Antonio Bryant battles cornerback Morgan Trent on Thursday's first day of training camp. (AP photo)
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Joe Sweeting, who runs a print shop as well as the 11-year-old Pop Warner football team of the Overtown Optimists Association, hardly batted an eye when he heard what Antonio Bryant had done.
This is the same Antonio Bryant that helps inner city little leagues all around his hometown of Miami. Heck, when he was playing for the Buccaneers a few years ago, Bryant hosted kids from a league in Tampa for a weekend in which he took them all to Busch Gardens and then to a fancy restaurant.
So when Sweeting got the call from Bryant on Wednesday and heard that he was giving up his No. 81 Bengals jersey in exchange for a check from Terrell Owens made out to the Overtown Optimists, well...
This was the same Antonio Bryant that showed up out of nowhere last year and bought all 35 of Sweeting's players cleats.
"Giving up his number like that? About only half the players in the league would have done that. And I don't know how many would have donated it," Sweeting said Thursday afternoon. "That shows you what kind of guy he is. What kind of team player he is. You've got to realize what a check like that means. Overtown is the poorest part of the county and it costs $60 to play and about 60 percent of the kids can afford it."
Indeed, if this thing is going to work, it's not going to work just because Terrell Owens comes in here and acts like he did in Buffalo, which was fine. But it's going to take guys like Bryant, The Ocho and Cedric Benson willing to share the ball. If you like Bryant now, you should.
"There's a lot of speculation. From my perspective, I'm a team player. It's all about having the best team," Bryant said. "If I owned the team, I would definitely go after the best players if possible. Especially in the situation they acquired him. I definitely would have gone after the guy. I've got a lot of respect for him as a player. When you look at the Cincinnati Bengals and the division and look at the secondaries on every team, you can sit there and fantasize and mix and match everything."
If there is a guy here who should be put out by the facts, it's Bryant. Here's a guy who signed a four-year, $28 million deal back in March after a tortured eight-year fictional-sounding sojourn through the league that has hooked him up with eight head coaches and almost double the quarterbacks. Finally he had an elite quarterback in Carson Palmer and a running mate in The Ocho and a day before training camp his new team signs a Hall of Fame receiver.
But you know what Bryant was worried about Thursday?
Just getting his now very famous left knee healthy for the Sept. 12 opener even though he's not at full speed right now. If a lot of guys wouldn't have given up their number, a lot of them wouldn't have been out here on July 29, either. But he took all his snaps Thursday morning even if it wasn't at full speed because "I don't want my teammates to feel like I'm cheating them," he said.
It has been described as a bone-on-bone problem and Bryant says he's working on getting the muscles stronger around the knee he injured last training camp. He probably came back too early for a bad Tampa team, but this is the same guy that called Joe Sweeting on Wednesday.
"I love competition. Competition brings out the best in all of us," Bryant said. "I've never feared competition. I'm from Miami. Dade County. There's nothing I fear in football. I'm probably the most vulnerable at the position because I'm dealing with something that's nagging me. That's football. We've all got something. You guys holding these things (microphones), you're doing it with something."
Bryant has got the toughness and brains of a worldly city kid. He grew up about 12 blocks from Overtown in Liberty City and was an honor student at Northwestern High School before going to play at the University of Pittsburgh. He met Sweeting from playing in the same leagues and he never forgot how tough it was.
"I just told (Owens) to give those kids something. At least $8,000 for all the uniforms and registration and all the equipment they need," Bryant said. "They're trying to get where we are."
You know what $8,000 means for guys like Sweeting? He says the league is $8,000 in the red from last year and this fall is suddenly here.
"Especially now. You know what it's like in hard times," Sweeting said. "What are the first five things that get cut? People that sponsored you last year can't do it this year. We're usually one of the best teams, so we have to travel. We've actually been in tournaments and haven't been able to advance the next week because of transportation (costs)."
"That would take care of our buses for a season. Referees are about $9,000," Sweeting said. "And then you get into the equipment and getting new pads every two years. When Antonio bought those shoes for my kids, you should have seen what that did for them. Their morale just picked up so much."
The guy that Sweeting knows is the same guy that talked to that Hall of Famer with the reality TV show initials. This is what Bryant says he told T.O.:
"I'm a realist. I'm not going to make a big spectacle out of it," Bryant said. "You've got a bigger legacy and number than I do. I'm a guy. I come to play football. I've been on several teams like you have but changed my number several times and you haven't. I don't need your money. At the end of the day all I want you to do is take care of one of my little league programs in Miami. I'll give you the information. Send them a small donation and we'll go from there."
Bryant doesn't want money. He wants something more: A pain-free knee. "I just want to feel the way I want to feel," he says. He thinks it will be by the time the Bengals open in Foxboro against the Patriots. While some are looking at the Owens signing as sapping Bryant's snaps and numbers, Bryant thinks it take pressure off him trying to get back sooner.
"How can you tell a person not to be hurt?" Bryant asked. "I've never been hurt. I think a lot of guys have been able to play with my injury ... but for the position I play, it's a little bit difficult because of the movement. If I was in a more subtle position where I don't have as much movement it probably wouldn't be as bad.
"I'm just being smart about it. Just idling it a little bit. Not pressing the gas too much."
He doesn't know if the Bengals signed Owens because of the concern over his knee. But he shrugged. It's a business. Maybe.
"There's a purpose behind being here and that's winning a championship," he said. "We look pretty good on paper, I tell you that much. It's a matter of coming out here and putting this work in and I want to be a part of putting that work in."
He was asked his new number.
"I really don't care," Bryant said. "You know my name, right?"
A bunch of kids in Overtown certainly do.