Finding a home game

Posted: 11:45 p.m.

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Thornton

John Thornton, the Bengals' resident webmaster, has not only redesigned JT97.com this offseason but he has reconfigured his body while also recharging his fight against autism.

Yet he hasn't touched his home page. Cincinnati is his family's screensaver now that he and wife Allison are about to move into a house they're building a click away from where they live in Indian Hill. But even though Thornton may be an incurable Internet surfer, he's not what you usually find on Google.

"If I end my career in say, San Francisco, my wife says I'll go by myself and she'll stay here," says Thornton, who loves to sun in Scottsdale and fun in Vegas. "But this is our home. A lot of guys squint up and look at me when I say that, but this is the best place for my family."

When you conjure up NFL players these days in cyberspace, John Thornton and Friends (the name of the bowling event) aren't what you're going to find most of the time.

First of all, Thornton's Friends aren't just football players. Many of them are people he and Allison have met while living here and they banded together to foot the bill for his annual "Bowling For Autism" this past weekend, one of those rare charity events that didn't need a big-time mega corporate sponsor.

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Second of all, two of his teammates wrote spur-of-the-moment checks during Friday night's pre-bowl downtown party at McFadden's. With the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati picking up the tab for the first hour, defensive end Robert Geathers and kicker Shayne Graham each kicked in $2,000 to cover the rest of the night.

And third of all, Thornton asked the Cincinnati police to come and they gladly joined an event that included about a dozen Bengals.

"Just to make sure there were no problems and that everyone was having a good time," Thornton says. "We had two policemen (one in uniform, one not) and it was great. We've never had a problem with those guys and they were a big help this weekend."

If this doesn't sound like a recent NFL story it's not, because it's also about Judy Newport and her 17-year-old son Jeremy. When Jeremy was diagnosed with autism at three years old, he was one of 10,000 children who had been identified with the disease.

Now, after Jeremy just finished another year mainstreamed into the Madeira pubic schools, the number is one out of every 150 children.

"That's the most alarming thing and we're not all that much closer to knowing what causes it and there's certainly no cure," Judy Newport says. "And, yes, it's a hard thing for people to empathize with because so little is known and everything is new. Everything blazes a trail.

"So it's crucial for there to continue to be fundraising and awareness."

Which is why Newport, who is the office administrator for the Autism Society, calls Thornton "a gift thrown right into our laps."

But Thornton, who has missed one game in just four seasons as the Bengals starting defensive tackle, is no lap dog.

Just like his calls-em-as-he-sees-em interviews with the media ("We won't have the distractions of contracts this season," he says) and his observations on his site's "The Lounge," ("I hate the word 'blog') he has gone after autism. It's the fourth year he's hosted the bowling event and combined with last fall's Vegas night that doubled as his 30th birthday party, he figures he's raised about $140,000 for the society.

"And he called us, which is so amazing because we tried with the Bengals and Reds to find someone," Newport says. "He and Allison have put together so many wonderful events. It's one of our biggest fundraisers each year. To have a celebrity face with this has meant so much."

When John was playing for the Titans, the Thorntons feared the older of their two sons, now six, showed symptoms of autism. It turned out to be merely colic but after delving into the research, Thornton felt, "We didn't want to turn our backs on them. They had no state funding to send out newsletters or anything like that," and so they got involved with the Nashville chapter before transferring their interests when he signed with the Bengals in 2003.

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That was no minor transaction for people like Newport. The last four lanes at Princeton Bowl are always reserved for families of autistic children who can bowl for free. At some point Thornton will wander down the alley with T-shirts and chat with the families, giving the kids, particularly the siblings, a thrill.

"For a lot of families, it's the only time they can do something like bowl," Newport says. "Either because of the cost or because of the comfort of the environment. If there is a problem, and the child has a meltdown, or if they make odd sounds, they don't have to have people looking at them thinking, 'Why can't they control their child?' because everyone here is friendly and understanding."

But Thornton isn't going to stop here. His sprawling network ("I have two Blackberrys; one for work and one for fun," he says) in the Cincinnati area has revealed to him "Project Connect," an organization that represents homeless children.

"I think you're going to see us partner up with them and give money to them as well," says Thornton as he prepares for another Vegas/Birthday Night. "I want to do more with kids. I'd like to get into fitness and go into the schools."

Since this is Thornton we're talking about, that's all very logical. Some of the reasons Cincinnati is the place to settle is that it's a three-hour drive from Allison's family in West Virginia and a 90-minute flight to Thornton's people in Philadelphia.

After toying with being an agent in his post-playing career, Thornton has decided on being a kind of super sports consultant for kids.

"Send them to trainers, get them set up with coaches, get them ready for the next step if they want," Thornton says. "Next summer I'm going to have a camp for defensive linemen and it will be things like that."

You can find that, too, on JT97.com, where Thornton sends a not so subtle message with a home page that features him in a suit. This isn't the old Bengals Central site of a few years ago.

"When I send people there, I want them to see the business side of me," he says.

And the site is some business, some entertainment, but not as much football as a few years ago. The redesign canned the message boards because he discovered a) it's not a great idea to read what people think about you, and b) it didn't take much to strike up a controversy.

Like when Thornton wrote that he thought Matthias Askew could be a fine player and eventually replace him as the starter and it got turned into a newspaper headline that Thornton wanted out.

"Nobody ever asked me about it; they just ran with it," Thornton says. "Why would you want to get out? We were something like 11-3. I honestly felt that way. If Matthias wanted it badly enough, he could have."

Alas, Askew didn't want it enough and was released last summer.

Thornton still offers football opinions in "The Lounge," but there are now more observations about more things off the field and more personal glimpses.

But you won't find anything like Judy Newport glimpsed a few years ago.

"Oh yes, Jeremy loves going to see the Reds and
Bengals," she says when asked if her son likes sports. "We don't know how much he understands, but we can tell he's fascinated by all the activity."

Because of the cost, a Bengals game is a rarity. But a few years ago Thornton gave her some tickets.

"I don't know which game it was, but there were jets that flew in above the field just before it started," Newport says. "You could just see the excitement on his face and what it meant for him to be there."

THORNTON UNPLUGGED:

Thornton is the true 21st-century player, wired into the game in all aspects. Besides his web site, JT97.com, he makes frequent appearances on SIRIUS radio and is a frequent visitor on local sports talk shows.

Here is Thornton unplugged:

Two years ago, you used the word "implosion" after the playoff game. Don't you think you guys imploded again in the last three games last year? JT:
Not in the same way. We had some games where we didn't take advantage of a lot of stuff. I like where we are as a team right now and I thought we came together the last couple of weeks of practice (earlier this month).

I think we're more mature as a team. The coaching staff and most of us have been together now going into our fifth year. I like where guys are in their careers and we don't have the contract issue.

Last year, we had pretty much the whole offensive line up and guys like Tory (James). There were a good eight guys in that category. It's something that doesn't come up on the field, but you know guys are worried about it. I think more people are focused on football now.

I've been in that situation before. They sign a guy who is a similar player than you, and now you're wondering what's going on. But when you let it spill over into the team, you can't let that happen. I don't think we have that now. Justin (Smith) is franchised, some guys have left the team. I don't think it's going to be a problem now.

What are you working on over the offseason? JT:
My whole game is playing on effort. I'm not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but I'm going to hustle on every play and I like to think I'm consistent. I changed my body. I'm the same weight (anywhere between 285 and 295), but I cut my body fat.

I look totally different. I've never been fat, but guys were giving it to me pretty good. You know how they take a picture of every coin toss? I was a captain late in the season and it was cold and I looked big. I always say it's my uniform. I think I'll look good in my uniform now.

It's funny. I'm a better player than I was in Tennessee, but that's not how it's perceived. I guess they think, 'bad player on a bad defense,' but I don't think that's it in either case. If you ask me, there's no comparison. I've been a much better player here.

I'm a team player, but I would like to be a little bit more selfish this year and make more big plays.

I'm pretty much watching what I eat. I love what (strength coaches) Chip (Morton) and Ray (Oliver) do. They're really fantastic. What I've also done this year is go to different people around the city and get more work in after I'm with Chip and Ray at the stadium.

As you get older, that's what you have to do. That's how guys play 14 years. I left the stadium (Monday) morning and I took (defensive end) Frostee (Rucker) with me for another workout. He couldn't believe it.

You like what you see from Frostee, don't you? JT:
Yeah. I don't think he's an end. I think he can be a dominating inside player. Put him in a three technique over the guard. He's two inches shorter, but he reminds me of Kevin Carter. He's a hard guy to block.

I've seen some fans saying the D-line won't be as good without Sam Adams. JT:
I don't think we'll be worse. Sam was a very big part of our short yardage defense and we'll miss that. Sam was still quick and still a great player and our most talented player. But I think he took only two reps in the spring and training camp. I don't think that was an issue (with other players), but with his knee injury it was hard for him to keep the weight off.

We've got two guys (Michael Myers and Kenderick Allen) that will make up for his loss. Mike is a versatile guy who can play both inside and outside. Kenderick probably has the best hands on the team.

What is the biggest misconception about this defense? JT:
I don't know. I do know when you have a second half like we had against San Diego (giving up 42 points), it skews your whole season statistically, and everything else. That ruined our season. It defined us.

Just look at it. In the first half we did everything right. Against the best team in football at the time. What? (Running back) LaDainian (Tomlinson) had (26 yards) in the first half, then we go out and do that, and then almost shut out Baltimore. It's crazy. It's more mental. We, and I'm talking about everybody on defense, have to be more consistent.

You're a guy obviously committed to the community. Does it upset you that this team is known more for its arrests than anything else? JT:
What can you do about it? When we went to Indianapolis, they had signs in the stands that said, "Colts vs. Convicts." It can bring a team together.

We've got five knuckleheads on this team and a couple of them have had a bad run of it that has really gotten people's attention. You can't stereotype everybody.

A guy like Chris Henry has to expect the attention he's getting.

You say you've been pretty outspoken about Odell Thurman on your web site. JT:
Yeah. I hope the Bengals give him another chance (if he's reinstated next month.) As long as he's clean. They deserve that. They've taken the heat for him. It wouldn't be right if he makes it big somewhere else after these guys took all the heat for it.

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