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Camp Now and Then


                   A.J. Hawk working the training camp lines. Keith Hawk is driving down from Centerville to watch Bengals training camp Thursday and it won't be all that different from when he was 12 years old and he got his mom or dad to drive him the 15 minutes from Sabina to watch the original Bengals train over at Wilmington College.

Except this time he won't be helping his ball boy buddy catch Dale Livingston's punts. If anything could possibly be better than that, Keith Hawk is going to be watching his kid play linebacker for the descendants of the Baby Bengals.

"I knew he wanted it so badly," says Keith of Aaron James Hawk. "He would say for a long time that there might be some day when he would be done in Green Bay but he wouldn't be done playing and he would always talk about Cincinnati. I actually saw Marvin a long time ago and voiced that."

The way Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis remembered it, he bumped into Keith and Judy Hawk ages ago at the Western & Southern Open and as mothers are prone to do, she mentioned it would be great to have the grandkids close.

"By the way," says Keith Hawk, who went to the first three practices. "I still love the uniforms. The helmets have always been the best."

Bengals training camp may not be a rite of passage in the Hawk family or anything as grand as all that. But it certainly has been crossed off the bucket list. Even the name of A.J.'s kids sound like a car radio headed to that first summer of Bengaldom: Hendrix and Lennon.

"I like his taste in music," Keith Hawk says.

Keith watched an icon named Paul Brown coach kids named Saint Saffold and Bob Johnson for about three or four years, before Ohio University beckoned and the rides dried up. Keith never talked to the old man, but about 40 years before his kid signed with Paul Brown's team, he got a letter signed by Paul Brown.

"One time when I was in college I took a group of at-risk kids to a practice," Keith Hawk says. "I wrote him a letter thanking him and he wrote me back."

Back in middle school when the Centerville High School team helped set up the Bengals annual training camp practice at the high school in the late '90s, A.J. remembers running back Corey Dillon finishing a handoff in the end zone by running 80 yards. When A.J. got drafted in the first round in 2006, Keith and Judy bought a house a mile from Lambeau Field and spent every first week of training camp in it before Keith had to come back to his job.

"The Cactus Comet," Keith Hawk says, recalling the nickname of that 1,000-yard rookie running back in 1968. "Paul Robinson was the big guy on that first team and I connected with him. Later there was Greg Cook… I remember watching the receivers and thinking this coach is really special. There was something about him. A young blond-haired guy teaching them how to run the routes. He spoke really well."

Bill Walsh.

"It would be like the Fourth of July when they came to Centerville for the one day," A.J. Hawk says. "We'd help set up inside at the stadium and outside there'd be everything going on.

"I don't remember watching one guy or anything like that. I think we were watching what they did and how much they did and we were comparing it to one of our practices."

For a 12-year-old kid in 1968 Keith remembers, "The thing I really liked is I could get so up close to these guys I see on TV. I never imagined I could do that."

Fast forward to a stadium named after Paul Brown and on the drive down Keith Hawk thought about going to watch his son practice at Ohio State and Green Bay and he wondered what was ahead. He was pleasantly surprised. He's still up close and personal.

"The access was so much better than where I've been,' Keith Hawk says. "Once I ended up in a hallway with the media. That doesn't happen in Green Bay. The family tent they have set up is such a great place to watch from and you can get really close. A.J. gave me the heads up. He's been delighted about everything he's run into in Cincinnati. He calls it a family atmosphere. They are certainly respectful of him and his experiences. The guys themselves have been really outgoing. I know (Rey) Maualuga and Vontaze (Burfict) reached out when he signed and he said it's been like that the whole time."

At 31 and in his 10th year in the game, A.J. Hawk not only loves the talent surrounding him, but also the men coaching him. The only NFL head coach he ever had before Lewis was Mike McCarthy, an offensive guy. Now here he's got the head coach, a former Steelers linebackers coach, stopping practice to give him tips.

"In Green Bay, McCarthy pretty much stayed away from the defense," Hawk said. "So it's kind of cool Marvin is a defensive guy. Yeah, I knew before he signed here he was a linebackers guru. He's coached some unbelievable ones."

Hawk says Lewis has been helpful in his transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and has been stressing to continue his normal route to the ball carrier. Remain patient and don't try to jump it and get there without reading the progressions.

"When you have a question it's great to be able to ask the head coach," Hawk says. "He knows everything that's going on with this team."

Green Bay is known for its old-fashioned frenzy.  The Packers get about 2,500 into their stands at each camp practice and there are others on the periphery. The Bengals drew a total of about 3,700 total Saturday and Sunday and Hawk didn't notice much of a difference.

"The turnout at practice, there's a lot of people and they seem really excited about the year," A.J. Hawk says. "It's a similar feel. How intimate it is and how they seem to really care and they're excited about the season. It feels like there are as many fans. Maybe they're just spread out."

It was the same feel for Keith Hawk. Saturday was his 59th birthday and so what was new?

"My family knows for the last 10 years I'm not going to be around on my birthday," he says.  I'm going to be at camp."

But this birthday was a little nicer, a little different. His oldest son, Ryan, was there for a post-practice picture with A.J. and then everybody, grandkids included, were back at the house that night for the pumpkin pie that A.J.'s wife Laura makes for Keith every year.

Cincinnati Bengals host Training Camp practice at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields 08/04/2015

Everybody but A.J. He never makes it. Meetings.

"My family says it's goofy that I eat pumpkin pie in the summer," Keith Hawk says.

But this one takes the cake and shows you how much his kid is a slice of Bengaldom. Former Bengals running back Rudi Johnson finished his career in Detroit and after one play Keith noticed A.J. and Johnson pushing each other.

"Then then they were talking the whole game. Every time they were on the ground, they were talking to each other. Then at the end of the game they were hugging it up," Keith says. "A.J. said he told him, 'Hey Rudi, I've been a Bengals fan my whole life and I really respect you and admire you.' I guess Rudi thought he was making fun of him or something. But A.J. kept telling him, 'No, I'm from Centerville in Ohio.' Rudi loved it. By the end of the day they were big buddies after banging into each other all day."

Work also makes a few tackles. Keith is vice president of sales for the Miamisburg-based LexisNexis and on Monday and Tuesday he was back on the job. But he is down for camp on Thursday. After all, here is a guy that has seen 140 of A.J's 142 NFL games.

"Family emergencies," Keith Hawk says. "One thing I've always said is I'm never going to regret what I didn't do. I make it a great point of being there."

Almost 50 years between camps and the kid from Sabina is still getting up close.

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