Posted: 6 a.m.
As usual, the Bengals spread their wings wide this Thanksgiving.
Rudi Johnson fed families in the West End while downtown T.J. Houshmandzadeh presided over the biggest turkey in the Tri State, and Willie Anderson took the jersey number off his back to host 71 dinners at the Avondale Boys and Girls Club.
"That's not a small number," said Gerry Korkin, director of resource development for the Boys and Girls Clubs in Cincinnati as he watched the crowd gather Wednesday night in the gym on Washington Avenue. "Not when you think of all the people that Willie is going to be a part of during their Thanksgiving dinner."
It is the day after Thanksgiving now and these are the days that matter to Anderson and close friend Floyd Walker. If Walker is the left hand of the vast reach of the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, then he is Anderson's pulling guard in the community.
Their playbook isn't a holiday cookbook but a 365-day meal of one ingredient, one snap, one person, one family at a time. It was the day after Anderson's Thanksgiving giveaway at New Jerusalem two years ago that they came into the life of a seven-year-old boy we'll call "James."
His mother showed up with him at the giveaway in what would be called a bit of a stupor, but with enough love to know that she needed someone to help her help him and that he needed more than a bird and canned goods. She virtually demanded that someone do something for her child about football or something like that and only when the 340-pound Anderson looked down and spoke some soft, reassuring words did she stop babbling.
"Get in touch with Floyd," he said and, of course, Floyd was on the phone the next day.
That Monday, Walker, the youth minister at New Jerusalem, was at the boy's school.
That month he brought him into New Jerusalem's Boys To Men mentoring group. That Christmas, Anderson made sure James and his family had clothes and coats.
This Thanksgiving they supplied dinner and this Monday, Walker will check to see that that James has lunch money for school and if he doesn't then he'll add an envelope from Anderson on top of the school supplies he monitors for him.
Anderson "I won't lie to you; Floyd does it all," Anderson said two giveaways later at the Avondale club. "I love that youth group at New Jerusalem. My church back home was getting older, not as exciting. Floyd's got such great knowledge of the community and who needs help where. We're looking for the neediest."
Walker smiled at his friend. It was a month before Christmas, but the way the kids gathered around the big teddy bear Anderson in the club's gym for pictures and autographs, he was Santa Claus come early.
"He's always got ideas," Walker said. "He's always telling me what books to read."
The kids came from the clubs in Avondale, Price Hill, Covington and Newport on Wednesday night, a veritable Cincinnati melting pot not only gathering for the turkey giveaway but also for a hot meal for the children in the 71 families.
"It costs $70,000 to incarcerate someone for a year and $1,000 to get a child through one of our clubs for a year," Korkin said. "We try to get them early and often and give them a place where they can come."
Some little kids hugged the big man's legs. Some solemn older kids, carrying their turkey and at their parents' urging, shook his hand and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving. Other kids asked him about his teammates.
"You mean, you know Palmer?" asked one wide-eyed boy and a little girl said, "When you see Chad Johnson, you tell him I said hello."
"OK now," Anderson said. "I'll tell him. What's your name?" and Laura went away with a smile wider than Interstate 71.
"It put things in perspective. This is real world stuff," said Anderson, dealing with a knee injury that has put him on the sidelines for the longest stretch of his career. "Real people. You're not thinking about our rushing yardage."
On this trip they were looking for some real people who really needed some help from another world. Another James and this was about as fine a place as any.
A few days before Walker went on a scouting trip and Rob Davis, director of the Avondale club, immediately thought of Ceola Graves, a single mother caring for seven children and two grandchildren.
"If we didn't have this club," said Graves as she ate at a balloon-festooned table with her children, "we wouldn't have any kids. They'd all be falling down in the streets."
Graves lives across the street from the Avondale club and the kids are here all the time for a variety of activities. This is where they eat their dinner every night. One daughter is a hip-hop dancer and the group is trying to raise money for a competition in New York. Another daughter is a cheerleader. She's a little worried about her son, just turned 13.
"His initials are "DOG," she said with a laugh of Derrick Otis Graves. "He plays football in school. He's big. He's a thick boy. He wanted to play at his school but I think something happened with his grades."
Davis likes the kid's size, too, and he should know of such things. Before he came back here in 1995 to work in the club where he grew up, he graduated from Colerain High School in 1989 and went to play running back at Mississippi Valley State, where his position coach was Jerry Rice's college quarterback, the great Willie Totten.
"When the kids see a superstar like Willie Anderson breathing the same air, that means something," said Davis, who first showed up on these steps in 1976 in his preschool days. "About 75 percent of our kids are from single-parent homes. They've got three or four brothers and sisters. It's a struggle. A guy like Willie Anderson comes in and it's like a light at the end of the tunnel."
Ceola Graves hopes there is some light this coming Monday. She had to resign from her job as a housekeeper on the cancer ward at Children's Hospital because of her pressing family responsibilities, but she's got an interview with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. She's also trying to make sure that Derrick gets some men in his life.
"Derrick wants to do it, but he just has to get the drive and motivation," said Davis of sports. "He just has to put his mind to it. Who knows? Maybe a guy like he and Willie had something in common at that age. He plays for his school, South Avondale, and he likes it."
Walker wanted to make sure that Derrick was interested so he had to make the call to Floyd first and the idea is they won't give them what they want, but what they need. Ceola got a big basket Wednesday night with three turkeys and that will feed them for a few days past Thursday. It could also mean that Derrick, like James, if he's committed, is going to be one of about 200 kids that Anderson sends with Walker to Loveland every August for three days to a Boys To Men retreat filled with fishing, golfing, and other summer camp activities.
And that's how the team of Anderson and Walker is always thinking: The days after the holidays.
"I've seen you play football on TV," Ceola said as she thanked Anderson on her way out and then Anderson hung around the lobby, one of the last to leave.
As mothers came to pick up their children, some of the kids asked him to sign their club ID cards and it got Anderson to thinking about his ID card at the Boys Club he grew up in during his youth.
"Was that here?" asked a shy but inquisitive 11-year-old.
"No, I grew up in Mobile, Alabama," Anderson said.
"Where do you go to school?" the kid was asked.
"I go to a school, I guess for, if you're advanced (student)."
Anderson raised his eyebrows.
"Oh yeah," he said, half turning, maybe looking for Walker.
"What's your name?"