Christmas stories

Nate Clements (right) chips in during Tuesday's event at Toys"R"Us.

Christmas stories.

There is The Scout and The Wife and Whit's Envelope on this Tuesday night at Toys"R"Us in Eastgate on Cincinnati's eastern edge.

And there is The Grandmother leaning on a shopping cart, eyes closed, and saying a prayer. Domata Peko, the long-haired and big-hearted Bengals defensive tackle, has just told her he was glad to see a smile on her face.

"Just being grateful to be alive and to be here and to have wonderful people just to care," Barbara Turner says. "You see him on TV and to see him standing here right in front of me and he hugged me, too. Oh, that was beautiful."

Turner just lost everything in a fire. Two days before the Bengals opened the season. Her two sons, her daughter and her three children have nothing left after a sudden electrical fire around dinnertime caused by frayed wiring common in older homes.

"I went to Kroger's at quarter to six and at 10 past six my daughter called me and told me my house was on fire," Turner says. "She and her kids were the only ones home and they got out. It was fast. We're doing as well as can be expected. We're blessed that everyone is alive."

Because of her steel strength and sweet soul, Turner has become a favorite of Cincinnati's St. Vincent de Paul, the group that helps good people when bad things happen and has brought the families to Toys"R"Us.

She's 67, a widow, retired from the post office, and had to go back to work at a Springdale janitorial service because "when time gets tough you do what you have to do." But two months before the fire she had to quit her job to have surgery on both knees. After three weeks in a hotel, her family is renting a house around the corner.

"They're in the process of trying to get the house back together; to rebuild," says Turner, who says they were covered with insurance. "Praise the Lord, yes."

The Scout is on the phone from Orlando, Fla. Former Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons, now a college scout for the Jaguars, began this all nine years ago with wife Rachel and St. Vincent. A handful of Bengals sponsor 10 children and give them $300 each to shop for the Christmas they would never have.

"One thing they wanted to do," Eric Ball reminds everyone before the shop, "is they wanted to make sure the kids buy one present that's not for them. For a brother, a cousin, whatever."

By the way, how busy has Ball been these days as the Bengals director of player relations? This is his 20th event in the last three weeks and he just saw somebody this night that he saw earlier in the morning during a "Learning is Cool" session at a local school. It is Ball that has been the driving force keeping the tradition alive of Rachel and Brian Simmons, handing the honor along like one of the cherished family heirlooms lost by Barbara Turner.

"You're at The Shop?" Simmons asks, when told the connection is coming from Toys"R"Us. "How many guys are there? Who's there? How many kids?"

The count is 60 children and they're being hosted by Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and cornerbacks Nate Clements and Jason Allen.

"It's nice that it has kept going," Simmons says. "It's one of those events that it seems to work out well for everybody. It's really what the holidays are about."

It's a family deal. Maualuga is joined by his tottering daughter sporting a pink dress and a melting smile that is almost a year old and has become a fixture in her daddy's arms every Tuesday on his off day. There is also Domata Peko Jr., otherwise known as "Sneaky," who is Maualuga's eight-year-old babysitter tonight.

Maualuga's daughter was born the same day as Clements's daughter late last season and Clements is shocked by her number of teeth.

"Mine has two little ones on the bottom that wouldn't hurt you; those look like they'd chomp you," says Clements, looking at wife Melissa.

Melissa has come along to help out, like she did at the Freestore Foodbank the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. They have four children at home and if date night is a volunteer night, the better it is.

"They're away so much during the season," Melissa Clements says. "And when he's home, it's all about the kids. This is a good time to spend together and I'll help where I can. Then we'll probably grab some dinner, go home, and put the kids to bed. No big deal."

Clements turns 33 a week from Wednesday and it's safe to say he's known his wife for almost 30 of those years.

"I've known him since kindergarten. We went to elementary school together," Melissa Clements says. "We didn't go to the same high school.

"We started dating when he was in Buffalo (with the Bills). We grew up in the same neighborhood in Cleveland and it was small enough that everybody knew everybody. To tell you the truth, I really can't remember him in kindergarten. He was quiet."

Melissa pitches right in Tuesday. Each player has two families, or 10 kids, and she is taking care of the girls with what Nate calls "the pink stuff," and hugging the mothers goodbye.

"She's volunteering," Nate says.

The Clements never crossed paths with the Simmons. Neither did Maualuga. But it is Maualuga's third year at the event, the second for Clements, and Allen signed up in his first year. Whitworth and Peko are the only ones that played with Simmons, but that was for just one season and they didn't do a shop with Simmons.

But Whitworth picked up the baton along with Bobbie Williams and Carson Palmer in 2007, the first year Simmons was gone. Whitworth and Peko just played against Palmer's Raiders two weeks ago and they're getting ready for Big Bobbie in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium, but there are new standbys.

"If I show up here and you're not here, I'm going to wonder what's going on," says Liz Carter, St. Vincent's executive director, watching Whitworth waking around talking to kids a quarter of his size.

"Appreciate ya," Whitworth drawls Louisiana all over the folks coming over to say thanks after they check out with their goods or ask for a photo or an autograph.

One kid, seven years old, hands him a slip of notebook paper and says "here's my phone number" as he leaves. A girl in a princess dress has already given Whitworth a page from a coloring book that she has drawn in and is inscribed with a heart and "Andrew."

"Thank you Miss Jasmine," Whitworth says.

Carter is thinking back to the first shop nine years ago and Rachel and Brian Simmons.

"Who would have thought all these years later?" Carter says. "Look at all these kids."

Barbara Turner's twin grandsons were a year old that first shop. That same age as the daughters of Maualuga and Clements and she knows there may have been nothing Christmas morning for the 10-year-olds and her 12-year-old granddaughter.

"They wouldn't have had one if it wasn't for the staff at St. Vincent de Paul and (the Bengals)," Turners says. "This is my Christmas. Just to see their faces light up here and being happy."

Whitworth is introduced to Turner and is quietly impressed at the resilience as they talk. She is still leaning on the cart, still thankful, as the twins bolt in and out of the electronics department.

If there is one thing she could have saved from the fire, it would have been a picture of her mother.

"And some of her glassware," she says. "Now all I have is the memory of her."

One of the workers comes by and tells Whitworth he loved his "I've got two contracts" quote about protecting his quarterback and his wife.

Even though he's appealed his fine, Whitworth has already written the NFL a check. By the time he finishes talking to Barbara Turner, she has an envelope from Whitworth, too.

"Not for the kids; just for you, "Whitworth says.

Christmas stories.

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