5-24-04, 11:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Skip Hicks leads a continent in touchdowns.
He is 11 yards from NFL Europe's rushing championship. He is 13 shy of the yards from scrimmage title. He is going to be the most feared player in the World next month. He is the toast of Frankfurt, where, if he was willing, they would buy him a drink almost any time.
"They're always drinking," Hicks says Monday from Germany. "Lunch. Dinner. The Happy Hours last awhile."
Hicks has all of these continental delights at his fingertips, and yet he is still getting his fingernails dirty by attending every special teams meeting the Frankfurt Galaxy offers. With their backup running back on the shelf, the Galaxy wants no part of mangling their All-World back on special teams. Yet, Hicks makes sure he is learning any niche and job on the special teams scout team in practice.
Kick returner. Punt blocker. Personal protector.
"Anywhere," Hicks says.
Because he knows there is only one way he is going to make the Bengals when he returns to the States no matter how many yards he gets.
"No question, its special teams," Hicks says. "I've never played them, but that's my goal now. I've got speed. Speed can help you anywhere."
What does Hicks mean in German?
The clock struck midnight for the 6-0, 230-pound Hicks back in January when the 29-year-old signed with the Bengals more than two years after his last NFL carry with the Titans in 2001. But the time difference in Europe has added some sands to the hour glass, and put his name out there for the e-mailers to hail his arrival next month even though he has just 53 more NFL carries than Rudi Johnson.
Or, a good five quarters against Seattle and Houston.
But Hicks is thankful people haven't forgotten. Has it been that long? It's been seven years since he left UCLA as the school's all-time touchdown leader. It's been six years since he set the Redskins rookie record with eight touchdowns. It's been three years since he came off the bench for Tennessee and logged a career-high 142 yards against the Packers.
"Skip is showing he's a guy that can carry the load, that he can be an every down back," says Patrick Esume, the Galaxy's running backs coach. "He's dangerous once he gets his hands on the ball and he's been running away from safeties and cornerbacks. He's a big back who is physical and has good vision. He's done everything we've asked."
Hicks has rushed for 524 yards and while it works out to less than four yards per clip, he has done it with a nose for the end zone and some explosion in the passing game. He has added 189 receiving yards, 72 coming when he busted a screen pass for a touchdown. He also has a 54-yard run.
"Skip has always been a guy that could catch and run with the football," says Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson after watching some clips from Europe. "It shows he's keeping that pencil sharp. He's showing some burst, some acceleration, and those are good things."
Hicks is the first to tell you that 524 Euro yards doesn't exactly exchange into 524 NFL yards.
"It's not quite as fast and intense as Sundays," Hicks says. "The intensity and speed reminds me more of a pre-season game. I think it's in between a pre-season game and a regular-season game. A lot of the guys are young and learning.
"But I think it's been great for me. It feels good," Hicks says. "I'm getting banged up again. I'm getting the cobwebs off. I'm getting my timing for holes and reads. It's a plus because I'm already going to be in football shape when I show up for camp."
There will be no quick re-union with his fiancée and 18-month-old son. Not yet. He has been visiting them and talking to them over a computer's video conferencer for the past two months and it will have to stay that way for about another month. After Hicks leads the Galaxy into the June 12 World Bowl against Berlin, he is headed directly to Anderson's video games in Cincinnati. He'll miss the June 11-13 minicamp, but he'll be here for the coaches' last on-field session a week later.
"I'm not going to label any player and put him in a box," Anderson says. "Let's see what happens when he gets here."
Hicks knows he's in for a huge roster scrum. Rudi Johnson, the incumbent, makes it. Chris Perry, the first-rounder, makes it. Jeremi Johnson, the only fullback, makes it. That would suggest that Hicks and Kenny Watson, who averaged 4.6 yards a pop in more than 100 carries as recently as 2002 for the Redskins, are up for the last spot on a roster that keeps four running backs.
"No, not at all," says Hicks when asked if he was surprised the Bengals drafted Perry first. "When a team loses a back as good as Corey (Dillon), you would have to think that is what they're going to do. That's understandable."
But he also hopes the Bengals are taking a long look at the tape and will take a long look at him and not at his paycheck. That's why he's so pleased it's the Bengals.
"I figure my agent brought me in there because they're going to see what I can do," Hicks says. "They're an up and coming team and the coaching staff is looking for guys who are the best players regardless how much they make."
Hicks hasn't made anything since he was waived after the Panthers training camp before last season. And he didn't make much more than that in 2002, when he got cut after the Titans camp and didn't hook on with Carolina until December.
But Kaleb, his baby, proved to be a valuable pickup at about the same time.
"I spent time around the house with my boy and that was something special," Hicks says. "I just realized that I've been playing football since I was seven years old and I never had time to sit back and relax. I think it did help. I needed to get rested and re-charged and back into focus and that's what it did for me."
Hicks came back because he says he had to get football out of his system and because he enjoyed being around the guys again. Neil Schwartz, his agent who enjoys good ties with the Bengals through head coach Marvin Lewis and assistant head coach Paul Alexander, believes his client is an excellent fit. Schwartz is also the agent for Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, reportedly set to sign a deal with the Bengals next week.
"A lot of what happens for a running back is being in the right place at the right time," says Schwartz, who also represents a sixth-round running back that landed in Denver at a bright and shining moment and became a perennial Pro Bowler in Terrell Davis. "Skip had a lot of talent coming out of UCLA and he still has a lot of talent. It's showing in Europe and the plan is to show it when he gets back."
Hicks is enjoying the European experience, even though he's had to search extra hard for health food. He hasn't tested his driving skills against the car-mad natives ("I'm sticking to the buses and trains), but he's appreciative of the fans' etiquette.
"They're for you no matter what happens," Hicks says. "That's the biggest difference. In the states, you hear a lot of the bandwagon stuff. Everything is great until you lose. But over here, you could be 10-0 or 0-10, and it doesn't matter. They're always with you."
Hicks has been in the big time, but he hasn't big-timed this trip. If he thinks special teams are big, he also thinks the World Bowl is exactly that.
"I would love to get that ring and win that game," Hicks says. "I really want it. I want to bring it back and show people that I came back with something."