Gene Atkins, the fireplug from Florida A&M, supplied the NFL athleticism and eternal motor. Sandra Atkins, the band geek who played the saxophone in Florida A&M's legendary Marching 100, gave him the beat.
As in she drummed into the head of her son Geno that he could play anywhere. St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. In the SEC at the University of Georgia. In the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I told him to start fast. There are 80 guys there and they only keep 53," Sandra Atkins said Friday from her Fort Lauderdale, Fla. office. "Always make something happen. Don't dance with the offensive linemen. That's what they want you to do. There are times they want you to contain, but when you're not, keep moving."
Her son has listened well. Atkins, the fourth-round pick, has 3.5 sacks at defensive tackle after getting at least one in his first three very impressive NFL games. He tries to run the streak to four straight Saturday in Buffalo (6:30 p.m. on Cincinnati's Channel 12) in a preseason he has had the most eye-opening performances by the club's 2010 rookie class despite a 6-1, 290-pound frame that isn't supposd to do this.
"He's a prototype of those guys that play for the Colts," said right guard Bobbie Williams, who has gone against Atkins this training camp. "He's a small guy, but he plays real low, he's got great leverage. I think he's going to be a great player. His hands are pretty good. He's going to get better."
Defensive line coach Jay Hayes can't find too much with which to quibble. No matter what stance Atkins ends up in, the kid just explodes out of it. What catches Hayes' eye is that the quickness doesn't take time to build.
"Boom, its there," Hayes said. "There are things he has to work on. Fundamentals. Keeping his weight forward all the time. He has a tendency to get bunched up at times because he's such a squatty guy. But he's still explosive. I'm trying to get him to elongate his stance, but he's not a long person. But he's always cat quick, regardless of where he stands. I'm trying to get his toes pointed forward, but he's not really built that way. But, man, he just explodes. He's got unbelievable fast twitch and he's so strong."
Maybe the best part is his demeanor. Hayes marvels at Atkins's laid-back consistency. Just because he's had that fast start, he's not letting up. No steps back for him.
And maybe the biggest compliment is that Hayes says he'd even allow Atkins to date his daughter. Once she got out of college.
"Yeah, I'd think about it. He is that kind of guy you want your son to be or your daughter to date," Hayes said. "Very mannerly. Knows what it takes to succeed. He's got two parents that are very accomplished and he's seen what hard work gets you. He's been exposed to a lot of different things, so nothing really seems to faze him."
If it sounds like Atkins's mom knows what she's talking about, she does. She lived it every day as an NFL wife for 10 years. But the one thing Sandra and Gene made sure in that decade is that their kids didn't think they were anything special.
It's working. When his financial adviser wrote in an $800 monthly payment for the new truck he assumed he would buy, Geno gulped. Then he requested his mother ship to Cincinnati the 2001 Honda his grandmother gave him.
"He said, 'That's my lucky car. That's Grandma's car,' " Sandra said. "He says he'll drive it until the wheels fall off."
Sandra met Gene at A&M when they were both getting gas one day and the future safety for the Saints and Dolphins was skinny and on crutches.
"I'm a band geek. I had never dated an athlete and I thought a football player was supposed to be big," Sandra said. "We never watched the games. We weren't very good, so after the halftime show we'd hang out underneath the stands. I didn't know who he was."
So no surprise Sandra and Gene made sure Geno played everything but football growing up, like karate, baseball and especially track. Sandra, who went to Belle Glade High School in Florida where the football coach made his guys run track, made sure of that.
Geno was big enough to play football with the 13-year-olds when he was 11, but she nixed that. When he went into eighth grade, the coaches had him throwing the discus and javelin and she requested they also put him in some running events. Her proudest moment may have been during a 4 by 100 relay when Geno was running the second leg and in the stands she heard a guy turn to his friend and say, "Look at that big kid. He's really hauling (butt)."
"When he got to be a sophomore they just put in the field events," Sandra said. "But I think running helped him a lot. He's quicker than most defensive lineman."
Geno Atkins looks at ease in an NFL locker room. Sandra says he has "a nonchalance" and why not? He went to his first NFL game when he was seven months old and Sandra remembers him hanging round the tunnel at Saints games with the well-dressed teenage sons of New Orleans radio broadcaster Archie Manning. Sandra is basically a cabinet secretary for a country as the operations manager for the Seminole tribe.
"The only Indian tribe to never sign a treaty with the United States," she said. "They're very proud of that."
They've gone to visit her family in Jamaica and although his parents are divorced, Geno is still close to his dad, now living in Texas, and is privy to big-time, NFL advice.
So what hasn't he seen?
"He told me to work hard, listen to my coaches, stay focused and get my rest," Geno said.
That's about all you're going to get out of Atkins. He doesn't have much to say. He likes to play video games, go to movies and hang out with friends. Things will get a little easier next week when the team gets out of the hotel, where he has become close with his fellow rookies. Last week after practice he took in the movie Dinner for Schmucks with linebacker Vinnie Rey.
"Anything with a good plot," he said.
He's working on a good one here. He says he never emulated any linemen growing up. The only guy he really watched a lot was his dad, which explains the hard-charging style. Three weeks ago at the Hall of Fame Game when Hayes introduced Atkins to one of the inductees, defensive tackle John Randle, the connection was clear. An undersized lineman who played huge and made it big.
Geno was polite, but it didn't really register. Meanwhile, Sandra's eyes were bugging out in the stands when she saw it.
"He played when Gene played," Sandra said. "That 271-pound guy who was so great. That's what I was telling Geno, and he said, 'Well, the offensive linemen were smaller, too.' And I told him, he played at a small school in Texas. You played at Georgia. If you played in the SEC, you can play anywhere. And besides, you weigh 20 more pounds and are a foot taller."
The beat goes on.