Freeze frame

You can still see a 20-year-old Travis Brammer owning the phone room at Wilmington College's old Bengals summer home.

Maybe he had just delivered a case of Orange Crush to Paul Brown's room. Or taken a message from David Fulcher's agent to Mike Brown. Or patiently explained to the Cincinnati Post's new beat man the ins and outs of training camp despite his foreign Boston accent and even stranger habit of showing up at all hours in the phone room.

When he wasn't doing all of the above, he was getting into the skies and filming practice and then labeling the VHS tapes. A West Virginia kid fed on Bengals and Reds fat and happy and doing anything that was asked.

And Brammer, that Marshall University junior who grew up from a jack of all trades to become the Bengals crackerjack video director, saw a freeze frame of himself all those years ago last week. From knee pads to iPads. When he heard about 20-year-old Declan Sullivan, the Notre Dame student manager killed while filming practice when the wind blew over his tower, he felt like he had lost a friend.

"I think we all looked at each other and thought the same thing," Brammer says of his staff that got on the lifts the next day. "It could have been us."

Brammer knows what it's like to be 20 years old and living the dream. He just has to call up the freeze frame.

"You want to be doer. You want to be a pleaser. You're with your boyhood heroes and you don't want to let anybody down," he says. "You get so excited and caught up in everything that you forget about your own safety. Then you get older, you've got a wife and a couple of kids and you start to realize…"

Brammer feels badly because Sullivan is never going to grow up to have those wife and kids. And Sullivan was one of them even though Brammer never met him. This is how it is in the tight knit world of NFL video.

When the Dolphins were in here Sunday, they needed a connector for a monitor and the Bengals gave them one even though they were trying to short-circuit them on the field. The Steelers come in here Monday night looking to black out the Bengals season, but their assistant video guy, Andy Lizanich, has gone fishing with Brammer in West Virginia. Marty Heksher, Brammer's counterpart with the Colts, drives down from Indianapolis for lunch during the offseason and Brammer repays the visit next month.

"You should see us at the scouting combine in Indy," Brammer says. "All 32 of us walking down the street to go to dinner. I don't know of any other group in the league that hangs together like that. It's a special group to be a part of. Just to be a part of the NFL is special."

Leave it to Mike Perkins, the Jaguars video coordinator, to come up with the idea. He copied off stickers with Sullivan's initials of DDS inside a shamrock and sent them to all the NFL video departments. Like everyone else, the Bengals put one on each camera and Brammer stuck one on the door of their office.

Video guys are an eclectic mix. A.V. nerds, former jocks, film majors, engineer brains, computer geeks. But they all love football and they all love to say "I can do…" Digital handymen. And they are the lucky student managers that never grew up.

"Dream job," Brammer says.

Even the Monday morning after the Cleveland game last month. Brammer got a 4:45 a.m. call from defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The apologetic Zimmer explained he was in the office trying to get jump-started on the Tampa Bay planning and his computer couldn't get him to the tape. Brammer made the dash from Anderson Township by 5:30, saw that the network hadn't been turned on yet after a semiannual power shutdown, and realized he didn't know the combination to the lock protecting the servers. So he climbed over the fence and flipped the switch.

Done.

Earlier this season, they found a way to hook up Domata Peko's iPad with video cutups of the defensive line. They stock the players' laptops with video files. Brammer, his assistant Kent Stearman, and assistants Scotty Fitch and Stanton Gilliland are always on call. They rotate nights until the last coach leaves.

"I hope I thanked Zim; I think I did," Brammer says. "I was glad that I was able to get a head start on it so there weren't any more problems. That's kind of how you think. Time is so constrained and everyone is on such a tight schedule that you don't want to hold the team back."

That was the mindset when Brammer and his guys checked out the weather last Wednesday. They always meet before practice, before they put the two lifts in the air to film. Do they need rain gear? What is the order of the drills? Who is on which camera?

How fast is the wind?

"It was in the high teens; higher than normal," Brammer says. "We've got a cutoff at about 28 miles per hour, so it was pretty much what we always do. If you don't feel comfortable about it, come down. It was actually worse the next day."

By then, the world knew about Sullivan's death. That morning, Brammer and the staff were called up to Bengals president Mike Brown's office and Brown told them what he's been telling Brammer for 20 years.

"Mike's always told me not to put myself at risk, especially lightning," Brammer says. "He put it on me. He doesn't want it to be the head coach's responsibility. Don't let anybody influence you. Unstable ground, lightning, wind, whatever it is. If we feel our life is in danger, get down, no questions asked. Always err on the side of caution."

Brammer has had the same don't-be-a-hero relationship with head coach Marvin Lewis. There have been days at training camp at Georgetown College when Lewis has grounded the crew just because of a threat of lightning even when the team was on the field.

He always talks to Lewis before practice when weather is a factor, so they huddled again Thursday and the same safety-first message was passed. Then Brammer, Stearman, Fitch and Gilliland clambered up the lifts, 40 feet on the sidelines, 32 feet in the end zone.

"The coaches like that high view," he says. "It gives them a good view of the formations."

It's a long way from the days in Wilmington, the lightning capital of Ohio. Brammer remembers one practice when the lightning flashed all around him. Until a bolt crackled into the ground in front of the team did anyone think to tell Brammer it was OK to stop filming and to get down.

"Of course I was scared," he says. "It's just a lot different now. When I was really scared of heights is when you'd go shoot at the old stadiums. Climbing through a ladder at RFK, getting up on a roof and walking across a roof where there was no fence. In Cleveland, there wasn't much room between the camera and the dropoff to the stands. In old Riverfront in the cold, you'd be shooting on a patch of ice. Now, the new stadiums were built with video in mind so you've got booths for the most part."

He shakes his head. He not only has a wife and two kids, he's got three guys working for him.

"The whole thing has forced everyone to take a step back," he says.

It is just one of the reasons a 40-year-old Brammer has stuck the DDS patch on his laptop.

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