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Eye of beholder

Adam Jones

If you truly want to know how Adam Jones is doing in his return from exile, forget the commissioner's rap sheet or even last Sunday's stat sheet that recorded his first NFL interception in nearly four years.

You have to look in a little boy's left eye damaged by birth but not yet jaundiced by life. Or marvel at a tiny baby who is no bigger than her father's hands that plucked last Sunday's ball from the abyss just for her. Or listen to the grateful sobs of a mother whose son finally knows what it feels like to be a kid instead of a curiosity.

Which is probably a good place to start because when Denise and Mike Antrobus quizzed their six-year-old son Sean that day at Georgetown about the identity of his favorite NFL player, they had to shake their heads at first.

Pacman Jones? It was bad enough their kid was a Bengals fan.

Jones had that notorious past Mike knew all about as a Cowboys fan living in Fairborn, just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Denise, a Browns fan whose cell phone serenades callers with the Ohio State band's version of "Hang on Sloopy," thought it might be a nice life lesson for their only child about how one can overcome past mistakes. Mike works for Time Warner Cable. Denise is a banking center manager for WesBanco. Their life is Sean. Their passion is football.

Sean liked the name. Pacman. What six-year-old who loves football, wrestling and video games wouldn't? Plus, Pacman was fast. Whizzing around like some cyberspace czar out there.

And, besides, it was their own fault. They have taught Sean that defense wins championships.

So there they were that first crazy Saturday of training camp, a T.O.-inspired mob of about 10,000 descending on the field for post-practice autographs.

Sean had received the typical stares from adults and kids alike. Neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder, has caved in the left side of his face and made his eye bulge. But the most important thing was getting Jones' autograph and as they fought through the mess, Denise called, "Pacman, this is your No. 1 fan," as he got interviewed on camera.

The way Denise remembers it, Jones looked up through the humanity, smiled, shook Sean's hand, grabbed his hat, signed it, and chatted him up.

That did it. When the Bengals announced they were practicing in Dayton a few week later, Sean and Mike fought through the masses again with his hat and when Jones looked up again he said, "Hey Sean, how you doing? Did you forget, I already autographed your hat?"

So they got a picture with him and when they got home, Denise was overcome with how Sean had been treated so normally by his favorite player. Even remembering his name! And Sean didn't just tell her about how Adam had let him inside the ropes so they could talk. He told waiters, teachers, his team of doctors at Cincinnati's Children Hospital, anybody that would listen.

"I've always had this good memory for names," Adam Jones says. "And I was a special education major at West Virginia. He was normal to me. He acted normal. A kid excited for an autograph. I could see there was something wrong with his eye, but he's a kid. Normal to me. Just wanted to make a kid's day, that's all."

Believe Denise and Mike Antrobus. That isn't always what their son gets. He has a series of benign tumors wrapped around the nerves of his brain on the left side of his face and he's already had one surgery to raise his eyelid. His vision in the eye is poor and he could lose all vision when he gets older, when the tumors could turn cancerous. They don't know much about NF.

"Adults are worse than the kids. We've actually had people accuse us that we've hit him in the eye," says Denise, who also recalls that awful day at the grocery store. "This woman came right up to him, got in his face and said, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with his eye?' What does that do to a child? Something like that happens at least once a month."

So Denise wrote the Bengals a letter expressing her appreciation to P.J. Combs, the club's assistant director of public relations and when Combs passed it on upstairs, the family got an invite to last Friday's practice.

"There was T.O. and Chad and Carson all there in the locker room and Adam tells him he can go see anyone and get their autograph," Mike says. "But he just wanted to hang around Adam's locker. He said, 'He's my friend. I want to be with him.' "

After the secondary set up Sean in their corner with a chair and gloves, after Bengals president Mike Brown told him to keep the ball Jones gave him to hold during practice, after most of the team came up to them during some point in the practice to call them by name and introduce themselves, after Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis let Sean break the huddle following practice, Denise tried to thank Jones. Thank him for letting her child feel normal and special at the same time.

And for the first time.

But she broke down.

"Nice people," Jones says. "His mom cried. I couldn't believe it. I know I've had some tough times. But not like Sean. Sean has had some really tough times. It's a miracle he's here."

But the tough times are still coming for Mr. Jones, which is what Denise called him in the e-mail thanking "Mr. Jones for being a gracious gentleman. ... You helped make Sean's summer truly memorable for years to come."

After he took Sean out on the field and let him chase him around after practice, Jones went to the hospital like he's done nearly day since Aug. 15 to attend to his own miracle.

That's when his daughter was born three months premature into a grim medical world of the unknown. But a month and a week later, he reports that Triniti Alexandra Jones is four pounds, one ounce and seems to be healthy and progressing.

"That's big. Four pounds is huge. When she was born she was just barely two pounds," Adam Jones says. "She pulled through. We don't know when she's coming home. Maybe in another week. Thank God. I've held her a few times, but not much. You know how hard it is to look at your baby and not be able to hold her?"

Such are the days now for a man once called the poster child for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's new personal conduct policy after a dozen legal incidents.

There is only time for football and family. If he's not at PBS, Jones is at the hospital, or with his four-year-old daughter, or back at his home with his fiancée before she goes back to the hospital for the night.

"She's practically living there," he says. "For me, football is a place where I can just do what I do and let me relax."

Jones doesn't want to reveal the hospital, but he says Triniti is in the best place she could be with the best doctors anywhere. More evidence that he and Cincinnati were meant to be.

"I've always said that there is always a reason you are where you are," he says. "This place has been great for me and my family. People have treated us with respect. It's a blessing. I continue to stand on my Bible."

The man once about town now tries to relax by bowling and fishing. His grandfather used to take him fishing when he was growing up in Atlanta and if it's one thing about Cincinnati he doesn't like, it's the river.

"I like to cook up the fish I catch," he says. "You can't eat the fish out of there."

Jones is fishing off a different bank these days, but he insists he has turned his life around since Goodell told him he had to or he wouldn't be back into the NFL after he was suspended for the 2007 season. He feels like his 2008 stint with the Cowboys has been misinterpreted and that the incident with a security guard that ended up getting him cut was overblown.

And then Jones had a lot of time to fish when no one signed him last year before Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer decided to give him a chance this spring at the urging of Deion Sanders.

"I've got to thank those guys. Zim. Coach (Kevin) Coyle. Coach Marv," Jones says. "They've helped prepare me so much."

His days right now, he says, are pretty much work and Triniti. When he got the call at training camp that she was coming too soon, he raced back to Cincinnati to be with his fiancée. But he knew he had to be calm.

"I'm the man of the family. They've got nobody but me," he says. "I knew I had to go in there and be strong for her because there's no one else."

Triniti may not be much bigger than the ball that Roger Goodell signed and never got to the hands of Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin on Sunday, but it is hers now. It's the first interception of the rest of his career.

And it came in front of Sean Antrobus.

After the practice invite came three tickets from Lewis for the Ravens game. Denise Antrobus, now an official Bengals convert who even sang the Who Dey song, had the hoarse voice to prove it.

"His teacher is a Bengals fan and on Monday he wanted to tell her about everything that had happened to him," she says. "So he asked Mike, 'Dad can you go to school with me today? No one will believe me.' So Mike went and, yeah, it ended up like being a show-and-tell. Sean talked to the class for about 10 or 15 minutes. And that had to make him feel so special, too."

It is turning out to be more than a little life lesson with an autographed hat. Sean's parents are teaching him that even if you make mistakes and bad decisions, what matters is what you do after to correct them.

But Sean is teaching everyone a lesson, too. Maybe even to Mr. Jones and his detractors. The people who just want to look at the face and make a judgment aren't worth it.

"We will certainly be praying for that baby," says Denise Antrobus after hearing the story of Triniti Alexandra Jones. "Mr. Jones has had such a positive impact on our son. His baby is in our prayers."

The exile, it appears, is officially done.

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