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Digging to the 'Burg

11-26-03, 8:45 p.m.

From the time he raised it over his head in the first giddy moments after beating the Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium, to leaning it against a locker room wall in San Diego last week, head coach Marvin Lewis' shovel has literally gone national.

If running back Jerome Bettis and his blue-collar bolts into the line are the symbol of the Steelers' tough-minded hold on the division for the past 11 years, then Lewis' shovel represents the Bengals' single-minded climb from the NFL abyss.

"We're that dog that isn't real big," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "We're not the biggest dog in the yard, but we're the meanest. We'll stay after you and keep fighting you."

Lewis said it again Wednesday.

"I told our players Sunday," said Lewis after the win in San Diego. "You don't have to explain it to anybody when they ask. Just do it."

There is the theory of the shovel. Don't look up. Keep shoveling. Just do your job, and no one else's. Lewis got the idea from his summer of hell shoveling coke into the ovens at the Chenango steel mill where his father worked.

Naturally, the game that decides if the Bengals are going to say atop the AFC North this Sunday as they head into the last month of the season is going to be played on the same river Lewis toted the shovel. Heinz Field, where the Steelers play, is about 25 minutes from downtown McDonald. This week, Lewis' hometown is torn. Not the family. Just the town.

There are two things that make Pittsburgh such a cozy, close-knit place. Old-time football and even older families. The Lewises are right smack in the middle of both on a family weekend the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

"All my buddies are die-hard Steeler fans, but they've met Marvin at my wedding and other events and you know they like him," said Max Hamer, Lewis' brother-in-law who grew up black and gold. "When he was coaching for the Ravens, they wanted the Steelers to win, 3-0. The guys I play flag football with told me this week, 'We're pulling for Marvin, but not Sunday.' hope Marvin wins every game he plays. I hope he stays in Cincinnati for a long time."

Marvin Lewis Sr. didn't like his teen-aged son working in another part of the mill away from him. He wanted Marvin Jr., where he worked, in the bowels of the big molds, chipping off the mass metal in the casting stage, so he could keep an eye on him.

But there were no more jobs there, and Junior had to go shovel a few buildings away while Senior called on a couple of his cousins over there to keep an eye on him.

Junior says it wasn't dangerous, but Senior knows best. Working around red-hot heat is always dicey. One time Marvin Junior shook his head and when his safety glasses fell near the oven, they melted.

"The only time I stayed awake on the ride home," Marvin Lewis Jr., says now, "is on pay day."

His father knows what the shovel means. His son knows anything that matters takes hard work because he saw his father and mother do it every day.

"He hated working in that mill. He already knew what it was like because he would see me come home on the days we couldn't shower there because the water was shut off," Marvin Sr. says now. "Dusty from head to your toes. I remember one time I dropped a white guy off at his house and when I pulled into the driveway, they couldn't tell us apart.

"It's like all our three children," Marvin Sr. said. "They knew you had to work. It came no other way. Even Ann, our youngest. She wasn't bad or anything. She was just a rebel. She didn't like our rules, so she left and got a double degree in just three years of college."

It was Ann who married Max. It was Max's Dad who coached Steelers coach Bill Cowher in youth football and Max was the waterboy when they played Marvin Jr.'s team. It was Max who played a few years later and Ann was cheerleading against him on the other side long before they married and had two children. It was Max who grew up living and dying with the Steelers, and while he does that now with his brother-in-law, he's always watching the hometown team.

It's the 'Burg, and football is family and family is football.

"When I tell my grandkids about Marvin, I tell them about how hard he worked," Marvin Sr. said. "I tell them, 'When you see where your uncle is, he didn't have anything handed to him. He got there because he earned it.'"

The kid with the Pittsburgh work ethic comes back to the river to try and put his own blue-collar team over the hump. The Bengals don't have, "The Bus," but they have two SUVs in Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson.

The Bengals don't have a Pro Bowl defensive player like the Steelers, but they've only surrendered a fourth-quarter lead once and that was six weeks ago. The Bengals do have the AFC North's best quarterback in Jon Kitna and the division's most explosive receiver in Chad Johnson. The Steelers have the most versatile receiver in Hines Ward and the North's most dangerous return man in Antwaan Randle El.

Remember, Cowher is a Pittsburgh, kid, too, so maybe these teams are meant not to be all that different. Special teams. Defense. The big back.

"It's that Western Pennsylvania feel," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who felt it growing up near Pittsburgh in Johnstown. ""Blue-collar technique. Fundamentally sound. Smash-mouth type of ball. (Lewis) is cut from the same cloth as Cowher."

Are the towns and fan base really all that different? Max works at the University of Pittsburgh and says a Monday morning after a Steeler loss is miserable.

"I mean, you can tell," Hamer said. "Everyone is kind of down, and it's just the opposite after a win. My Dad took a yellow bedsheet and hung it outside his house so it's like a huge, 'Terrible Towel.'"

No, Max's Dad won't be sitting with the Lewis clan at Heinz. But Bobby Jones will be. Jones is a long-time season-ticket holder who used to give the Lewis' tickets once in a while when Marvin Jr. was growing up and the family was on the Three Rivers waiting list.

"He's giving his tickets away because he wants to sit with us, so I'm assuming he'll be rooting for the Bengals," Marvin Sr. said. "He'll have to if he's going to be in our section."

There are a lot of Marvin fans who are also Steeler fans. When Marvin's mother showed up Monday morning to volunteer at a food bank, the other ladies hugged and kissed their congratulations.

" Who knows what they'll be doing and saying Sunday?" Senior asked.

It's two guys from the 'Burg trying to pound each other on a blustery see-your-breath last day of November.

"That ought to be interesting," Gibson said. "Those are two guys going after each other. They're both competitors. They were competitors as head coach-assistant coach. (Lewis) has that eye of the tiger the way he did when we played Baltimore."

Start shoveling.

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