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More than locker mates

Cincinnati Bengals running back Mark Walton, center, participates in the NFL football team's rookie minicamp, Friday, May 11, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Cincinnati Bengals running back Mark Walton, center, participates in the NFL football team's rookie minicamp, Friday, May 11, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

They don't know what is more amazing.

That they both got out of Liberty City and into an NFL camp? Or that when they got there, Mark Walton, and Quinton Flowers were lockering next to each other?\

"No. 32 and No. 34," says Flowers, No. 34. "There's a reason for everything."

That's how they ended up next to each other here in the Bengals locker room at last weekend's rookie minicamp. The numbers. But they're here despite the numbers and eerily familiar stories.

Both grew up in Miami's inner city. "He stayed just up the street," Walton says. Both of their fathers were shot to death before they were nine. Both of their mothers died shockingly young from disease. Both had brothers shot and killed. Both are starting their new chapters written around one-year-old daughters.

"I respect anybody who has gone through the things I've gone through," Walton says. "To get out of the inner city and go to college ball. Or going to the NFL. I admire everything about the guy."

The feeling is mutual. Flowers watched Walton stay home and become the latest in that long line of NFL running backs for the University of Miami.

"We've probably known each other since we were seven years old. I knew him," Flowers says. "I followed him. He had a great career. When I came home from break, I'd check up on him. We'd see each other."

Same story. Same iron will. Same bottomless vat of determination and character. But different high school. Different stretches of Liberty City. Different guys.

Walton stayed home to play the position of his heroes at the U. Frank Gore and Edgerrin James are his favorites. Willis McGahee is the first one he remembers. But Duke Johnson had an impact, too, because they are closer in age. All have made waves in the league with Gore and James on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame.

"That was part of my decision for going there," Walton says. "I'm trying to keep that legacy going."

Flowers needed to go to South Florida and it wasn't just to remain a quarterback.

"I wanted to start my own legacy," says Flowers, who chose the Teddy Bridgewater route and left Miami to throw on his own.

But now he's a running back for the first time in his life. That's all Walton has ever been. Ever since those first couple of practices for the Gwen Cherry Boys and Girls Club when they put him at quarterback and all he wanted to do was run, so they figured they'd hand it off to him instead. Meanwhile, Flowers was on the other side of town running and throwing for the Liberty City Optimists.

The challenge last weekend was trying to find Quinton Flowers.

Walton, drafted in the fourth round, knew Flowers was undrafted but had signed with the Bengals. He just didn't know what position.

"I didn't know until he was in the running back meeting room. I was shocked," Walton says. "It's a new era. He's welcome in the room. They're thankful he's in the room. We can do some different things with him, like run the Wild cat if they want to or not.

"I don't think it's too hard for him to learn. He's been running the ball his whole life. He's a great quarterback. Just look at his record at USF. We'll see what he can do for us."

Both arrived last weekend as advertised. The 5-9, 205-pound Walton is a welcome change-of-pace in a backfield with Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. He can catch. He's quick. He skitters through the hole. He's got the gritty mindset that made him the Hurricanes' best special teams player and one that Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons covets.

The 5-10, 214-pound Flowers was all over the minicamp. He calmly made a fairly seamless transition to running back while taking some snaps at quarterback, catching punts for the first time in his life, and lining up as the personal protector on the punt team. All flashing that athleticism.

"We're the same type of person," Walton says. "We really don't dwell on it. We know we have to handle it for our families. At the end of day we don't try to deal with outside problems when we're on the field. We just play football."

It wasn't lost on either one that the camp ended on Mother's Day. Same story, but different guys. It's still hard for Walton to grapple with losing Kim Rogers a year ago in February to a stroke at just 45 years old.

"I want to make sure I spend some extra time on the phone with my daughter (Sunday)," says Walton, who, like Flowers, is staying in Cincinnati for another month. "That's one of my goals is to give her the lifestyle I never had."

He also planned to talk plenty to Jasmin Thompson, his fiancé. They met seven years ago in the school cafeteria, started flirting, and still are. If Flowers had been home, he would have put roses on Nancy's grave. He's been doing that every Mother's Day since she passed from cancer six years ago. He doesn't leave a dozen or one. Just whatever money he has in his pocket.

"She was a football fan. We watched football all day Sunday. The Sunday night game, too," Flowers says. "We'd get food or she'd cook. She would ask me (during the games), 'Do you think you can do that?'"

She did think so. Nancy, who worked maintenance and in the cafeteria at a nearby school, was a big Dolphins fan and her favorite players were the defensive guys, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas. Her son followed Chris Chambers, the wide receiver. He says when he puts the flowers there he can hear her talking to him and he thinks she'd like the position switch.

"She'd be happy that I'm living my dreams. She'd just tell me that's what I always wanted. She'd say I was built for it and that I've always been going against bigger guys," Flowers says. "She'd say I've been in this situation before.

"I've had the ball in my hands. That's the way I was raised."

So was Walton.

"He handled it like a pro," Walton says. "We've got each other's back."