Hitting close to home


The universe is back on its axis when the NFL stars come out Sunday in Honolulu's Aloha Stadium (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) for the Pro Bowl. Or the pro bowl, depending how you feel about it.

It is definitely the Pro Bowl for Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Together again on the AFC. After 20 years of middle school football and rollicking high school rivalries leading to the same college apartment on the nation's best team before the NFL, wives, babies and multi-year deals came on the scene. The Louisiana Purchase has come to the 50th state.

"There's not much we don't know about each other," Williams says.

"We're big supporters of each other and we've been competitors, too, and that's as much respect you can have for someone," says Whitworth, who always comes back to their days at LSU and how they were the de facto captains of offense and defense.

"We were basically like me and Domata (Peko) now (with the Bengals). Now being leaders of our teams independently and to end up in the Pro Bowl, that's unique."

Williams senses it, too. This just doesn't happen every day.

"It's not normal," Williams says. "We're from a pretty rural spot. To have two guys go on and have good careers and being at the Pro Bowl together, that's a special thing for our area and the state of Louisiana. It's important for us and those places to be proud of us."

They are taking a break this week from the rigors of walkthroughs, photo sessions and golf with another stint at the pool shaded from the beach at the players' hotel. That's where Williams regaled Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his head coach, John Fox, with one of the stories.

This one goes back to the turn of the century. High school basketball in one of those sweltering steel-cage matches tucked up north of The Bayou. Five hours from New Orleans and Houston. Four hours from Baton Rouge. Two and a half hours from Jackson, Miss. Whitworth's guys from West Monroe (pop. about 13,000) and Williams's gang from Ruston (about 22,000). Just 32 miles and 31 minutes apart on I-20, but a gulf coast of emotion, tradition and pride separating them.

"Our schools don't like each other very much," Whitworth explains. "Kyle didn't play basketball. But he was a big athlete and popular and he was one of their cheerleaders, the ringleader in the stands, screaming at me and booing me and all that good stuff. I didn't play baseball, so I returned the favor, yelling and screaming at him."

This is where Williams picks up the story for Manning and Fox.

"His teams were unbelievably good. We could never beat them, but they would always be close games," Williams says. "He'd take the ball out-of-bounds and we'd tug his shorts, just mess with him. In this one game he fouled out and we're just crushing him all the way back to the bench, yelling at him. He's got a red T-shirt underneath his basketball jersey. He pulls his basketball jersey up and his T-shirt says, 'Rebel Football: Taking Care of Business.' And it has all those years they won state championships. Talk about hitting to the bone. Ooh.

"Then in baseball, I played first base and he'd get his buddies and they'd park their trucks on the first-base line and just give it to me the whole game."

So naturally Whitworth hosted Williams for his visit to LSU since he got to Baton Rouge a year earlier. It probably helped that along for the ride was Williams's former Ruston teammate Jack Hunt, but when Williams decided to go to LSU he ended up becoming roommates and best friends with the big kid with the trucks from West Monroe.

"At some point there was mutual respect. It was less hatred and more deep passion about where you were from," Whitworth says. "Those two towns just want to be the best at everything and it's still that way to this day. But there were about seven or eight of us from the two towns and that was pretty unique at LSU. We were Northern Louisiana boys and we stuck together."

Seventh grade? You can imagine how big Williams was back then since he showed up at the Pro Bowl at 6-1, 300 pounds. But Whitworth, at 6-7, 325 pounds with a back bigger than Lake Erie?

"He was easy to recognize," Williams admits. "I was the next biggest guy around. But he was abnormally large."

The holy wars were reserved for football. "They take it serious in Louisiana," Whitworth says. Ruston dominated the '80s and early '90s. Whitworth helped make it West Monroe's time, playing on three state champions.

They figured they butted heads, but nothing stands out. Pretty typical high school stuff. The best kids did it all. Whitworth played a little tight end and tackle, as well some end and tackle on defense. Williams, he recalls, played some fullback and tight end on offense, as well as up and down the D-line.

They've even played against each other three times in the pros and still can't remember any confrontations. Williams does recall after the Bengals beat the undefeated Bills at Paul Brown Stadium in 2011, he tore his Achilles the next week.

"We don't usually go against each other; I'm inside going up and down," Williams says. "He might have put a hand me a couple of times to make sure of a block. We're probably cut from the same cloth. Most of the time we're trying to catch our breath during a football game. Guys that play hard and unless something upsets us or gets us going, we're probably not going to say too much."

They are not only cut from the same cloth, they are clipped from the same script. In the 2006 draft, Whitworth went in the second round because most of the NFL thought he couldn't play left tackle.

But Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander's first words to Whitworth when he saw him interviewing with another team at the scouting combine?

"Whitworth, first-round pick," Alexander said as he walked by.

But he wasn't supposed to be at the Pro Bowl for the first time this year as a left tackle and, certainly, neither was Williams as anything. Not after going in the fifth round to Buffalo that same year. Yet just like his friend, Williams bided his time and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his fifth season in 2010. Now this is Williams's second trip and it may have been his third if not for the blown Achilles.

Like his own résumé, Whitworth knows why his friend is here and conjures up an image of his own teammate, Geno Atkins, the guy that lines up with Williams and Miami's Randy Starks in the middle of the AFC front line Sunday.

"Man he's what football is all about," Whitworth says. "He's undersized. He was Geno Atkins before Geno Atkins. A short, powerful man that plays extremely hard. And tough. He had a torn Achilles and just like (Bengals cornerback) Leon (Hall); he had a great year and came back to the Pro Bowl."

Whitworth likes to tell the story of pregame warmpus before LSU played Georgia and how Williams split a bone in his finger and blood spewed like oil.

"He did a Ronnie Lott. He asked them to cut it off and of course they wouldn't do it," Whitworth says. "But they sewed up the finger and he played the game. The ultimate competitor."

Which is pretty much how Williams sees Whitworth. On and off the field.

"No matter what the situation is or the people around him, Whit is going to be Whit," Williams says. "He doesn't change for anybody. What you see is what you get. That's a rare thing these days. That's something to look up to."

What you get is a lot of the same story. Both are putting together splendid careers under the radar in small markets on teams looking for breakthroughs, and while Whitworth is just starting to get individual recognition, he has been to the playoffs three out of the last four years and Williams is still looking for his first postseason shot.

"You can always play the what-if game. What if I was here. What if I was there," Williams says. "The most important things are being important to your team and that your teammates and opponents respect you."

That could be a Whit sound bite, which figures.

The best friends can pick up the phone months apart and it could be 20 years ago or two hours ago and it's still the same. That's what Whitworth and Williams have going on. They were born 18 months apart. Whitworth, 31, married a Miss Louisiana from Ruston that Williams, 29, knew growing up. Williams's youngest son was born a week within the Whitworths' Lockout Twins of 2011.

"I don't think we talked since the preseason this year," Whitworth says. "But we live 20 minutes apart during the offseason and we'll play golf and have lunch. We pick right up where we left off."

They've been golfing together since they first hit it on the LSU course all those years ago, playing among the frat brothers and the grad students and probably griping about the pace of play like they did a few days ago.

"We talk about what buddies talk about while they're golfing," Whitworth says. "Wives, kids, sports."

"We don't talk much football," Williams says.

But it wasn't exactly just another round. The threesome ahead of them? Try Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk. All Hall of Fame running backs.

"They look like they could still give you a few snaps," Williams says. "I'm glad I didn't have to chase any of them down."

"We were laughing about that," Whitworth says. "Yeah, we've come a long way. On the same course with three Hall of Famers."

The stars are aligned. The basketball forward from West Monroe and the first baseman from Ruston are together again.

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