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Posted Jan 24, 2012


Jermaine Gresham

WEST OAHU, HAWAII — Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham arrived at his first Pro Bowl much like he did for preschool back in Ardmore, Okla. He walked in with Tommie Fitzgerald.

“I don’t remember when we first met it was so long ago, but we’ve known each other since we were little,” Fitzgerald is saying Tuesday afternoon with the classic lei around his neck while thinking of some sort of liquid in a pineapple.

“There’s a group of about 10 of us that that are still close. But I was the only one available.”

When Gresham found out he made the Pro Bowl Sunday evening, he did what he always does when he goes over to Fitzgerald’s house. He just walked in.

Except this time he was “smiling like crazy,” Fitzgerald says. And, inviting him to Hawaii.

“I’m taking the semester off," says Fitzgerald, close to his criminal justice degree from Central Oklahoma. “It was short notice ... it’s already been quite a scene.”

Tuesday was get-here day for most of the Pro Bowlers, especially the Bengals contingent that is here as the guest of Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff with plans as hurried as his miss Sunday night that put New England in the Super Bowl.

It may have been hurried and a Post-it note rush, but there was still a chance to soak in what this week is all about before the so-called practices began Wednesday morning.

It is first-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins (and these 21st century Baby Bengals compared to the ’68 edition are all first-timers) checking into the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa and bumping into fellow AFC defensive tackle Richard Seymour, a guy that went to his first Pro Bowl when Atkins was in junior high.

“G.A.,” Seymour says to him. “A youngin'.”

It is wide receiver A.J. Green, the first rookie Bengals Pro Bowler since Cris Collinsworth was 22 years old, posing for a picture with girlfriend Miranda Brooke, the striking R and B singer that could put them on a magazine cover.

It is former Bengals defensive tackle Justin Smith arriving at the front desk with his luggage, a case of Bud Light, and his arms still freshly scraped from last Sunday’s overtime death struggle his 49ers lost to the Giants in the NFC title game, and handing out beers to old friends from Cincinnati.

“You guys had a great year,” Smith says.

It is NFL Network on Tuesday night coordinating a joint interview with the two rookie quarterbacks in this game that are expected to finish 1-2 in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year vote. Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton on Wednesday’s Total Access at 7 p.m.

It is Dalton, Newton and Drew Brees signing balls in a sort of NFL Declaration of Independence there-at-the-creation moment. The first rookie quarterback to start all 16 games for a playoff team (Dalton) and the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards (Newton) teaming with Brees, the first quarterback to break Dan Marino’s hallowed passing yards record in a season.

It is Smith a few hours later being introduced to Gresham, his Bengals first-round soul mate nine seasons apart.

“I like your style,” Gresham says.

As usual, Gresham isn’t saying much. He’s cautious, but not reserved. He’s an observer, not a commentator. As he and Fitzgerald dine by the pool, Gresham is able to identify the players walking to and fro with his encyclopedic recall of the Madden video game.

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is sitting at the next table and shakes Gresham’s hand. Earlier in the day Phillips was talking about how the Wild Card game against the Bengals three weeks ago pitted his great young defensive players against the great young Bengals offensive players.

“Yes he is,” Phillips said when someone said here was one of those offensive players.

But that didn’t stop Gresham from doing what he’s been doing since grade school: raiding the french fries on Fitzgerald’s plate.

“He’s never changed,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s a real humble person. Money hasn’t changed him.”

Fitzgerald’s longest trips before Tuesday were to Canada and Florida. But he’d left plenty of times in his mind.

“We all have the same interest, the same mindset,” Fitzgerald says of the close-knit group back home. “It was basically getting out of Ardmore.”

Those plans are already in motion. After he gets his degree, Fitzgerald is set to move to Dallas an hour away. But first there is Wednesday morning.

“I’m on the beach at 7:30,” Fitzgerald tells Gresham. “Yoga class. (This trip) is going to be very interesting."

The Baby Bengals are just starting to find out how much.

 

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