincinnati high school and UC before joining the Bengals.

        Right tackle Willie Anderson sat at a stoplight not too long ago, saw a kid walking from practice and saw himself.

        Anderson, 25, played at Vigor High School in Mobile, Ala., the year after the team won a national championship.

        “That love for high school football, for me, was unbelievable,” he said. “Now it's more of a business. You work in the offseason to improve your body and your mind, but it's still your job. You still may love it a little bit, but that high school love is gone.

        “That kid was walking home from practice. He had his cleats on. He had a coat over his uniform. He was walking. He loved the game, man. The love you have for the game now is because it's your job and pride in doing it well.”

        Tight end Marco Battaglia, 27, played his first football game 20 years ago in Queens, N.Y.

        “It was Pop Warner. I was 7 years old,” he said. “I remember I played for the Redskins. We had a scrimmage against the Packers. I was playing linebacker. I loved to hit people. I loved putting the uniform on. You tried to show the other guys you were the best on the field. That's when it hit me.

        “Those are the days you remember. When I see the Pop Warner kids playing at halftime of our (NFL) games, it's great. You see those kids just sticking their noses in and playing hard. That's what it's all about. It does get to be a business now. But you still love the game once you take all the exteriors off it.”

        Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson grew up in Chicago and still has the birthday present he got when he was 4.

        “My Green Bay Packers helmet and my purple, generic Minnesota Vikings jersey,” said Gibson, 28. “I loved them. The helmet was so big I couldn't even keep it on straight. It would go sideways. I would try to run into the couch, and it would be turned sideways. I had my Toys R Us pads on. I was ready for action.”

        Gibson still has the entire uniform. The Packers helmet is in his trophy case at home.

        “The pads are really tattered,” he said. “The jersey looks like an infant's T-shirt. I realized at that point that I wanted a real uniform some day.”


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