Helping hands

Posted: 11 p.m.

HONOLULU - This is why T.J. Houshmandzadeh invited Ray Oliver to the Pro Bowl.

And guys like Charles Collins and Eric Yarber, two boyhood pals who grew up to change Houshmandzadeh's boyhood.

They all piled in the same car to drive to Friday's AFC practice on Honolulu's tropical fringe. Their only thread woven to those teenagers that weren't supposed to make it to age 30, never mind the Pro Bowl.

When Oliver, the Bengals assistant strength coach, heard Houshmandzadeh after practice griping about playing in the slot, he quickly bench-pressed him back into place.

"Now you'll only be happy if you make the NBA All-Star Game," Oliver barked, but later shook his head admiringly.

"Never slight him because he'll do everything in his power to make you feel it," he said. "That's quintessential Housh."

Collins, best known as a West Coast receiver guru, is also the junior college position coach for past and current Pro Bowlers Steve Smith and Chad Johnson, the five-time Bengals Pro Bowler that has teamed with Houshmandzadeh to form one of the NFL's most recognizable receiving duos of the decade. Yarber, currently the receivers coach at Arizona State, coached both Houshmandzadeh and Johnson at Oregon State.

Collins and Yarber have remained close after growing up together in South Central Los Angeles, where Collins was a Little League teammate of Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis.

Their relationship and their ability to become heavy-hitting recruiters put them here Friday watching two of their pupils at the top of the game. Collins put Yarber on to Johnson at Oregon. Yarber sent Houshmandzadeh to Los Angeles to work with Collins during the offseason.

houshmandzadeh_tj.jpg

Houshmandzadeh

"I knew I was going to invite Coach C if I was ever going to get to a Pro Bowl," Houshmandzadeh said. "I made the call and when I got off the phone, wifey said, 'You didn't invite Yarbs,' and I knew I had to. It's just that I talked to Coach C a lot more because Yarbs is always busy recruiting."

But recruiting just ended a few days ago and Yarber now has a Hawaiian vacation with his wife he never had. Collins' wife is also here and as the AFC walked out to the practice field, plans were being made for a swank Friday night dinner.

"Hey, what about McDonalds?" Johnson asked. "Nothing fancy for me."

"Yeah," Oliver said, "but we brought our wives. They can go to a drive-thru back home. I've got to make sure you're getting your vegetables."

Johnson, the fast-food king, was always considered prime rib. Houshmandzadeh, the kid who played one year of high school and two years of junior college, was always chopped liver.

Until Carson Palmer became the Bengals quarterback, Hue Jackson became their receivers coach, and a first-round pick named Peter Warrick got hurt.

2004.

Four drafts after Yarber was one of the guys that took a call from Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski on the second day of the 2001 draft.

"Every time a pro scout came in to visit," Yarber said, "I would tell them if they didn't give T.J. a good writeup, they were going to get fired. A lot of scouts and coaches just don't think a team is going to have two high-profile receivers, and they just look at the one guy everyone figures is better."

When Bratkowski told Yarber the club was mulling Houshmandzadeh in round six or seven, Yarber said, "If you get him there, Brat, they should put you in jail for stealing. Highway robbery. You won't be making a mistake."

And, so it wasn't. Not with the 204th pick in the seventh round to match that 2004 breakout year.

"Yarbs was a guy that really helped me with the Xs and Os," Houshmandzadeh said. "Looking at it more like a quarterback than a receiver. C was there with the more technical aspects. Without their help, I wouldn't have made it. (The trip) is expensive, but it's a small price to pay."

Yarber is hesitant to talk about Houshmandzadeh's perseverance and work ethic because he thinks sometimes his sheer ability is overlooked.

"He's got all that," Yarber said, "but he's also got a lot of talent."

One place his talent isn't overlooked is on a Pro Bowl practice field. Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, undrafted all those years ago, knows that.

"Hard work and not taking 'No' for an answer," Garcia said. "Believing in himself. Being hungry. Having a work ethic, a desire. Things I had to have. When you drop to the seventh round, often times people don't know what you're capable of doing. He's definitely opened up a lot of eyes. He allows his play to speak for itself. He's not somebody you hear a whole lot out of verbally, but when it comes down to making plays and statistically being on top, he's right there."

Peyton Manning isn't a scout or a coach, but he knows receivers well enough that he's going to the Hall of Fame. Manning, too, already had something in his mind about Houshmandzadeh.

"After being around him so much this week, I can see why he's such a great player," Manning said, comparing him to his own Reggie Wayne. "It's kind of what you thought. He's always a guy kind of somewhat like Reggie, under the radar playing alongside Chad or Marvin (Harrison). So consistent catching the ball. He's picked up this offense right away. You can tell he's into the cerebral part of it."

Like Garcia, who never ran across him, and Manning, who knows him a bit, Wayne already had a sense of Houshmandzadeh from the telescope spot in Indianapolis.

"A humble guy, but at the same time a guy that just wanted to make plays," Wayne said. "I was so happy when he made it to Hawaii because it was so well deserved. He could have been over here a couple of years ago."

Wayne could have started coming over here a lot sooner, too, if not for playing behind Harrison. But he doesn't feel overshadowed.

"It was easy for me because I'm there behind a Hall of Famer in Marvin Harrison who has been getting the juice for years," Wayne said. "Then I come along seven years ago and slowly but surely try to make a name for myself. It was easy for me, but at the same time T.J. has Chad Johnson, who is out here in Hawaii each year. Two guys that don't complain much; whenever we get the opportunity we just want to shine."

Houshmandzadeh always shrugs when asked about being handcuffed to Johnson. First at Oregon State, then in the 2001 draft, then with the Bengals.

Even Friday here. With Johnson enveloped by media, Houshmandzadeh got a few strays.

"It just gives something more for people to talk about," he said. "I don't think about it."

But Collins and Yarber do.

They saw it at Oregon State. If Johnson got flustered by a play call in the huddle, Houshmandzadeh sorted it out for him. If the defense sold out trying to stop Johnson's explosiveness down the field, Houshmandzadeh would have a field day in the middle of the field. If either got complacent, the other's enormous self-confidence would pop the bubble with the barbs of competition.

"Chad needs T.J.," said Collins and Yarber nearly in unison, "and T.J. needs Chad."

This weekend, Houshmandzadeh needed Collins Yarber to make it complete.

With a lift from Oliver, one of the guys that gives it to him straight.

"We're going," Oliver said, "for the nice dinner."

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