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Learning to the Max


Rookie Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati's once and future right guard, is getting a crash course in offensive line play, Bengals style.

Last Friday night on the first day of the rookie minicamp, he listened to the franchise's greatest guard, Max Montoya, talk to the group about the pitfalls of being a pro and the enormous opportunities that wait after it's over.

Then all this Saturday at downtown Cincinnati's Millennium Hotel he'll take notes at the "World Famous Line Clinic," which annually is the greatest gathering of offensive line minds in the world that hit a record 378 coaches last year.

It's known as the Mushroom Society because O-line coaches figure they are kept in the dark watching film while being fed garbage, like a piece of steak's favorite fungus.

"It's always a big weekend for Gold Star," says Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who was one of the eight attendees at the first one nearly 30 years ago at the club's old practice facility Spinney Field before it all mushroomed. "A lot of large men eating chili."

There aren't many little guys running around this weekend. Bengals scout Greg Seamon has worked with many of them as an offensive coordinator or as a coach of a skilled position and they highly regard his football acumen. Enough that clinic chief Bob Wylie has bestowed up on him the high honor of "Honorary Mushroom."

"But it can only ever be Honorary," Seamon says.

If his rookies are allowed, Alexander always wants them in the clinic's front row and it just so happens that Zeitler's college responsibilities are completed Friday. Alexander always speaks and his topic is going to be of great interest to Zeitler, a superb run blocker at Wisconsin making the transition to the pass-happy NFL:

The Different Ways To Pass Protect.

You were expecting something more exotic?

Try keynote speaker Jim McNally, the clinic founder when he was coaching the Bengals offensive line and now a consultant for the club:

Footwork and Updated Techniques.

Not exactly trending on Twitter, but they don't care.

"It's two days of talking about blocking," Alexander says.

Zeitler, the first-round pick who loves blocking so much that he was disappointed to learn there were no pads in rookie camp, can't wait.

"I used to listen to my offensive line coach in college talk about going to this clinic and bringing back stuff that he learned," Zeitler says. "I never knew it was in Cincinnati. I'm really looking forward to it. Anytime I can learn something new, I'm ready for it."

Zeitler arrived last week expecting to practice in full pads. He knew the rest of the spring camps would be in helmets and shorts. So he consoled himself with the knowledge it got him ready for the camps with the veterans that begin Tuesday.

But …

"It would have been nice to be in pads because it would allow you to knock off more rust," Zeitler says. "But rules are rules."

Yet Montoya came out hard hitting. While golfing with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis last week, they got to talk about the stunning stats that befall NFL players after they get out of the game when it comes to financial failures, divorce, and who knows what else in the wake of Junior Seau's suicide.

Knowing that Montoya not only made it to three Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls while with the Bengals but that he also became a successful Northern Kentucky entrepreneur after his playing days, Lewis invited him to talk to the rookies at the height of the tempest swirling around post careers.

"Any time you get a chance to listen to a guy that's been as successful as he has, I'm going to listen to everything he says," Zeitler says. "He told us that your NFL career should be used as a jumping-off point for your next career."

No surprise, really, since Montoya heard Bengals founder Paul Brown every first meeting of his 11 Bengals training camps talk about the need for players to prepare for their life's work after football.

"Keep working, stay active. You can't sit around watching cartoons," Montoya says of his message during the 20-minute talk. "I wanted these guys to know that sooner or later, and with a lot of these guys it's going to be sooner, they're going to be getting out there in the real world. You have to pick the right people, get a good attorney, get a good CPA, and I wanted to them to know that the experience after football is unbelievable. But you have to take advantage of the opportunities. You may never get these again."

Montoya, 56, finished his 16 NFL seasons with five years as a Raider and when he got that lump-sum severance check at the end of 1994 he immediately used it to buy his first Penn Station franchise.

Like McNally's clinic, Montoya's business has mushroomed. Staked by the severance, he says he was able to roll his profits into new stores. He now owns five Penn Stations throughout northern Kentucky and has 55 people working for him.

Enough people so that on many afternoons he can be found sharpening his lethally-long and excellent golf game, or tending to the horses he drives competitively on the small Hebron, Ky., farm where he lives.

"I told them one thing I always remember someone telling me," Montoya says. "If you go into a business with partners, you don't want to go in 50-50. You want to be the guy with 51 percent or be the managing general partner. Because at some point it's going to end."

Montoya heard that from some good sources, including his wife Patti, another topic given the high divorce rate of recently retired NFL players.

"We're going on 32 years of marriage," Montoya says. "I let them know that's been a big part of what I've accomplished."

Montoya appreciated his introduction, a Lewis special via one of video vicar Travis Brammer's photomontages of his career highlights. Montoya's career is what caught Zeitler's eye. One of the many reasons the Bengals drafted Zeitler is because they know he's a guy that isn't headed for one of the pitfalls.

"The only time I've really seen it is on SportsCenter," Zeitler says of the topic. "I love football. But I like to do other things. I'm getting married next July, I'm going to have a family. I'll be involved in other things once I'm done playing."

Montoya noticed people were impressed with his longevity. He took his last snap when he was 38. One of the questions was how he played so long and what he did to take care of his body. What he didn't say is that he was one of the best guards of his era.

"Very quick. Good athlete. Good pass protector. Smart," McNally recalls like one of the evaluations in his now famous scouting reports.

If anyone should know, it's McNally. While teaming guys like Montoya (seventh round), right tackle Joe Walter (seventh round), center Bruce Kozerski (ninth round), and left guard Bruce Reimers (eighth round) with Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz, McNally reached guruhood status along with head coach Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense. The Flashdance offense was made possible by a MASH running game that finished in the top five for five straight seasons as the late '80s bled into 1990.

But it wasn't McNally that named them "mushrooms." He was there when long-time NFL offensive line coaches Jim Hanifan, Bill Muir and Howard Mudd were sitting around a long-forgotten Senior Bowl musing about the lot of an offensive line coach.

"O-line coaches and O-linemen usually don't get noticed until something bad happens," McNally says. "The quarterback gets sacked, something like that. We're usually kept in the dark watching film."

But there's enough light that the usual heavy hitters are finding their way here. The two O-line coaches that faced off in the Super Bowl, Pat Flaherty of the Giants and New England's Dante Scarnecchia, as well as three more from playoff teams, Alexander, San Francisco's Mike Solari and Detroit's George Yarno, are scheduled to speak. So are Stanford's Mike Bloomburg and Dan Dorazio, O-line coach of the CFL champ Coach BC Lions.

The significance of this one is that it is the first clinic since McNally's return to the Bengals as a consultant. When he left at the end of the '94 season, Wylie took over the nuts and bolts of planning the clinic and even moved it briefly to Tampa when he worked under Wyche with the Bucccaneers. But when he became the Bengals tight ends coach in the late '90s before becoming the University of Cincinnati's line coach, the clinic was back in Cincy to stay.

"Wylie just lets me come because I started it," McNally says, but that's not what the Web site says. This is the closest you'll get to Ben Franklin talking to a room full of electricians.

"Clinic Favorite Jim McNally," is what Wylie calls him and Seamon assures you his lecture is going to be "packed." In what other line of work can a 68-year-old talk about "updated techniques?"

And there is an eager 22-year-old with a notebook waiting to hear what any of them have to say.

"The technique in the NFL is a lot different than in college," Zeitler says. "In fact, everything is different. The only thing that is really the same is the design of the play.

I'm looking forward to it."

Naturally, the football deal that is getting the headlines in town this weekend is the Marvin Lewis Celebrity Golf Tournament. Which is just as well.

"We'd rather be here," Alexander says. "Not many O-line coaches play golf."

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