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A day they won't forget

5-10-03, 8 a.m.


WASHINGTON, D.C. _ Two hours after trading titles with the Secretary of Defense and shaking hands with the supreme commander of the nation's latest military victory, Marvin Lewis put on a mask and gown and talked to the kid from Texas with a hole in his stomach.

Barely in his 20s. A Marine who led his dozen soldiers as they took fire in the sand and soot of Iraq. A picture of his best buddy near the bed, the guy who nicknamed him "The Hollywood Marine." The guy who took command when the Texan took the hit. The guy who got hit himself a few hours later and didn't come back. And there were six others who didn't make it.

"That's the amazing thing," said Lewis as he walked down the corridor of the hospital ward. "He's thanking us for coming. We're trying to tell him it's the other way around."

It was day of celebrity and solemnity Friday for the Bengals' contingent that toured the Pentagon in the morning and the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., during the afternoon. Lewis, cornerback Jeff Burris, and right guard Matt O'Dwyer went to visit the war wounded, but also found themselves in a two-minute drill with history.

With the national press corps waiting to be briefed by the top players of Operation Iraqi Freedom Friday morning, the Bengals were positioned in the same Pentagon hallway with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks, commander of the United States Central Command.

A flash of recognition crossed Rumsfeld's face when he saw Lewis, a Capital figure from his days with the Ravens and Redskins. Told the Bengals were here to visit the wounded, Rumsfeld shook hands with the coach, saying, "Wonderful. Thank you for coming here and visiting them. My wife and I try to go to (the hospitals) every other Sunday."

Franks followed and went down the line, the only one able to look the 6-3 O'Dwyer in the eye. "He's a big one," said the diminutive Rumsfeld.

"Thank you for coming down here and supporting our young people," Franks said, and he smiled when a visitor noted that the Bengals had also brought a "Secretary of Defense." It's Lewis' nickname from Baltimore's record-breaking defense two years ago.

"Who is the real Secretary of Defense, Mr. Secretary?" a staffer called out to Rumsfeld.

"The President gave it to me a few years ago," said Lewis of George W. Bush's salute when he feted the Super Bowl champion Ravens at The White House. "But you took it over and did very well."

Rumsfeld smiled, said, "Thank you," and went to meet the press.

O'Dwyer, who has been called the strongest player in the NFL, liked Rumsfeld's handshake.

"It looked like he'd come up swinging if he had to," O'Dwyer said.

Rumsfeld wasn't the only guy in the Pentagon who recognized the Bengals. Privates, and sergeants, and captains came out of offices to say they were from Ohio, or had a cousin or sibling in Cincinnati, or knew Lewis from his days in town. Ross Gresham, a Master Sergeant who grew up in Cincinnati watching the Lemar Parrish-Ross Browner Bengals, located the contingent in the building just so he could shake hands.

And that's harder than it sounds. The Pentagon is the biggest government building in the world, "a city within a city," and it was able to match the Bengals with the perfect tour guide in the tireless Col. Kim Winzeler, U.S. Marine Corps, Ohio State, 1978.

The Pentagon also houses the soul of the war on terrorism, and Winzeler, made sure the Bengals saw the Sept. 11, 2001 point of impact, where one of the hijacked planes dove into the building, killing 184.

If the Bengals didn't get the point, the highest-ranking enlisted man in the U.S. Army drove it home. Jack L. Tilley, Sergeant Major of the Army, told them how three staffers were incinerated at their desks and never seen again.

"Do you know how many have been killed in this war? How many injured?," Tilley asked. "How many were killed in the Civil War? Vietnam? Korea? It's a wonder how soon people forget."

Which is why the Bengals were here. It was nice to brush up against history, but they were here to see guys like Marine Staff Sergeant Jose Torres. Jose Torres, a Browns' fan. Jose Torres, a Browns' fan wearing an autographed Bengals' ball cap. Maybe the last game of the season might have playoff implications against Cleveland at home.

"I'm ready," Torres said. "I'm going to be Rudy. I'm just going to come on the field and get a sack the last play. I'll be on my walker because my left foot isn't working."

"Are they working with you on that?" asked Lewis, ever the coach.

It didn't matter. He's rooting for the Browns, like only a Lorain, Ohio, guy can.

"You got guys from all over rooting for different teams and that's the way it should be," O'Dwyer said.

O'Dwyer, out of Adlai Stevenson High School, kept running into Chicago guys. Marine Cpl. John Sullivan, who went to Taft, had two fingers blown off. A big Bears' fan even though, "They were lousy this year," and O'Dwyer smiled and said, "I haven't been with them for awhile." Levon Rogers, a Marine sergeant who went to Proviso East, had his Achilles' tendon sliced to smithereens with a chard of shrapnel. Football is the only sport he watches.

"Twelve miles outside of Baghdad," Rogers said. "I never got into Baghdad. That's what makes me mad. Twelve miles."

O'Dwyer shook his head.

"These guys are so upbeat and they've been through so much," he said. "As much as they've enjoyed seeing us, we've enjoyed seeing them."

Rumsfeld and Franks are 24-and-7 headline names, but Burris learned a new one.

"Jose Torres. Look at that guy," Burris said. "There is a guy shot twice, and his spirits were up. To me, that's the impressive thing. Despite what's happened to him. Here I am, trying to get myself to get up to work out in the morning. My back is hurting a little bit, and these guys are taking bullets. It makes you think about what we take for granted."

Torres, 26, got hit with some kind of 30 millimeter bolt. The Bengals stood transfixed as he told them how he saw it coming at the last instant, turned, and it bounced off his body. If it hadn't, he doesn't think he'd be here lying under the U.S. Marines Corps blanket. Someone told him they could see right through his wound through his body.

Before going to Iraq, Torres was a 165-pound wide receiver/safety for a Marine team that went 10-0. Now he's 120 pounds, but getting better and said something about making it down to Bengals' training camp. Maybe to scout for Butch Davis, but Lewis told him, "Georgetown College," and gave him his business card.

"I would have loved to have played in the NFL," Torres said, "But I signed up for the Marines right after high school."

If the Bengals couldn't get any hospital-bed conversions from fans, it was OK because they already had plenty there. Once he found out the Bengals were going to be at his hospital, Dan Zahunensky, Chief Hospital Corpsman, of Anderson Township and McNicholas High School class of 1986, volunteered to help lead the tour. Marine Master Sergeant Barry Warken of Fort Wright, Ky., also helped make sure the soldiers got autographs.

Winzeler became a fan a few days ago when he received a box of Bengals' gifts that public relations director Jack Brennan sent to Bethesda. White polo shirts, black polo shirts, ball caps, mini Bengals' helmets.

"No pro team has sent this much, believe me," Winzeler said. "I couldn't believe what Jack sent me. You can tell the guys are enjoying this and that you guys are doing a great job by the amount of time they're spending in the rooms. This has been tremendous for us."

Chalk it up to the attentive Lewis, When he wasn't finding out a guy's rehab schedule, he was finding out about his family. He also spent plenty of time taking off his Super Bowl ring and showing it to curious patients. Rogers, sitting in a wheelchair, passed it to his mother. But everyone wanted to know where Rogers got his medal that was on a shelf.

"Congress," he said.

Lewis made the drive from his suburban Baltimore home to Bethesda first thing Friday morning and got there in time to see some of the Marines shipping out, before he caught up with the rest of the Bengals' contingent at the Pentagon.

"Perfect timing," Winzeler said. "Everyone wanted the black shirts, but when Marvin started signing, they wanted the white ones."

The group took the Metro from the Pentagon to Bethesda, and they arrived in Maryland in a pouring rain. As the Bengals walked by a hospital checkpoint, one of the Marines peered out of his van and realized, "Hey, that's Marvin Lewis. Hey look, Marvin Lewis. You guys need a ride?"

It turned out to be quite a ride for Burris. An older cousin served in the Persian Gulf War. A younger cousin, Shaun Kennedy, is in Iraq with the Army right now. Burris called it "an incredible day," and knew he wouldn't forget the kid from Texas any time soon.

"He had a picture of a guy and I asked him who it was and he told us it was his friend who had died," Burris said. "And he told us the story. It was really amazing how a lot of these guys were willing to talk about what happened. He trained in Camp Pendleton (in California) and his friend was at Parris Island (in South Carolina), where he said the real Marines trained. So his buddy kidded him and called him, 'Hollywood.' And now he wants to get transferred back to where the rest of his unit is. He wants to be with those guys. To have that kind of loyalty is something special.

"And he's making plans for the future. He wants to be a radiologist," Burris said. "Even though he's been through this, he's optimistic and making plans for the future. It's an inspiration to me. He told us, 'It's an honor to have y'all here.' But it's an honor for us."

The Bengals, the first pro team outside Maryland and D.C. to visit the hospital, ended the day going back downstairs to sign some gifts for the soldiers in intensive care that they couldn't see. They happened to be on an elevator with Rogers, the Marine from Chicago in the wheelchair he hopes to be out of in two months. Lewis found himself studying him.

Twenty-one, 22 years old. Back in his room, they were talking about how he plays X-Box. Just like Lewis' 13-year-old son, Marcus.

"Not very old," Lewis said. "Look at his injury and the risk he took to benefit all of us. And these guys feel lucky, they're here."

No question Lewis brought back some lessons for his team. The NFL isn't life and death and duty, honor, country, but like Lewis said, "They're a team here. Their esprit de corps is known all throughout the world and since it's a team, they sacrifice a lot for each other. Once again, it's another opportunity for us to realize how fortunate we are to do what we do."

On a day of thank yous, the last one went to Rogers.

He shrugged.

"It's what I signed up for," Rogers said.

Which is why the Bengals signed up for a D.C. spring visit.

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