Ball in player's court

By GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals tapped an old roster to hone their new image this weekend when they named former running back Eric Ball to the freshly created position of director of player development and community relations.

The club has now virtually doubled its front office staff since the half-cent tax hike to build the Bengals and Reds stadiums was approved by Hamilton County voters on March 19, 1996.

"We're doing a lot of different things. We think we'll have the means to do them," said Bengals President Mike Brown of the stadium's impact on hiring. "It's stepping out into the future with new approaches, new people. There's a lot of interesting things going on down here."

Ball , 33, a seven-year NFL veteran who played his first six seasons in Cincinnati, is the Bengals' first African-American executive. But Brown hired him because he's an example of what a former player can do after his playing career. In the past several years, Brown has become concerned with players who don't work at another job during the offseason.

"He's a former player and he knows how the world looks to a player," Brown said. "He's a guy who's been out there in the business world and succeeded. He'll bring in a perspective that can help these guys along. I would like them to understand this is a short time in their lives. It's a steppingstone to their future and they should look at it that way. They should use it to build on and Eric can help them with that."

Ball, who lives in Evendale with wife Michelle and four children, retired after one season with the Raiders following the 1995 season. After working at a local bank, Ball spent the last year helping run a property investment company.

"It's nice to be back in football," Ball said. "It's a great opportunity because I get to stay around the game and the players and I can help."

For years, many former players were outspoken about the Bengals' need to hire a former player in a player development role, and the club hired a part-time community liaison four years ago.

At last month's owners meeting, the NFL advised teams to hire a full-time players programs coordinator. But the Bengals had already been discussing for six months the possibility of hiring a full-time former player in an executive position with the added responsibility of running the community relations department.

Local minority leaders who have been working with the club the last several years to add a community relations department said they hoped Ball's hiring is a sign of things to come.

"Mike Brown has finally listened to us and while it may be overdue , it's a positive sign," said the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. "We hope this gets the Bengals into our community more. Not just the black community, but all communities."

The Bengals are involved in many efforts throughout the city even though they have been criticized for not getting involved in the community.

Several players appeared last month at a groundbreaking ceremony for a football field at a rec center in which the club donated $70,000. A few weeks ago, a group of about 10 showed up in a children's ward at a local hospital on a day's notice. In the coming weeks, various players will be at strategic spots around the city to help officials get the word out to needy students on summer vacation that lunches are available.

Now Ball puts a visible and highly-regarded name and face on those efforts. But helping the players with their own profile as well as raising their profile in the community is just as important to him.

"There are four parts of the job for players that have to be emphasized," Ball said. "Continuing education. Family and financial planning and second careers."

Running backs coach Jim Anderson was there when the Bengals chose Ball in the second round in 1989 out of UCLA and coached him until he left via the 1995 expansion draft.

"The first thing he did when he got here was buy a home," Anderson said. "He came from a family that was well-grounded and he was always focused. When he came to work, that was it, he was working. And he's a personable guy. Plus, he's tuned into the community. He's lived here for a long time. He'll be able to do good things because of that and I imagine prevent some bad things, too. Perfect guy for the perfect job."

Jeff Berding, the team's director of sales and community affairs, puts the Ball hiring into a long offseason of "positives," made possible by new revenue streams: the extension of right tackle Willie Anderson's contact, the quick signing of No. 1 pick Peter Warrick, the free-agent signings of three defensive starters and the start up the club's web site.

After Anderson signed, Berding sent a note to luxury suite holders thanking them for helping make it possible.

"The team is clearly committed to giving the taxpayers a first-class product," Berding said. "We've got a spectacular stadium and we're putting together spectacular support."

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