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Finding a niche


Wallace Gilberry

This is what Wallace Gilberry does.

He's a big, gregarious bear of a defensive end who engages any life form in his path and that's a pretty wide swath. From huge NFL tackles to a tiny six-year-old child cuter than anything this side of Nick at Nite.

"What's your name?" asks Gilberry, leaning down and gently nudging the bashful kid's face toward him. "Look at me when I'm talking to you."

The kid tells him and quickly averts his gaze when he tags on the name of his school.

"Look at me when you're shaking my hand," says Gilberry, leaning down with arm outstretched. "I'm Wallace from Alabama."

Wallace from Alabama is right at home Tuesday for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati's annual punt, pass and kick festival.

"When you've been told your whole career you're not big enough or fast enough, it kind of does something to you. So I use it to my advantage," Gilberry says.

He surveys the sprawling greensward behind the Marge Schott-Unnewehr Club in Covington, Ky., filled with folks who don't mind getting engaged. Starting with four of his Bengals teammates, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Dane Sanzenbacher, and cornerback Brandon Ghee.

And Gilberry agrees. These kids probably feel a little bit of the same thing.

"In a certain sense. I'm sure if not, they will be told that because you're from this area, your chances aren't much," Gilberry said. "I look at it like this. God made everyone for a reason. He doesn't make mistakes."

Along with the players there are also the lead volunteers, Bengals executive vice president and Boys and Girls Clubs board member Katie Blackburn, along with her tag-team partner Cindy Barton, the outgoing outgoing chairman of the board looking very much like she was sticking around as they led the agility drills.

And there are even people not here who are engaged. Green-Ellis showed up, but there are some long faces because his girlfriend, Jade Morrell, didn't.

"She had a conflict," The Law Firm announces. "She would have loved to have been here."

She will be at some point. Blackburn recruited Morrell for this event last year when they met at a luncheon and the rest is history. Morrell is currently involved in the Boys and Girls Clubs Teen Program at the Lower Price Hill site working with "Diplomas to Degrees," a nation-wide effort emphasizing post–secondary education for the at-risk children and disadvantaged youth that compose the Boys and Girls Club afterschool program.

"Jade's great," says Bill Bresser, director of program development for the 11 clubs scattered through Cincinnati. "She met our Youth of the Year at this event last year and they kept in touch and she demanded that Jade become her mentor. She's at the University of Kentucky now, but they still talk. Jade wanted to help with the program over at Lower Price Hill and she's well known to our kids. They love her."

This is Gilberry's kind of crowd. Ever since he came over from Tampa Bay about this time last year, he's always seemed to be involved when he takes his snaps in the now famous Bengals defensive line rotation and is one of the few vocal ones in the row of D-line lockers.

Gilberry had a quiet 6.5 sacks last season in securing an under-the-radar three-year deal and he's right back where he left off when he caused the Packers some discomfort Sunday in Cincinnati's 34-30 victory. It may not have been as obvious as the tipped passes of ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the last two plays of the game. But when he lined up for that last snap next to Geno Atkins inside, Gilberry had a half-sack and three tackles in 45 snaps, believed to be his most as a Bengal.

"He plays hard. He's got a little attitude about him," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said Monday. "I wish he was a little bit consistent in everything he does. But he's been a good addition for us."

Gilberry admits, "I don't know how many plays. My whole thing is to get in there and make the best of it. If I'm going to make mistakes, I want to make them fast. And going hard. It's kept me in the league for six years, making plays."

He's got his No. 95 stamped on the tires of his truck jacked up as high as Point Clear, Ala., which is where he was a celebrity captain in Ken Stabler's charity golf tournament this past year in his home of Baldwin County.

"Doesn't that look like someone from Alabama's truck?" he asks.

But after not getting the call in the 2008 draft and working on his fourth team, Gilberry says the Bengals are the first place where "I'm not just a number. I feel wanted and not needed."

One of the older kids asks Gilberry if he's one of the guys that tipped those passes at the end of Sunday's thrilling ride.

"No, that was No. 93 and 96. I'm No. 95," he says. "They're as tall as those trees over there."

It gets Gilberry shaking his head about practice and what he and his teammates do with position coach Jay Hayes.

"We do the ball drill and some days we're like, 'Jay, why are we doing this?' It paid off that whole game. The (offensive linemen) were trying to cut us the whole game and I don't think anyone got cut the whole game. Just staying on our feet, fighting through the cut block."

Kind of like what the Boys and Girls Clubs do every day.

Justin Rogers is the health and physical education coordinator, but he's a hands-on guy with a handy title and he needed plenty of hands to stage Tuesday's event. The group figures there were about 200 kids with about 15 each getting bussed in from the 10 other sites around Cincinnati. It was a reward for the kids, ranging from attendance to grades to behavior. As he collected the final results, and a bunch of footballs, not to mention some stray articles of clothing, Rogers pronounced it a success.

"For these kids? It's a big deal. A huge deal to have an opportunity to come over here," Rogers says. "They're coming from all over. Avondale. Over-the-Rhine. Lower Price Hill. A lot of those clubs don't have the green space we have over here. It gives them a chance to run around a little bit after being in school all day. And they get a chance to interact with Bengals players. When are they going to get a chance like that?"

Ghee is throwing the ball around as the automatic quarterback in one group. Over in another group, Green-Ellis is helping with the pass, punt and kick mechanics, sometimes putting the tee down along with some encouragement and pointers. Any kid that asks what position he plays, Sanu answers with anyone but wide receiver.

"So am I," he says, putting his arm around The Law Firm when a kid asks Green-Ellis what position he plays. "I'm a running back, too."

Basically it is kids running around screeching, throwing the ball around, getting chased, and asking the big guys for their autographs.

"I always like to say we're giving the kids an opportunity to place them on a level playing field by giving them an opportunity that they may not have had otherwise that other kids have," Rogers says. "After school we make sure they get a snack and a USDA-approved hot meal. There are computer labs, tutors for homework, different events and games. Just recently we had a backpack challenge and a lot of kids got free school supplies. Something like this out here, they eat it up."

Gilberry gets involved when he can. He's been known to put on charity basketball games and golf tournaments in the hometown where he still lives, Bay Minette, Ala., just on the outskirts of Mobile.

"I'm a country guy; not the city," he says.

That's where Gilberry grew up with five siblings and his mother who worked at least two jobs at a time. He never met his father. He didn't get looked at much in high school at Baldwin County, but by the time he left the University of Alabama he was second to the great Derrick Thomas in career tackles for loss.

"I had to grow up fast in some aspects," he says. "My mom made sure we had clothes on our backs and food on the table."

It has always been a hotbed of football. It's not hard to put on a celebrity tournament down there when guys like Julio Jones are around the corner.

"I saw all those guys growing up, so I know what it feels like when kids are looking at us now," Gilberry says.

He throws the ball, he signs shirts and notepaper, he shakes some hands. The kids are into it.

"It's nice," he says. "They were out ready to have a good time."

He notices that Blackburn and Barton are at the other end of the field running the obstacle course, so he heads down.

"They were by themselves and we had four guys up here doing nothing" he says. And, before you know it, he's running the thing complete with a stopwatch.

"You just have to find your niche," Gilberry says. "It may not be football. It may be a street sweeper. Then be the best street sweeper you can be. That's how I look at it."

He walks back to the No. 95 truck and smiles when asked if he's found his niche after six seasons and four teams.

"I'm still working on it," says Wallace from Alabama.

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