Isn’t it late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill who came up with “all politics is local?” But isn’t all football local, too?
For Mike Edwards, it turns out to be not all that different from the early days growing up on Cincinnati’s western edge. His father drops him off and his sister picks him up.
Except this time it is Monday at Paul Brown Stadium for the local pro day, where the Bengals take the session to peruse prospects that played high school and/or college in the city’s metro area. And his sister doesn’t drive him home. She takes him to the airport for his flight to New York and visit with the Giants, one of those interviews befitting a prospect worthy of a pick in the first three rounds of the draft or a free-agent contract after the draft.
But there’s no question that Edwards, the 5-11, 200-pound safety that helps lift the University of Kentucky from the doldrums to the fruits of a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State, is getting drafted. Probably a week from Friday night during the second and third rounds.
The Bengals host local players for a pre-draft workout. Nearly 40 invited draft-eligible players from 15 different colleges participated at the team’s annual local players’ workout.
“Ten wins,” says Ray Oliver. “Mike and a lot of guys came in together who could play and wanted to turn it around and be part of a winner.”
Oliver is a bluegrass icon known as “Rock,” who chiseled basketball greats from Jamal Mashburn to Karl- Anthony Townes in the Wildcats weight room. To knowledgeable Bengals fans, he is Chip Morton’s assistant strength coach in the PBS weight room from 2004-09 that helped head coach Marvin Lewis change the culture with their first two AFC North flags.
On Monday, he is a mentor to Edwards as an associate athletic director at Kentucky whose strength of experience and wisdom has taken him into the halls of power. He’s got a good idea what works for a draft prospect since he’s been on both sides of the glass.
On this day, he is also part of a discussion on the PBS sidelines with three Cincinnati guys as Oliver, who grew up hard in the West End of the late ’60 and ‘70s, introduces Edwards, the latest in a long line of Winton Woods High School players that have dominated the Cincy prep scene during the 21st century, to Bengals president Mike Brown.
“Best boss I ever had,” says Oliver to Edwards, who may or may not know he’s also worked for Rick Pitino and John Calipari.
“Nice to meet you Mike. You played at Winton Woods, right?” Brown says with hand extended.
Edwards, whose mother works at Children’s Hospital and whose father is a barber in Tri-County, is Cincy through and through. He’s been here before. His father is a Broncos fan, so he is, too. He was at PBS on the Monday night Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson smoked Denver Hall-of-Fame cornerback Champ Bailey on two bombs and five years later when Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley stunned the Bengals on an 87-yard TD with 11 seconds left in the ’09 opener.
“That was crazy,” Edwards says.
After some football talk, Brown turns to Oliver and says, “The ageless one,” before going through the eternal rite of pre-draft picking of the brain. At 57, Oliver, still fire hydrant strong, embraces the exercise and runs through the Kentucky players back home for Brown. He looks at Edwards in street clothes slinging a back pack instead of a helmet and can’t really blame the guy for not suiting up and standing by his workout in Lexington that included a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-4.5-second range with a 37-inch vertical leap. Plus, a sit-down with Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston in his office figures to be more valuable for both.
“He’s done it the right way,” Oliver says. “I just want to make sure our guys understand they’re prepared for this. His parents raised him the right way. The way he was with us, the staff and support people. Mentors, parents, coaches, people that know you always trumps what agents tell you. And, remember, the agent works for you.”
All the right moves began last year when Edwards thought about leaving early. Oliver reached out to his endless stream of NFL contacts and took the temperature: late-round pick. But with another year of seasoning … Oliver took the info, sat back down with Edwards and the decision wasn’t all that hard. (The only thing they didn’t account for was a broken thumb at the Senior Bowl.)
“The only people who know if you should come out are in the NFL. Nobody else. They know,” Oliver says. “If you want to know if you can be an astronaut, you don’t go to Disneyland and ask Mickey Mouse. You go to NASA.
“There may not be semi-pro because all this other stuff lasts for about two weeks. But if you want to get ready to play in this league on Sundays, and I’ve coached players from the other leagues, the SEC is the training ground to be a starter in the league. You think you know everything, but when you come back and get better, it takes a level-minded person with great people around him that listens and can take all this stuff and make sense of it.”
Like all good coaches and administrators, Oliver spends his days repelling bull and distilling reality. His advice to a draft prospect is as stark as a 40 time.
“You better be better than everybody around you if you’re going to play in this league,” Oliver says. “Just because you played that’s not good enough. I think some people believe since they started in the Big Ten or the Big 12 or the SEC, that’s enough. No, you have to be really good.
“There are no sure things. If you see a guy do what you’ve seen on Sundays, if you see it on Saturdays, you know what that looks like. If he’s consistent with it on Saturdays, you know he’s going to be a Sunday guy. Mike is one of those guys.”
Oliver has also been in a Mike Brown draft room, now run by director of player personnel Duke Tobin. Oliver’s draft room had a young Tobin as well as Lewis and future head coaches such as Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer, so he can tell his kids what the pros seek.
“The pros are looking for pros,” Oliver says. “At Kentucky, we got better when we got better players and the Bengals are going to get better with better players and that’s four-year players. Not two-year players or three-year players. That’s what all teams are looking for, that’s not what they always get. Not only four-year players, but four-year players at a high level. I’d much rather have a four-year safety than a third-year safety.”
Oliver has a quick introduction to new head coach Zac Taylor, a reminder that the only guys left with whom he worked are punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris and their coach, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. He does see a familiar face in Tobin and that brings him back some.
“You remember the onset of a younger Duke Tobin and you could see he was a little different,” Oliver says of the evolution. “Not only did he speak up and have an opinion, he was always pretty damn good. He’s worked to get where he’s at. It’s pretty cool to see the beginning of something. I see him right now, God bless him. It’s the draft. All the things going through his head. He took two minutes to speak to me when he probably only had about 10 seconds. He always had that dolphin-like brain. You have to have that. A capacity to listen, but not listen too much to guys like me or you or scouts and coaches. He has to take all that stuff.”
It’s just another form of cutting through the bull. Oliver is thinking back to the best part of his visit.
“The owner is standing out there on a local pro day, but he knew the kid went to Winton Woods and the heritage of the high school he played at,” Oliver says. “I’d like to see a lot of the owners go down that path and show me that.”
A meeting of three Cincinnati football guys on a chilly hands-in-the-pocket spring sideline.
Oliver’s best advice for Edwards and any other prospect hangs in the air:
“It’s still football.”