With a nod of his head last week, Jeff Brickner brought LaKendrick Ross over to a new pair of size 16 sneakers he had for him.
“Oh, these are comfortable. Yes sir,” said Ross as he high-fived Brickner, a reception the Bengals equipment manager doesn’t usually get for doling out footwear.
“Oh man, these feel so good.”
You’ve heard of Ross, the Bengals’ new defensive tackle.
He’s the most intriguing, the youngest and rawest and least well known of the Bengals that have gathered for training camp. He’s 6-4 and either 350, 360, or 375 pounds, depending on who you believe. Since he got here a week ago Monday, grizzled NFL veterans have gaped at his size and strength and his unique movement skills for such a large man. Head coach Marvin Lewis actually said last week he’s the strongest man in camp. His potential is as big as he is.
As he stared down at his feet, someone asked Ross if he ever thought someone would hand him free shoes.
“Never in my life,” he said.
It certainly hasn’t been the life of your average NFL player in the wake of his mother’s death when he was 12. By the time he was 15, Ross says he had been in 10 group homes.
“I used to be anti-social,” Ross said. “I was in a therapy foster home and I wouldn’t talk to them, so they removed me and went into a group home. That’s when I started playing football. I was 17. It was my senior year in high school.”
That was just three years ago.
Ross didn’t turn 20 until May 1, which makes him younger than two of defensive line coach Jay Hayes’ children. He says when it comes to meeting teammates, Pro Bowl defensive tackle
“When is your birthday?” Hayes asked.
“May 1,” Ross said.
“You can’t go into a bar and have a cocktail,” said Hayes, more to himself than Ross.
“I know,” Ross said. “But I don’t drink.”
Ross, a friendly kid with a big smile, says it was football that helped him turn the corner socially. He has played just two years. One that senior year at I.C. Norcom High School in Portsmouth, Va., and another one two years ago at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia when he was named the Defensive Player of the Year in United States Collegiate Athletic Association, a collection of small colleges and community colleges.
“I had eight sacks in one game,’ Ross said.
But he did it with a stance that for Hayes is still hard to believe.
“He had a habit of folding his two outside fingers under his hand and putting three fingers on the ground,” Hayes said. “I said, ‘Don’t do that.’ Now and again I still catch him.”
After he slid on Brickner’s shoes, Ross showed what Hayes taught him.
“This is the right way,” said Ross, putting all five fingers on the locker room carpet. “Everything I know so far came from them.”
He says all he knows about playing the defensive line has come from Hayes and some of the veterans, such as tackle
“Peko talks to me and I watch him in practice,” Ross said. “Overpowering people, getting them out of the way is not hard, but what is hard is it’s very technical. Getting in a cocked stance, coming off, shooting your hands first and bringing your feet second. That’s the hardest part for me and I’m learning. Domata is teaching me everything.”
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Ross says when he was coming out of high school, he had offers from places like Virginia Tech, Alabama, and Penn State, but he didn’t have the grades. He says Lynchburg didn’t require SATs or ACTs, but he had trouble staying eligible there as well because he had to work two jobs while going to school.
He wasn’t old enough to drink, but he got a job as a bouncer in a hookah bar at night while cooking at McDonald’s during the day. But it didn’t make for good academics when he was getting home at 4 a.m. with 8 a.m. classes.
His big break came, he says, when teammate Keith Lewis worked out for the NFL scouts this spring on a day Ross repped 225 pounds 47 times. That put him on the map, but he wasn’t taken in the supplemental draft.
Yet he does conjure up comparisons to guys who have been drafted (Bengals’ fifth-round pick Jason Shirley in 2008) and who have been Pro Bowlers. Lewis says his strength reminded him what Shaun Rogers used to do in the middle.
“I’m excited what he can do for our team,” Peko said. “He reminds me of another guy we used to have, Jason Shirley, he was huge as hell like him. But I think he can move a little bit better than him, so I’m excited about that. He hasn’t played much football, so we’re just trying to coach him up and get his technique right. Once he gets all that down, he can just play ball.”
“You don’t want to wake the beast,” Pollak said.
You would think it all adds up to trying for a practice squad spot. But Ross is a young man in a hurry.
“I’m going for the 53,” Ross said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”