I am a man of M.A.N. A.
This is my pledge as a member of the MANA family…"
David Fulcher, who delivered some of the more vicious hits in Bengals history, had just been knocked to his knees.
"I was trying to look up into the ceiling and I couldn't even do that," said Fulcher, his eyes still wet with wonder.
The man that buckled Fulrock? The man that put a dent in one of the sturdiest walls of the 1980s NFL? The man that made a three-time Pro Bowl safety weep?
In his light gray striped prison garb, slight and soft-spoken Derrick Kidd went maybe all of 150 pounds for his 38 years. But he brought down Fulcher here in a wing of the Hamilton County Justice Center when he handed him a certificate of appreciation at last week's graduation ceremony and gave the bear of a man a hug.
"I woke up thinking of Dave and I wanted to do something for him because for all he's done for us," said Kidd who speaks so powerfully and passionately that his fellow inmates refer to him as "Reverend Kidd." "I don't have a girlfriend right now and I know a guy in here that makes cards. The guy's name is Scrappy … so I figured I'd pay him to make this."
Fulcher had no idea. Just an hour before, he had told Kidd, one of his star grads, that he was going to speak at the graduation ceremony for completing the two-month life skills course he teaches to those that volunteer to get out of their cell pods twice a week back in lockup.
It wasn't all that long ago that Kidd wandered down here not knowing really where he was, strung out on alcohol, drugs and virtually stone cold silent.
"God is the ultimate father. Watching Mr. Fulcher act like a true man is a reflection of the kind of man I want to be," said Kidd in front of the group, his only notes coming out of a soothed soul. "Seeing how he's dedicated to his family and kids and to us, he's the prototype of a father."
And that's why Fulcher got a hug and a certificate and why he told the people at Cincinnati Christian that he would be their football coach as long as he could continue to come here twice a week to help men become men and that's why his MANA brainchild ("Mentoring Against Negative Action") has grown into his life.
"That was an unbelievable feeling," Fulcher said. "You sit there and when these guys start talking, if it doesn't move you, there's something wrong with you. This is the side the public never sees. All they see is the arrest. All you see on the news on the first five stories are murders and bad things. People don't see this. They say, 'Those guys, those guys.' Those guys are my guys."
I must build my foundation on the following beliefs:
…that I am somebody and I can change…
…that I am someone great.
…that I can empower myself and others through mentoring and positive networking
Art Conley, dressed in regulation corrections issue no-nonsense crispness, ticked off the don'ts upstairs.
"No names, No tape recorders. No calls," said Conley, deputy director of the justice center. "Put your cell phone away. Don't let an inmate use it."
Then the door shut with that sharp, hollow thud and we were in Fulcher's fragile world of hope and hate and redemption and despair.
Conley, standing in for Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis, sat front and center at the graduation and saw a 28-year-old man named Chris weep through his speech as he held his certificate.
"I've spent most of my 20s in here," he choked. "I'm done with it. I can't do it anymore. … I can't tell you how much my MANA family means to me. I really don't have anybody else. This is my family."
The teachers buy what Chris is saying and they should know. Marian Alswager, the jail's education coordinator, and two of her bulwarks, Cassandra Jeter and Marta Kwiatkowski, have been here nearly a combined 40 years. They can tell a con pulling a con.
"The day Chris came back to jail, he signed up for the GED classes," said Kwiatkowski, otherwise known as "Miss Marti" to the population. "He said, 'And I want to get back into MANA.' When we saw him walk through the door, he said, 'Miss Marti, I'm ready. I can't do this anymore.' He has not missed a day of school or MANA. I think for the first time in his life he really believes that he can do it. That's all part of the growing process."
Fulcher calls them "The Ladies," and they form a potent team. The teachers are in charge of getting the inmates their GEDs and controlling the classroom. For the past year, Fulcher's non-profit MANA program has been in charge of teaching them life skills. Teaching them to man up is more like it.
"I know that when you start a fire, if you put your hand in there you're going to get burned," Fulcher said. "I know that. But we've got guys that think they can somehow still put their hand in there and not get burned. Basically, what I'm trying to do is telling them what I've learned. A lot of it is common sense."
Sean Donovan, Leis' top deputy, says the jail has the highest GED rate of any entity in the state, and along with that Fulcher's class "is one of the most effective programs I've seen in 31 years. He's not in it for the money. He believes in what he's doing 100 percent and the inmates see his sincerity."
Fulcher, 46, says he couldn't work with the violent, hardcore criminals. The murderers. Instead he's working with a group in which he figures about 90 percent are involved in some way in the drug trade. Selling. Buying. They are also in here for robbery, lack of child support, maybe an assault. They are not in for long, but long enough to lose jobs, destroy families and ruin lives. Life cycles that Fulcher says can be stopped.
The Ladies have been there when they began similar life skills programs, but one of the reasons they think Fulcher has hit a chord is because he makes them write down material.
"He makes them work. He makes them write. He calls it a game plan," Alswager said. "And he makes them interact. He gets them to talk about what they want to talk about."
"They need an education," Alswager said, "but they also need to learn the manly skills. Now they get a chance to find a voice. It's only when you start to hear your own voice do you start to listen. They can say what they feel without anyone judging them. When they go in that room, we shut the door and they're the only ones in there. The way Dave talks to them, he's the role model they need. It's hard, but it works. If you work it, it will work. That's what they need to see to be successful. What we tell our guys is if your parents weren't there, you have to be there for your children. Be responsible for the next generation. We're talking to men where 85 to 90 percent don't have a male image or a father for a positive image."
The linchpin of Fulcher's lesson plan isn't all that different than a week at Spinney Field getting ready for the Steelers and writing down everything defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau spewed at them.
"These guys have to have a game plan," Fulcher said. "Not only for getting out of here but for after they get out. When we were getting ready for a game - and I always tell them the Steelers - we had a plan for everything we did. From Monday through Saturday, every move we made for the Steelers was planned out. So that's what I want to write down so they can see it.
"Have a plan."
I must practice the art of change.
I must focus on my children, my family, and my community.
I must become a positive member of society and learn to lead future generations.
This is the MANA prayer and Fulcher starts each class with it before heading into that day's topic. On this day the class of about 30 studied the justice system and it was a basic primer in how the courts work and what their rights are. Fulcher's high school daughter, Kayla, helped him put together the slide show complete with music and pictures.
"Everyone in the family is involved," Fulcher said. "My wife (Judy) was down here last week in the class. I think it's important to show them what they can have. How you should treat your family."
What is at the core of Fulcher's belief is that people can change and it is a session like this that affirms it. Kidd, who keeps attending each class even though he's graduated, helps lead the discussion. He went to court just a few days ago and while he's frustrated with how his case has crawled for about 16 months, he tells them how important it is to dress well and to take control when the judge asks them a question.
Another inmate raises his hand and talks about a fellow defendant he saw in court that wore a shirt that had two guns drawn on it.
"The judge told him to come back when he was wearing something more appropriate," the guy said, and Fulcher nodded his head.
For instance on the justice worksheet Fulcher handed out, he has a perspective box that says, "When the police pull you over, listen to what is said. Cooperation is the key. Being polite and courteous will help you. If asked, 'Do you mind if I search your car?' what's your answer?"
"Trick question," Fulcher said and there is some laughter. "If you say, 'No,' that means yes."
The answer, as Fulcher tries to reinforce it, is "Take care of your business. Don't have anything that would make you not want him to search."
Fulcher lets them talk and he'll intersperse tidbits from his own background of growing up tough in South Central Los Angeles as the son of a policeman in the '60s and '70s. Like the time a gang member hit him over the head with a 2x4 because his girlfriend liked Fulcher. Or he'll let them in on an argument he may have had with Judy, showing how they disagreed but a half hour later they were back to normal.
"That's what I really like about him," Kidd said. "He has this great family and yet he comes down here and shares what he has with people that are struggling. He's a down to earth guy. I know he played in the NFL and I remembered when he played, but what interests me is the human behind the helmet."
MANA is getting a name among the judges. Fulcher has become a familiar face in their courtrooms. He doesn't ask about his students' crimes. If they tell him, he'll listen, and if he needs their help, he'll give it. John West, a Common Pleas Court judge, has called him up to say hello, or to chat about the program. He says MANA has become a factor in his decision-making process if one of Fulcher's students appears before him.
"He has a knack for engaging these fellas and getting them to look at changing their habits," West said. "Frankly, it makes a difference. There are times I don't have discretion in a case, and if there are injuries involved you have to be very careful about that. But I think what David is doing with the program shows there some people that do deserve a second chance."
I must be bold enough to break down the barriers that I allow to hold me back from being great.
Therefore, God give me the proper tools to build myself, the wisdom to know when to change my mind, and the strength to achieve my goals.
The kid is 19 years old, born during Fulcher's last season with the Bengals. He has a folder jammed with papers from the teachers and the MANA class.
After he asks about the Bengals, the kid pulls out a sheet to show you.
"This is what he's done for me," the kid says. "I told him I was afraid I'd never be able to get a job because of a felony. But he gave me a list of all these companies that have shown they would take someone who had a felony."
When Fulcher sees the future, he sees 30-year-old Antwan Staley. Staley has been back on the streets for a couple of months after serving 14 months in the justice center, but he comes back to each class and mentors even the morning when he's just finished working the graveyard shift at Cascades and he doesn't have a car.
But he gets there. He's always there when Fulcher needs him.
"I was doing things I thought were right for my kids and it caused me to be locked up," Staley said. "When Dave and I met, we kind of connected because I think we were both dealing with our kids. Honestly, I come back in here to refresh myself. It's an ongoing process. It's sobering in a way when I see I was in that position. It's not easy. It can be done. Dave's inspired me a lot. He's shown me in spite of everything, you can still be there for your family. I can't stress that enough."
Fulcher loves it because he sees passing it on to Staley and Staley passing it on to Kidd.
"I'm constantly working on different concepts to make the program more effective," said Kidd, already planning for when he gets out. "I want to do what (Fulcher) does. I don't like it. I love it. I enjoy sharing information."
Kidd is from Dayton and has children 17 and 18. He rarely sees them. If he does get a visitor, it's probably Fulcher. Staley has been reunited with his three- and four-year-olds, but now he needs to make it for them to make it. Fulcher would love to put him to work as a full-time mentor.
"The next step is getting an office on the outside," Fulcher said. "They're telling me I need to have a place where I can help these guys after they get out. And I think it's extremely important. They need support to keep the momentum going of what they learned in jail."
At MANA graduation, the teachers tell the graduates the good news and bad news. They made it, but they still have to finish serving their time and when they get out they have to make good on the changes. What worries Fulcher are those two to three months after they get out.
"Where do they go? How do they get money if no one will hire them?" Fulcher said. "They usually end up back with their boys in the neighborhood, smoking, drinking, doing whatever they were doing before."
Fulcher's non-profit is looking for a big donor, money that can pay a guy like Staley to mentor, or provide a paycheck for ex-inmates as they try to find that job, or fund the office as a full-time support link. He's putting out his address and office number - P.O. Box 378 Mason, Ohio 45040 and 513-687-0795 - in an effort to find donations to take that next step.
"Society pays now or later with a rising crime rate," Jeter said.
The doors of the room opened. It was noon. Back to the pods.
"It's a negative place," said Kidd of the cell units. "You have to stay focused."
The big man in the middle of the gray stripes had one thought for them as they left.
"See you next Thursday," he said.