BY GEOFF HOBSON
Vaughn Booker says he has no blood left in his body. But he says football is still in his guts. Which is why he decided against retirement and came back to the Bengals Wednesday three weeks after he fainted during a game because of what doctors called a sudden reduction in blood pressure.
But an injury earlier in that Sept. 17 game in Jacksonville will probably keep him out of this Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. Booker says he'll try to practice Thursday on his sprained knee ligament. Since he's done no physical activity in 24 days, it looks to be a longshot.
So did Booker's return to football until a talk with his wife this past weekend. Doctors from Cincinnati to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., cleared his brain and heart of any problems, but he still had some doubts.
"My wife was behind me all the way," Booker said. "She supported whatever I wanted to do. I'm confident I'm healthy enough to play. That if it happened again, I would walk away from it.
"I found out I missed (football)," said Booker, who watched the home games from the Paul Brown Stadium luxury box he shares with some of his teammates. "I mean, I was predicting the plays and I was really into it. It was tough for me to watch. I never watched games on TV because we watch so much film. But I watched every game."
Booker said the endless tests were grueling and so much of his blood was tested that he says he has none left. He admitted when the Bengals wanted him to go to the world famous Mayo Clinic, he got a little worried.
"Here they were sending me all the way to Minnesota when I had already seen so many doctors in Cincinnati," Booker said. "It was a hard thing to get through . I got a lot of support, but I wasn't returning any calls. I didn't want to talk to anybody."
Booker also didn't want to see the episode on tape, either. He says he remembered falling, but not landing: "I'm sure it wasn't pretty."
MACK, YEAST TEAM: With teams kicking away from Pro Bowl kick returner Tremain Mack, special teams coach Al Roberts is also going to drop punt returner Craig Yeast back there with Mack, "and I like my chances with either of them."
BENGAL RETURN: ** The Bengals' last game in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium has more story lines than the Daytime Emmys. Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau coordinated the Steelers' Super Bowl defense five years ago. The clubs basically traded nose tackles via free agency with Oliver Gibson playing for the Bengals and Kimo von Oelhoffen working for the Steelers. Bengals backup John Jackson was Pittsburgh's Super Bowl left tackle, and Bengals rookie receiver Danny Farmer was a fourth-round pick who got released by the Steelers.
LeBeau and Steelers coach Bill Cowher were said to have had an ugly split in Pittsburgh before LeBeau re-joined the Bengals as Bruce Coslet's defensive coordinator before the '97 season.
But as he always does, LeBeau doused the gossip while saluting the staff of Cowher and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. That's the staff that brought him to Pittsburgh in 1992 as the secondary coach.
"I never heard a whisper of that nature, but there's certainly no truth in anything like that," LeBeau said. "Coach Cowher has done a great job over there. I've benefited from working with Coach Cowher, Coach Capers. . .I think the three of us were a pretty good combination. I regard all of them as friends. . .I have nothing but good feelings about Coach Cowher."
Jackson played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh before leaving via free agency for San Diego after the 1997 season. Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll drafted Jackson in the 10th round out of Eastern Kentucky and he remembers the old coach making the Steelers run the Three Rivers steps
Jackson's other Three Rivers memory? In the precious moments after the Steelers beat the Colts in the 1995 AFC title game.
"I looked at (current Steelers center) Dermontti Dawson and we just started crying," Jackson said. "I get chills thinking about it."
HEATH AGAIN: ** It won't be such a great homecoming for Johnstown, Pa., product Artrell Hawkins. Rodney Heath gets another start at right cornerback for the Bengals after last Sunday's solid effort.
"How can you take a guy out when he's doing pretty much everything right?" asked secondary coach Ray Horton. "All he does is make plays. That's what you have to go by. He makes plays."
Horton compares the 5-10, 175-pound Heath to Baltimore's 5-10, 170-pound Duane Starks. Except Starks was the 10th pick in the 1998 Draft while Heath first had to go to the Minnesota Monsters of the Professional Indoor Football League after he left college in 1996.]
"Why?" asked Horton, when he was asked how scouts missed Heath and found Starks. "Who knows? How do you explain Kurt Warner?"
Playing Heath in Pittsburgh is a solid move. Last year there he got the defense's game ball when picked off Kordell Stewart twice in the first half and took one 58 yards for a touchdown.
BENGALS UNITED: The Bengals, who led all NFL teams last year for the most participation in the United Way's Hometown Huddle projects with 18 players, are at it again Oct. 17. A group of players is to do volunteer work at the United Way agency Stepping Stones.
The players will spend the morning helping clients in the indoor pool, classrooms, and gym, as well as painting playground equipment.
Stepping Stones provides opportunities for disabled children and adults that increase independence. The Bengals, ranked among the league's top teams for contributions by players, coaches and management, join about 300 players from across the NFL in donating time to United Way agencies.