Going home


Brad St. Louis

Posted: 8:10 p.m.

It was the week of the first Father's Day without him and that had been as tough as Brad St. Louis expected.

But it was also the week Mike St. Louis' son put on one of the best shows the kids of Belton, Mo., had ever seen when he hosted a free football camp on the field he took his first long snap.

"It was awesome; everybody had a blast," says Tater of the Brad St. Louis Sports Festival. "My son said to me, 'Dad, I know you play catch with me, but when you get an actual NFL tight end showing you how to catch, that's better. How many of these kids are ever going to get a chance to say that?' "

That would be Jonathan Hayes, the Bengals tight ends coach. In fact, when he caught those balls for the Kansas City Chiefs he lived close enough to Belton that when St. Louis and The Tater were kids they knew his house and would walk by in awe. In fact, when St. Louis was in junior high his future varsity football coach, Mark McDonald, introduced the future Bengals long snapper to Hayes at a Chiefs charity basketball game at Belton.

Hayes, who has never lost his size or fierceness, had the kids going 20 years later.

"They were saying, 'We'd be scared to play for him,' " says St. Louis, laughing over the phone Thursday as his family vacation continues. "Somebody would drop a ball, and they were doing pushups."

There were 160 kids grades one through eight, about 140 boys for the camp and about 20 girls for the cheerleading class. St. Louis also brought in two nutritionists from a Kansas City hospital to talk to the campers about health and nutrition, which is the thrust of his foundation.

A long snapper may be a depth-chart asterisk for some fans, but not in Belton, where St. Louis is their lone NFL player.

"It means a lot to kids to see a guy like that come back here; a celebrity type," McDonald says. "Yes, he was a good player, but he was a better person. Great character. As time goes by, hopefully this happens every year."

St. Louis put Hayes in charge of the receiving station. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham and punter Kevin Huber had the kickers, of course.  McDonald, now retired, had the linebackers. Tater, who played on the Pirates defensive line back at 5-8, 200 pounds when Brad St. Louis was catching 11 career TDs and current head coach Kevin Keeton played, had the defensive linemen.

"I don't think Brad had a station," Tater says. "He just walked around with an air horn or something. But he seemed great. He was having a good time being back and seeing everybody."

They have Tater's son, Hayden, a fullback/inside linebacker in seventh grade, to thank for that.

"We got to talking about what opportunity his son had to go to camps around here and there just wasn't much," says St. Louis, who puts one on in Cincinnati every year with the same theme of nutrition and health. "So we got it going like that. With the NFL grant program, it was a big help and it wasn't that hard to pull off."

Plus, it was time to come home. There always seems to be a time do that in small cities and towns, and Belton, 20 miles south of Kansas City, is an American small town mecca of about 20,000 that was named a 2009 All-America city finalist.

So it figures that St. Louis is married to his high school sweetheart and he and Michelle have six-year-old Lance and four-year-old Kellen, little guys that were romping around Tuesday even if they weren't official campers.

"Tater," whose real name is Stephen Eatinger, works for the Belton Water Department ("I'm looking for a valve right now," he says), but by night he's known as Tate Stevens, a country singer who puts the an edgy Skynyrd zing into his guitar.

But at all times he is one of St. Louis' closest friends. And everyone knows of everybody it seems in places like Belton, and when Mike St. Louis died suddenly and cruelly in a bike accident two weeks before the Bengals opened the last training camp, it hit the community hard.

"It's coming up on a year; July 15," Brad St. Louis says of that day in Mike's retirement neighborhood of Sun Lakes, Ariz., when the parked garbage truck loomed out of nowhere on the curve.

"When he was the principal here, he did so much for the school," he said. "People loved him. Father's Day was tough. And you come back to the school and there are pictures of him. But it was good to see everybody again and remember the good times."

When Mike St. Louis arrived at Belton in the early '80s, the school was ranked last in academics in its metropolitan area. He took it to the Gold Star, Missouri's highest school honor. Along the way, he coached youth football and started the Belton little league wrestling program, which produced a heavyweight state champion named Brad St. Louis.

"I was lucky to have two parents and they were so different," he says. "My mom was the nurturing one. My dad was the stern one. That's where I get my competitiveness."

Mike St. Louis, an All-American tackle at Central Missouri State who got drafted by the Redskins and ended up playing two years in Canada, never got the competitiveness out of his system. Here he was 64 years old and had sired a son who has only missed five games in a decade of NFL football and he was still challenging him.

Brad remembers the first time he beat his father in anything. He was 15 and it was a set of tennis. When he took a badminton course at Southwest Missouri State, Brad didn't tell him because he knew Mike would practice before Brad sprung a game on him. When Mike got beat in a casual game of table tennis by a guy at his club, he took a class and ended up winning the club championship.

He reminds himself of the fire every day when he sees his father's picture in his locker. It is Mike's favorite picture, a black-and-white photo of the captains' coin toss before a Central Missouri Homecoming Game. 

"Cornhole frustrated him," Brad says. "I brought it back from Cincinnati and we'd play it every Fourth of July. He had a tough time with it."

Then Mike would bring out the hammer:

The bike. The one he'd ride 10,000 miles per year.

"Once a year he'd take me out; we'd ride for 15 miles," Brad St. Louis says. "For him, it was nothing. He did 40 miles a day. But he punished me. I think it was his way of saying, 'The Old Man still has you.' "

In more ways than one now, Brad St. Louis is "The Old Man."

Not only does he have right guard Bobbie Williams beat by a month with his Aug. 19, 1976 birth date to be the oldest Bengal, but he's the only Bengal left that played in the Paul Brown Stadium opener 144 games ago.

"He taught me how to set goals," St. Louis says. "He always had goals. When he turned 70, he wanted to be one of the top three (bike) riders in the country for that age."

His son sets goals every year. "Three short-term goals and three long-term goals," but he keeps them private in the bureau next to his bed.

And that's a good way to describe Brad St. Louis. He's quiet, keeps to himself, and grinds away in statistical and media anonymity in football's most underestimated position.

The best case for his consistency are his games played. If he plays another 16-game season, he'll slip ghost-like past the iconic franchise images of Willie Anderson and Tim Krumrie with the fourth longest consecutive games played streak in club history at 128.

"Brad doesn't say much, that's for sure," Tater says. "If you know him, he'll open up but he pretty much stays to himself. There was no question that he'd step in on something like this. He wants to do whatever he can to help kids. His message was simple: I'm from here, you're from here. If you work hard, you can do this."

Tate Stevens has never written a song about his friend, but the title of his CD "Do What I Do," sums up St. Louis' career. In the last two springs the Bengals have signed young long snappers, but he remains. After the last day of minicamp Saturday, they cut Florida's James Smith, a rookie free agent that impressed with his coverage skills but whose snaps proved to be not as accurate as those of St. Louis.

"It's part of the business. If he asked for help, or had a question, I'd help him," St. Louis says. "I think if a teammate asks you for help, I think you have to do that. It's what you should do."

"I don't really look at the other guys," he says of the competition. "I'm just worried about myself and making sure I do what I have to do."

If there is anyone who has a feel what this locker room and team has been through, it is the Bengals' longest long snapper.

"It was about the most intense and up-tempo OTAs I can remember," St. Louis says of the just completed spring.

After the camp, St. Louis took Graham and Huber into Kansas City's Power and Light District for dinner before sending them home. Tater couldn't make it because Hayden had a baseball game.

Maybe next year.

In the tradition of Mike, Brad will be trying to top it.

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