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New York State of Mind

Vincent Rey

Vincent Rey got home first on 9/11 after three hours on buses lurching between Queens and Far Rockaway. The TV didn't work, he didn't have a cell phone, and he had to wait until everyone came home one by one until he knew they were OK.

First his brother came home from junior high in Brooklyn. Then his mother, a guidance counselor in another Brooklyn school, arrived. His dad got home last, about 8 p.m., shortly after steering the A train home after his last run in the longest day under the New York City streets.

"A day like that makes you think," says Lemuel Rey, who has been driving trains in the New York subways for 22 years. "I was just so glad to see everyone. It makes you realize how much your family means to you."

That day, the worst of days, is just one of the reasons Vincent Rey, the long shot Bengals linebacker, wants to come back to the city and be a high school principal whenever this improbable run in the NFL ends. How improbable? Start counting the number of NFL players from The City by way of Duke that spent the offseason at his alma mater acting in an opera and you won't get to One Mississippi.

"I love New York mainly because of the people. Everyone from New York loves New York," Vincent Rey says. "I was given a lot through having people that cared for me and having good teachers. I want to give something back."

His personal A train makes a huge, bone-rattling stop not far from home in the New Meadowlands Sunday (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Jets team he grew up living and dying with while following the fortunes of his favorite player, running back Curtis Martin.

"I root for the Bengals when they play the Jets," Lemuel Rey says. "But I tell him when he hits (Mark) Sanchez, don't hurt him. Don't hurt the quarterback. Just get him to the ground."

Vinnie Rey has been getting enough people to the ground in his two seasons with the Bengals that if they decide to keep seven linebackers on Cutdown Day, he's got a great shot to make the Opening Day roster after spending most of last season on the practice squad. And since rookie linebacker Dontay Moch won't be ready until the third week or so of the regular season with his broken foot, it looks like the Bengals will have to keep seven.

"I try to do whatever the coach tells me," Vincent Rey says. "I think if you know what to do in any situation, you can get it done."

The 6-2, 244-pound Rey fits the bill for the last spot, although such a spot at each position is vulnerable on Cutdown Day. A little undersized at WILL linebacker, brains, speed and determination make up for it and pay off on special teams, where he had two tackles in his NFL debut in the next-to-last game of last season.

"Of course he should make it. Vinnie's a good player," says Dhani Jones, the former Bengals middle linebacker who mentored him as a rookie last year. "He's smart, he's fast. Everywhere he's been he's found a way to succeed."

Jones, who is working out and waiting for a call, should know. He started out in this league 12 years ago when the New York Football Giants drafted him in the late rounds and has hung around with Big Apple savvy. And he knows Rey as well as anyone after renting out a room to him last year in his downtown Cincinnati condo.

"He comes from New York City and didn't know how to drive a car and didn't know what central air conditioning was," Jones says. "But he's got a good heart and a good mind. You show him what to do and he'll do it."

Now Rey is wearing Jones' No. 57 at the instruction of head coach Marvin Lewis.

"I was glad to see that," Jones says. "That means a lot to me."

One time Jones took his understudy to a charity event and when they got home he asked him how may business cards he got. Jones put his 20 on the table while Rey didn't know he should have been collecting them. Jones jumped on Rey as if he'd missed a formation, telling him he should never leave such an event like that again.

"The next time I had something like 10 and he had three," Jones says. "Then the third time, he had five and I had three and he was pretty happy with that. He learns."

The Bengals fly into Jersey Saturday afternoon and Rey knows his mind is going to drift back to that day. That's where his mind was when he saw the smoke coming out of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Can it be 10 years next month? It was his first Tuesday of high school at Bayside High in Queens and Rey had turned 14 five days before. He was in science class daydreaming into the movie screen beauty of the skyline.

"I saw the smoke. I didn't think much of it. I just thought a window got busted," he says. "We went to the next class and they said we were under a terrorist attack. You knew how serious it was because our teacher was so down."

It was his history teacher and even then a high school freshman knew this was one for the books.

"You realized right then the city where you live is under attack in a war," he says. "I was worried about my dad being underground because they were saying that was a target. Hundreds of thousands of people take the subway every day."

Lemuel Rey says he knew something was wrong a few stops past the World Trade Center when the radio began to crackle with emergency calls. When he got to the next stop he heard a plane had gone into one of the towers and that just didn't make sense to him on such a beautifully clear day.

"Then we heard that a second plane hit and I knew that was no accident," Lemuel Rey says.

The trains were shut down until about 3 p.m. and once limited service began, they kept going back and forth to get the stranded out of Manhattan.

"I was able to talk to my wife," he says, "but I didn't know about my boys."

Rey says he's seen everything in 22 years of driving NYC trains. He saw it all on one day, the worst day, a day that started at 4:30 in the morning when he dropped Vincent off at his school bus stop before he got behind the wheel to take the A from Far Rockaway through Queens and Brooklyn and into Manhattan all the way to 207th St.

"It would take Vincent almost two hours to get to school one way," Lemuel Rey says. "He'd have to take a couple of buses and a train. But he wanted to go to a school that had good academics and a good football program and Bayside is known for having good teams. A lot of times he'd get home at 9 and then he'd study and I knew he did because the computer was in my room and a lot of nights he was on it until 1:30. Then he'd get back up at 4."

Still, only one Division I college offered and it was only because an opposing Bayside coach made a call for him to a friend at Duke.

"There are a lot of good football players that come out of New York like Vinnie," says Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle, a Staten Island native who also calls Rey "Vinchenzo" in honor of all his Pisans on The Island.

"The Harmon brothers (Rick and Derrick) played at Vinnie's school in the '80s and both played in the league. For the longest time the city has been known for producing basketball players and there have been budget cuts that have hurt the sport. But there always seem to be guys that make it."

A total of 35 starts later for the Blue Devils, Rey was a two-time captain and a University Scholar Athlete with the intriguing double major of sociology and theater.

"I'm not saying I'm the greatest actor," he says, "but I enjoy getting out there."

Before coming back to act out the opera (he didn't sing), Rey appeared in a couple of productions with his favorite role Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He also had a starring role in a theater remake of the film Closer, a story about the relationships of two men and two women.

"It basically was about how they met," Rey says. "I played the Clive Owen character. Tough guy."

Good casting. Rey is used to being a tough guy on and off the field. Before he was a two-time captain at Duke, he was a two-time captain for Bayside's tradition-steeped program and even as a practice squad Bengal he didn't shrink from the stage.

"Every week before the game when the nickel group would meet with just the linebackers and DBs, Vinchenzo would get up and tell a joke," Coyle says. "Sometimes they were good, sometimes they weren't so good. But the players always enjoyed it. Hey, we enjoyed it. Great kid. Reliable. Conscientious. One of New York's finest."

That's one of the reasons why Rey wants to come back and work at a school.

"I was inspired by a teacher named Mr. Green in high school. I don't even know his first name," he said. "I used to want to be a teacher, but now I want to run the whole school."

He's not one of the guys that can spit out Almanac facts about the Big Apple. But he says you'd probably be surprised that he lives on the water.

"Far Rockaway is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides," Rey says. "The ocean is about a block away. I can go hang out on the beach pretty much anytime."

And since he's a New Yorker, he knows which way the wind is blowing.

"I'm any underdog in any movie," he says. "I love it. I'm on the outside looking in. But at least I'm the vicinity."

Which is just where he happens to be this weekend.

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