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Food for thought

After taking a few steps along Liberty Street Tuesday, Eric Henderson finally convinced the young woman to let him carry the bag of produce as well as the turkey and chicken.

"We used to have to come to a place like this and this was my job," Henderson is saying after loading it into the backseat of a car about three blocks down from the Freestore Foodbank. "I was the big football player, so my grandmother took me down to carry the food."

This is why Henderson has come here every Tuesday before Thanksgiving all three years he's played with the Bengals. It's why he volunteered this year even though he's missed the last two games with a neck injury. It's why he told another lady who wouldn't let him carry the bag, "Independent and strong. I like that."

Nate Livings lends a helping hand. (Alex Bell photo)
"I know what these people are going through," Henderson is saying. "They're good people. They just need some help. And to be able to do a little bit for them, it's a blessing."

It has become a Cincinnati staple now every Tuesday before Thanksgiving when a group of about 15 Bengals helps Cincinnati's Freestore Foodbank hand out food to the needy for the holiday. Eric Ball, the Bengals director of player relations, has fashioned some pretty good consecutive game streaks.

Left tackle Levi Jones hasn't missed one of these in his seven years in the league. Running back Kenny Watson is 6-for-6 in his Bengals career. Kicker Shayne Graham and center Eric Ghiaciuc haven't missed in awhile, either, and right tackle Stacy Andrews has been here three straight.

"I've got my regulars and I'm weaving in some young guys," says Ball, nodding to rookie left tackle Anthony Collins manning one of the scales that weighs each family order.

Most of the guys are in the back stuffing grocery bags with apples, onions and potatoes. Watson, wielding a box knife, and Graham are throwing bags of onions and apples down to Jones as he grabs two bags of potatoes at a time with some sweat beading across his face. Tight end Nate Lawrie comes in for relief.

"I've been back here for the past two years because I've been banged up," says Jones, nursing a leg injury that kept him out of the Pittsburgh game. "Here, open these bags for me."

Helping them out is Bill Foster, another volunteer and big Bengals fan who runs a Norwood, Ohio unloading business. He's also been here in years past, but this time he brought his two sons.

"I see a lot of these guys out (working in the city) all the time," Foster says. "Shayne is everywhere. Levi. They're good for the community. I don't care what they say."

Stacy Andrews helps load a car with food. (Alex Bell photo)
Yes, Foster says, Jones could unload for him. But he catches him taking a rare break and offers with a straight face, "Good worker, but I don't think he'd last long with his hands in his pockets."

Henderson is out front with center Dan Santucci, linebacker Darryl Blackstock, and his fellow defensive end, Jonathan Fanene. After each family places an order, it is weighed and Collins puts it on the counter and tells a man logging it into a computer the weight before another volunteer or player like Henderson picks it up to carry out.

The size of the order depends on the size of the family. Myrita Craig, the bank's public relations director, says as of 11:26 a.m. Tuesday they had waited on 3,745 people.

Ham. Turkey. Chicken. Produce. Canned goods.

You can always get a read on the economy one of two ways: The electoral college in a presidential election or the need for the basics of food and shelter.

"We saw a spike yesterday," Craig says, "of 19 percent over the first day of Thanksgiving week last year."

It got Henderson thinking about the days back in the West Bank of New Orleans, where his mother, Ramona, died of breast cancer when he was 10 and he and his brother and sister moved in with his elderly grandmother who couldn't work and now had to care for three children.

He remembers going to a place like this on a monthly basis to get assistance for the necessities, like cheese, butter, oatmeal and cereal on those trips he would carry the bag for his grandmother.

Henderson remembers how on Thanksgiving she could stretch food stamps like Carson Palmer stretches the field.

"She could make a dollar go a long way, now," Henderson says. "I thought there was food coming out of everywhere. But she knew how to do it. She's the one who taught me how to be smart and not be wasteful with what you're doing."

Before she died, Ramona told him he had to make sure that his siblings, Erica and James, were going to be OK. And that became pretty tough when his grandmother died Eric's senior year in high school and his aunt died a year later.

When James graduated from high school, Henderson wanted to get him away from the bad influences and snuck him into his dorm room at Georgia Tech after signing him up at Atlanta's DeKalb Technical College so he could see a role model live.

"I do what I can for them now," Henderson says. "But it's tough out there. You do what you have to do. I'm not ashamed to say there were times I needed a lift."

Henderson still believes and carries the boxes and bags even though the fates have been unkind to him in the pros. He spent his first year on the practice squad. A promising second year after a switch to linebacker that would have given him loads of playing time got wiped out in the preseason with a badly broken wrist.

Then this year he moved back to end and ended up on the practice squad until last month, when he finally made his NFL debut and looked good in two games. But with two defensive ends going on injured reserve and more playing time beckoning, he himself has been hurt again and is hoping to pass some tests to get back on the field.

"I don't call it bad luck," Henderson says. "I call it strengthening. It just makes you stronger. I don't think just anybody could go through what I've been through. I'm built like this for a reason. I can handle it."

Sgt. Cassandra Tucker of the Cincinnati police is working the giveaway for the fifth straight year. She usually works District 2 but likes to work here in downtown's District 1 during the holidays because she sees a lot of joy.

She likes to see the benefits for everybody and she saw them again Tuesday morning. The mothers who bring the sons so the Bengals can sign footballs and the lady who simply walked out of the place with her order and burst into tears because she was so thankful to have it.

And as Henderson took another box, he gave thanks, too.

"A great feeling," he says. "Awesome."

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