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Safety valve

Posted Oct 11, 2012


Nate Clements

Near the end of his 20-year run driving the hook-and-ladder for Station House 30 on the corner of 103rd and St. Clair in Cleveland, the younger firefighters began calling Nate Clements Sr., "The Old Man." He'd fight back, calling them "gasoline engines."

"I'm a diesel engine," he would tell them. "You guys are going to run out of gas. I can run forever."

Now "The Old Man" is 56 and after a career of falling through melting roofs and getting blown down stairs by breath-sucking infernos, he's enjoying retirement in Charlotte, N.C. But he's bequeathed his engine to Nate Clements Jr., the old Bengals pro who has been putting out fires for the Bengals secondary since he switched to safety last month.

Senior is already back in Cleveland this week visiting family and waiting for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), where Junior, 32, plays his hometown team in his hometown one more time and is expected to make his third start at safety on top of those 161 at cornerback.

"It's always a thrill when he comes back home. The Browns were always my team and now they're my second team because Nate's team is my favorite team," Senior says. "I never hated the Bengals. I always liked the Bengals because they were always the underdogs. I rooted for them in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. They were from Ohio. They were representing. Who better to root for if it couldn't be the Browns?

"It's ironic how (Paul Brown) molded his teams on the Browns, and the Bengals and Browns are so similar. He was a pioneer. He didn't take no for an answer and went and established his own team. ... You've got to like those homegrown guys."

If Paul Brown could have built a football player from scratch just like he did Ohio State, the Cleveland Browns, and then the Cincinnati Bengals, he would have come up with Nathan D. Clements Jr. A Buckeye through and through. Shaker Heights High. Ohio State. The 21st player taken in the 2001 NFL Draft by Buffalo and then 10 years later the 25th Buck to play for his Bengals.

Tough. Blue collar. A little better when the chips are down. Just look at last year when Never Too Late Nate recovered a Jaguars fumble, blocked a Colts field goal, knocked down a two-point conversion in Seattle, forced and recovered a fumble in Tennessee, all in the fourth quarter of tight wins. And, yes, against the Browns he collaborated on a second-down sack and defensed a third-down pass with three minutes left in a tie game to set up the winning drive.

"He's always loved football," Senior says. "All sports, really. But he loves the competition of football. He just wants to win so badly. It's his passion."

And, above all, resourceful. Paul Brown valued brains more than anything.

“He’s a smart pro, too," says Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "At some point, your flexibility keeps you going. More than anything, Nate wants to do whatever helps the football team be successful. If it’s playing him snaps at safety, he’ll do it. I can remember having a conversation with Rod Woodson about that. Rod was saying, ‘If you think it makes us better, then OK.’ With Nate, it was ‘If you think this helps us, then I’m game.’ Nate would play linebacker if you told him it was going to help us win. The guy has a lot of substance ... ."

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says the Bengals have been toying with putting Clements at safety almost from the day they signed him last season in the hours of free agency following the lockout, and they used him there often during this season's OTAs and training camp. The Bengals opened the season with Taylor Mays opposite Reggie Nelson at safety while Clements made his 12th Opening Day start at cornerback and the next week against the Browns they tried Jeromy Miles.

When rookie running back Trent Richardson slalomed for 119 yards and scored a receiving touchdown when he broke four tackles inside the 10 in September's first meeting, the move was made the next week in Washington. Even though Clements hurt his calf early in the game, he gutted out 96 percent of the snaps to help the Bengals get the win and he returned last week to help put them in position to win another when they held Dolphins running back Reggie Bush to 48 yards on 19 carries.

Clements gave the Bengals a shot to go up 10-0 late in the first half with what should have been a 14-point play when he forced a fumble at the Bengals 11.

"Trying to get some stability and veteranness at safety," Zimmer says of the move. "Communication. He's real good at that."

Richardson was born the year the 12-year-old Junior was in the midst of following the Browns from Shaker Heights, also the home of his future boss, Bengals president Mike Brown.

"My favorite players were the defensive players," Nate Junior says. "Felix Wright. Frank Minnifield. Hanford Dixon. Clay Matthews."

"Yeah, I remember when they got down to the 1 against Denver and fumbled," Clements says of the Earnest Byner bobble a few years earlier in the AFC title game that knocked the Browns out of the Super Bowl. "That was tough. My dad was pretty intense watching those games. I guess that's where I get it from."

He got a lot more than that. Junior watched Senior work 24 hours on and 24 hours off at Station House 30 while working as an electrician and eventually forming his own company, as well as helping wife Emma raise Nate and his brother Jermaine.

"He had a lot impact on me; he made me the man I am today," Nate Jr. says. "He worked extremely hard to help me get where I'm at working two jobs to make sure we were taken care of. Seeing him kind of motivated me to work hard."

Emma Clements had a marketing job, so there were plenty of days when the boys' great grandmother drove them to football practice. But Senior made sure he made every game, switching shifts with the schedule. And if he wanted to spend time with Emma, he could swing the big hook and ladder over to her office for lunch since she was right down the street.

"I could drive that thing around Cleveland like it was a Volkswagen," Senior says. "I'd tell her, 'I'll let you know I'm here,' and I'd put on the siren or blow the horn."

Something else Junior saw. The toughness. Bruises and welts. And some things he couldn't see. Senior once had a heart attack on a roof and somehow got down the two and half stories to the ground before collapsing.

"When there's a fire, everything gets out of the building," Senior says. "I don't care what it is. Rats. Roaches. It doesn't matter. Everything gets out. But firefighters go in."

That's where Clements has been the last few weeks, getting dinged but still fighting the good fight. Junior always liked playing running back but Senior says he advised him to play corner. That way he could still return kicks and not take a back's punishment.

"Who knows? You may never make it to college taking all those shots," Senior says. "It's better to be the hitter than getting hit."

Junior says he loves safety, but there is still a learning curve after a lifetime as a cornerback.

"It's learning where to line up. Knowing the ins and outs of the position like I did at corner," he says.

Zimmer says the switch isn't as easy as it looks and he's only had one guy do it before Clements in his 19 seasons of NFL coaching. Asked how Clements is doing ("Good"), Zimmer says there's an adjustment.

Zimmer says Clements's career playing slot corner helps since it is inside and has some of the same safety looks. And Lewis says the passing game has grown so much nowadays that cornerbacks and safeties have to learn a lot of the same techniques.

"It depends on the guy; we ask our safeties to do a lot," Zimmer says. "It's not easy. It takes a lot of work ... there are obviously plays he has to do better. ... When you're standing out there 10 yards away, coming downhill there are going to be different angles."

Like the one on Bush's 13-yard touchdown run. Zimmer says Clements isn't the only one at fault there.

"Plays like that I can't give up," Junior says. "I have to make the adjustment and go from there. It's one of those things where I just have to maintain leverage."

But there are also plays like the forced red-zone fumble recovered by cornerback Terence Newman. Newman is 34, but he came into the NFL two years after Clements.

"Long before I came here I loved watching him play; I was a big fan," Newman says. "Just the way the guy is so tough and so aggressive. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."

Zimmer and Lewis like Clements's stability. Guys like Newman like his security. Clements likes safety because it may allow him to play just a little longer.

"It should," Zimmer says.

Now Junior is "The Old Man," and he gets his shot at the 22-year-old Richardson, the guy that sparked the move. The Bengals and Browns get it on not far from Station House 30.

"Nate's got a lot of miles on him," Senior says. "He's a diesel."

It is still running. In the family.

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