A is Big for Bengals

7-25-01, 8:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ His Bengals' teammates say he needs to take an anger management course when he's on the field. But they also hope Adrian Ross keeps doing those mean imitations that loosen the locker room.

Ross, the kind of teammate who prints up inspirational T-Shirts for the whole team at his own expense this training camp, can mimic anyone who talks.

From Fire Marshal Bill on "In Living Color," ("Let me tell you something. . .") to any character on "Martin," to his head coach, Dick LeBeau.

"Now men," Ross says in LeBeaunese, complete with the sway, "we can't have it. We just can't have it."

And at the moment, Ross is doing a pretty mean imitation of a starter on one of the NFL's deepest linebacker corps. He's started 15 games in his three seasons, and at least one at each spot playing behind Steve Foley on the left, Brian Simmons in the middle, and Takeo Spikes on the right. When the Bengals played a 3-4 defense until the 12th game of the 1999 season, Ross had 11 starts that year on the right side.

So with Ross staring at free agency after this season, it's no wonder the man with the Bengals stripes Afro is thinking about hanging his hat on a team that needs starters and not backups.

"I'd love to stay. I wouldn't mind playing behind those guys," Ross said. "But I'd want to get my value."

The Bengals would like to keep him and approached

agent Michael Sullivan several times in the offseason about a contract extension. But no deal could get done, so Ross signed the tender of $512,000 for a fourth-year veteran after he had interest but no deals from three teams on the restricted free agent market.

"Our thought process is that Cincinnati has several outstanding linebackers and right now Adrian isn't a starter," said Sullivan, who wouldn't discuss numbers Wednesday. "We understand if they don't want to pay him as a starter. At the same time, there's no reason he should close out the opportunity of starting elsewhere by locking into a contract for backup wages.

"Although we are willing to do back-up base salaries, our proposal has more than a token signing bonus," Sullivan said, "But it's certainly not what a starter would command. And it has substantial playing time incentives should he become a starter during the length of the contract."

What price could keep Ross off the market? He's started enough in so many different spots that it will probably take more than your average backup who defensive coordinator Mark Duffner sifted out of Colorado State and the 1998 rookie free-agent class.

With defensive tackle Oliver Gibson extending his Bengals' contract at the end of last season for a $4 million bonus, Ross could conceivably be in the $1 million range.

Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn won't talk numbers, but she admits keeping a linebacker like Ross off the market is "a tough one. It's a balancing act."

But, "We want to keep him. We think he's a great fit and a good player. Everyone likes Adrian. How can you not like a guy with orange and black hair?"

Indeed, people are just flat-out drawn to Ross and his contagious personality. How many backup linebackers have a nickname and logo like "The Big A"?

"I call him the coach. John Madden. I call him John Madden," said Duffner, who declined to watch Ross' imitation of him.

Among Ross' closest friends are rappers E-40 and D-Shot back in his hometown of Sacramento. This summer, he did a TV commercial announcing D-Shot's new CD in which he and another guy lounged in a hot tub with two women.

Plus, he may be the NFL's best football video game player in the NFL as the intramural battle with Corey Dillon rages this season again into the Paul Brown Stadium players' lounge. Ross won his division at the Super Bowl, while Dillon lost
to Jacquez Green, "and Green wouldn't play me," Ross said.

But Ross and Dillon are close. Close enough that he helped Dillon last week in Seattle with his one-day free football camp. Ross told the kids he was a free agent out of nowhere who knew what he wanted and worked to get it. And they could, too.

"I like talking to kids," Ross said. "That may be what I like the best. The other stuff is pretty good, too."

Ross loves apes and gorillas. That's how he sees himself on the field. He had his friend who created the "Chocolate Thunder," character design his T-Shirt. On the front, the shirt has a big A with a face on top. One side of the face is Ross. The other side is an ape, his game face. On the back is the plea, "Unleash The Passion. Bengals Training Camp 2001."

"I ran out, but I'm getting more. I'll get you guys some," said Ross to the media.

Since everyone likes Adrian, they will probably wear it.

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