Bengals Huddle up

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Jason Campbell, the Bengals backup quarterback and consummate pro in his fifth town during his whirlwind decade in the NFL, held a paint brush as he watched Andy Dalton put the finishing touches on a colorful bench the kids would be crawling on tomorrow after school.

"They do a great job here with this. One of the top two I've seen in the places I've been," Campbell said. "They get more players than most and some have even brought their wives and girlfriends. And they're doing real jobs. You don't see that a lot. They've got the linemen digging holes for some big trees. You got some other guys in the gym. The quarterbacks, they let us paint a little bit."

The NFL and The United Way hosted its annual Hometown Huddle Tuesday in the 32 cities and about 50 Bengals and 150 volunteers converged on the Marge Schott-Unnewehr Boys & Girls Club in Covington, Ky., across the river from Paul Brown Stadium.

As usual, the ubiquitous Marvin Lewis Community Fund formed the backbone of the event designed to promote volunteerism and community involvement. They arrived mid-morning and by the time they left late afternoon, another massive renovation for kids veered near completion. A new, sprawling playground.  Cutting edge gym equipment. Post card landscaping.

"I think," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, "I've put together about 1,000 pieces of playground equipment around Cincinnati."

Him. And defensive linemen Domata Peko and Robert Geathers. The three guys with the longest service on the team found themselves Tuesday again hauling pipes and juggling screws. When rookie running back Jeremy Hill walked in to work the afternoon shift, Whitworth pointed to his Baton Rouge son and said, "Look at my man. Always wearing LSU colors."

But what impressed Campbell were the veterans. Peko again showing up with wife Anna. Running back Cedric Peerman and his spring bride. Left guard Clint Boling and his fiancée.

"To come out on a day off when you've got a wife and kids, it says something," Campbell said. "You're more than a football player. You're trying to make a difference in people's lives."

Campbell has been watching a remarkable fall in Cincinnati. Teammate Devon Still and his four-year-old daughter Leah have captured the good and decent vibe of the country in her battle against cancer. While his mates gathered In Covington, Still went to Cincinnati Children's to spend lunch with the kids.

Lewis' good works expand into the school every year at this time in his foundation's Learning is Cool program that has become a staple of the Cincinnati and Covington schools.

Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn, who serves on the Boys and Girls Club board, surfaced as a familiar figure on the grounds Tuesday. How many NFL owners set up and then pick up the cones on Punt, Pass and Kick day, which she does every year at the Schott club?

Campbell, who could be just passing through or staying awhile, has noticed.  

"It's great how everyone has got involved and how the whole NFL is behind Leah Still," Campbell said. "The tribute in New England was tremendous. Even last week (in Indianapolis) there were signs and jerseys. The Bengals did a great job getting the word out and getting people behind it.

"(Lewis) does an outstanding job. He has his hands in the community and everyone knows him," Campbell said. "This team spends a lot of time away from the field together. I'd say more than most. That's big."

When they broke for lunch, starting safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka found each other. Both were on familiar ground. Nelson, for one, always shows up.

"I like helping out, but I also like meeting different people and it's good to get away from it," he said, and Iloka volunteered at a Boys and Girls Club when he played at Boise State.

The after-school part of the program for disadvantaged youth intrigued Iloka. Sports. Academics. Meals. Mentoring. A well-lit place for kids with darkness just around the corner.

Marvin Lewis Community Fund host Hometown Huddle Event at Marge Schott-Unnewehr Boys & Girls Club in Covington, KY. 10/21/2014

 The Boise club reminded Iloka of growing up in Houston, where both his parents worked and paid $6 a day so he could go to an after-school league.

"It wasn't day care, but it was a place where working parents could put their kids after school," Iloka said. "It was a place to stay out of trouble. You were either at home or out running around."

When he got to Boise, he enrolled in a class that sent him to work in a Boys and Girls Club for six months.

"It was a real cool program," Iloka said. "All I did was play with the kids. I wanted to keep doing it after the class and I had already passed all the background checks and they knew me. So twice a week for two years I'd go there from 4-6.

"I'd do whatever the kids wanted to do," Iloka said. "They reminded me of me. If they wanted to shoot basketball, I shot basketball. If they wanted to play tag, I played tag.  It was easy for me. Show them you can be whatever you want to be eventually."

Over here were Nelson and Iloka. Over there were Whitworth, Boling, and fellow offensive lineman Mike Pollak. Running back Giovani Bernard went to the painting station he manned last year as a rookie and looked around for some of the other guys.

That Bernard. The guy who took so many shots last Sunday they feared for his health. But he didn't stay in bed this off day.

"I made the commitment before the game. I'm not going to change it because of what happened," Bernard said. "It's for the betterment of the community."

Long snapper Clark Harris saw Campbell standing and watching and couldn't resist a gentle needle.

"Just standing around? Looking for some inspiration? That's what painters do?" Harris asked.

Campbell laughed. But watching the scene did get him thinking about how much time his new team spends together.

"A lot of it is because there hasn't been much turnover here," Campbell said. "A lot of the same guys have been here four or five years. Most of the teams I've been on, there's been so much turnover. As soon as you get to know people, it's always changing again. They haven't had that problem here. That gives them more of an opportunity to build a strong relationship that lasts a long time."

Campbell looked down at his brush. Time to get back to work in what has been an autumn to remember in his community.

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