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Monthly smile

Posted Nov 8, 2013

Reggie Nelson is coming off a big October.

The pink shoes are gone and the pink gloves are stowed and the pink hats sit back in the shelves.

But the dates of his mother's life still stretch across his back in ink, a brief 46 years that Reggie Nelson thinks about every day of every month of every year. And so it will be Sunday in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Bengals take the field with Nelson fully emerged as one of the team's leaders in yet another playoff chase that has barreled through October.

"She's my hero, my baby. My No. 1 fan. She kept everything intact," Nelson says with a smile that little sister Marie says is a carbon copy of their mother's.

Nelson is coming off a big October. Not only does he appreciate how effectively the NFL promotes awareness of breast cancer, the disease that took his mother so young, but it was also the month the Bengals held their elections for captains for the rest of the season. Nelson, traded in an afterthought before the 2010 final roster cutdowns, completed a remarkable only-in-the-NFL comeback when he was voted one of the six, joining tackle Domata Peko to head up the defense.

"Awesome," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who carried the offense's precincts with quarterback Andy Dalton. "He was basically a castaway. Jacksonville tried to ship him elsewhere. They didn't think he could do it and he's come here, embraced it, gotten better year by year and become a leader in his group, showing people how to do it the right way."

Like most things with Reggie Lee Nelson, playing his 101st NFL game at safety and more than half of those now with the Bengals and not the Jaguars team that drafted him in the first round, you can probably trace that to Mary Ann Lakes, a middle school custodian and single mom who never missed a game or a meal keeping it all together in Melbourne, Fla.

"Even when she was sick, she still smiled," Marie says. "Reggie gets that from her. He's always staying positive. His main quote to me is always, 'You can't make everyone's problems your problems. You have to stay positive through it all.' When you see Reggie smile, you see my mom."

Marie loves that smile. She's 28 and her brother is 30, the youngest of Mary Ann Lakes's four children, and she remembers when they would play hide-and-seek in the dark, "we would always find Reggie because of his smile."

They still talk often even though she lives in Jacksonville, but Nelson makes sure he calls Marie specifically around this time of year to remind her to get a screening for breast cancer. Even though she's just 28. Even though she took the hereditary test and it came up negative.

"He called this year and I told him I already took care of it," Marie says. "I don't have the gene for it, but I still get checked every year. And, really, every woman should do that every year, no matter what their situation is."

Nelson isn't sure how often his mother got checked or even how long she battled it because he was the last to know. She wanted it that way. He knew he'd want to come home from junior college in Coffeyville, Kan., so she held off until after that last doctor's appointment when she was told there was nothing else they could do. Mary sat Nelson down, took her wig off, and explained her death sentence to her son.

"That was about a year before she died, if that," Marie says. "I went in and out of the room while she was telling him. I couldn't see him cry."

Mary was right.

"I didn't want to go back to Coffeyville. She talked me into going back. Luckily I did," Nelson says. "She said, 'I'll be alright. I'm taking the medicine. There's nothing you can do. These are the cards I've been dealt.' ''

Nelson's No. 1 fan got to go to a few games when he went to Florida, but not many because the chemotherapy sapped her and she couldn't travel. She passed a few days before the Gators won the national title. Nelson never hesitated about playing.

"That wasn't an option in her book," he says.

Nelson and his little sister keep living the book. Mary died a month before Marie's son was born. A devout reader of The Bible, Mary thought the baby should have a Biblical name. Elijah is now six and Marie says Nelson is a godsend because he's so close to his nephew.

"If he's being bad I tell him, 'I'll call Uncle Reggie,' and he stops and gets everything together," Marie says. "I think about my mother every day, too. I still talk to her, sometimes, like she's still here. I miss that motherly shoulder.

"I want to be just like my mom," says Marie, who works as a receptionist. "That's what Reggie says."

Mary's upbeat smile has had an impact on her son's locker room. Secondary coach Mark Carrier, a fellow first-round safety drafted 17 years before, has watched it.

"As a teammate, he's instrumental in helping other guys," Carrier says. "If we didn't practice well, and we have to pick it up, he'll bring the group along with that. He takes that to heart. He takes it seriously. You love guys like that. He takes responsibility. 'I'll try to make it right.' Reliable."

Never was Nelson's leadership on display more than in the second half of the 49-9 victory over the Jets last month. It was done so efficiently and well that Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham raved about it on air when Nelson quietly extracted cornerback Adam Jones from a developing intramural scrum.

"I didn't want it to go any further," Nelson says. "(Jones) plays with passion. You know he's always going to give his best."

Which is basically how Nelson exerts his captaincy.

"I'm not a fan of rah-rah-rah," Nelson says. "I don't say much. As long as you're working hard and they see you doing it the right way and that next guy sees that and wants to do the same thing."

Safety Chris Crocker says the vote shows a lot of things about Nelson, but it's a clue to how well he's played since defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer revived his career. Since Nelson became a starting safety in 2011, he's been one of the few reliable options in a position that has undergone a bunch of changes even as the defense has remained in the top 10.

"Your leaders are your best players and he's a great player," Crocker says. "Just because you get traded doesn't mean you're not a good player. I always thought he was a good player. It just didn't work out there. He makes plays. He can cover, he hits, he runs around, plays hard. He's always around the ball."

This year Nelson has had a game-ending pick of Ben Roethlisberger, a tone-setting early sack of Geno Smith, and fumble recovery of Carlos Dunlap's game-changing field goal block in Detroit.

"No doubt," he says of Zimmer's revival. "I love the defense. I love playing for him. He always tells you the truth."

The pink T-shirts and pink wristbands are gone. But Mary's smile is helping light another playoff run in November and December.

"Every month is October for me," Nelson says.

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