Posted: 7:50 a.m.
Frostee Rucker is in the cookies aisle looking for noodles.
It is just after dinner time on Tuesday, his off day, and he is in the Hyde Park Kroger helping the Frye family shop for Thanksgiving dinner and the kids are hanging off him like he and Michael Johnson were hanging off Ben Roethlisberger a few weeks back.
Three of the elementary school-aged kids are holding hands with Rucker and steering him from aisle to aisle looking for some elbow macaroni and occasionally the scrum ends up in front of a cart or two.
"Excuse us," Rucker says as the group giggles past a mystified shopper.
Rucker, 26, the fourth-year Bengals defensive end, is here because he used to be there.
Even though he was little, Rucker can still remember that year or two living in the shelter with his mother and two older sisters in one room. Somehow back then in California his mother scrounged to get a turkey on the table.
"She always found a way," Rucker says. "She always put us first. She worked three jobs. I remember when Nintendo came out that first Christmas. I don't know how she did it, but I got one."
This is why Rucker shows up at every Bengals charity event imaginable. If there is one thing set in stone about Bengals going into the community, it is that Rucker is probably going to be with them. Just this morning Rucker had joined the contingent of a dozen Bengals that bagged dinners and carried them to cars at downtown Cincinnati's FreestoreFoodbank.
"I know what it's like to need," he says.
But we're past the days of Nintendo.
Rucker wrote on his Facebook page last week that if anyone knew a family in need, to let him know. He wanted to do something special this Thanksgiving and buying groceries for dinner seemed to be just about right. He would then forward the info on to John Thornton, his friend, mentor and retired Bengals defensive lineman who has stayed in the community to perfect social networking in various fields from sports media to caring.
By the time Rucker took it down from Facebook that night, they were in the process of reaching out to four families.
Travis Arnold, 30, has friended Rucker after seeing him out so much at so many events and saw the info and forwarded it on to one of his old teachers at Conner High School in Hebron, Ky. It turns out that she did know a family, which is why Arnold is here helping Nathan and Chris Tucker shop.
Nathan, 17, and Chris, 15, live with their grandmother, who is housebound with cancer. She wanted the ham. Nathan wanted the Dutch apple pie. They were both in the cart as they got ready to leave with Arnold's old teacher who had given them a ride to the store.
"We didn't find out until 10:00 this morning," Chris says, but Nathan says the dinner plans are still the same.
"We're still going to my aunt's," he says, "but there is just going to be more."
Arnold, who works at an IT firm in Blue Ash, Ohio, is going to see through his good deed and help them unload.
"Great idea," Arnold says. "I feel good about it, but Frostee is the guy that gets all the credit. He does so many good things in the community. And the fact it's a good season, it makes it all that much better."
Nathan Tucker says he and his brother follow the Bengals "somewhat," and Chris says when he has watched games he didn't know who Rucker was. Now after this and the fact Rucker is playing the most he's ever played in his NFL career, Chris figures to be noticing more. Rucker signs a "92" Conner jersey on a day they will already remember.
"My mother is coming in with my sisters tomorrow night," Rucker says of Thanksgiving Eve. "She's going to cook for the first time here. It will be nice."
Things have actually flipped. Frostee's mom has just got off the unemployment rolls and has started a new job. Until then, Rucker has been helping her.
"She got me here," he says. "It's something I don't mind doing. She did it for me."
Thornton is trailing behind in the aisles, camera in tow. He and Rucker trade a few smiles when the kids ask for his autograph.
"Old school," Thornton says as he brushes off No. 97 for his signature.
Thornton is really the dean of the new school. He has spent his first season out of the league traveling around the country talking to groups about how they can use social networking.
But he has relied on an old standby for Rucker. Martha Church is a homeless advocate who is a consultant for Project Connect, which provides educational resources to homeless families so their children are still connected to education.
"John has been a big supporter of Project Connect," Church says. "When he got in touch with us about what Frostee was doing, we were so excited because we rarely get chances like this."
Church was able to come up with two families from the Cincinnati schools. One of them, from Carthage, is headed by Cartrina Frye, a full-time student at Cincinnati State.
"We had to move out of our home and we lost the house we were ready to get and we had to move in with a family member," Frye says.
Church says in these tough economic times many of the people they deal with are doubling up in homes with other family members, but not having a lease or mortgage is a sign of homelessness. Frye has eight children and hasn't been looking at much of a Thanksgiving.
"None at all," she says, looking at one of the carts she has filled up. "I haven't had any for awhile. I've had some OK Thanksgivings, but this is going to be a great one."
Rucker ends up with the noodles but Frye was looking for that 20-pound turkey "and all the trimmings."
"It's the biggest turkey I've ever had," she says. Frye hugs Rucker and whispers, "Thank you so much."
"You made their Thanksgiving," Church says to Rucker as they watch them disappear into the parking lot.
"They made mine, "Rucker says.
Then he's walking to his car, talking about the days in the shelter, and the Frye kids are yelling goodbye.
"They're telling me they're going to bring a plate of food to the stadium for me," he says, still smiling.