FORT WAYNE, Ind. _ After pointing out the house where his mother grew up downtown, Jessie Bates is driving his beloved fire-engine red 2008 Dodge Charger past that emerald wedge of a Class A ball park in the middle of his equally beloved city the other day when he mentions with an off-hand-oh-by-the-way flick of the wrist that he's throwing out the first pitch next week at Parkview Field.
"It's a really nice place to raise a family," says the low-key, high-intensity Bates, fresh from getting raised by the mom they call his best friend and his 21st birthday. "A lot of people say it's boring, but I love it. It's small, but it has city things to do."
Bates' pitch for the Fort Wayne TinCaps starts the July 5 Midwest League game and that's as good as place as any to start here, too, since the man the Bengals see as their center-fielder safety of the future is in league with the Midwest.
(Loves them enough to bring The Charger to the NFL.)
(He's played them all and can be found at Caps game as well as Fort Wayne's D League pro basketball games.)
Family. (While Jessie Bates III continues to re-kindle a once distant relationship with Jessie Bates II, the birthdays of his siblings are tattooed in Roman numerals on his shoulders.)
Polite. ("I appreciate you," he says when someone thanks him for his time.)
You could also say he's got some Midwest reserve. Or, as he would say, "Laid-back. Very chill." Oh yeah. I'm throwing-out-the-first-pitch-that's-pretty-cool. Smart. Safety-point-guard-center-field wise. His older sister by two years, Aaliyah Bates, is a blue-collar bookend attending nursing school while working full-time. His ten-year-old brother, Von Collyear Jr., is on-deck.
"A homebody," is what Bates calls himself. He's not the life of the party. He's more than likely the designated driver. As long as they respect the upholstery of The Charger
"Very grounded. Quiet kid. He doesn't have a dominating personality. Kind of goes with the flow," says Kurt Tippmann, Snider High School football's legacy head coach who still talks to Bates once a week. "As a three-sport athlete, he was a very focused guy. He had a knack for staying focused on what he was doing at that time. A gym rat."
So Bates is focused now as he guides The Charger to its next appointment, a fitting for the suit he'll wear when he gives his mother away at her wedding this Saturday.
"Ivory and coral blue," Bates says. "She's so unselfish it's crazy. She worries about everyone else.
"She'd have two jobs around Christmas so we'd always have the Christmas we wanted to have. She'd be home for about 30 minutes (between jobs) and it's kind of eye opening for me and my siblings … She instilled in me my principles."
The man in the white hat needs an ivory suit to match. The Bengals knew they were getting a good guy when they took him with the 54th pick, but they didn't know they were getting the guy in the white hat, too.
The white hat is why he was there in the middle of the second round in the first place after leaving Wake Forest after just two seasons. With the help of mentor Mike Ledo, they turned to the book "Six Thinking Hats," a work of critical decision making more than 30 years old and published even before David Fulcher arrived in Cincinnati and went to three Pro Bowls as the Bengals' pioneering linebacker-ish safety.
"He used this business process when he made the decision," Ledo says. "At the worst-case scenario he was a fourth-round pick. You had to evaluate the facts on coming back and the facts on leaving.
"Jessie considered how quickly he'd get to the second contract … He got drafted in the perfect spot because he gets to free agency sooner and he'll be only 25."
The blue hat is the big picture. The red hat is the emotion. Green is thinking outside the box, black is the cold-stone practicality and yellow is making it work no matter what.
The white hat?
That symbolizes information. The data. Just the facts, ma'am. A first-round pick almost always gets the fifth-year option. When Bates listened to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis at rookie minicamp, he felt vindicated.
"Take out the emotion," Bates says. "I knew there weren't a lot of free safeties in this draft class. I just did a lot of research on the top safeties that are in the league. Seven of the top10 safeties weren't first round-picks and that was kind of the idea if I was going to come back. So I could be a first-round pick.
"It's the thing Marvin even preaches to this day. It doesn't matter what round you get picked, it matters what you do when you get there," Bates says. "I just wanted to take the step. I knew I took a leap of faith. A lot of people didn't know who I was because I went to a small school. I just had to control the things I can control."
Plus, there had been the events of last season. There had been a scheme change that saw his five freshman interceptions dip to one and an MCL sprain that blew out two of his games.
"That part of it was obviously tricky. It was a frustrating part of the season," says Bates of not having as many picks. "Also being hurt for the first time ever, (could) have been another reason for coming out. I had never been hurt and that was kind of a scary thing for me. It could have been a lot worse."
Bates gives a pretty clinical look at why the picks weren't there. In 2016 he was the only freshman in the country to have two pick-sixes and working out of a multiple set where he roamed free in man-to-man looks, as well as cover three and fire zones, he chalked up a total of five interceptions to become a consensus frosh All-American.
"I wasn't so much (playing) free," he says of last season. "We were playing cover four and I was locked on the slot man-to-man (most of the time). My eyes weren't on the quarterback as much."
Bates says his first Bengals' practices have remind him more of his freshman year.
"I can step down and play a seam, a curl flat and also be in the middle of the field a lot," Bates says. "Those are things I've done, so that's pretty cool."
If it sounds like Bates knows his way around a playbook it's because he does.
Despite watching him wear the just-the-fact-ma'am white hat, Ledo, part owner of the work-out facility Athletes With Purpose that Bates has used since high school, says his instincts are impeccable.
"He plays like a corner and how many 6-2 guys do you know can return kicks?" Ledo asks. "He was a great baseball player."
He was before he quit his junior year to focus on football. But Bates, a 4.5 40-yard dash lead-off hitter until he started hitting homers and got dropped to third, says his prowess to flag down balls in centerfield has carried over a bit.
"It gives you a sense of breaking on the ball," Bates says. "It's different. In baseball, once you read it off the bat, you just turn and go, unless there's wind. In football, it's more complex. But it's kind of the same thing. You have to read it."
It's those plays-when-we-need-it-most instincts that Snider High's Tippmann says separated Bates in a region where Division I athletes aren't exactly rare. Once Bates broke in as a junior at the sprawling 5A power, Tippmann watched an almost weekly ritual where his defensive coaches fretted about Bates' matchup only to shake their heads the next day after he often won his assignment.
"What makes him such a good player is he's so instinctive," Tippmann says. "Some of that is natural, but some of that is the amount of time he spends studying. As a young guy, he wasn't really the best athlete. He didn't just separate himself with pure speed or pure athleticism. He had those things, but not to the same extent that other people had that same stuff."
Tippmann has filed away two Jessie Bates crunch-time moments. It got to the point when games would bleed into the fourth quarter and Tippmann expected him to turn the game.
Like he did his junior season in an arch-rival game against Bishop Dwenger, best known in Bengaldom as Tyler Eifert's high school. It was late, Snider was down and Dwenger poised to score to ice it. But after watching a pick play in the first quarter, Bates left his assignment, jumped the route near the goal line and went 99 yards to win it.
Then the next year in a game against Indianapolis-area power Westfield deep in the playoffs, the Panthers were behind all game as Tippmann comforted himself knowing Bates had yet to make a play. He did in the second half, when a Bates tackle-and-strip and his long punt return helped get them the lead. Then with Westfield driving late for the win, Bates jumped a side-line route to seal it.
"He knew it was coming. I knew was going to make a play like that," Tippmann says. "He just had a knack for it. When we needed it most."
That was one of the nine interceptions that tied Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson's Snider record and got him noticed by some big schools. Heading into his senior year he had only two offers, Toledo and Ball State, and he committed to Toledo before the season so he wouldn't be distracted. But when Wake and Iowa started watching the games, that changed and he opted for the power of the ACC.
"I think I made IU pay the first time," he says rather humbly of the lack of a home-town call.
You think? You have to look it up because he doesn't elaborate. He was named ACC Defensive Back of the Week after his work on Sept. 26, 2016 sank the Hoosiers with two interceptions, one a 55-yard pick-six on top of 94 return yards. Plus, he had a team-high eight tackles and recovered Indiana's on-side kick with 11 seconds left.
"We may not have as many guys as the big metro areas," Ledo says, "but when they do go they're highly successful and I think that has to do with the makeup of the people."
There is Eifert, Woodson and old IU and NFL first-round running back Vaughn Dunbar, a Snider product who finished sixth in the 1991 Heisman Trophy balloting. Jaylon Smith, the linebacker of Notre Dame and Dallas, is with Bates in Ledo's burgeoning firm that is taking care of their business and financial endeavors.
Tippmann, son of a Fort Wayne policeman, is Snider through-and-through. Like Bates, he grew up within a punt return of the school on the northeast side of town and after he went to Indiana he came home to coach because of guys like Bates. He's been the head man for 10 years, not long after Bates moved from the south side.
"When I got out of school looking for a coaching job, I wanted to be where football was important and I knew what we had here," Tippmann says. "Hard-working. Blue-collar. Pretty diverse. In fact, that was one of the attractive things about the school. A cross section of people. The kids want to work hard and put effort into football."
All Bates had to do to see hard work is grow up on Kingsley Drive with Theresa Ladd running the show raising three children while working for Vera Bradley, the handbag and luggage firm. When the company moved much of its operations overseas while Jessie was in high school, Ladd lost her job but almost immediately hooked on with Kroger management and she continues to juggle it all with college classes.
"It's awesome when you think of all the things she's done for us," Bates says.
After his father moved to Indianapolis while he was in high school and they grew apart, Jessie III says the two have re-established a bond when Jessie II visited Wake Forest for a game.
"We went out to eat and had a man-to-man talk," Bates III says. "I know a lot of people wish they would have a father in their life and I have mine in my life. It was a mutual thing. He tried to get to as many college games as possible. That's kind of what hit it off. He's always in the loop."
Jessie III says Jessie II played basketball and ran track at Northside High School and from what III can gather, II had some pretty good game.
"I've heard good things about him," III says.
Bates is also close to his future step dad, Daryl Trotter, a guy that has helped fuel Bates' interest in cars. There are a couple of classics in the garage and Trotter has been known to take him out for some spins in a '72 convertible.
But nothing beats The Charger. Ladd passed it down to her son, but not until his senior year of high school. And she wouldn't let him take it to Wake the first semester freshman year so he would have no distractions. He ended up making enough trips south so that the odometer reads 127,000-plus. And it's not going anywhere. He plans to bring it to Cincinnati next month for training camp.
"I like the Charger style," Bates says. "I put the radio in. Bought the rims. I took off the stock rim and tires and put these rims on. I put an exhaust on it to make it sound a little newer, a little bit more sporty."
Make no mistake. Ledo and Bates are seeking a partnership with a dealership in town and Ledo might give him a little break since he loves cars. And he'll end up with about $5 million over the next few years.
But both are pretty pragmatic Parkview Field guys.
"A lot of people get caught up buying cars and it gets them in trouble," Bates says. "A lot of stuff in football isn't guaranteed. You have to try and be smart."
But, of course, there is a dream car.
"The G-wagon." Bates says. "Mercedes-Benz."
But not now.
"That's probably a second contract," he says, speaking above The Charger's energetic exhaust.