River of resolve

Posted Mar 9, 2012

MOSCOW, Ohio — Leon Hall, who lives close enough on Cincinnati's East Side, is walking through what used to be a town at about high noon on the Ohio River.

About a mile from where General U.S. Grant was born nearly 200 years ago and where a week ago countless of dreams died in a tornado's terrifying instant.

"One day you have a place to sleep and the next you don't," Hall mused as he walked past a bombed-out house with a suitcase sticking metaphorically out of the front yard. "The place where I've stayed the last five years isn’t that far from here. Obviously, the next question that goes through your head is, 'What if it was my house?' "

Hall, the starting cornerback and one of about 30 Bengals employees from defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to assistant marketing director Wade Martin to former cornerback Artrell Hawkins that pitched in with the relief effort Friday, answered his own question with one of groundskeeper Darian Daily's rakes from the Paul Brown Stadium closet. He had just finished digging out chunks of insulation, metal, wood and trees from underneath a fence.

Three piles, instructed the leader of the Zone 5 cleanup, Lt. Gary Strunk of the Pierce Township Fire Department. Wood. Metal. Trees. Get them as close to the curb as possible so the dump trucks can swoop in and gobble them easily.

"It's called a community for a reason," Hall said. "People get together and help each other out. It could have been anybody. It could have been any town."

It was this town. About 25 miles east of PBS. Pristine but precarious on the Ohio River.

Andrew Niehoff's town.

Or at least until last Friday afternoon when the wind erased his bedroom at 2 Broadway St. on the corner near the post office. And everything he owned in it. Like all his shoes. Except for the pair he was wearing during one of his last days at McNicholas High School in Anderson Township half an hour away.

"I like your shoes," middle linebacker Rey Maualuga told him.

So Niehoff wasn't home. His mother was, but she was unhurt in her bathroom. Saved, they think, by the fireplace in her bedroom.

Niehoff has lived too much for a kid only about to graduate from high school. Four years ago his father died of cancer. Now his mother is staying with her mother up the road in Grant's town of Point Pleasant and he's staying with a classmate in Pierce Township.

"Ohio University or Toledo," Niehoff says of his college decision. "I don't know where we'll live."

He is one of these kids who knows the Bengals inside the orange and outside the black. When he decided to come home Friday to help put the 16-year-old family dog to sleep, his mother tried to cheer him up.

"Some of the Bengals are going to be here," she told him.

Mission accomplished.

And there was Hawkins coming at Niehoff down a side street with one of Daily's rakes and with his brother, current wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.

"At my mother's old job, she sold you some furniture; right before you went to Carolina," Niehoff told Artrell.

Hawkins smiled and put an arm around him.

"You're good," he said. "Even I forgot I was in Carolina."

Andrew admired Niehoff's Bengals pullover, which had been pulled from one of the dozens of boxes the team brought filled with heavy sideline gear worn by players and coaches.

"Who are they going to draft?" Niehoff asked Andrew.

"No clue," said Andrew, a slot receiver.

"Two slot receivers," Artrell said as the brothers went to their work site.

"Hey, can I hit you up on Twitter right now?" Niehoff asked.

"Sure. Let's take a picture and send it out," Andrew said.

A few minutes before, Hall, Maualuga and linebacker DeQuin Evans were chatting up Niehoff as they took a break muscling debris into a front loader. Maualuga, telling a fireman worried about him wearing shorts, "I feel like I'm in Hawaii," bent down to scoop piles off a rake with gloves usually reserved for scraping ball carriers.

"With the prom around the corner, you should ask her out right now," Maualuga joked, gesturing to the TV cameras.

When Maualuga went back to the rake, Niehoff nodded, "There hasn't been anybody ever like these guys in Moscow. Hometown."

If it is Niehoff's town, it is also Bob Proud's town. Proud is working on his seventh term and 24th year as a Clermont County commissioner. On Tuesday, he ran unopposed in the primary. On Friday, the tide was turning against the tornado.

"About 80 percent of the buildings were damaged. It will never be the same, it will never look the same," Proud said. "It's in a flood plain and if it has to be rebuilt, it has to be on an elevation. But people here are resilient. This is worse than the flood in '97, but it came back and it will come back again.

"I can't say enough about the Bengals. Sure, it's good publicity for them, but this has been a real morale raiser. To see real Bengals here, that really means something."

Zimmer is as real as they come. A grizzled hunter and outdoorsman, Zimmer came dressed to kill. And to work.

"What do you think they'll have us do, Zim?" asked an anxious volunteer.

"Pick up crap," Zimmer said.

You wonder why the Bengals defense flourishes in his simplicity? When he was growing up in Lockport, Ill., a tornado blew off the roof across the street, but his house was untouched. Another example of the whims of weather.

"You never know," Zimmer said. "When you get a chance, you like to help."

"It's about time to break for lunch," Lt. Strunk informed the group.

"Lunch?" Zimmer said. "I love this kind of work."

Work like this. When Zimmer bumped into Niehoff, he loved giving the kid a warm hand on the shoulder and encouragement.

And there was plenty to eat. Two Bengals partners, Gold Star Chili and La Rosa's, also rolled into town to feed the other 100 or so from Lowe's and Home Depot. There were 1,000 coneys and endless pizza baked on the spot, but Hall and Maualuga kept going because their rehab workouts had delayed them by about a half hour.

"There's got to be a spot," Hall said.

Alex Simons, the Bengals events coordinator who may weigh about a third of Maualuga, was certainly finding plenty with arm fulls of debris.

"All the wrong things are in piles," Simons said. "It should be just wood or trees. But instead there are things that belong to people. Like suitcases and records and books."

If this is Proud's town, it's also Tim Sapp's. Sapp, a Bengals fan for as long as he can remember in his 50 years, stood on a corner staring straight into a house's attic. The inside turned out like a pants pocket.

He wore a Bengals hat and a Bengals T-shirt under his sweatshirt and that was before he even knew they were coming.

"This is the hat I wear every day. This is what I put on this morning and I just found out they were coming," Sapp said. "I've followed them since I can remember. Since I was this high."

He also lives where Andrew Niehoff did, on Broadway Street. But more weather whims.

"I lost my front porch. Some of my roof. Six windows. All my fencing. My barn got moved off its foundation," Sapp said. "But I'm more fortunate than all these poor people here in town. I just walk around some days and look."

But he did lose something. He lost his job as a truck driver hauling ash from the nearby Zimmer Plant, now not fully online after the tornado.

"I got laid off. There's no ash that gets burned now," he said. "But I've got an application into a company that's moving in here in a few weeks and I think I've got a good chance to be working."

Sapp said he didn't want to bother the players, so he was content taking a look in the boxes. He had a smile. The hat—and hopefully that job—would be getting some company.

If this is Sapp's town, this is also Scott Wells's town. Wells doesn't live here, but he grew up near here and his brother who has cerebral palsy does live here. Or he did a week ago. The brothers are huge Bengals fans. Scott can be seen at various games and events helping his brother with his wheelchair.

But they weren't around Friday afternoon. A lady picking out clothes said Scott had to help him as he gets settled into a motel, his house virtually gone.

As she put some more jackets on her arm, she looked almost embarrassed.

"This isn't all for me," she said. "Scott and his brothers aren't here. But they love the Bengals so much. I've got to get some of these for them."

Like the man said:

They call it community for a reason.


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