Leon Hall is finally letting himself get into the Christmas spirit these days.
It is easy to do when you're one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and holding your 18-month-old son who has same name but more hair and you're standing in the middle of the Kenwood Toys"R"Us leading some of your Bengals teammates through a shopping spree for some of your friends from the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky for boys 7-17.
It's a little bit easier to have the spirit now than those days growing up in Vista, Calif., on the hard edge of San Diego, where home was a fleeting concept and not an address. He swears he lived in every apartment complex up and down that one side of Apple Street as he and his older sisters coped with the sudden death of their one parent. Hall was just 12 when Judith May Green passed at 38 in her sleep from heart failure.
"I admire him so much,' says Jessica Hall, his wife who led him to this kids home. "I can't imagine what it was like."
"It's as hard as you would think it is; and harder because there is more to it," Hall says. "My sisters, my uncle, we all went through it together. That made it easier. If that's easier. I just didn't get into Christmas very much when I was growing up. I'm starting to now."
On Monday night, Jessica and Leon Hall and others are making it easier for about 15 children from the Children's Home. They have recruited cornerback Morgan Trent and his wife Lizette, as well as rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee and running back Clint Boling, to treat each child to $100 worth of toys.
Or, if you're in Benson's group of three, he'd let you have three toys each and he'll cover the difference, too.
"That's right. That's right. Now they're figuring it out," says Benson with a smile as 15-year-old Noeh asks if he can take one item out of the cart so he can replace it with iPod earphones.
A few minutes earlier, Benson watched Noeh use one of his presents to buy a doll for his sister, turning 10 on Thursday.
"I just want to tell you," Benson told him, "that was really a great thing to do."
That's the way it usually works at Christmas, isn't it? The kids have it all figured out. Noeh isn't going to have an easy Christmas. He's one of the 60 kids who are custody of the commonwealth living at the facility in Covington, Ky., a non-profit scraping by on state aid and private donations. The average stay is eight to 10 months and the reasons are varied and sad.
"They may have issues. Their parents may have issues. They could be foster children where it just hasn't worked out for them," says Mike Grafton, a staffer known as "Mr. Mike" leading Benson's group. "Something like this means a lot. It means somebody cares about them."
The Halls and the home were meant to be. Jessica jumped the route, so to speak.
"We were looking for something to get involved with when we first got here and Jessica did a lot of research," Hall says. "She found this and really latched on to it."
Leon and Jessica were married two months after the Bengals made him the 18th pick in the 2007 draft and she got lost one day that season around Christmas driving around Covington and ended up at a golf course. She followed it around until she reached the ninth hole of Devou Park, which turned out to be the administration building of the home. She got out and found some direction in more ways than one.
"I asked them if they had any Christmas decorations and they said they only had one tree," Jessica says. "I asked them if I could bring some of the wives over so we could decorate the boys' cottages. Then we went shopping for presents and surprised them with some of our husbands the Tuesday before Christmas. We've been doing it ever since."
And more. The Halls do fundraisers and have brought the kids to training camp for a day. Most importantly, says Diane Pipers, the facility's CEO, is when they just show up and spend time.
"Every kid's situation is different," Hall says. "But I can relate to them about not being in a secure household, a two-parent household. It's a big part of the focus of my foundation. It's how I grew up and what I've been around my whole life."
Jessica is splitting her time helping the kids go through the checkout line and making sure Leon Jr. doesn't fall off one of the quick rides at the front of the store. She grew up in a two-parent home in Detroit and admits "we had completely different upbringings." She's pleased that her husband was able to get a small number of players to match the small group. These 15 are here because of outstanding performance on campus and Pipers says the motivation it provides is priceless.
"They love Leon and we love just spending time with them and talking," she says. "We've got 15 nieces and nephews so it's just natural for us to be around kids. To be around somebody like him and some of the guys is a positive influence for them."
Benson has been watching Hall for three years now and he also admires him not even knowing how hard he grew up. Benson, a former No. 1 pick himself, has also been thinking about a cause to join. He's done what he calls "below-the-radar" events, such as going out to talk to a little league team, but he's been hesitant to embrace a group or cause because his situation hasn't been long-term.
"I like it here. I'm comfortable here. I'd like to be back. We'll see what happens," says Benson, who faces free agency for the second time in two years. "There's no question that what you do off the field has a lasting impact. I admire Leon for not only what he does on the field, but what he and his wife do off it. You say their names and a lot of organizations know who you're talking about."
Besides Noeh, Benson has 10-year-old Josh and six-year-old Chris in his group. Josh is regaling Benson with how he returned an interception for a touchdown in a recent game as they scout out footballs for Noeh "to throw around with the guys," while Chris is eying some sort of electronic piggy bank.
"We'll come back for that, Chris, we're going to finish off what Josh has," Benson says.
Chris is quiet, hanging near Josh, looking like his brother.
"They're not," Mr. Mike says, "but they've decided to be brothers while they're with us."
With all the toys flowing in and out of the cart, it is easy for Benson to remember his favorite Christmas gift.
"I had to be nine or 10 and I wanted this bike," Benson says. "I didn't tell my mom what I wanted. I only told my cousins, so they didn't tell her. I described exactly what I wanted. BMX style. Typical bike. It had padding across the center of the handlebars. And I got it. Exactly what I wanted. It happened to snow that Christmas in Midland, Texas, and I remember trying to learn how to ride that bike and falling in the snow. To this day, I believe in Santa Claus."
Some of the wives and the husbands are planning to go to the home this Friday to decorate the three cottages as well as the entrance to the dining hall. Trees, lights, stockings. One of the kids going out the door dragging a couple of bags says, "Thank you, Leon."
"See you in a few days," says Leon Hall Sr., who has grown into a pretty believable Santa.