COVINGTON, Ky. - Andrew Whitworth and Lee Deal went to school again Tuesday. That's the way it's been ever since they grew up together in West Monroe, La.
Like whenever the flyover roars through Paul Brown Stadium on Sundays to start a game and rattles the windows and the patriotic soul for just that very instant. It hangs with Whitworth longer than most because Deal never flies away.
That may be the toughest and easiest moment of a day that the Bengals left tackle is more often than not asked to shut down one of the NFL's best pass rushers. But when the planes rumble, Whitworth remembers and suddenly Terrell Suggs or James Harrison don't seem quite so daunting.
"Bittersweet," Whitworth says.
It's not that he ever needs to remember Lee Deal.
After all, he's got a cross tattooed almost as big as that landscape on his sprawling 6-foot-7 of a back with the initials LD and the years 1982-2006. Best friends. Andrew was always "Whit," and Lee was always "Deal." From the 10th grade on in West Monroe, La., Whitworth can't remember a night when they weren't in the same building or a meal they didn't share. When they graduated from high school, they decided to stick together and so Deal walked on as a kicker at LSU, where they had an apartment.
It is just when the planes muscle in, Whitworth gets it.
"He gave up his life so I could be out there playing the game I love in front of all those people," Whitworth says. "He always wanted to serve. His dad was in the FBI and I think he knew he'd always serve his country in some way and I know while he was over there he was saying, 'I got Whit's back and I've got my family's back.' "
So Whitworth took Deal to school Tuesday afternoon at Holmes Junior Senior High School in Covington, Ky.
While fellow offensive lineman Bobbie Williams went to Dater High School in Cincinnati in the morning, Whitworth kicked off this year's "Learning Is Cool" program with a rousing assembly in the Holmes gym. The program has become such a staple of the Marvin Lewis Community Fund that the Learning Is Cool model is going nationwide. With Covington Independent Schools added to Cincinnati Public Schools this year, the program reaches 34,000 students.
The idea is that any student that makes the honor roll for two quarters qualifies to participate in a Meet the Bengals gig in June at Paul Brown Stadium. And so on Tuesday, Who Dey showed up with four Ben-Gals and Whitworth, wearing his big No. 77, blue jeans, and sneakers, grabbed the mike and easily talked about growing up. How he struggled in school early until he met his math teacher and how in his first 7th-grade football practice he got run over by the coach's daughter in the first one-on-one drill of his career.
He never uses notes.
"If you do it off the cuff," he says, "it comes from the heart."
The kids never stopped chattering and buzzing and cheering and after it was over there were pictures and autographs and hugs and high fives.
"They got here about a half-hour before you did and the energy level stayed the same," Sean Bohannon is telling him.
Bohannon is the principal of Holmes Middle School and he's got the same energy. He has grabbed Whitworth to take him across the street to introduce him to four classrooms of achievers in math, language arts and history. He jogs up a steep flight of stairs, steps into the sunlight and is asked if the rally and the cheering and the speech matters.
"An impact? Very much so," Bohannon says. "When they hear it from somebody like a pro athlete, it reinforces what we're saying. We're looking for any kind of positive avenue we can make."
Bohannon went to school here, graduated from here in '87, and taught here before becoming a principal. More than 85 percent of the kids have a reduced price or free lunch. The best part of the day, he thought, was Andrew talking about his junior high experiences and how it didn't go well at first and he kept at it.
"I'm going to be watching you Sunday," a kid says, shaking his hand.
"Thank you," Whitworth says.
"Some of them, all they want is a hug," Whitworth says. "Sometimes that's all people need. They just want to know someone cares."
Whitworth cares enough that he has started "The Big Whit Challenge," in which he is encouraging others to follow his lead of donating $250 for every touchdown the Bengals score this season to the Cincinnati Boys and Girls Club. Not everyone has to go $250. He has set up other levels as a part of the burgeoning Big Whit Foundation, but the idea is hope.
And that's where Lee Deal does have Whitworth's back.
Spread across the cross tattooed on Whitworth's back is the word.
"That was his saying," Whitworth says. "No matter what he ever went through, all he ever needed was hope.
"That is what I want kids to understand. That life is hard at times and it's easy at times and things can be taken from you at any moment, but no one can take their hope. They can choose to hold on to it. And let it drive them to succeed."
That hit home a few months after Deal got killed in Iraq. This was Whitworth's rookie season of 2006 and he was asked to speak at a juvenile detention center.
"They were kids 13, 14 years old that had made some bad decisions and were spending the rest of their teenaged years in there," Whitworth says. "I finished my talk and I was feeling pretty good about it and then this kid asked me when did I know I was going to make something of my life. All he'd ever been told is that he was going to stay in the ghetto his whole life. There was no hope. That's when he made the decision to break in somewhere and steal some things and someone got hurt by accident. That changed my whole outlook. I want to bring hope, even if it has to be one kid at a time. There is nothing worse than taking a kid's dream."
Whitworth had been feeling badly about losing his best friend. But then this stirred him. Yes, things were bad. But look at this kid here. If Deal's thing was hope, Whitworth had found his.
"I liked to read some poetry and my favorite was 'I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet," ' he says. "I like to think that's how I want to give back."
Whitworth got the phone call from his parents that Deal had been killed in Iraq during one of his first days in Cincinnati in May 2006. In fact, Whitworth was on the rookie cruise that is a fundraiser for Lewis' foundation when he was told that hospital corpsman "Doc" Deal, a Navy sailor assigned to the Marine's B Company, 1st Platoon, had been killed in action in Iraq's Al Anbar province.
"From what I understand," Whitworth says, "he was sewing up somebody else and he got shot in the back of the head."
Three days before, Deal had sent flowers to his mother for Mother's Day. Now Whitworth sends flowers to Melanie Deal every Mother's Day and on special occasions in the offseason, like when his wife MC'd the Miss Louisiana pageant, Whitworth took "Miss Melanie" as his date. But not before they look at the graduation pictures she still has at the house with Andrew towering over her 5-11, 160-pound son.
"I knew Lee wouldn't have wanted to die like that," Whitworth says. "But he died the way he lived. He wanted to serve. I remember his sacrifice every day so I can live the life I want and go out on that field on Sundays."
Principal Bohannon is still jogging. There is just one more class he wants Whitworth to see. The warning dismissal bell has already pierced the halls and the principal has decreed he wants the teachers to hold the students until he can get Whitworth out of the hallways.
"How many y'all am I going to see in June?" Whitworth asks he ducks into the room.
There is a big cheer and then he is off again Deal-ing out some hope.