A trip up the hill

2-12-04, 5:15 p.m.


Shayne Graham grew up hearing about something called the Tet Offensive.

It was on the last day of January of 1968 in a nook-and-cranny of the world called Vietnam, and the bombs and shells that fell that day left a crater in America and changed the lives of everyone. From a U.S. Senator named Robert F. Kennedy to Shayne Graham's father serving with the Army Corps of Engineers on one of his two tours of duty in the jungle.

So when Graham heard Bengals coach Marvin Lewis planned to take some players with him to visit the Cincinnati Veterans Administration Medical Center, there was no question he would join Brian Simmons and Peter Warrick.

"I heard stories about the friends he made and the friends he lost and the locals they helped and some of them were lost, too," Shayne Graham recalled Thursday. "He didn't go into a lot of detail. But I've always respected what they do for us, what they have done for us."

Attention is something the veterans don't get very often up on the hill on Vine Street. Not when many of them are poor, are sentenced to beds and hallways because they are 100 percent disabled either physically or mentally, and a good number are homeless when they get discharged.

The staffers whisper about it. About how so many of their patients feel people don't remember what they gave to their country. But on Thursday, one of those staffers turned to no one in particular as the Bengals were about to leave and said, "This is one of the greatest bunch of guys I've seen in here. You'd be surprised how a lot of people act when they come in here."

Then she put her arm out and turned her head away.

But the Bengals hugged back Thursday. Especially Warrick, the nurses' matinee idol who was in a scrapbook of snapshots. With Lewis in charge, community involvement continues to be a linchpin of Year Two of the turnaround.

And the Bengals, pleasantly stunned at the outpouring of appreciation that greeted them with a paparazzi-like camera flash in the lobby and stayed tethered to them for the 90 minutes they visited the 250-bed facility, got that gentle reminder again.

Make an investment in your fans and your town so they invest in you.

"It's a thrill to be so close to the people who represent your city," said Richard Wright.

"We don't have a basketball team. We've got a baseball team. We've got a football team. I grew up playing football my whole life."

Wright is a patient on the seventh floor. The Psychiatric Ward. Someone told Alphonso Nichols, a resident on the floor, that the buzzing of the patients made it seem like Super Bowl Sunday.

"For them, it's probably bigger than that," Nichols said. "This is huge for our patients. They know what's going on. They know what's going on out in the world. The TV is probably their primary outlet, and for them to be able to interact with people they see on TV all the time, it's just very big for them."

Simmons, who has visited other V.A.s, has felt the feeling of neglect before. He felt it Thursday.

"They're probably excited to see anybody, as long as it's different from the people they see every day," Simmons said. "But what surprised me is how much they follow us and know exactly what we're doing. It was a great reception. That's probably the best day they've had there in a while. I don't know who was more excited. The patients or the staff."

Or, as Mary Smythe, the voluntary service specialist who led the tour, said, "We're going to be talking about this day for a long time." Dr. Creighton B. Wright, the chief of staff, also made the tour and decided, "It's very uplifting for the people who work here, too. Coach Lewis has brought an esprit to the town with his interest in the greater community and it's wonderful to be a part of it."

Wright is proud of what he has on the hill. Treatment for the body and the mind. "World class care," he calls it. "The overall care for the veteran of today is better than most of the rest of the community."

Lewis spent some quiet, private moments in the dialysis ward. A patient who said he hadn't had a visitor in a long time, popped out of his room to say to Graham, "It looks like the kickers go in the weight room now, too." Guys on stretchers and guys carrying stretchers told them, "Your team is doing great. Please keep it up." They got mobbed in the outpatient lobby, where a large man wearing an even larger cowboy hat wanted to get Warrick aside.

"Pete," the man said, "your contract is up, right? I want to talk to you about that."

"Two more years," Warrick assured the man, and when someone told him they remembered him at Florida State, he signed an autograph and said, "Those were great days. They're coming here now."

On the seventh floor, Richard Wright got a chance to talk to Simmons.

"My quote to Simmons was I told him we'll see him in the Pro Bowl. I think he's well-deserving," Wright said.

Wright is 46. He has been here in the ward since Saturday.

"Depression," he said. "It's OK. You can write it."

Wright has been with the Bengals "win, lose, or draw all my life. An opportunity to meet Coach Lewis, Peter Warrick, Shayne, Simmons. . .They told us before. It's been out for awhile."

The ward watched a lot of TV and leafed through a lot of magazines while they waited.

"When we heard the guys were coming, it was like a kid waiting on a big surprise," Wright said. "Like a big present."

Wright went to Hughes High School before he went into the service in the late '70s and was sent to Germany. Nichols, his resident, looked on from across the room.

"He hasn't smiled once since he's been here," Nichols said. "Not until today."

Wright shook hands with Graham. He patted Warrick on the back. He thought he could see that light somewhere in his own tunnel.

"It's a start in the right direction," Wright said. "Because for those guys to take time out and come visit the veterans here in this facility, it means a lot not only to me, but the other veterans here."

Simmons heard about that guy that told him he was going to the Pro Bowl. How the visit seemed to turn around some things for him.

"Really? That's more than you can ever imagine accomplishing when you're going in there," Simmons said. "That's great to hear."

It was a day to listen. A day Graham made sure to remember a name in the history book, and a today no one was forgotten up on the hill on Vine.

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