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Huddle Up

The NFL's annual Hometown Huddle found the Bengals at College Hill Park Tuesday, but it could have been Eloy, Ariz., Harrisburg, Pa., South Central Los Angeles or Jefferson, Texas.

Those are the hometowns scattered about the Bengals roster that have been raised up by their favorite sons who knew the minute they arrived in the big time where head coach Marvin Lewis called home:

Cincinnati, Ohio.

Daniel Coats chips in during Tuesday's Hometown Huddle.
Wearing Home Depot aprons and donning hard hats emblazoned with their names, the Bengals joined other volunteers blanketing a classic Indian Summer day with paint jobs, planting and mulching, constructing a playground and setting up a basketball court.

As usual, the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, led by the eternal energy of Sharon Thomas, was the driving force behind Tuesday's event that knitted together corporate sponsors and about 300 grassroots volunteers to overhaul the park with state-of-the art equipment.

"I must be planting the flowers just right," said left guard Andrew Whitworth, wearing an apron that could have covered three electoral votes. "Someone asked me if I worked for Home Depot."

What was unusual is that an 0-5 NFL team (along with many wives) that is supposedly wearing paper bags and masks rolled out about 35 players in the middle of the city because like left tackle Levi Jones observed after drilling some screws into swing set, "it's not the kids' fault were 0-5. This is for them. All this nice equipment is so they can live healthier. Get them out of the house and away from the PlayStation."

Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't get one of the hard hats, so he was wearing a Fitzs of St. Louis ballcap and walking around with the biggest wrench this side of The Arch.

"I have no idea what you do with this," said Fitzpatrick, who is handy enough that he re-did his basement of the house he owned in St. Louis when he was with the Rams.

"Not saying anything bad about the other team I played on, but this team in terms of being involved in the community and going to team functions and team-sponsored events, we take a lot more pride in it," Fitzpatrick said.

"I don't know if it's the culture that Marvin has fostered or whatever it is, but there is always a good turnout and there are always guys that that take great pride in these projects. I think he cares about the community. He's got a pretty good name here. I think out of respect for him they do this."

Domata Peko lends a helping hand.
By the time Lewis showed up for lunch in his game-planning uniform of sweatshirt and shorts, about 25 or so guys were jostling for the group photo and some of the guys had already left by then.

Lewis has been under the gun of late about his job and the Internet has been saying for a year he has lost the locker room. But on Tuesday at College Hill as he readied to make his remarks, it never looked more like his team after six years.

Only four are left from the LeBeau days, only 17 are left from his own AFC North champions of just three years ago, and guys from LeBeau's last No. 1 pick (Jones) to a waiver wire pickup before this season (Orien Harris) showed up to work Tuesday.

"Great turnout. Good cross section of guys. Some newer guys and guys that have been here before," said Lewis, who every Monday win or lose, makes a plea for his team to go out into the community every off day on Tuesday.

"I told them yesterday, where we are right now, where we haven't had the success we wanted, this is a good time to give back to somebody else. It gives you a sense of what you are so fortunate to do. It makes you take another look at things."

So no paper bags or wives running the errands to hide. In fact, wives like Sissy Lynch, married to rookie safety Corey Lynch, were out helping.

A lot of these guys are Lewis kind of guys. They don't wait for a Hometown Huddle to help out their own hometown. They don't have sprawling foundations with blank checks. But if someone picks up the phone, they'll throw a pass or make a block.

Wide receiver Antonio Chatman, who basically raised himself and five younger brothers and sisters in Watts, frequently makes the 30-minute drive from his new home in Pasadena, Calif., to speak to the inner-city schools in South Central.

"I don't know how many," Chatman said of his talks. "I'll go anywhere for a kid. I know what it's like. I've been there before."

Running back Kenny Watson, cut on Saturday and signed on Monday, was helping out Tuesday.

"To me it's not all about giving money," Watson said. "It's spending time with people. Like the people out here are great and they're not all sports people."

But Watson does give money. He not only goes to talk to the kids, but he sponsors teams in his old baseball league on the southeast side of Harrisburg. And now that he's got three nieces playing sports, he seems to be around a lot more in the offseason.

Safety Marvin White has spent some time this season recruiting guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Dexter Jackson to come to his free camp this coming spring that he's putting together in Port Barre, La.

"Where I grew up, it's a small country town where people don't get to see guys like that," White said. "Just for them to see those types of guys like T.J. and Dexter and getting to know people and (understand) that they're no different than us. They just have different jobs."

White shrugged when asked about coming out at 0-5.

"No matter the record, this is a good thing to do," he said. "We don't want to let the town down even though were losing, and I think people are hanging with us. They know we're playing hard."

Or, as Whitworth said, "The community is there for us at home and on the road, and we want to be there for them."

Whitworth is another Hometown guy. He grew up with Cowboys linebacker Bradie James in West Monroe, La., and not only did they butt heads last Sunday, but they made sure a child from their town battling a bone marrow disease had a sideline seat and hotel for the game.

And Whitworth's buddy on the left side, Jones, has a few Hometown stories of his own. Except you have to call his buddy from high school, Joe Meza, to find out about them because Jones would rather stick needles in his eyes than talk about how he's helped back in Eloy.

"I'm not doing it to get credit," he said. "I'm doing it for the people that need it."

And the kids need it in Eloy. Meza played with Jones at Santa Cruz Valley High School in a community known for its unceasing poverty.

"It's just set up to fail," said Meza, who now works for 1st Division Real Estate in nearby Casa Grande, the only large outlet for a town struggling in a desert outpost. "There is nothing around. Years ago it was popular because of cotton, but there is absolutely no infrastructure."

The reason Jones wields such a mean drill at these get-togethers is because his grandfather taught him the rudiments of carpentry. After his grandfather and a couple of other deacons built the West Side Church, it was Levi's job to keep it clean.

His grandfather has passed, but a few years ago Jones footed the bill for a renovation to get it up to code with the help of Meza's company and Meza says, "It's now probably the nicest church in Eloy."

Jones's checkbook is the major reason that Eloy has 60 kids playing in three different age groups in the Cyclone Football League. Each of them hits the field in full uniform with the initials of his grandfather (VS) on the team logo.

Next week, Meza is coming to Cincinnati to talk about the next project. If you think the economy is bad down at the corner gas station, think what it's doing to places like Eloy. The Santa Cruz athletic budget has undergone deep cuts and the football team is lacking everything from up-to-date uniforms and helmets to meals for road trips.

"Levi told me to go to the business community to see what they can do and whatever's left, he'll put up the rest," Meza said. "With him helping out the football team like that, it's probably going to help the other sports, too."

Meza wishes his buddy would talk more about what he does for his hometown. But truth be told, most of a locker room's good deeds are done in anonymity.

Take the big man across the way from Jones, right guard Bobbie Williams. He and his wife Angie showed up to work Tuesday and Williams had to smile about what he gives to the youth league in his hometown of Jefferson, Texas.

"She writes the checks," Williams said. "I sponsor a team, so I do what I can if they need something. Uniforms, whatever. If we feel good about something, we want to support it. We get pretty involved with St. Vincent's. We sponsored five kids in that program last Christmas."

The big men weren't going to be a shutin at 0-5.

"I think the people know," Whitworth said, "that we're trying out there."

And all over.  

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