Not any given Sunday

9-16-01, 3:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It's like Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said when it happened.

By the time the smoke clears from the tragedies in New York and Washington D.C., countless of Americans will know someone or know someone who knows someone who is lost.

Lorenzo Neal and Steve Mooshagian know someone.

And after the Bengals were one of three NFL teams that spent Sunday practicing instead of playing Week 2 of the NFL season, they prayed for Lt. Cmdr. Otis Vincent Tolbert, 38, of Lemoore, Calif. , of the U.S. Navy, listed as missing in the maze of death in the Pentagon.

The week that Fresno State football makes the cover of "Sports Illustrated," turns out to be the week the reliable big fullback for the Bulldogs in the early '80s can't be found at his desk.

"It's a bittersweet week," said Mooshagian, the Bengals wide receivers coach and Tolbert's college teammate. "But I've still got hope because I know Otis is hanging on. That's the kind of mindset he had in football and then he must have brought it to the Navy."

It was Neal, the Bengals fullback, who broke Tolbert's rushing record at Lemoore High School in Fresno and played at Lemoore and Fresno State with Otis' brother Chris.

"If anybody can make it out of this, its Vince," Neal said Sunday, planning to make his daily call to Chris. "I worked out with the guy. A 250-pound guy, martial arts, a man's man. We're still hoping."

NFL teams and America reflected in their own way during the somber weekend. The Bengals worked for about an hour and three quarters Sunday under the Paul Brown Stadium message board that alternately blinked with an American flag and the words, "God Bless America."

The Browns and Dolphins also practiced

Sunday as 13 teams met at least on Saturday or Sunday. The other 18 clubs had both days off. The Browns met both days. The Ravens, who the Bengals play next Sunday, gathered Saturday and were off Sunday.

If the Bengals had played in Tennessee this weekend, Neal would have on Saturday stopped by the home of Nancy and Butch Tolbert, Vince's parents who live near Nashville. They probably would have gone to the game, just like Vince did when Neal's Titans played in Washington last year.

When Neal played for Tampa Bay in 1998, Vince Tolbert was stationed at the nearby air base and had Neal to his home on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"That's the kind of guy he is," Neal said. "He gave me a key to his house and said I could use it any time. A God-fearing man. A family man. Two beautiful girls and he just had a baby not long ago."

Now Chris has sent word that Vince's wife wants to talk to Neal and Neal knows how painful that call will be.

"If there was a guy you looked up to and wanted to be like, it was Vince," Neal said. "He was a wrestler, too, (Neal was a state champion in high school) and was great at the shot put."

Mooshagian isn't surprised at Tolbert's success in the Navy.

"He was a guy you loved having in your huddle," Mooshagian said. "It would be 100 degrees out there and he wouldn't miss a turn. He wouldn't look for a way to get out of the huddle. He was one of those guys who never stopped or quit. That's why, just knowing the way he was as a player, I'm not giving up hope."

If things had been different this weekend, Neal would have been talking to Vince's mother, Nancy, outside the Bengals locker room after the game. Instead, Nancy told him of their plans.

"If he doesn't come out, he'll be buried in Arlington," said Neal of the national cemetery in Virginia. "And there will be a service back in Lemoore for all his friends from high school and college. But I'm still praying."

It could have been so different on this Sunday.

"This lets you know," Neal said. "Sometimes you don't tell them you love them enough."

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