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Offseason hope


Ever since they dunked Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur into that soothing spring that serves as the New Hope Christian Center baptismal font, his flowing locks have matched his spreading faith.

"This past Dec. 1," Lamur says. "I'll never forget the date. Best day of my life. I gave myself to the Lord….I wanted to be a new creation."

It is a Wednesday night in the middle of the offseason in the middle of a Newport, Ky., downtown trying to throw off the chains in the middle of a Bible study looking to unlock the mysteries of the spirit. Lamur, the third-year Bengals linebacker who has stayed in Cincinnati this winter to build his body and soul, furrows his brow in thought.

This is what happens when a kid with Haitian parents who grew up in Florida and went to college on the prairie finds spiritual sustenance in a town he first visited as a longshot NFL rookie. There can be a domino effect.  

Lamur has been asked to speak Friday night at the Lord's Gym in next door Covington, Ky., and he's preparing to give his testimony.  

He's hunched into a folding chair acting as a pew wearing a Bengals stocking hat and Bengals sweat pants. Next to his side, as always, is his battered purple Kansas State knapsack with the No. 23, one of the only things he lugged with him to Cincinnati when he arrived as a tryout player at the rookie minicamp two years ago.

His Bible app, hooked into his iPad, flutters between the Old and New Testaments at the command of the minister leading the lesson, Adrick Ceasar.

"What is fruitful?" Lamur asks him.

"Good question," says Ceasar, who admits later that Lamur "always asks good questions."

Helping him with the answer is one of the 10 or so students that have braved the single-digit temperatures.

"I didn't know what that definition of it was there. I knew it didn't mean fruitful with your spouse," Lamur says later. "She helped with that. It's love your enemies. Yeah, spread the word. All that is tied together into that."

The Bengals are expecting big things out of Lamur this season, about 700 snaps worth from a gazellish 6-4, 243 pounds that just seems to keep growing. But apparently they're expecting no more than what he's expecting from himself. He pulls out his notebook, much like he will when he's in the classroom of new Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke, and adds a line to his list of Bible study notes. After playing nine games as a rookie and missing all last season with a shoulder injury, he's anxious.

"I have to be more disciplined," he writes and then highlights.

"There are certain levels of discipline," he says. "I feel like I need to be more disciplined walking with Christ."

Lamur is a 24-year-old vat of vigor. Eat dinner with him and it's an event not a meal. He swears since he's been in Cincinnati he's gone from 6-4 to 6-5 and is moving to 6-6. He's all arms, legs, and vibes.

"I'm fast," he says. "That's what makes me special."

He had been baptized when he was a child. But that was before New Hope.

"I needed to make better decisions,' he says. "Find the walk."

Kevin Johnson, who played football at Eastern Kentucky two decades ago, looks on with his big smile. He's a minister at New Hope, but he's the full-time chaplain at the Lord's Gym and the guy that recruited Lamur to speak Friday in the 6 p.m. event at 811 Madison Ave. It is hardscrabble men's ministry for $10 per year, where one minute Johnson can be helping a member with an uplifting Biblical passage and then the next minute oversee lifting a barbell.

"It's got that edgy, Rocky Balboa look," Johnson says. "A lot of guys have been through the penal system. There's domestic violence issues. Let's face it. There are a lot of yoga pants at Better Bodies. We're trying to get guys in an environment where they're not focusing on trying to impress a woman. Let's focus on body and soul."

Johnson has also asked another Bengal, defensive end DeQuin Evans, to give his testimony Friday. They'll do it from a podium in the boxing ring, a hard-hitting metaphor for their work in the good fight. It was Evans, Lamur, and Lamur's twin, Sammuel, that took the plunge at New Hope together back on Dec. 1.  

"We're saying we're in the community," Johnson says, "and we're not going anywhere."

Guys like Lamur are helping. He's a part of a small knot of Bengals that have found a spiritual kinship with men like Johnson, Ceasar, Larry Spellman, and local football trainer Clif Marshall. There is Lamur and Evans, along with linebacker Vinny Rey and running back Cedric Peerman making appearances on Sundays and at some Bible studies.

"Their sphere of influence is in professional sports. Our job here is to get them equipped for some of the things they're going to experience," Ceasar says. "It's a tough world they're in. If they're not grounded, you see the issues that are out there."

It is a well-traveled two-way street. New Hope has sat at the end of Central Avenue for 40 years, back in the bad old days when it was next to the Hoop De Doo nightclub. It's been a long climb and things are changing. A few big names are welcome to a point.

"Sure, there is some star power. There is some attraction there," Johnson says. "And if a kid wants to come in just for an autograph or meet somebody, at least they're hearing something they don't usually hear. But we also want them to be treated just like everybody else. They're also men looking for God."

While Lamur felt set free on that baptismal plunge, Ceasar saw something else. Call it the Domino Effect in effect. Ceasar grew up in Thomasville, Ga., without a father and he believes role models outside the home and school make a difference. He grew up in the neighborhood of future Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, four years his senior, and he watched every move he made.

"When those guys got baptized, it was like the veil was being lifted off some of the kids' eyes," Ceasar says. "It was like, 'If they're willing to do that, than I need to be a little more serious about approaching God because the guys think it's important.' They have great influences on our kids."

Kids like Tevin Nesbitt, a sophomore at Newport High School. His father died two and a half years ago and his mother Diane began to see him losing interest in sports and straying from the right crowd.  But lately she sees him spending time after church on Sundays talking to Lamur and he was there the day of the baptism.

"Ever since he's been with this group of guys, he seems to have that spark back,' Diane Nesbitt says.  "He's back getting in condition football and track. Around Christmas he went with them to hand out blankets and clothes to the homeless downtown. I think being around them has really helped him."

Lamur is quite willing to take anyone along. But he knows he's in the ring by himself.

"If it wasn't for Brother Kev, Brother Adrick, Brother Larry, it wouldn't even be close," Lamur says. "If it wasn't for them, my walk would not be as straight."

Friday, Johnson says, is going to be fun.

"I've spoken to a lot of crowds," Lamur says. "At a bowl game I spoke to our fans outside big Cowboys Stadium. Huge Crowd. Just say what's in my heart. No problem."

So far, he's winning this dunking contest.

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