Updated: 6:30 p.m.
If Michael Johnson didn't realize how much is riding on his NFL career, he does now and he hasn't even tried to wrestle down Ben Roethlisberger or tip a Joe Flacco pass.
The way Dallas County High School principal Don Ingram saw it, the crowd at Friday night's graduation was packed on both sides of the football field in Plantersville, Ala., when Johnson delivered the commencement address.
"They were standing in both end zones," Ingram said Tuesday. "And they weren't all there just for graduation. They were there because Michael Johnson was there."
Johnson, the defensive end from Georgia Tech the Bengals took at the top of the third round in last month's NFL Draft, didn't have to change much of his speech. After all, he had done this just four years before as the school's Valedictorian back in '05. On Tuesday he recalled he gave much of the same message.
"Don't focus on the problem, focus on the solution. The results from constantly believing and positive thinking and just always believing in yourself," Johnson said after Tuesday's practice. "Mama always said, 'Do your best, God will do the rest,' and that's so true."
This is what a guy like Michael Johnson means to the good people of Dallas County:
They retired his No. 5 jersey Friday and on the scoreboard plastered the sign "Home of Michael Johnson" complete with two Bengals logos. Then after the ceremony, every one of the 121 graduates walked across the stage, shook his hand, and had their picture taken with him.
"I didn't really realize how big of an impact I was going to have on the people at home," Johnson said. "They look at what I do and other people and they look to us for hope and to be that example. It's a blessing to get that response from everybody. People at home are watching."
Ingram knows why.
"These kids are rural kids; it's farm country," Ingram said. "They haven't seen success like this before. They've seen guys go play junior college or small college, but Michael having this kind of success is new. And it's been stressed to them that his grades got him to where he is now."
Ingram has called on Johnson before. When the school changed coaches recently, he asked Johnson to speak to the team "and their eyes were bugging out of their heads," he said.
On Friday for the students, Johnson recounted how small of a place his home is.
"You say you went to Dallas County and people say, 'Where's that? You say it's in Plantersville and people say, 'Where's that?' You say just outside Selma and they say 'Where's that?' You say 50 miles west of Montgomery and they say, 'Oh, you're from Alabama.' "
"It's a small town," he said. "People from small places make big contributions to the world. Don't let that discourage you. It's not how you start, its how you finish."
Before Johnson finished Friday, he reminded them how the last time he blanked on the Bible verse he lives by, Philippians 4:13. "I can do all things through Christ which strengthen me."
But Ingram was left with how he told the students that for him God was first, then family, then him.
"That's how his parents raised him," Ingram said. "You can't be selfish."
Johnson, who was criticized out of the draft's top 10 in three brief months, admitted he came to this speech with more experience and perspective.
"I just told them how you have to set goals for yourself and think about how you're going to reach those goals," Johnson said. "And what you're going to do when you reach them. Represent your community, where your from, and do your best. Sky's the limit. There are going to be haters no matter where you go. Just never let them discourage you. Keep on going."
Then Johnson promptly took his own advice. He drove back to Atlanta on Saturday, flew back to Cincinnati on Sunday, and was in the weight room Memorial Day morning for a non-mandatory lift.
R AND R: The Bengals returned to the field Tuesday but won't get back on until Thursday during their second of four weekly voluntary practices.
Head coach Marvin Lewis' attempt to cushion the NFL's grind has been embraced by his players, notably quarterback Carson Palmer. In the past, Lewis has gone four straight weeks of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday workouts. But he'll give them off this Wednesday and the one in two weeks (June 10).
"It is a better way to go. The way the NFL works now, your body gets broken down all year long. Especially now they're talking about adding two more games," Palmer said after Tuesday's practice. "The more rest the more recovery you get, especially for some of the veterans who are in their late 30s or mid 30s. It's great to have a hard three-day work week and then days off the field just because it gives some of the veteran guys a chance to recover and some of the young guys to learn more as opposed to get thrown in the heat of things. ... It gives you another chance to look at what you did the week before, have a day off on in between and get ready for the next practice."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Palmer can't get over how good running back Cedric Benson has looked in the workouts and he believes Benson is going to get the ball early and often. In fact, Benson has shown so much enthusiasm that Palmer is going to tell him to take it easy so he doesn't grind himself down.
"Most backs after three or four years are looking at the offseason trying to take care of their body," Palmer said. "Cedric's not doing that."
Benson says the reason he's flying around is probably because he doesn't consider himself established. He'd always been the bell cow, but since he got to the NFL and the Bears in '05 and had to split time with Thomas Jones, he's never seen that number of chances.
"I can take the load as it's dished out," Benson said. "I've kind of been doing it my whole career. I know how to do it and have enjoyed it. Nobody (in the NFL) has ever looked at my resume and decided to do what I do best."
» Rookie right tackle Andre Smith had no comment Tuesday on his on-going agent saga. And Lewis didn't either. "That's Andre's personal business," he said.
» Right end Antwan Odom is not only holding the weight on (he was 288 pounds before practice Tuesday, more than 30 pounds what he ended last season), but he's also showing the coaches he's just as quick: "To me it's motivation to get even faster."
» With tight end Reggie Kelly sitting out Tuesday's practice with a toe problem, Ben Utecht had a busy day and made some nice catches down the seam. After chest and rib injuries limited him to 10 games last year in his first Bengals season, Utecht is trying to show his '06 and '07 seasons with the Colts were no flukes.
"Because of the injuries he had last year, he was never able to put six, seven weeks in a row," Lewis said. "Hopefully this offseason has enabled him to gain some body strength and get more accustomed and comfortable with the things we do offensively."
» Sixth-rounder Bernard Scott, the running back from Abilene Christian, continues to show that he can athletically make it in the NFL. But Lewis is looking to see what he does without the ball when the pads come on.
"Very fleet," Lewis said. "He's got the skills and athleticism to be a fine, fine player. He's just got to put every part together and if he can do that other part (blocking), that will make him very, very valuable. ... You're not doing those things right now and that's something he'll have to work really hard on in training camp and in the preseason games to show that he can do that."
» In a spring that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has emphasized pass-rush moves, he has been pleased with what new tackle Tank Johnson has brought to the table.
"The one thing you look for in a three technique," Zimmer said, "is first-step quickness. Where they can get the foot off the ground, get off (the line) when the ball is snapped. So far he's shown that really, really well."
» Sidelined with some sort of injury was free agent defensive tackle Pernell Phillips out of Central State. Phillips, out of Cincinnati's Taft High School, had his foot in a boot.
» Taking in Tuesday's practice as coaches were former Bengals Carl Powell and Larry Moore. Powell has worked some camps for Lewis since he retired and Moore, a center and guard, says he'll be at training camp as part of the NFL's Minority Internship coaching program. Moore is in his first year coaching at Central State.