No return for Mack

9-2-01, 4:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals said good-bye to Tremain Mack, their all-time kick returner on Cutdown Day, and welcomed the man they think brings a unique quickness to the job.

"He's a great kick returner. I learned a lot from him," said second-year running back Curtis Keaton Sunday as he spoke of Mack in the past tense.

"Getting the ball up field and accelerating. The true mark of a playmaker is what you do when things break down," Keaton said.

Afer Mack led the AFC in kick returns in 1999, the Bengals thought he didn't break enough runs last year or this preseason. Hobbled by an ankle injury and inconsistent play, Mack didn't return a kick for more than 50 yards in all of 2000.

But the guy who really ended up beating out Mack for his fifth season on the roster was converted linebacker JoJuan Armour, who wrestled the backup strong safety spot away with crisper tackling and more athleticism on special teams.

Mack, who missed some tackles in Thursday's pre-season finale that Armour sat out with a sore hamstring, said he was taken completely by surprise.

But he has been through more than that here. On his last day as Bengal, Mack spoke for the first time about some of those tribulations.

"They stood by me when I needed it. They showed me they believed in me," said Mack of the club. "That was loyalty that you don't see every day in the league, for sure. That's something that I'll always remember this team and this organization."

Mack had his Pro Bowl season after spending five months in jail for DUIs n 1997 and 1998. Those arrests culminated a string of alcohol-related offenses stretching back to his college days at Miami of Florida that knocked him from the first round to the fourth round in the 1997 NFL Draft.

He went back to jail for a month during this past offseason for a very public violation of his probation when a local television station caught him on tape driving to and from practice during last season.

David Levine, his agent, and teammates were furious with WLWT-Channel 5 for running the story because they felt it overshadowed how dramatically he had changed his life. Levine said Mack had been clean for the previous 18 months and knew it because Mack was tested about 10 times a month. Mack drove because he couldn't find reliable transportation.

"It was a major setback, but not as far as having anything to do with my life and how I was living it," Mack said. "The thing that disappointed me with the TV

station is the way they ran it. "They ran it like, 'Hey, this guy doesn't care about his probation. He doesn't respect any of it.' That was not true at all. If I was bitter about something, that's it. It wasn't anything like that. Just tell the truth, that's all."

Mack feels the truth is he made such huge strides against his problems that he says even the law acknowledged it.

"What happened with the courts is a situation that they had to make a decision," Mack said. "It wasn't something they wanted to do, but they had to do it. They know more than anybody how I was living and how I'm doing. I see those people every month. But it's all in the past."

Mack, 26, is looking at Sunday's move as a fresh start in the league. He arrived as the starting strong safety, but never regained a foothold from scrimmage after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery late in the preaseason and then getting arrested for DUI late in October of 1997.

"I feel like I can play safety in this league and maybe this is something that can help make it happen," Mack said.

Mack said his off-season problems last year had nothing to do with his problems returning kicks.

"I was hurt and to go along with that," Mack said, "we had a lot of guys going in and out that we didn't have in kick returns the previous year and that made a difference."

But Mack also fumbled three times last year and special teams coach Al Roberts said that's one of the attractive things about Keaton.

"He hasn't dropped the ball," Roberts said. "We've been leaving the ball on the ground quite a bit the last couple of years. We're not turning the ball over anymore. That's our edge."

Keaton calls ball security, "paramount," and says he's been doing it "since Little League."

He did it last year six times for a 16.7-yard average and he did it at West Virginia and James Madison in college, where he returned a combined 18 kicks for a 23.4 average that included a long of 58.

"I look up the middle, I look outside, I look anywhere for daylight and that's where I go," Keaton said. "I'm trying to stay within the scheme more. I think it's the same thing from scrimmage. It's learning not what to do with the ball, but what I do without it."

Head coach Dick LeBeau likes Keaton returning kicks for the same reason he likes him backing up Corey Dillon. The quicks give him the chance to break a big play at any point.

"It's just a matter of time," Keaton said. "Sure (returning) is fun. Any time you touch the ball, it's fun."

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