Bengals (from l to r) Dan Skuta, Nate Clements, Chris Lewis-Harris, Jeromy Miles, Taylor Mays, Daniel Herron, Emmanuel Lamur and Orson Charles pitch in at Freestore Foodbank on Tuesday.
It came down to just being able to eat real potatoes.
The lady fighting to get out of poverty had been grateful for the help she has had in the past. But after all the powdered stuff down through the years, she just wanted to sample the real thing and a Bengal that usually feasts on quarterbacks let her taste it.
"Michael Johnson," says Sherri Friedman, CEO of Most Valuable Kids, "is as generous as they come."
Johnson, the defensive end who counts the community as his turf as much as the line of scrimmage, is one of the Bengals that beat the calendar to the punch and celebrated Thanksgiving early on the team's off day Tuesday by fanning across Cincinnati.
Johnson spearheaded a group of teammates who met at the Kroger in Hyde Park on Tuesday night to help 31 families pay and shop for their holiday dinner. Meanwhile, Tuesday morning cornerback Nate Clements brought wife Melissa downtown to the Freestore Foodbank in Over-the-Rhine to join another contingent of teammates handing out bags of produce to clients streaming into the haven for 20,000 families in the Tri-State.
And another group on Tuesday night planned to headline the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at District Four police headquarters.
"These guys are really doing a good job getting out into the community," says former Bengals defensive lineman John Thornton. "They're giving back a lot of their time."
Thornton is still giving back three years after his retirement and has also found time to pass the torch to first Frostee Rucker and now Johnson. Thornton helped Friedman and Johnson stage Tuesday night's event with Johnson footing the bill for about 25 of the families and MVK supporting the rest. Fellow end Carlos Dunlap, safety Jeromy Miles, and linebacker Thomas Howard, well into the rehab for his torn ACL, also turned out to help.
"The great thing about it is that they get to choose the food they want for their meal; not everybody likes turkey," Thornton says. "Or, if they couldn't get there tonight, we could load up a cart and they could shop when they got the chance.
"And everybody got to interact with the players. They would help load the carts, or get stuff off the shelves, or help at checkout. A cool event. Sad stories, but they're people trying and grateful for what you do."
There was the family that just got burned out of their home a few weeks ago. Or the foster family with 12 children. Or the lady that simply broke down in tears when told she had been chosen for the shop. She was down to her last $25.
"One of the ladies was shopping for eight people," Thornton says, "and she said it was the first chance she had to cook for her entire family."
Freestore Foodbank President and CEO Kurt Reiber lives the stories every day. But these are the three days that define his organization's goal to feed the hungry. This Monday through Wednesday is its annual Thanksgiving holiday food box distribution where the Freestore Foodbank expects to provide boxes to nearly 20,000 families.
On Monday there were meals distributed to 2,934 families and 9,163 individuals, an eight-percent rise over the number of people served Monday last year.
On Tuesday morning the Bengals continued their tradition of the last quarter century by showing up to help distribute the food at the East Liberty Street facility. Mr. and Mrs. Clements, along with the very busy Jeromy Miles, fellow safety Taylor Mays, linebacker Dan Skuta, running back Daniel Herron, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, tight end Orson Charles, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, and director of player development Eric Ball, pitched in handing out bags stuffed with onions, apples, potatoes and onions.
"They connect with our families," Reiber says. "By coming down and helping, they're saying, 'it's going to be OK. You're going to get through this.' And it shines a bright light in the community and brings an awareness to the problem of hunger."
The annual Bengals Taste of the NFL in the spring at Paul Brown Stadium is one of the year's top fundraisers for the Freestore Foodbank and Reiber says, "It also gives us an opportunity to reach prospective sponsors. It's a partnership that works."
Reiber watched it work Tuesday as players helped carry meals to cars or carry in donations left on the sidewalk.
"To have people like Nate Clements and his wife show up and help us by giving up part of their day, that says so much," Reiber says.
Real people or real potatoes, the Bengals provided both on a day they were supposed to have a real off day.