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Safety Geno Stone Brings "A Sense Of Joy," To Revamped Bengals Secondary 

S Geno Stone
S Geno Stone

Geno Stone grew up tough, talented, and strong with a mother's single-minded devotion during a legendary high school career along the gritty Western Pennsylvania rust belt.

About 50 miles outside Pittsburgh, the coaches still talk about the night Stone quarterbacked New Castle to victory in a regional semi while rushing for five touchdowns and intercepting three passes.

"A fierce competitor. A brilliant competitor," says Ralph Blundo, Stone's basketball coach at New Castle High School, a father figure and one of his many influencers in one of those small towns that lives and dies Friday nights.

"Whatever team Geno is on, they win."

Like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, furious and fueled because he lasted until the last round of his draft, Stone shot from the back of the roster in Baltimore to be a league-leader.

Houshmandzadeh went from the 2001 seventh round and a string of inactives to sharing the 2007 NFL lead for catches. Stone, who spent the 2020 COVID Draft in various dens of despair (his bedroom, the car) before the call came in the seventh round, is coming off a season he led the AFC in interceptions after being cut twice.

"I took a step in my game last year, being in the right spots and taking advantage of my opportunity when the ball is in the air," says Stone, who began last year's run of seven interceptions with a rare red-zone pick of Joe Burrow in the second game of the year at Paycor.

"I had great coaches, great teammates that pushed me every day and made me better. I'm going to continue to do that."

Like Mike Hilton, Stone was a first-day free agent signing from an AFC North rival with a division title to his credit and whose Bengals' contract validated an overlooked career. The 5-9 Hilton arrived in Pittsburgh undrafted after the fates took him to Ole Miss. Even though he did it all for a two-time state championship team in Georgia, Clemson broke his heart and jilted him. Hilton has never let anyone forget it.

The 5-11 Stone had his heart set on Penn State, a program that spurned him despite a handful of visits to practices and games. After he chose Iowa over Kent State, he pick-sixed Penn State and Nittany Lions coach James Franklin had to tell him they missed on him.

"That was revenge. Absolutely, he's got a chip on his shoulder, so I think this contract represents the respect he deserves," Blundo says. "He's been effective at every level. He's done nothing but win. I think he thought, 'What else do I need to do in order to get the respect I've earned through hard work and doing things the right way?'"

Check out the best photos of S Geno Stone from his career so far.

Stone is careful to agree.

"You can say that. Me being who I am, I'm never going to get conceited," Stone says. "I was always doubted. I had one offer coming out of college. Went in the seventh round. No matter what my contract says, I always feel like I've got a chip on my shoulder because of where I came from and what I've been through. It made me who I am today and it's going to continue to make me who I am."

When Stone signed his two-year deal in March, he brought his mother Erin Stone, her fiancé, his grandfather and two little cousins. He made sure they were all with him on this biggest of days.

"He comes from a loving family. He has a sense of joy about him," Blundo says. "You'll see that his smile will light up a locker room. His personality is infectious."

Which is exactly what defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is looking for back there. A heady Type A personality quarterback looking to communicate his defense and stop the rash of big plays that plagued them last season. The word is in Baltimore once Stone got into the lineup regularly early last season, those big plays stopped.

"I'm a guy that's always been on the right page with the guys around me. Especially the coaches," Stone says. "No matter what the call is, what the game plan is, I make sure I talk it out. Make sure I'm in the right position at the right time. That's who I am and how I play."

How he plays isn't much different than how he played for Blundo on the way to the Pennsylvania quarterfinals. Using a complex offense and a pressing defense, Blundo knew with any substitution he could move Stone one spot over because he knew how to play all five positions in the heat of the moment.

So Stone, who had a 3.5 grade-point average and at one point was courted by the Ivy League, can easily walk you through the pick of Burrow.

"We were playing tight quarters in the red zone. I didn't really have any responsibility on the back side," Stone says. "I had Ja'Marr (Chase) on that side. Slant window presence over there and I was reading Joe. His eyes took me to the ball."

But here's the thing. Few quarterbacks hold their eyes as long as Burrow, so Stone used those innate instincts at the last instant to jump in front of wide receiver Tee Higgins at the goal line. Burrow made sure he told Stone, "Great disguise," after the game.

Stone knows all about Burrow because his good friend, former Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen, was Burrow's teammate at LSU.

"Great quarterback. One of the best in the league. I'm happy to play with him. He was one of the first ones on the team to reach out to me. I'm stoked about that," Stone says. "I've heard great things about him from Patrick Queen. A guy you know you can trust. Great guy in the locker room. Gives it his all on the field."

Burrow is a reason Stone took the deal.

"They're the team that wanted me the most and I wanted to go to a team that had a great quarterback, a great chance to win, to be a leader in the back end and play on a great defense," Stone says.

Back in New Castle, where Blundo says Sunday is a holiday in the town of 18,000 to watch favorite sons Stone and Cowboys safety Malik Hooker, there is another ritual. His sons are taking down their Ravens banner in their bedrooms and replacing it with a Bengals banner next to The Star.

"Imagine, two of the NFL's starting 64 safeties are from this little town," Blundo says.

Imagine, the man who broke Paycor's heart in September lifting it the next March.

"That's how those AFC North games go. A couple of plays," says Stone, who is looking to make a bunch more.