Updated: 6:05 p.m.
LEBANON, Ohio - Sgt. First Class Mike Elliott has said no to a President of the United States.
But Sunday afternoon on a baking strip of asphalt about 40 miles from Paul Brown Stadium’s 50-yard line he told Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis yes.
After finding a sliver of sun in the bank of clouds that had draped Warren County Airport all day, Elliott gave the go-ahead at about 1:30 p.m. and 20 minutes later he rode in on Lewis and their U.S. Army tandem parachute to a touchdown much softer than the NFL kind.
“I knew it would happen,” said Elliott after folding up the big tent. “He was having a blast up there. He loved it.”
You could tell because the first thing you heard after Elliott steered Lewis to a pop-up slide finish was Lewis’ signature chuckle.
"Amazing," Lewis said with a wide smile. "The wind in your face, it's like taking oxygen away."
The jump is all part of Lewis’ plan to make his team take a deep breath and realize what it is all about before this week’s mandatory minicamp on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Monday he has replaced his team’s final chance to have a voluntary practice on the field with another opportunity to keep hammering home his military theme of selflessness and teamwork when he and his players host the Golden Knights for lunch after a handful of them parachute onto the practice fields.
Lewis’ respect for the military knows no bounds. Last season he brought in a Navy Seal to give a game-eve talk when the Bengals were on the road. Two springs ago he brought in soldiers to go through fitness tests with some of his guys. Once he heard about a soldier just back from Afghanistan, invited him to practice, and had him speak to the team before they left the field.
It has become a mutual admiration society. In the old days they drew a picture of Uncle Sam pointing. Nowadays Uncle Sam realizes the value of an NFL coach on his side and on Sunday the Army sent an army of videographers and photographers into the air to document Lewis’ jump:
“Uncle Sam Wants You To See This.”
With straps still hanging from his yellow jumpsuit, Lewis was approached by Col. Michael Hauser, commander of the Third Recruiting Brigade out of Fort Knox, Ky. Hauser took the Brigade Coin for Excellence and Leadership decorated with the unit’s nickname of “Marauders” from a uniform pocket and shook his hand “for all he's done today to help the Army and our recruiting efforts."
Lewis kept an alert eye on the elevation watches of the soldiers in the plane and was out the door at 12,500 feet. “Sideways,” he said. About 45 seconds later at 5,500 feet, Elliott, strapped on Lewis' back, pulled the chute and Lewis had a four-minute ride through the sky.
"It didn't feel like dropping like a rock in the freefall," Lewis said. "The only time I felt we were going fast is when we went spinning through that cloud (after the chute opened)."
Elliott knows that while Lewis and the Bengals were helping the Army recruit, the coach could also use the day to his advantage, too, as he molds his team for next month’s start of training camp when they start trying to touch clouds.
“It’s really about trust,” said Elliott, just off two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You put your lives in soldiers’ hands. You might not see it, but you do it every day. Today, Marvin put his life directly in my hands."
That’s what it’s all about: Trusting your soldiers. You have to trust each other. It's teamwork. One thing I love about the Army; you can look at a baseball team or a football team and it takes each individual to make that one goal. It takes everyone to be Cincinnati Bengal strong or Army strong.”
Lewis was in pretty good hands. As a young teenager working in a grocery store in Fort Bragg, N.C., the 42-year-old Elliott saw soldiers come and go all day and it became his goal to serve his country. He has been in 22 years, served in three wars (Desert Storm before the current conflicts), and has made more than 8,500 jumps.
“The Army has done so much for me,” Elliott said, “I want to pay it back by showing everybody from corporate CEOs to the head coaches of the Bengals what exactly it is our soldiers go through.”
Two of Elliott’s jumps have been with former president George H. W. Bush, the last one last year at this time when Bush celebrated his 85th birthday. The first time had been in Texas at the re-dedication of his presidential library. The last one came at the Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, when Bush told him he wanted to land with Elliott in his backyard.
“Mr. President, we’re good but we’re not that good,” Elliott had to tell him of a drop zone that was just too small.
Still, when Bush opted to be dropped about a half-mile up the road into the property belonging to his church, Elliott said it was the smallest area he had ever targeted.
“Oh yeah,” he said when asked if he made it. “If you didn’t, you landed in the ocean, a tree, or the steeple of the church.”
The only obstacle with Lewis on Sunday was the weather. Along with secondary coach Kevin Coyle and director of player development Eric Ball, Lewis had his jump last month scratched because of rain. Then they had to wait around Sunday for nearly six more hours after the morning jump got called off because of heavy cloud cover.
“Don’t go anywhere. I know it’s going to break. I know we’re going to be able to do this,” Elliott kept counseling when everyone else thought the day was done.
While Coyle, the Staten Island native, recalled how his father took him to Coney Island so he could pay to take “The Parachute Drop,” Lewis fretted, “I’m bad luck.”
Before Elliot gave him some last-minute tips (“Kick your legs up like this when I tell you”) he compared two of his better known partners.
“I had seen him coach on TV. Marvin is very, very professional. The guy reeks, ‘I’m in charge.’ You have natural leaders,” Elliott said. “Marvin and former president Bush, they’re natural leaders. But they’re so down to earth. You can approach them and learn from them.”
But the man who reeks of “I’m in charge” knew he had no control over the clouds. Kind of like injuries and contracts.
“No. Not much,” said Lewis, asked if he had anything like pregame jitters. “Usually (the jitters) are all done by the start of the game. I’m sure when I get to the door (of the plane) it will be different.”
But, not bad at all. Elliott told Lewis to relax and enjoy it and the only time he felt any urgency was before they opened the chute and Elliott was telling him to click some straps.
“Which ones? Which ones?” Lewis recalled with a bit of a jump.
Then after he felt the sharp pull of the chute opening, Lewis said he began to get his bearings and focus on the ground. Going through the cloud gave him his biggest whoosh.
“Man,” he said, “that was pretty fast.”
“Actually,” Elliott said, “we don’t go through a cloud because you can’t see what’s in it or what’s underneath it, so we just go around it.”
But Cloud Nine was good enough that Lewis had no doubts about wanting to do it again.
“Oh yes,” he said. “But it’s not an amusement park.”
The Super Bowl will have to suffice until next spring.