BY GEOFF HOBSON
Marco Battaglia of Queens didn't didn't flinch at the analogy from the Bronx.
"Lou Gehrig," Battaglia said Wednesday. "The Iron Man. That's what I've been doing. Playing behind The Iron Man."
Gehrig, of course is "The Iron Horse," of the New York Yankees who started every game of his career,
The Bengals' horse, tight end Tony McGee, found out he wasn't made of iron last Sunday in Tennessee when his streak of 117 straight starts snapped with his broken left ankle.
But it also gave Battaglia a break. Before this season, one of the most dominant college players in the East during the '90s had not started in 64 NFL games behind McGee. Battaglia has started six games this season when an injury to fullback Clif Groce had the Bengals open in a double tight-end formation.
But Battaglia doesn't count those.
"This is my first NFL start. That's how I feel and my stomach feels like I'm a rookie," Battaglia said. "I've run routes before and don't get me wrong, they're all main routes. But to be the man again, it's a great feeling after nearly five full years."
Of course, Battaglia doesn't like the way it happened. He and McGee are extremely close. Battaglia says McGee earned his streak because of his monstrous dedication in the weight room and predicts, "Tony will be on a treadmill in two weeks."
They've talked every day since the injury and, "he says he'll be watching Sunday," Battaglia said.
Battaglia smiled, maybe thinking of Wally Pipp. Pipp had that infamous headache and took the day off only to never get his job back from Gehrig.
"Maybe he wants to see how well I do," Battaglia said.
Before being drafted in the second round in 1996, Battaglia always seemed to do pretty well. How good do you have to be to be a consensus first-team All-American out of some place called Rutgers?
How frustrating has the NFL been for Battaglia? He caught 69 balls as a senior. With 11 catches this season, he has 55 in five seasons.
"It's been tough, but you come to work and you play hard and you do what they say," Battaglia said.
Part of the problem has been McGee doesn't get the ball much, either. Part of the reason is since Battaglia was drafted before the 1996 season, the Bengals have had six different starting quarterbacks.
On Wednesday, Battaglia was in a late film session with Scott Mitchell, the sixth.
"This whole week has been different for me," Battaglia said. "Like just being up there with Mitch. We were talking about how important it is to have continuity between quarterbacks and receivers. Really, quarterbacks and everybody. That's what we were trying to do." Battaglia had a chance to bolt to free agency a few years back, but the Bengals offered a three-year extension and he took it with McGee also staring at free agency.
Then McGee signed on for four more years at the end of last season, which kind of surprised everybody. But something is telling Battaglia he did the right thing.
"As a football player, you don't want to leave some place where you haven't done anything," he said. "That's just not a good feeling."