Bengals believe in Weathersby

4-28-03, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Dennis Weathersby began his star-crossed NFL career when the Bengals made him the first pick of the second day of the NFL Draft Sunday.

But it didn't stop him from thinking about what he'll do with his degree in liberal studies from Oregon State.

"A teacher or a probation officer," said Weathersby shortly after the cornerback had been taken in the fourth round. "A coordinator for diversity or multicultural programs."

If anyone knows how much those are needed, it's Weathersby, shot randomly in the back Easter Sunday in his California hometown, six days before he was to go possibly late in the first round, or, at the very least, in the second round.

"I got caught either in a gang-related incident or because of my skin color," said Weathersby, who lives in Duarte, Calif., about 10 miles east of Pasadena. "I want to keep it real. (There is) a Black and Latino history that's getting deep and strong. It's been a real problem. It's been going on for a while year after year, it's getting worse and worse. I don't understand why."

Weathersby, who is African-American, said he

doesn't know the Latinos who pulled up to his truck, pumped the bullet into his back, and then drove away in their SUV leaving him to die. He very well might have if his friend didn't hop into his truck and speed to the hospital as Weathersby passed out, but he remembers nothing. All he knows is he went to church that day and was headed to an Easter picnic.

What he also knows is that he didn't leave the hospital until Friday, and he didn't get picked on the first day of the draft on Saturday as the partygoers quietly left him alone with the pain and might-have-beens. Then, on Saturday night Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis called his home and told him they were going to take him with Sunday's first pick.

"Things happen for a reason," Weathersby said. "I'm happy that the Bengals still considered to take me."

But Weathersby couldn't hide the disappointment or the pain. He can't leave the house for another three weeks or so, and while he can dress himself and walk around, he still gets light-headed and needs his mother and godmother to stay by his side.

That happens when you lose half your blood. He probably can't travel to this weekend's minicamp and while he is cleared for full contact in six to eight weeks, he may or may not be ready for the June mandatory minicamp. He is drained. Literally physically. But also mentally because he knows the bullet has, "changed my life." On Tuesday, he gets the bullet removed from his arm, where it lodged after it passed through his back and out his torso.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," said Weathersby, who has been haunted by what he feels are undue questions about his character since he went to Oregon State.

The Bengals heard those rumblings long before Easter. But it wasn't so much character as it was questions about his down-to-down intensity and focus. On Sunday, Lewis stressed he didn't want to judge people because they were brought up differently. He said he was satisfied that Weathersby, "isn't a gang guy."

Until Sunday and the Bengals were on the clock, Weathersby thinks he has been judged on his environment and not on the fact he has been a National Honor Society student in high school, is just the fourth player in Pac 10 history to make the All-Academic team all four years, and that he has already received his degree.

Weathersby doesn't pull any punches. He grew up around drugs and violence and the gangs were right there. He'll tell you he has seen nasty things in the street. He said his one-parent home with his working mother is typical of where he was raised, but he made it because he was "self-motivated, blessed by God, raised by a good mom."

He also knows because he isn't outgoing and because he is reserved, people get the wrong idea.

"It's a negative environment. The environment is set up for failure," Weathersby said. "The stuff I've been through as a child, some kids hold on to the way they were brought up as a child and some kids don't. But with me, I hold on to what I went through. I haven't (talked) openly because the stuff I've seen and been through in my family household, it took me a lot of time to open up to people.

"It's still not enough," Weathersby said. "Me being not so talkative or cordial, people look at that as a threat or as intimidation. . . .The bottom line is, I do care about what I'm doing and I try to give 110 percent in whatever I'm doing."

This knock on his character, which grew in the hours of what the police seem to think is a random, gang-related act, has infuriated those close to Weathersby.

"What bothers me," said Steve Caric, one of his agents, "is that no one has tried more or been more successful in rising above a very difficult upbringing."

Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle and Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson can see that. Coyle has been talking to Weathersby quite steadily for the past several months when it appeared the Bengals could very well take him with the top pick in the second round. In fact, Coyle chatted with him on the phone the day before the shooting and he was absolutely stunned to hear what happened on Monday morning.

"There are no issues in terms of is he a good kid," Coyle said. "We've talked to a lot of people. That's not ever been the question. What kept coming back is that he's a very intelligent guy, a good kid. There hasn't been anything in a negative way. He's quiet and reserved, and so you have to go talk to other people because he's not the kind of guy you can find out everything about in a 15-minute interview at the combine."

Johnson played with him for a year at Oregon State and he was also shocked about the shooting. The talkative, outgoing Johnson remembers how quiet Weathersby was ("I talked to the dude three times,") and found him to be a good kid. But Johnson, who comes from the gritty Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, knows what whispers can do.

"He can't come from any place worse than me. My place has got to be the worst in the world," Johnson said. "But people shouldn't say anything about him if they haven't sat down and talked to him or seen where he's grown up. People talked about me like that and I'm nothing like what they said. You know that now."

Coyle admitted the questions have been more about his intensity and focus. But he's also the kind of athlete who doesn't look like he's going all out when he is. At the combine, the Bengals' coaches weren't sure Weathersby had busted all the way on the 40-yard dash, but their watches didn't lie about 4.37 on each of the sprints.

"He had the nickname, 'Lazy D,'" Johnson said. "But he wasn't lazy. He was just so fluid and easy when he did stuff that it just seemed like that."

Lewis has spoken to Weathersby about focus and intensity, but like he said Sunday, "No matter where he was, this is a life-changing experience, the kind of thing that gets you going in the right direction, and it's up to us to keep him pointed in the right direction."

Weathersby thinks he's a good guy, but he knows people see something else and he knows he probably doesn't help his image because he's not a rah-rah guy on or off the field.

"I do it my own way," Weathersby said. "I try to get the job done in a respectful way. I try not to go out there and be disrespectful.

"I know now not to take anything for granted," he said.

Leslie Frazier, the Bengals defensive coordinator who also spent weeks talking to relatives and coaches about him, doesn't think he will.

"I think Dennis," Frazier said, "is going to use the fact that he went late in the draft as a motivator. He's going to want to prove people wrong and that's good for us."

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