6-28-01, 4:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For all the world, JoJuan Armour has always wanted to play in a bowl game.
Armour gets his wish Saturday in World Bowl IX (June 30 at noon on FOX) as his Barcelona Dragons play the Berlin Thunder to decide the champion of NFL Europe.
Armour wanted to make sure someone knows that time and place.
"Tell Coach LeBeau to watch the game," Armour said this week of the Bengals head coach.
But even if he doesn't get a ring, Armour may have already rung up his biggest achievement in the NFL's developmental league.
In seven games, he has played well enough to finally convince some people with the Bengals he can be an NFL safety two years after he left Miami University as one of the school's most productive linebackers ever.
"We sent him over there to find out and I think we've got the answer," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel who has watched the Barcelona tapes. "We wanted to see if he could learn it. Adjust to motion. Tackle consistently. Know the landmarks and boundaries. And he's been doing it well."
The 5-11, 220-pound Armour is now being seriously considered as one of the roster's four potential safeties as a backup, along with his linebacker duties that consist of playing on certain passing downs.
"I don't know what you have in Cincinnati," said Dragons head coach Jack Bicknell. "But as far as what he's done here, I think he can play in the NFL. He's
physical enough and smart enough. Making the switch from linebacker to safety isn't as tough as the other way around."
A bowl game is a bowl game is a bowl game whether it's Oxford, Ohio or Oxford, England. Armour is a back-to-back MAC defensive player of the year who is defensive about certain aspects of his Miami career.
"We never went to a bowl game even though we had teams that deserved it," Armour said. "One year we went 10-1, beat North Carolina, and USA Today didn't think we were good enough to go anywhere. I guess this makes up for some of that. It's my first chance for a ring. You always want the ring."
Ever since the Dragons arrived in Amsterdam earlier this week, Armour has felt that big game snap, crackle and pop. Even if the venue is Holland instead of Hollywood.
"There's a Media Day and all that," Armour said. "Football isn't as big here as it is in the states, but I've got an idea what it feels like to play in a Super Bowl. I'm jacked up about it. I want to take this experience back to Cincinnati and help turn it around for us. Play in the World Bowl and the Super Bowl in the same season."
They must know who he is. The question on the World Bowl home page poll the past few days lists him as one of the six answers for "Which defensive player will have the biggest impact in World Bowl IX?"
He's pulling only four percent of the vote, but he appears to be winning the campaign inside Paul Brown Stadium.
Unlike teams such as the Broncos and Chiefs that always seem to groom a starter, the Bengals have never been fond of using NFL Europe because of injuries. Three years ago, offensive lineman Joel Davis broke a hand. And when the Bengals started having extended camps in May, they felt players were better off learning the club's offense and defense injury-free.
But when the NFL mandated every team had to allocate six players this spring, Armour was a perfect fit because it's a venue where he could prove if he was a safety without his Bengals' coaches worrying about his projection from linebacker to safety.
Still, the injuries didn't stop. Fullback Ricky Brown suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while playing for Berlin and was waived by the Bengals Thursday. Tight end/long snapper Kirk McMullen ended up on the NFL Europe version of injured reserve with a sprained ankle.
And the experiment with Armour almost got short-circuited when he injured his shoulder during the last scrimmage before the teams left for Europe.
Because of NFL Europe's insurance concerns, Armour lobbied the league hard to get back on the field and succeeded three games into the season.
"This was my chance to play and I didn't want to let it go by," Armour said. "I knew the shoulder would be fine. I knew it would hold up because I injured it in college and there would just be some swelling."
Armour has shared snaps at strong safety with Jeff Popovich of the Falcons as the Dragons earned the right to get to the Word Bowl with an 8-2 record that included two victories over Berlin.
Barcelona is trying to win its first title since Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 401 yards in the '97 game.
Even though he got a late start, Armour has 21 tackles to Popovich's 31, and he's got three passes defensed. Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner's eyebrows rose when he saw stats from two weeks ago against the Scottish Claymores.
"He had 11 hits and that's being extremely active, especially for a safety," Duffner said. "That's what I was hoping I would hear about. We've been debating that around here. Can he or can't he (play safety)? I know he can play outside linebacker, but if he can play safety, that has worthy value."
Ever since Armour effectively "spied," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in last season's finale as a linebacker on passing downs, Duffner has been intrigued with Armour's versatility as an occasional edge pass rusher as well as a speedy cover guy who can play the run. With the Dragons going against league-leading quarterback Jonathan Quinn of Jacksonville, Armour should get some blitz chances Saturday.
"Our line has been our biggest asset," Armour said. "The quarterback just hasn't had much time to throw. The biggest adjustment for me has been playing in space and being the last line of defense. But I'm getting more and more comfortable with it."
Armour lucked out hooking up with Bicknell, a veteran of NFL Europe who is taking his fourth Barcelona team to the World Bowl.
"Coach Bicknell ran this season perfectly," Armour said. "He didn't hit us too much. Everything was the right amount. He treated us like grown men."
Which meant plenty of time on the Spanish beaches and in the stores. With his July 14 wedding in Toledo coming up, Armour needs that $3,000 winner's share to make up for some of his sprees.
"I like to get gifts for everybody and I've got a lot of uncles and aunties," Armour said. "Especially my mother. I'm buying her anything European. Things she doesn't have a chance at buying back home."
Yet his most memorable moment wasn't Gucci, but glory. A big movie buff, Armour loves the film, "Braveheart," and when the Dragons were in Scotland he jumped at the chance to see the memorial of the battle depicted in the movie.
And of course, Armour had to buy gifts when he was there. Especially for his middle linebacker at Miami, Drew Purcell.
"He loved that movie. He must have watched it once every two days," Armour said. "So I got him a bunch of stuff. Seeing that monument and the field was the highlight."
Except if LeBeau ends up watching an Armour highlight film on Saturday with the rest of the World.