A.J. Green and his buddy Emmanuel start the holidays right.
This Green Party doesn't need a re-count.
Rebeka Beach, homeless liaison and school counselor at Taft High School named for a senator and son of a president but home to an eighth-grade prince named Emmanuel, always hopes her kids get in A.J. Green's group.
She has brought students every year since she can remember to the Marvin Lewis Community Fund's Christmas shopping spree sponsored by DICK'S Sporting Goods. On Monday night MLCF and its Learning is Cool Program transformed the Newport, Ky., store into a sprawling playground for 40 Greater Cincinnati students with great grades, tough finances, and a limitless credit card.
A handful of Bengals fund this holiday fantasyland each year and every time it plays out like a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Scrooge." The kids are supposed to each get $100 DICK'S card and they are assigned to a player that is their advisor on how to spend their money. But that gift card is as irrelevant as the joker in a full deck because the bills probably end up closer to five and ten times that. If you can fit it into the cart, a Bengal will buy it for you. Especially Adriel Jeremiah Green, like George Bailey, the richest man in town.
"Hey, all of A.J.'s kids," says fellow wide receiver Brandon LaFell mischievously when he sees Green's group checking out at the cash register. "Go back and get more. Get some more shoes. Whatever you want."
That's no joke to Rebeka Beach.
"He's so generous," Beach says. "He always does so much more than the allotted amount. I thought he'd be here. I can't think of a year he hasn't been here."
Green didn't play last week in Baltimore and it doesn't sound like his strained hamstring permits him to play this week, either. But he didn't miss this date. He walked a little more slowly around the walls of shoes, jackets and No. 18 jerseys than past years. But he says it feels great, it gets better every day, and he plans on playing again this season.
It's hard to think about the pain of injury and the potential loss of 1,000 yards when Emmanuel, far from another statistic, has joined your group.
"This guy is my assistant," Green says. "There was this kid looking for my autograph. He ran him down, brought him back, and made me sign it for him. So I'm calling him my assistant. He knows what he's doing."
Emmanuel is as easy to find as No. 18 on a go route. He's the one with the perpetual smile. He cuts through verbal challenges with sunny optimism, using his entire body to enunciate and coax out the words. Like No. 18 shimmying through a come-back route, you can hear him loud and clear.
Choosing Emmanuel to join the spree may be the easiest call Rebeka Beach has all school year.
"All my boys love the Bengals,' she says. "Emmanuel is a big fan. Loves them."
The hardest thing is keeping the trip a secret until they walk into the store. Especially from an A student.
"I put all the clues together when I saw the big sports shops outside," says Emmanuel of the moment the surprise limo that picked him up at Taft dropped him off at an even bigger surprise. "And then we walked in and there were Bengals things everywhere and I'm like, 'Where are the Bengals?' And then they told us. 'Yessss!"'
He could be in special education. He also has a heart condition that has put him in the hospital for extended periods. But like his favorite player, No. 18, on a red-zone fade, he won't be denied.
"He won't go into special classes. He feels like he can do the work and so he's in all regular classes," Rebeka Beach says. "He's very intelligent. Very sweet and gentle. A sweetheart."
His family has been on the move the last few years. Transient is the term. This is his first year at Taft. And he's adjusted just fine.
"Five As and a B," is his report and when asked what his favorite subject is that's right on for Taft Information Technology High School.
"Science," he says.
But he's been a fan of Green for a lot longer than that. He'd even been thinking about a meeting like this.
"My sister was talking about the Bengals and she said, 'What would you say if you ever met him?' I was like. 'I don't know.'"
The nice thing about Green is that you don't have to talk around him because he treats words like poison ivy and he wishes you would too.
When a reporter asks Emmanuel what is Green's best catch, Green tells his assistant, "That guy talks too much sometimes." But Emmanuel still gives him an answer.
"Last year in the playoffs," he says.
Besides there is no time to talk when there is a shopping cart to be filled. Beach asks Green only to make sure that Emmanuel gets a jacket. Emmanuel decides on a green-and-gold pullover so he can wear it in school since the Taft colors are always the uniform of the day.
"That's why I didn't get (a) big one," he says. "I got small but warm."
He also got some shoes and when Green walked by Beach he had a smile and told her that Emmanuel also wanted a bike.
"He's a good kid and if A.J. says it's OK, it's OK," Rebekah Beach says.
Sure it's OK with Green. He never got a free cart of stuff growing up in Summerville, S.C. But as the only child in a home where both parents worked, he didn't lack for anything, either. And with his first Christmas as a dad approaching, this spree seems a little more special than the others.
"I was blessed to have both parents," Green says. "Just having a son of my own and just seeing their faces they are making when they can go out there and get whatever they want, it's unbelievable."
Green never had a shortage of bikes. For Emmanuel it can be all the difference. In the cart is also a combination lock for the bike and receiver gloves for playing football and riding the bike.
"What's this?" asks Rebeka Beach as she finds a box in the cart along with the jacket, shoes, a football and three stuffed animals.
"Helmet," Emmanuel says.
For the bike.
"A.J.," Beach says. "That's a $100 helmet."
Green shrugs like he's talking about one of his 150-yard days.
"That's OK. He said he wanted to be safe, so he's safe," Green says.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel is explaining the stuffed animals.
"If I walk in with bags, they're going to expect something out of me," he says. "I've got nine brothers and sisters. Three little ones. This is for my little sister, this is for my little brother, and then this is for my littlest brother. He's the baddest."
After he and Green check out at the register, Emmanuel finds Mrs. Beach and explains that when he was in the hospital they asked him all the things he wanted to do before he was 18. One of them was to meet a Bengal.
"He says he's done them all now," Rebekah Beach says.
"Wow," A.J. Green says.
That's usually the word people reserve for him. But on this spree, Green has met his match in his young assistant with the name and gift of Christmas.