11-26-03, 6:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With a 19 Triple E, Willie Anderson wears the biggest shoes in Bengals' history and runs a company called "Think B.I.G, Inc." So you just know the man they call, "Big Willie," is not having a little get together for Thanksgiving.
On Thursday, he'll donate enough food at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in the Cincinnati community of Carthage to have two pickups for anyone needing a holiday meal. He won't be at the first one at 1 p.m. because practice will just be ending but he'll be at the second at 3 p.m. and hopes those in need can be in attendance.
Meanwhile, on the same day, he's sponsoring another dinner at his home church of Whitestone Baptist in Mobile, Ala., which fed more than 500 people last year.
"Let's face it," Anderson said this week. "As pro athletes, it's so important to give back to the community. I understand what has happened here. I was here for the election when the taxpayers voted to build the stadium, and I know we've got some kind of responsibility. I want to try to do more of it and not just around the holidays. It should be a year-round-thing."
Anderson has always had a big presence in the community, and he's looking to expand it by offering college scholarships to a student from Mobile and Cincinnati. But this season, more of his teammates seem to be joining up everywhere, from churches, to schools, to corporate fundraisers.
On Tuesday, quarterback Carson Palmer helped distribute food and personal care items to families at Our Daily Bread, a daytime shelter and soup kitchen in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that serves 400 people daily. The same day, a group including kicker Shayne Graham and linebacker Dwayne Levels helped distribute turkey and ham dinners at Cincinnati's Freestore/Foodbank.
On Thanksgiving Day at the new Over The Rhine Kitchen on Vine Street in downtown Cincinnati, defensive tackle Tony Williams is going to help serve and donate.
Maybe the winning record has helped and more people want more Bengals more of the time. But it's more likely because new head coach Marvin Lewis has made community involvement as much a staple of his program as strength-and-conditioning, special teams, and beating the Steelers.
Each week, he stresses to his players the importance of getting out into the town on Tuesday, their dayoff, to help. He lines the hallway leading to the meeting rooms and cafeteria with pictures of players at events. He set the tone from the moment he arrived by attending 20 or so events before they blew the horn at his first minicamp.
"It's something that is dear to Marvin's heart," said tight end Tony Stewart, whose picture dots the wall a lot. "To see a guy that cares that much about the community, it makes me want to go out and do the same and try and make a difference."
Stewart, 24, a third-year player from Penn State, has spent every other Tuesday at the Hughes Center with teammates such as Kevin Hardy and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in an after-school program for high school students emphasizing mathematics and science for minorities.
Last month, Stewart and Hardy, not to mention Hardy's wife Terrie, pitched in to get Kathy Wright's class ready for a robot-building competition at the University of Cincinnati.
"They just sent them basically a box of nuts and bolts and told them these are the only things they could use to build it," Hardy said. "When you do something like that, something hands-on, I think it's about the best way you can donate your time."
The project called for the robot to lift and move a balloon without puncturing it. Hardy ended up going to the chalkboard designing the arm instead of a blitz and the class used his idea of cushioning the metal. Terrie, a high school chemistry teacher when she and Hardy met in Jacksonville, worked on splicing wires.
Meanwhile, Stewart had to solve the problem of traction for the robot's wheels. After an hour-long consultation, he and the students came up with a pattern to drill nails into the wheels. Stewart volunteered to finish the task at home and get it back to Wright in time for the competition that weekend.
And with the team set to leave for Arizona in three hours, there was Stewart in the Bengals' equipment room using Rob Recker's drill trying to finish it off.
While Stewart and Hardy played in Arizona, Terrie Hardy stopped by the competition at UC to cheer on Wright's kids and watched them come in third, a huge accomplishment for a school that has to scramble for equipment and expertise because of a lack of an industrial arts program. But they obviously had plenty of ingenuity.'
"It's fun. The kids are really on the ball and you can talk with them and work with them," said Stewart, who has also spoken a few times at a juvenile detention center. "One of my beliefs is it's easy to give your money. To me, it's more meaningful and life changing to give your time. It's also a way to bond with your teammates away from the field."
Anderson thinks you have to change lives through education. His eyes have been opened the past year or so as he puts his freshman nephew and youngest sister through college. His nephew attends Anderson's alma mater of Auburn University and his younger sister is in the process of transferring back to Alabama from Xavier in New Orleans.
"I just didn't realize what goes into getting an education," Anderson said. "The partial scholarships, the credits, the tuition. As an athlete, you're spoiled. Everything is taken care of. The reason there are gaps economically in this country is because of education. Education is everything. If you can get one, you can succeed."
Anderson's plan is flexible at the moment. But the idea is to give two deserving high school seniors a college scholarship.
"One from Alabama and one from Cincinnati," Anderson said. "It could work out anyway. It could be a kid from Mobile who wants to go to Ohio State, or a Cincinnati kid who wants to go to Auburn. Whatever. The important thing is giving it to someone who deserves it and will use it."
It's the holidays, but Anderson is hoping to make more ordinary days just a little more festive.
"It's like Marvin says," Anderson said. "We're blessed. We're blessed to be able to do what we do and we're blessed to have the chance to give back."
On Thursday, that chance is a big one.