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A Rookie's Story: Bengals CB DJ Ivey Eyes His Hometown Legacy In NFL Debut

CB DJ Ivey catches the ball during day three of Bengals Training Camp at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Friday, July 28, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
CB DJ Ivey catches the ball during day three of Bengals Training Camp at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Friday, July 28, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There would be moments growing up on the smashmouth streets of the football-mad south side of Miami when they might look at future Bengals rookie cornerback Demeatrius Ivey Jr., and ask him where his father was.

The kid who idolized neighborhood icons such as Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle and wants to give back, too, would point to his mother. But they'd have to look fast because Tonya Watts had been known to race down the sidelines with him during one of his touchdown runs as a little league running back.

A Hall-of-Famer at Miami Southridge Senior High School who held the school's mile record, Watts can not only lay down her feet, but the law, too.

One time when she found out he was missing an online class on his way to what he says was a 3.4 grade point average at South Dade Senior, she barred him from going to 7-on-7s. A school security guard with 22 years in the Dade County system, Tonya Watts knows her way around kids.

"I kept them in activities to keep them out of the streets," says Watts, who raised four children by herself in the projects of Florida City and Homestead. "So by the time we'd get home from basketball or whatever practice, it's like eight o'clock. It's time to do your homework. They can't quit. I don't care if they don't like it. They can't quit unless it's a major, major issue. Other than that, 'Oh no, baby, you're going to play (even) if you sit on that bench. I look at it like I'm your coach sometimes."'

Watts' coaching colleagues on the Bengals are going to give her son plenty of chances in his next activity, which just happens to be his NFL debut in Friday's preseason opener (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12 and NFL Network) at Paycor Stadium against Green Bay. Ivey, who goes by DJ, got a little roughed up in Wednesday's joint practice against the Packers, but that doesn't take away from the impressive training camp he has put together as the seventh-rounder from his hometown University of Miami Hurricanes.

The early returns read like the report the Bengals scouts coaches filed after he popped on their radar at the Miami pro day. A lot of length and a lot of athleticism (he's 6-1 with a 39-inch vertical leap via NFLDraftScout) has translated into knocking away balls from taller receivers. And a lot of mom's speed with a 4.46 40-yard dash that has also shown up in team and individual drills.

Uninvited to the NFL scouting combine but invited to a pre-draft Paycor visit because he was one of their highest-rated non-combine players, Ivey sold scouts and coaches live and in person. The Vikings were the only other team to bring him in. A real shot to make the club. He's also got plenty of company.

The six cornerbacks?

You've got the first three in Chidobe Awuzie, Cam Taylor-Britt and Mike Hilton. Then there's second-rounder DJ Turner, playing as well as Ivey. Veteran free-agent Sidney Jones IV has looked the part. Veteran Jalen Davis has a battle on his hands with Turner a potential backup slot for Hilton. But that may be down the road. Allan George contributed in some spots as a rookie last season. Marvell Tell III is a second-year player with some corner-safety versatility who hasn't played in a game since he played in 13 as a fifth- rounder for the 2019 Colts.

But those traits aren't what Awuzie noticed during the spring and early training camp. He said both Ivey and Turner had yet to miss a question in meetings.

All of which is hardly a surprise to Pete Taylor, father of the fearless Cane Sean Taylor, the NFL's best safety when he was killed in a burglary at age 24 in his hometown. A community coaching icon for the last 30 years, Pete Taylor is "Chief," to Tonya Watts rather than "Coach," since he's the chief of police in Florida City.

Pete Taylor first saw Ivey playing basketball against his son Gabriel. He has since worked with Ivey at various times, running him through drills and workouts, encouraging him like he has so many others.

Gabe Taylor, in his last year as a cornerback at Rice, was a McDonald's high school basketball All-American before COVID drove him to his brother's sport. If you can believe it, Sean Taylor would have turned 40 back in April. DJ Ivey still has an autographed photo of him somewhere.

"He's hungry and he competes. I noticed that when he played against Gabriel," Pete Taylor says. "DJ was always a very tall, lanky kid. A well-mannered kid. Very athletic. He always had a passion for sports. We knew his mother and she was very dedicated."

And it's just not football. There is Ivey's younger brother D'Marion, headed to Miami's Barry University on scholarship after he logged a 4.0 while playing cornerback at South Dade. They're both shooting for the stars this fall. D'Marion isn't playing football and is focusing on becoming an astrophysicist.

"After DJ got drafted, a school from Ohio called him to say he could play on Saturday and go watch DJ Sunday," says Watts, no longer living in the projects but still calling Homestead home. "But he's staying here."

Pete Taylor says the recipe is the same no matter where a child is raised. He only has to look at his town.

"It's a pipeline to the NFL," Pete Taylor says. "Just love your kid and make sure he goes in the right direction.. Mom kept him on the right path, very smart kid. He was OK.

"Gabe is following in Sean's footsteps. It takes a village and once they get there, these kids come back to the community and do awesome things with the guys. Giving back to the kids coming out of the programs. It's all part of it."

Ivey was watching. He had heard of Bengals great Chad Johnson, but he was too far north in Miami up at Liberty City. He's south Miami all the way. Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle and other Hurricanes.

"I looked up to those guys growing up. I just wanted to play in the big league like them," Ivey says. "The way Sean Taylor played. The way he flew around.

"I stopped playing basketball when I didn't get any (college) offers. I had about 20 (football) offers. Georgia. Auburn. I knew Georgia was stacked in the DB room. I had always wanted to play at UM. And it gave me the chance to play in front of my family. My mom wanted me to stay and it gave her better access to come see the games … She was strict. I think it helped me growing up and becoming a man for sure. In the neighborhood we grew up in, there's a lot of violence, a lot of crime happening. She kept us on the right path to do the right thing."

The decision to stay meant Tonya Watts could develop a routine. Up at 6 on game days, she would blare Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," and Meek Mill's "Dreams and Nightmares," as she got ready. "Like I was going to play football."

She did more than that. She helped DJ get through some rough times at the U with three head coaching changes and the social media criticism that comes with playing cornerback anywhere in the world. And there the hard start trying to break in on special teams before he got a hold and made 32 starts.

"He'll tell you I was his biggest critic, but guess what?" Watts says. "I would build him back up. He played special teams at first and I told him, 'You have to get your feet wet. Don't be nervous. Once you get on that field, make them remember your name." I always told him,' Make them remember your name.'"

That's the same advice for Friday against the Packers. And he's been doing that here early, getting his hands on passes and not afraid to throw around his 190 pounds in an ode to Sean Taylor. Cornerbacks coach Charles Burks remembered his name when he saw Ivey's Miami tape before the draft and Ivy keeps jogging his memory.

"A very genuine guy," Burks told last month. "A good person. He's quiet but has confidence. Whatever else he brings to the table, you can work with the traits that he has."

Ivey may not be able to find that Sean Taylor autograph, but he also wants to leave a legacy and build nutrition centers in his neighborhood with a bachelor's in sociology and master's in public health.

"Something for kids, for families down where I'm from," Ivey says. "We don't have the healthiest food and that's a way to practice good health, with good food and good eating."

He's about to be served an NFL buffet. And he'll get a special text before he sits down. It will probably say something like, "You got this."

"I always told him to stay focused," says the mother who helped him chase down an NFL shot. "I encourage him every day. I send him a message every day."