Michael Johnson and The Warriors.
After breaking up the mid-field huddle to begin Tuesday’s practice on the Paul Brown Stadium fields, Marvin Lewis marched his team to the cinder sideline for introductions and there the Bengals and a platoon of 10 local Wounded Warriors held each other in awe.
"We really appreciate everything. We appreciate your service and dedication,” the Bengals head coach told them. “Thank you."
Which is funny because The Warriors wanted to tell them pretty much the same thing.
Guys like Michael Kirchgessner, whose wife oversea-ed him Bengals clippings from The Cincinnati Enquirer of the 1990s until their last year at Riverfront Stadium in ’99. That’s the year he waited 23 hours to be rescued from a crushed tin can at the bottom of a Bosnian ravine.
Or guys like Michael Goodman, who won a Purple Heart in Iraq in 2005 while Lewis steered the Bengals to his first division title and another one in Afghanistan in 2009 when they were winning another one sweeping the AFC North.
“There were some great years and some tough years,” recalled Goodman safely on the cinders and he wasn’t talking about the shattering of those 13 IED explosions within three meters that he absorbed. “They’d always make that one play that keeps bringing you back.”
Or guys like Anthony Johnson, rendered mute and motionless by the shrapnel of service, still wearing a Bengals jersey like he did as a kid growing up in Fort Thomas, Ky., when his family caught the boat from Hooters wearing face paint to catch a game at The Paul. Now it is an A.J. Green jersey, matching No. 18’s signature on the side of his chair from a few years back.
“He’s getting better. He can eye gaze (in front of a computer) and can move the cursor. He can ‘talk.’ He loves the Bengals,” said Randall Johnson, who went to respiratory school so he could bring his son back home to live. “If he could stay down here all day he would.”
Adam Widner is watching it all with a smile. Elder, class of 2002. U.S. Army, 2004-2011. As the outreach coordinator for the Cincinnati chapter of the Wounded Warriors Project, Widner is part-time den mother, part-time counselor, part-time travel agent. But always a 24-7 brother. And that’s what he’ll call you as he spreads the passion that began in a workout room with a near lifeless right side, the severe limp now gone for five years
“One of the reasons I’m here is because the Warriors helped me out,” said Widner, his spine crushed when his vehicle somersaulted down an Afghanistan creek bed while evading one of the endless, nameless stream of cells seeking to destroy any outsider. “I was one of the lucky ones. I got help when I got into rehab and I got the encouragement from guys around me.”
Later next door over lunch at Pies and Pints they talk about the fresh autographs, handshakes, plays and thank yous. Last year Kirchgessner recalled how his son wasn’t very happy wearing the No. 43 and how he reached out to the Bengals’ No. 43 on twitter. Naturally safety George Iloka responded with an encouraging thought within the half-hour. After Tuesday’s practice Iloka remembered, asked Kirchgessner to wait a second and ripped off his gloves to give to his son.
“My best day of the year being down here with these guys,” said Kirchgessner, the self-acknowledged football guru of his friends whose favorites growing up were Tim Krumrie and James Brooks. “What an experience.”
His favorites now? The hard-core Kirchgessner savors the underappreciated. "Ryan Hewitt and Clayton Fejedelem," he decided.
Like laces they string football around stories of deafening IEDs, harrowing Humvee rides and the future and guys like Rey Centeno talking about how he spent his V.A. check on creating the app “No Warriors Left Behind.”
Bengals C.O. Marvin Lewis and the Warriors share an audience after practice.
“If they can’t find what they need there, there’s a phone number for help from a professional,” said Centeno, who left Puerto Rico to come to the University of Cincinnati 30 years ago, a stint interrupted up by 18 years in the U.S. Navy.
He nearly died from a pulmonary embolism after injuring his leg clearing the decks in Iraq when they put their boots on the ground and he wants to bring vets out of the abyss with him.
“I was down and out on my luck and I was researching on the computer to get help and I realized that’s what I want to do. That got me over the hump. Trying to help who I can,” Centeno said.
Camaraderie. Widner knows that’s a lot of it. He watched the Bengals bring that out.
“What a great event for these guys. They loved it,” Widner said. “Three of the guys had to hustle back to work. But their bosses didn’t mind at all.”
Goodman was one of those guys that had to make a quick exit and he indeed may have been going to a fire since he’s now a federal fire investigator living in Amelia on the eastern side of Cincinnati. Ten years ago, after an IED blew him clear across a canal they were crossing in Iraq; he never dreamed he’d be working.
“It was December 2, 2009. From what my guys told me, the canal saved me. But my leg was ruined,” said Goodman, who has an artificial ball in an artificial hip. “I was devastated. My life wouldn’t be the same. But I got help. They flew my wife down to Bethesda, Maryland when I was still in the hospital.”
Goodman pointed to the Wounded Warrior logo of one soldier carrying another.
“They carried me,” he said. “Now it’s my turn to carry someone else.”
Four years before that, Goodman shrugged about “just a,” Humvee-IED incident. The tire got blown off. He looked at his left forearm. “A little dressing,” where you can still see the scars from the shrapnel. That one took six stitches. His right middle finger took six or seven. Right on site. After two days at Camp Fallujah, he was back in the field.
Maybe that’s why his favorite player is tight end Tyler Eifert. Goodman not only admires how Eifert has supported the military, but how he has also battled his own set of injuries.
“That’s what I like to see. He’s the one guy I wanted to meet today,” Goodman said. “It’s all about trying to overcome it and going forward.”
Goodman got to meet him and while Eifert was quite humbled and honored to hear that Goodman considered him an inspiration, he also told him, “That’s ridiculous,” which made everybody smile.
Kirchgessner figured his dad was smiling after he shot him a text during practice. Fred Kirchgessner, first generation Bengals fan, stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in 1969. His son wanted to know where Fred lost his foot since Bengals defensive lineman Michael Johnson was taking a break from practice and introducing himself to the Warriors.
Once he heard about Fred, Johnson told Mike, “May 7, 1967.” That’s the day Johnson’s father Sam stepped on a mine while leading a Marine patrol in Vietnam. “I don’t know where, either,” Johnson said. “I bet he still has shrapnel coming out of his body.” Kirchgessner confirmed that Fred calls war’s scars and remnants, “souvenirs.” Both men lost part of themselves years before they came home to have two boys that were the best part of themselves. Johnson was born 20 years later in Mobile, Ala., Kirchgessner a decade later in Cincinnati.
Then, as Johnson always does, he took it to the next level as he and a couple of vets talked about medications and staying healthy naturally, not knowing what news reports are going to say 50 years from now. James Kalos, who along with Widner was the Wounded Warrior Teammate for the trip, wanted Johnson to fill out his own prescription.
“I asked Michael Johnson to sign a ball for me and I told him that was the only signature I wanted on that ball,” Kalos said.
That’s when the awe is on both sides.