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Hand in hand

Posted: 6:45 a.m.



Mike McArtor showed up at the HealthPlex in Anderson Township wearing a Madieu Williams jersey. Jennifer Vitt has had his number a lot longer than that.

"Football is something he's blessed with, but it will never define him," Vitt says as she watches him fit in with the crowd instead of work it. "It's not who he is. He is defined by his friends and family."

His friends on this day are Vitt, who runs his foundation, McArtor, an 18-year-old McNicholas High School senior, a small boy fresh from his karate class carrying a football, the kids who work in the locker room getting him to sign big white towels, and assorted others either curious about the milling in the lobby or crazed about the Bengals.

"It's good just to get people into the building," Williams says. "Just for the awareness. Diabetes is the kind of disease where people just don't get tested, or they don't know much about it."

The Bengals start voluntary practices this week, but Williams has been volunteering much of this offseason already. He spent last week touring the Mercy Hospitals for the free diabetes screenings that the Madieu Williams Foundation is pushing and maybe it's just coincidence that the calendar is turning up Mother's Day.

It's a day the Bengals don't observe lightly. This weekend Rudi Johnson is hosting his annual extravaganza complete with entertainment and dinner that honors some Bengals mothers. Last year Williams' mother was honored posthumously.

"I don't know. Hindsight is 20-20. She didn't know about it growing up. You never know," Williams says.

Williams is talking about his mother, Abigail Butscher, just 45 years old when a diabetic stroke killed her a couple of years ago and left Madieu to raise his younger brother Michael.

She was a registered nurse but maybe if her diet had been better growing up ...

"He thinks so much of it is education," Vitt says. "Kids just don't know what is healthy, or they don't have the opportunity to eat healthy."

It's why Williams is leading the effort to supply nutritional foods to the Avondale Boys and Girls Club.

It's why when he hosts a free football clinic for 400 kids in Avondale this upcoming weekend on May 19 the parents will be offered a free diabetes screening.

It's why Vitt isn't surprised this is the same guy she met at Towson University when they were freshmen.

They have stayed friends through Williams' transfer to Maryland, his selection by the Bengals, and Vitt's stint working in the public relations department of the St. Louis Rams.

And, she's as much a hardened NFL veteran as Williams. How'd you like to be working for a team where your dad—28 years as an assistant in the league—is the interim head coach, which Joe Vitt was for the Rams in the last 11 games of the 2005 season before becoming Sean Payton's assistant head coach in New Orleans?

"Her brother was my quarterback in college. Her dad is a close friend of mine," Williams says. "I still keep the same people close."

Vitt decided to leave the Rams to run the foundations of Isaac Bruce and Williams, in part because she knew how real Williams would keep it all. One of the projects in the planning stages is building a playground in Avondale during October.

"I never had that kind of stuff around growing up," Williams says of the clinics. "I basically learned football from playing in the neighborhood. I don't remember anybody ever doing something like that."

Giving back has been easy for Williams. His father is still involved in the health care industry and he worked in a hospital while he was getting his degree in family studies at Maryland.

"We'd like to get kids to have a better idea of what it means to take care of their bodies," he says. "It's more prevention than anything."

On this night, about as many people show up to run an obstacle course on the basketball court against Williams' leisurely time of 1:05 as get a screening. Maybe between 10 and 20. In the land of health care, any number greater than absolute zero is a success.

"It runs in my family. I've been tested before," McArtor says as he waits for Williams so he can sign his jersey. "My grandmother. I guess it's a good idea to keep up with it."

Williams got him in the building, though.

"I always liked the toughness Madieu brought to it," he says about what brought him here. "It seems like he has more big hits than any other free safety. I like how he just doesn't play the pass. He comes up to the line and stops the run."

This is a good fit, Williams and Cincinnati. Both are big league but not caught up in it. He knows it. You never see him wearing gold chains and he's got one tattoo. On his shoulder for his mother.

"I like to think it goes hand in hand. Cincinnati's been great to me. I don't think I could have asked for a better situation," Williams says.

Williams lives downtown, maybe a five-minute drive from Paul Brown, which means he spends a good deal of time in the car. Michael is in high school at Country Day and participating in track. Williams figures he drives him to 90 percent of wherever he needs to be.

"He's always with Michael," Vitt says. "If he's not, he makes sure somebody is."

For a lot of reasons, starting with Michael and the Bengals, Williams would like to stick around. His deal is up after this year and there has been no talk yet of a new contract. But, like Vitt says, it doesn't define him.

"I know that I'm an employee of an organization called Cincinnati Bengals Incorporated," he says. "I'd like to stay. I've made no secret about that. But all I can control is what I do on the field. They have to make business decisions."

He also could have added he can control what he does off the field. With Vitt's help.

"He hasn't changed at all from then," she says of the freshman year at Towson. "Of course, he's more responsible now but that's just from growing up. But he's the same guy. You can't tell he's a pro football player. He's just Madieu. He wanted to make sure that the most important part of this was the screening and not the fact he was going to be here."

They have to wrap up the event at 8 p.m. pretty much on the dot because Michael is waiting for a ride. Williams and Vitt know the roads because they had just come from another screening at Mercy over in nearby Clermont County.

"I'll drive," he says as if this was another weekend at Towson.

They would get Michael, stop at Brio's for some takeout, and call it a day.

"Yeah, I'm just a guy," Williams says when told it sounds so normal. "Just a guy that happens to play football."

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