Harlon Barnett, one of the great names in Cincinnati sports and his position coach at Michigan State, used to kid Darqueze Dennard all the time about those 13-hour drives from Jeffersonville, Ga., to East Lansing, Mich.
"You're going through my hometown," Barnett would tell him. "You need my permission."
But a smiling Dennard came back Saturday as the Bengals' first-round pick and said that Barnett was asking the good people of the Queen City to give him a pass.
"Best defensive back, best corner I ever coached," Barnett said. "But as good as a player as he is, and he did everything for us, he's a better person."
The loyalty Dennard inspires drove in with him from Jeffersonville Saturday. On the road trip were his girlfriend, Krystle McKay, and Michigan State teammates Jeremy Langford and Kurtis Drummond. They were at his draft party in Macon, Ga., when he got the call from the Bengals Thursday night and they stopped off at Paul Brown Stadium so Dennard could meet the media before they headed back to East Lansing Saturday night.
But he'll have to be back at PBS Monday to go to work. Which he'll do, says Drummond, a safety who was his roommate.
"He's self-motivated. He's a hard worker," Drummond said. "He's got that dog in him."
Actually dawg. That's what Barnett calls him.
"He has a humbleness about him, but at the same time, I'm just going to call it like I call it. He's a dawg. D-A-W-G. He's going to compete like no other. He plays hard every day. Practice, games , always, at all times. That's his personality. He doesn't want anyone to catch a ball on him. He wants to do everything right. We play a high risk type defense. Our corners pressed all the time. You have to have a certain mentality to play for us. You can bump and run just about the whole game."
This is the kind of loyalty Dennard inspires. Barnett remembered last summer when the State defense got together and came up with nicknames for each position group. The secondary was the No-Fly Zone. The linebackers were The Bomb Squad. The defensive line was Barnett's favorite. AWOL. Animals Without A Leash.
"He got T-shirts made up," Barnett said. "They had "Spartan Dawgs," up top with a dog face in the middle and at the bottom was that group's moniker. He bought the entire defense those shirts out of his own pocket. Everyone got one on defense."
Barnett, who played at Cincinnati's Princeton High School, was a fourth round pick of the Browns 25 drafts ago and thinks this guy more than belongs. If Dennard compares his style to that of the best shut down corner in the league, Barnett says Dennard reminds him of Darrelle Revis.
People around the Bengals say his game is a dead ringer for Michigan's Leon Hall, but Barnett can't go there.
"That's a Michigan guy, right? I can't talk about a Michigan guy. But I can talk about a different guy," Barnett said. "He's similar to Revis before the injury. I don't think he's as big as Revis. He's similarly physical at the line of scrimmage. He can play with anybody. He can run. He won't be afraid to cover anybody."
Barnett would be glad to know that Dennard was right at home in his hometown Saturday.
He was presented a crate of Gold Star chili and while he preferred breakfast, his teammates consumed some and gave it a thumbs-up. He was able to easily refer to such Cincinnati stapes as Grippo's and that other chili company. He went to the Reds game Saturday night, of course, and when asked via Twitter what he thought of Cincinnati so far he fired back GREAT PLACE!!!
"I was so excited, so happy to see him go to Cincinnati. God works in strange ways," Barnett said. "Here he is going to my hometown."
The quintessential Cincinnati guy can coach up Cincinnati's newest star athlete. Barnett coached at the University of Cincinnati and when head coach Mark Dantonio left for East Lansing seven years ago, Barnett didn't want to pull his kids out of school when they were in junior high. So while the kids finished at Lakota West High School, he commuted on the weekends.
"My parents are still there. My mother-in-law. I still get back a lot," Barnett said. "I know he'll like it there."
Barnett remembers another story. It's from 1995 when he was leaving the Patriots and looking for a job. He visited Spinney Field as a free agent and when The Cincinnati Enquirer reporter approached him about possibly signing, Barnett said he hoped it would happen in his hometown.
But it didn't work out.
Now, in a way, it has.
"God works in strange ways," Barnett said.