Kevin Hartwig had pretty much the same reaction when Joe Mixon first walked into his office about a dozen years ago at Freedom High School on the outskirts of the Bay in North Cali.
Just the other day Mixon called his old coach and told him he better get to this Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the 49ers at Levi's Stadium, about an 80-minute ride from his hometown of Oakley, Calif.
Mixon, it seems, was taking no for an answer and was making sure he'd get tickets to Hartwig and two other coaches from his high school team, running backs coach Ron Rivers and passing game coordinator Ryan Seto.
"He never stops amazing me," Hartwig says. "It kind of came out of the blue. But he told us to get there, so we will."
After playing 86 games and rushing for nearly 5,800 yards, Mixon figures he'll have about 50 people or so at his first NFL game in his hometown and they won't have to worry about catching a glimpse. Not with Mixon representing 87.4 % of the team's rushing yards and 79.3 % of the carries, both league highs. And with his rookie backup Chase Brown declared out after injuring his hamstring in Thursday's practice, the numbers look like they'll remain high.
But if anyone knows Mixon is in shape to take the pounding, it is Hartwig. He's no longer the coach at Freedom, but he's teaching there and had a front-row seat this spring when Mixon worked in the weight room and ran on the track during his offseason workouts.
"I'd say, 'Look, let him get his work done. Don't bother him,'" Hartwig says. "You know Joe. He's always so positive, so upbeat, always smiling. After his workout, if the kids were there, he'd come in high-fiving and jumping into the soccer games in the P.E. classes."
Mixon went off to play at Oklahoma and has been in Cincinnati long enough to be the franchise's third-leading rusher. But he always finds his way back home to the small city of 35,000 or so that's an hour from both San Francisco and Sacramento.
"I try to be respectful of his time. We text maybe every couple of weeks. I wish him good luck or tell him good game. If he gets back, he gets back," Hartwig says. "We talk a lot that way. He stays in contact. Whenever he gets back, we'll have him talk to the kids, or he'll see his old teachers and chat, or we'll have lunch somewhere and catch up."
The call couldn't have been all that surprising. Hartwig got one about 18 months ago with an invite for the same three coaches to the Super Bowl. Also on his list were a teacher and assistant principal who Hartwig describes as his moms on campus.
"He's one of these guys who doesn't forget," Hartwig says. "There's a lot of good support here and he remembers and wants to say thank you. We tell him he doesn't have to, but he does."
They'll probably get a chance to say hello because Bengals director of operations Jeff Brickner makes sure after every road game his players have time to visit the family and friends section near the buses they'll board to get back to the airport for the flight home.
(Another popular guy this week with about 50 tickets is rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas. His hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii is a short jump to Santa Clara relative to the rest of the league.)
"I'm not sure what is going on," Hartwig says. "He said he'll get back to us."
He can count on that.
MIXON RESERVES: The Bengals staff spent the bye week believing they need to find a way to distribute the ball and give Mixon more breathers from the backup contingent of rookie Chase Brown, Trayveon Williams, and Chris Evans. Brown, the fifth-rounder from Illinois, has just eight snaps and it sounded like Thursday before practice he was going to get a bigger shot after just two carries for six yards.
"We've got to keep Joe fresh over the course of the season," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "We need those guys to get more opportunities and not just Chase, I mean, Trayveon and Chris as well. Those guys need to do a little more for us so the division of labor is a little bit divided. Those guys actually can take some load off of Mixon. I think it's reasonable to see that those guys will get more opportunities as the season goes along. "
By the end of practice Thursday, Brown was on the injury report and by Friday he was declared out for Sunday and Taylor said more info is needed to know if it will be longer.
"He was practicing well. Making the most of his opportunities," said head coach Zac Taylor Friday. "The way our games have been played, it's been hard to incorporate more guys. Kind of every carry has mattered and you trust Joe on those carries. It feels like less opportunity to disperse the workload. Maybe that will change, maybe it won't."
Williams, four yards per his five carries, has usually been playing when Mixon isn't. They like Williams' production, but are looking for more.
"We give Trayveon a duo (block to run behind) in Cleveland, and it's going to be a big run, and it's wet," Callahan recalled of the opener. "It's not his fault, but he slips down and now it's a zero-yard run that should have been way more than that. He ends up falling and you can't do that. We need you when you get the ball, you've got to do something with it."
Callahan is looking for a Trenton Irwin at running back after Irwin has established himself as the No. 4 receiver and first one off the bench.
"(Irwin) had an opportunity or two, made a play or two," Callahan said, "has more opportunity, makes more plays and you get more opportunities play. The consistency is the biggest part."
BROCK-MANIA: The Bengals expect 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (concussion) to play after he went limited Thursday and it's a tall order against the last pick in the 2022 draft.
Including playoffs, Purdy is 8-0 at home. The last guy to start his career like that was Russell Wilson, 14-0 including playoffs. And the thing is, at Levi's Stadium, Purdy leads the NFL in 9.7 yards per attempt, a touchdown-interception ratio of 17-1, a passer rating of 127.7, and, plus, has the fewest giveaways with that one among quarterbacks with at least five home starts.
"You talk about intent. He does a great job throwing with anticipation. He's got a high level of toughness," Taylor said this week. "Just understanding what they are trying to get out of certain plays that they've got, just keeping them on schedule. I think that he's done a really good job. He made a couple plays with his feet the other day against Minnesota. That was critical. Just seeing him throw the ball down field with anticipation, trusting his guys to get in the windows."
According to Next Gen Stats, the Bengals defense is a good match. It has allowed a 48.3 passer rating on downfield passes in 2023, third in the NFL. The Bengals also have the third most interceptions on downfield passes.
And there's a good chance there's going to be a pick in this game. The Bengals, 49ers, and Bills are the only teams with at least three players who have multiple interceptions. Safety Dax Hill, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, and linebacker Logan Wilson each have two for the Bengals while linebacker Fred Warner, strong safety Talanoa Hufanga, and cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenior each have two for the 49ers.
Also, all three of Purdy's interceptions this season have come without wide receiver Deebo Samuel on the field and Samuel isn't expected to play Sunday.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals left tackle Orland Brown, Jr. made good on his Monday vow to play after he aggravated a groin injury on the first series of the Seattle win and played the first three quarters.
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