Difference-maker

11:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Like the affliction he fights, John Thornton works in relative anonymity. A defensive lineman labors in the football equivalent of obscurity, but on Thursday night Thornton brought both into the spotlight to raise funds for the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati.

His first teammate to arrive at Princeton Bowl was the new man who plays next to him along the Bengals front, Bryan Robinson, and the entire line kept coming until about 50 players and coaches showed up to bowl, eat, drink, and mingle with fans as well as families of the autistic.

A big group. About 500 people. And Dave O'Brien, who has 10-year-old triplets diagnosed with the disease, thought the $20,000 evening that included two silent auctions is even bigger than that. Too big for a price tag.

"One of the difficulties families encounter when dealing with autism, even with the initial phase in the medical community, is they have trouble telling you what to do next," O'Brien said. "Then you realize the general public needs to know more about it, so anytime you have a venue like this with people like John Thornton and the Cincinnati Bengals organization help with that level of awareness, it's huge. It also means they care."

Thornton cared even before he came to the Bengals two years ago as a free agent. He and wife Allison put on a similar event in Tennessee soon after son Jalen was born. Jalen isn't autistic, but the couple had a sight scare following his birth and it got them thinking. Allison, a child development major at West Virginia University when she met her husband there, already knew about the growing problem. Thornton, a sports management major, used his brains and connections. He went to school on the event he also put on last year at Princeton.

"A lot more guys showed up this year and that was great to see and a lot of fun," Thornton said. "Chad (Johnson) stiffed me last year, but he came this time and that was huge. Everybody was coming up to him for an autograph and a picture and he spent a lot of time with them."

Quarterback Carson Palmer felt badly about being unable to attend and donated his jersey from last month's NFL Quarterbacks Challenge that turned out to be the big seller in the auction. Thornton figured it at about $300. The big catch is always head coach Marvin Lewis, and he brought along son Marcus and then jumped into a lane with some fans to roll a couple of frames.

But for parents like O'Brien and Augustus Whitfield, the idea was just to get out. O'Brien, an Anderson Township resident who just became past president of the local Autism Society, knows how easily the autistic and their families can become isolated.

It wasn't so long ago he was rebuked by a stranger for bringing his children out in public. So, really, the best part of the night for O'Brien was watching kids and parents able to relax and literally roll with the good times. A lot of the money raised Thursday is going to go toward trips to museums and other venues.

"You've got to be careful not to get sheltered," O'Brien said. "You have to let yourself be exposed to things that are a little bit uncomfortable because your children have the right to that exposure."

Whitfield, of Forest Park, spent part of the night bowling with his small daughter and son, a six-year-old also named Augustus diagnosed with mild autism. He also had a chance to meet defensive end Justin Smith and offensive lineman Scott Kooistra and tell them, "Big things this year."

"Before my son was diagnosed, I hadn't hard about it," Whitfield said. "I had never seen the movie "Rain Man," but, come to find out, that was about an autistic man. It means a lot to come out and (meet some Bengals) and have a chance to be with other families whose son or daughter may have the same condition."

O'Brien, who, like Thornton, does his best work in the shadows, enjoyed the buzz.

"I see people who are usually reserved that are so enthusiastic," he said. "You've got players like Justin Smith and Chad Johnson, and it's exciting for so many of us."

It was a big night for Thornton, too, who proved he can also do good work in the spotlight.

"We helped some kids and got to do something together as a team," Thornton said. "It was good for everybody."

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