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Bookish backer

Posted Jun 24, 2011


Dhani Jones

If you've tackled Dhani Jones on Twitter this offseason, you need a Gatorade. He has been on the Today Show tomorrow, Late Night in the afternoon, and now he rolls back into Cincinnati for Friday's 7 p.m. book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Hyde Park.

You know a guy that starts off a chapter with "I once dated a girl from Scotland" is going to give you a unique read.

Paul Guenther, the Bengals assistant coach who knew Jones before he went viral and global and was just versatile, has yet to read The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons From An Around The World Sports Odyssey. But after working with Jones these past four seasons, he expects to because he knows it will be interesting, different, and lost in all the glitz, it will have some solid observations about football.

"Every time he'd come back from shooting that show, he'd say, 'OK, I'm nailed down now,' " Guenther says. "That meant that he was ready and focused to play football. There was never a time that he hasn't been. He's been one of our great leaders ever since he got here."

The book on Jones in 2007 was that he supposed to be a solid role-playing linebacker, but that he was a little bit out there. A 1960s free-thinker lost in the 21st century. But if Jones surprised the Bengals with his 24-7 commitment, then he has surprised again with a candid, good read written with Jonathan Grotenstein.

Usually during the season, Jones is so focused and busy as a coach on the field while being careful about what he says to the media that you think they've come up with a bland stunt double as you search for the interesting quotes you know are there. Now you know why. He saved them all for this book.

On a tryout with the Bills just before he signed with the Bengals: "I didn't want to be in Buffalo. It's dead in Buffalo. Best thing about Buffalo is that it's close to Canada. … And all the time I'm thinking, 'Don't pick me.' "

On signing with the Bengals after he refused to sign a waiver because of a back problem, but there were no more planes back to California that day: "All I wanted to do was get out of there … this is my last spot. I'm going to do something else," but then agent Don Yee and the club resolved the issue to sign a one-year deal.

On race: "I once dated a girl from Scotland who took me to meet her grandmother for dinner. A pleasant evening - until the grandmother started dropping comments about negroes and coloreds into the conversation. "Negroes?" I asked her. "Coloreds?" "Well, she replied, "that's what you call them, isn't it?" It dawned on me she wasn't being a racist, or even ignorant. That's what she knew. There may not have been any other words in her vocabulary to describe a black man."

The book is broken up with brief interludes from trips and observers, such as some steel-belted insights from Yee (who was so honest with Jones he made him cry before Jones signed with him), and while that makes the book a little hectic it also makes it more readable. Jones' stint on the Travel Channel series Dhani Tackles The Globe turned him from a journeyman linebacker into a mainstream celebrity so the non-football material is essential and worth reading.

But he also offers some fresh takes on Cincy and the Bengals. He ranks the town a 7.5 out of 10. Not bad from a guy churning out post cards from Rio.

It's funny, though. It is the elements that made Jones a well-traveled linebacker, brains and adaptability that not only kept his career alive in 2007 and gave life to the TV series, but gave the Bengals a much-needed anchor on defense. It can be argued that the Bengals' transition to respectability on defense began not when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer arrived in 2008 but when Jones signed off the street on Sept. 19, 2007.

It will be recalled the Bengals were decimated at linebacker and they turned to Jones even though he'd been on the street since August.

"The Saints practiced with us for two days before they cut him," says Guenther, now the assistant secondary coach who then worked with special teams and the backers. "We liked him and we kept it in the back of our minds that they were heavy at backer. I think when you're on the street, and Dhani will tell you this I'm sure, you start to see things a little differently. All I know is that he stepped up and embraced special teams right away along with everything else."

Guenther remembers the Sept. 21 flight to Seattle sitting with Jones going over the playbook and when Caleb Miller went down on the 23rd, there was Jones calmly playing about 20 snaps as the Bengals got beat in the last minute. The next week, a Monday-nighter against the Patriots, and there was Jones basically calling the signals. Three weeks later he was special teams captain.

When Zimmer arrived the next season, it didn't appear to be a match. The old-school-chaw-chewing-no-bull-all-thorns Zimmer vs. the free-spirit-always-questioning Jones. As the defensive coordinator in Dallas, Zimmer had played against Jones for a good part of his career with the Giants and Eagles and had heard about how he drove coaches crazy with incessant questions.

"But we told him he'd love him because he was so smart and knew the game and cared about it," Guenther says. "That's really Zim's kind of guy. We told him, yeah, he asks a lot of questions but they're not stupid. No such thing as a stupid question, right? And Dhani never crosses the line."

Jones writes that he thought he was all done when the Bengals took WILL linebacker Keith Rivers with the 10th pick in 2008 but discovered, instead, that Zimmer was giving him a new life at middle backer. It was a hugely significant move in the life of this current defense. Since head coach Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003, he had a different Opening Day linebacker until Jones gave coherence and hard-wiring to a unit adrift.

A pro. Works hard. Good leader. Smart. Practices every day. That's how Zimmer still sees Jones today. Jones has started the last three Opening Days and while everyone is expecting Ray Maualuga to end the skein this season, Jones' place on the Bengals won't be decided until after the lockout. But his role in the last three seasons has been major enough that he has already set a tone for this year's defense and beyond.

"The thing with Dhani is that he's brought other guys along with him," Guenther says. "When he came here, he brought other guys into the film room to study and he's kept it going. He's always here after practice and you can see the other guys watching him. Not only a great leader on the field, but a leader by example, too."

Now that there may be football soon, Guenther knows what Jones must be telling himself.

"That's what he'd always say," Guenther says. "'I'm nailed down.'"

But first, a few signed postcards.

 

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