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Last-minute heroics

Chinedum Ndukwe and teammates pause for a group photo at Whole Foods.

Posted: 6 a.m.

Chinedum Ndukwe isn't so sure he could have pulled this off his rookie year. Or even last year.

So immersed in getting ready for the Pittsburgh game, he couldn't pull together plans to get some teammates to Tuesday's late afternoon fundraising event for his foundation at Whole Foods in Hyde Park until the last minute.

Try Monday.

And as late as Tuesday, Ndukwe texted rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga to see if he could get there. Maualuga, who 48 hours before had been carted off the field with a knee injury. Maualuga, who 24 hours ago had been hobbling around the locker room waiting to get an MRI. Maualuga, who was telling the concerned kids in No. 9 and No. 85 jerseys that he was fine.

"What happened to your leg?" they wanted to know.

Maualuga, who could have been home icing, was chilling with whomever stopped by. Maualuga, who seems to be at every charity event that has stripes.

"I like doing this and he's a good friend, so why not?" he asked. "(The knee) feels a lot better than yesterday. I can walk around and I like being here. People are still excited about the game. It's just the start, it's just the beginning."

The theme of this September has been how the Bengals now have a majority of players who care about each other and not themselves. The pundits say the Old Bengals are no longer and the New Bengals are in. But are they the Old Bengals from 2006-2008, or 2000-2002 or when? When Hines Ward cackled to Chris Crocker last Sunday, "Same Old Bengals," he didn't exactly give him a timeline.

"I don't know to be honest, if I could have got this many guys the last couple of years," Ndukwe said. "We've got some good guys now, I know that."

Why the debaters can debate that, these Bengals certainly looked like The New Breed as they sat six across a table signing autographs. Ndukwe put the heavy hitters on either end, Maualuga and Sunday's hero, running back Brian Leonard. But he calls Maualuga, the second-round-pick, and defensive end Michael Johnson, the third-round pick, "The Rock Stars." Sitting next to Maualuga was third-year tight end Daniel Coats and next to him, rookie safety Tom Nelson.

All kinds. Rock stars. Rookie free agents. New veterans. The same kind of brew that clicked on the field the past two Sundays. All accompanied by that unspoken but certain buzz radiating from the fans after a big early-season win.

"He's the guy that made that fourth down to beat YOUR Steelers," said a man to a woman as he nodded at Leonard.

New Bengals?

None of these guys were here in 2006.

And then there is Ndukwe, the seventh-round pick from Notre Dame in his third season who is expanding his already active role in the community.

"It beats sitting home watching TV and it helps kids. I'm from Ohio, so I want to help," said Ndukwe, who grew up in Columbus. "I like to get out and stretch the legs."

The Whole Foods store donated five percent of Tuesday's earnings to Ndukwe's foundation, which going off recent events he figures to be about $2,000. The money goes to a health and wellness event in the spring sponsored by the Cincinnati Junior League, "Kids in the Kitchen," designed to educate children on the benefits of exercise, nutrition and education.

Those are the areas where Ndukwe is focusing his energies, the same kind of effort he has put into trips to his ancestral land of Nigeria the past two offseasons in which he has brought free medical care.

"And it's important to talk to the kids about staying in school and listening to their parents and coaches," he said.

Which he also did Tuesday. Brian Veith, a board member of the foundation and college friend of Ndukwe, brought down his Hyde Park youth football team that he coaches. And like the e-mail Ndukwe sent them last year before they played for a city championship, he gave them some thoughts on life and football. As the kids gathered around him in chairs to listen, his teammates munched on sub sandwiches and chips.

"I get a lot of help. I need a lot of help because my first priority is winning football games," Ndukwe said. "Guys like Brian help me do all this. We've got six, seven board members, all people who want to help Cincinnati, and I've got other people running the foundation every day. I realize that all this is possible because I'm playing and that has to be my focus."

It helps to have a five-man bullpen signing autographs. And it really helps that one of them made an 11-yard catch-and-run on fourth down with 36 seconds left in a classic win over the Steelers.

"A lot of people don't know my face, but they know the name; they know the play," said Leonard, who arrived via a trade from the Rams in May as he started his third NFL season. "I didn't have any plans today and when Chinedum asked me yesterday, I told him yes. I wanted to help him out and I love getting out in the community and helping people. I did a lot of it in college (Rutgers) and really enjoyed it."

The nicest thing Leonard had heard in the previous 48 hours had been, "That play won the game for us."

"Some teammates said it and some fans said it, but I don't believe it," Leonard said. "It takes a team to win a game. It was a big play, but it was just one play."

Old Bengals? New Bengals? Ndukwe reached into his wallet to buy some Whole Food gift cards for his teammates.

"Pretty good event, huh?" he asked.

Not bad for last minute.

Just like Sunday.

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