No stopping Huddle

Posted: 6:15 a.m.

Levi Jones could have dug a hole on his off day, crawled into it and no one would have blamed him because the rain-soaked Tuesday matched his Sunday.

But there he was, shoveling mulch into a wheelbarrow as the Bengals huddled to transform a city eyesore into an urban island.

"What happened on Sunday isn't these people's fault; it's not the kids' fault," Jones said after he planted the brick with his name on it. "You can't let that run every aspect of your life."

Long before life dealt 1-4, the Oct. 16 commitment had been to Seasongood Square Park in Avondale, a hard but hearty part of Cincinnati that is this year's beneficiary of the annual NFL/United Way Hometown Huddle program.

As usual, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' charitable foundation oversaw a phalanx of corporate sponsors and an army of volunteers in a two-minute drill of a rehab job. Led by nearly 40 Bengals, the 350 volunteers carved out of the mud two sprawling playground areas, a fitness course, picnic benches, and grills.

It was a day where the Bengals numbers cruncher, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, had crumpled dirt smudged on her pants and shoes and where her mother, Nancy Brown, made sure the volunteers were fed, and offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth looked around, saw running backs Kenny Watson and DeDe Dorsey and observed, "This is a running-the-ball kind of day."

The guys who pass protect down here, the cops, gathered under a tent during one of the downpours and envisioned what the patch of disuse would look like when it's completed in the next several days with $200,000 that may never have come.

"It's going to give a legitimate use of the park and when you do that you bring in children and mothers and they supply their own surveillance," said Cincinnati police sergeant Hank Ward. "We've found in our parks that when we bring in Frisbee golf or better playground sets and improve the appearance, you don't have a great deal of trouble."

It's not that The Square, with its four lone rusty swings, is swarming with crime. Parked at the corner of Reading Road and Fred Shuttlesworth Center, any violent crime would be out of the ordinary, Ward said, but it is a large park with some secluded areas that do get some drug complaints, particularly behind a shelter.

Marty Polk, a Cincinnati police officer who doubles as a plainclothesman when needed, has seen it all in this neighborhood.

"The biggest thing is it gets the riff-raff out of here that you get once in awhile," Polk said. "It's a safe environment where they can play and socialize and where other neighborhoods can participate and take an interest."

As usual, Lewis had been drawn to the idea of the kids and as the director of his foundation, Sharon Thomas did what she always does and turned an idea into an event. There were about 3,000 reasons for bringing the project here. The number of children she says are growing up close by.

"Five to 12 are the important ages," said Jude Johnson, assistant to the head of the Cincinnati Parks Board. "This is a very under-utilized park. There's only one special event a year where the community comes out and gets together for some kind of festival. Now with new picnic benches and barbecue grills, it's going to be used several times a year for community events like that."

But, like Polk said, the community won't see this again. "This is special," said Polk, a season ticket holder for three seasons used to watching his Bengals run out of the tunnel with their striped helmets on and names on their back of their jerseys.

On Tuesday they walked by him wearing hard hats with their names on the front.

"I'm sure they've got families and on a day like today they could be spending time with them," Polk said. "But they gave it up to be here and help. I think that means a lot in a community. Marvin has done so much like that."

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Whitworth

Whitworth woke up and saw the rain and thought, "Uh-oh, it's going to be messy."

"And it is messy," he said as he stood in the middle of a quagmire being quickly filled with mulch. "But it's something that you had already committed to. This is what I usually do on my day off anyway. Tuesday I'll go read at an elementary school. Today I've done some wheelbarrowing, cleared out some sticks and put together some of the (equipment). We've got most of the linemen out here."

On Sunday, it was Whitworth who had replaced Jones at left tackle after Jones's 17 minutes of hell against Kansas City's Jared Allen. The fiercely-proud Jones stood up in the locker room and took all the blame on himself after he had apologized to quarterback Carson Palmer for getting him mauled.

For the first time in his life, he had been benched. On Tuesday, Jones manned up again at the mulch pile.

"Look at the guys here. It shows you the kind of guys we've got," Jones said, making sure he took a playful jab at Whitworth. "Look at guys like "Whit," ruining his $500 pair of shoes."

"It's acts like this that kind of even everything out," Jones said. "We haven't been doing well. Things haven't been going our way and we haven't been catching many breaks. We're still thinking about it. But this counters all that. It's something you can do to help."

Jones is used to working with his hands. His late grandfather back in Eloy, Ariz., made sure he worked. Whether it was cleaning out the church that his grandfather built and ministered, or cleaning his vast orchards, Jones grew up with blisters on his hands.

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Jones

"Cleaning out the orchards was harder than cleaning the church," Jones said. "I helped build it, but he wouldn't allow me to get involved in the actual construction. I ran a lot of errands, though."

Jones was probably the most senior Bengal at an event that is usually attended mostly by the younger players. It looked like all the rookies had checked in. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe had just got done digging out a walkway with tight end Daniel Coats, running back Chris Manderino, and business manager Bill Connelly when he stopped by to needle a familiar face about not shoveling.

"Yeah, I saw the rain when I woke up; but it's just rain," Ndukwe said. "That's not very much when you can actually come out and help give these kids a place where they can come and escape."

The Bengals may be 1-4 and Lewis may be on the proverbial hot seat. But at events like this that built his formidable presence in the community, his entrance is still anticipated like a visiting dignitary.

As word spread Lewis would be emerging from Gameplan Day about 12:30 p.m. to emcee the lunch festivities, Ndukwe recalled his first days as a Bengal last spring.

"Coach Lewis isn't the kind of guy that's going to beat his chest about what he's doing in the community," Ndukwe said. "But we know he's a good person and what it means to him to be involved. When I first got here, that's about all he talked about; what it means to be an NFL player and how to act off the field and give back."

Lewis showed up and Jones was right. The 1-4 record isn't far from their minds. As Lewis introduced sponsors like Baker Concrete, Best Buy, GameTime, Ohio Casualty Group, Pavestone and Home Depot, and had his picture taken with the people in overalls instead of suits,

he interspersed his remarks with winning and home field advantage and getting it right.

"It's what we do. Of course it's what we think about," Jones said. "But you look at something like this and you realize some things."

Jones went back to his shovel. But not before he gave backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick some grief for driving a front loader through an area that had just been mulched.

"No, you're right," Jones said. "I guess you can't let a guy from Harvard use his hands."

But on a rainy day in the rainy part of the season, you could let a left tackle use his heart.

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