Posted: 7:45 a.m.
Because of his hardscrabble journey, towering pain threshold and fierce downhill hitting, his teammates called Rashad Jeanty "Hard Knocks" long before HBO and NFL Films captured the Bengals this summer.
It just happened to work out that by the time the cameras showed up, Jeanty's rags-to-riches story had been pushed to the back lot by the drafting of one of the nation's leading men, USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Taken in the second round after a senior year he was named the nation's Defensive Player of the Year, Maualuga moved into the SAM linebacker spot Jeanty had held the past two seasons.
But now fate has gone where the microphones couldn't and on Thursday, Maualuga tooled around the Bengals locker room on a motorized device four days after his season ended with a broken ankle talking about how generously Jeanty helped him during his rookie season and what good hands the Bengals are in now that he's back in the starting lineup for Sunday's regular-season finale and the playoffs.
In Jeanty, you're talking about a special, old-school guy fossil-fueled by taking care of his family and teammates. And this is Jeanty's kind of game this week. No. 2 rush defense vs. the No. 1 rush offense. If Maualuga is not the team's most physical run player, Jeanty is.
"I'm a fan of tough guys," said linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who knows of such things as an amateur race car driver and a professional football coach who once had a Pro Bowl player at every linebacker position. "There are different levels. But Rashad does the things that put him into the top flight of tough guys."
Maualuga even got his college number the first day he walked in with No. 58. In his fourth season this year after 31 starts, Jeanty finally got a linebacker number with No. 53 instead of No. 93. But everyone knew 93. His cannonball blowup of Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal on one snap last year is preserved somewhere in the tough guy archives.
"A very respectful person, a very solid person," Maualuga said. "He started all through camp, all through preseason and to come to the first game against Denver and see the depth chart and see it say '58.' He didn't take it as badly as I would have taken it. He just came up to me and said, 'Hey Bro, I just talked to Fitz. You're starting this week. I just want you to know there are no hard feelings between the two of us. Ask me anything and I'll do the best I can to explain it to you.' I'm like, 'Wow.' "
If you want to know why this is such a good locker room right now and not the dysfunctional soap opera of years past, it is because of a guy like Jeanty. He's one of the reasons head coach Marvin Lewis was able to turn this locker room over to this group of veterans instead of other groups that had different agendas.
From the time he showed up in the fog of the week following the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh in January 2006 on a tryout from the CFL, Jeanty's agenda has been clear: He's a pro looking to keep a job. Whether it is a rod in his leg, a broken bone glinting in the glow of a dark day in Cleveland, or a Defensive Player of the Year.
How tough? Here's a guy that would one day play with a 16-inch titanium rod in his leg. But when he was an unknown rookie in 2006 straight out of the CFL, here is also a guy that had to fight back tears after a training-camp practice before explaining why he left college for Canada and then came from Edmonton to Cincinnati to help his struggling family.
"He's one of the toughest guys I know," said fellow linebacker Brandon Johnson, another team guy. "Pain threshold through the roof. A solid, dependable linebacker. He's one of the toughest guys on this team. That's how it's been all season. One of the guys goes down, we plug and play."
Johnson did it for three games that included the last two division wins when WILL linebacker Keith Rivers went down. FitzGerald has no doubt Jeanty is going to do it now. This is a guy that FitzGerald was already using as a mini assistant coach last year in practice.
"That was the great thing about last week when he had to go in for Rey," said FitzGerald of the late first quarter. "There was absolutely no reservation that he would know exactly what to do. Here's a guy that hadn't played in weeks and he was right there. He didn't miss a beat."
Even before Jeanty's fractured finger in Cleveland back in October joined the Edmund Fitzgerald in Great Lakes lore, his toughness was legendary. Last year his teammates voted him the Ed Block Courage Award in a season he didn't miss a game despite painful plantar fasciitis.
Jeanty originally tore the connective tissue underneath his foot in the area that creates the arch early in Houston on Oct. 26, 2008, and when the Texans ran a crackback block at him later in the game he had to come out when he tore it even more.
After getting a second opinion in which the doctor advised him not to play but also told him he could if he could bear the pain, Jeanty kept bearing and kept playing.
And this year before the preseason game in New England, a wincing Johnson watched Jeanty take a cortisone shot smack in the arch.
"You want to hear that story? It's crazy," Jeanty told a gaggle of media before practice Thursday as he described Angelo Colosimo coming at him with a needle. "Dr. Colosimo is an aggressive guy and I said, 'Wait a minute, I've got to get my mind right. I've got to get in a zone' ... Brandon told me two or three days later he was watching. He was asking me, 'How do you do that?' "
Then there was the broken finger back on Oct. 4. It happened when Jeanty was covering a kick and the bone ripped through the skin.
"He didn't flinch," Johnson said.
He didn't want to come out of the game, either, but the trainers told him he had to get to the hospital right away because of an exposed bone's high risk of infection, and he stayed the night in Cleveland.
"You know your bone is white. I was amazed at how white the bone was. It's the color of that," he said, pointing to a salmon-colored shirt. "They were saying,'Turn away, turn away.' I was saying, 'No, I want to look at it.' I wanted to take a picture of it honestly."
Needles and bones are nothing. Jeanty has that rod from the top of his knee to his foot after multiple stress fractures were discovered in his tibia during the 2007 preseason. That would have ended a lot of guys' seasons.
But Jeanty ended up missing the first five games, came back on special teams, and was back in the starting lineup in the ninth game.
He kept fighting through it even last year when he had to sit out practices with not only the foot, but the leg injury as well. Now with the coaches spot-resting him in this past training camp, the only practices Jeanty has missed this season are because of the finger, which took him out of the next game.
"Minor procedure," he said with a laugh. "I benefited from (the rest). I thank the organization for looking after me so to speak. I'm a crybaby with some things, but I guess not with pain. Like with my family. If my mom doesn't call me for four days, I get kind of sensitive."
But not with the body.
"I don't know if it's adrenaline. I don't know what it is," he said. "Some of the guys think I'm kind of crazy."
Not so much. Jeanty, 26, was just 20 when he left Central Florida for the CFL for a variety of reasons. One he flunked out. But the biggest reason is when he came home from school his mother, two brothers, his sister and their children were living in a motel room under I-95 in their hometown of Miami after his mother's house had become a victim of depleted funds.
Jeanty went to work in the CFL for three seasons and helped everybody get upright. Now he's in his fourth NFL season making $1.2 million, but he's still playing like it is his last check.
"It's hard to let your teammates down. I honestly have got to be down to not play," Jeanty said. "To hell with me, but my teammates. We count on each other so much, you know what I mean? I take so much pride in not letting those guys down. I'm sensitive about that. That means a lot to me personally."
Not a bad sound bite from "Hard Knocks" in this week the camera found him.