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Old home week


Andrew Whitworth hopes to go to 9-1 in the Superdome.

The Bengals are playing an old friend in the Crescent City this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when they play Sean Payton's offense of the 2000s in the grand old century town.

It is more like one of those rare down-home reunions with a comfortable relative. Maybe you don't get to see them much, but they're always there when you need them. A distant cousin or a sage uncle or a caring aunt.

"There is an unusual amount of ties to an AFC club and an NFC club that you don't see very often," Payton admits.

Because before Devon Still, there was Bobby Crouton. Because to Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, Payton will always be Bobby Crouton.

"It was a tough time in his Saints life and he stood up for something he committed to," Whitworth recalls as he preps for his trip back home. "It tells you who he is."

During that week in March of 2012, Payton was "Bobby Crouton." That was his Palm Beach hotel alias at the NFL owners meeting, where Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down an unprecedented one-year suspension to Payton for his role in "Bountygate."

Accused of covering up the alleged slush fund used by Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams during the league's investigation, Payton found himself in the middle of one of those life-of-its-own controversies.  This one pitted the NFL's old school culture vs. the new breed's transparency crusade and it spewed a white-hot debate ranging from coaching ethics to Goodell's power to fact and fiction.

But the only thing Whitworth knew is that his speaker for the fourth annual Big Whit 77 Foundation Dinner near his hometown of West Monroe, La., the wildly popular Super Bowl champion head coach of the Gulf Coast's Saints, had been suspended on a Wednesday and on a Friday Big Whit was expecting 400 people at the Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, La. Among them his rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton and his wife driving in from Dallas.

"I reached out to him by e-mail and told him, 'I completely understand if you need to bow out of this thing if you need to bow out,'" Whitworth says. "'But we still want you.'"

Payton/Crouton sent one back: "I'll be there. Don't worry about it."

Payton figured he had to go. Son Conner, 9 at the time, had grown up in Dallas on Texas Christian football and was just wild about Dalton in another subtle Who Dey-Who Dat connection.

"I remember the timing was a little hectic. It was a thing I committed to a month in advance," Payton says. "Look, (Whitworth) is one of the special guys when you're around and meet guys like him and Andy. They're from this area and it was one of those things where you fly back every once in a while and you're glad you did something. It was great being there that evening. It was good to get away."

The Big Whit Foundation identifies children who want to be leaders as well as at risk children and as Payton pressed the flesh and kibitzed with big donors, Bobby Crouton got an idea as he stepped to the microphone.

While he had the crowd rolling in the aisles about how he corrected the hotel folks on how to pronounce his name ("Bobby Crouton. Crouton like the salad. Crouton. Bobby Crouton, you got it?") he suddenly started an auction. A total of $42,000 later, Payton had auctioned off his Superdome suite for one game that season while offering 16 pregame passes, a fully-stocked bar and menu, an autographed helmet and jersey. For a foundation that had raised $150,000 the year before?

"He helped make us a lot of money. I guess he got to thinking he wasn't going to need it," Whitworth says. "He and Drew (Brees) have really turned it around down there with what they do in the community and have made that franchise special."

Being a community titan is something Payton shares with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Payton's stint as an assistant coach at Bengals founder Paul Brown's Miami University is something he shares with Bengals president Mike Brown, so the Saints' visit for a two-day training camp session in 2007 at Paul Brown Stadium before a preseason game was a natural.

What wasn't natural was returning two years later for the sudden funeral of Vikki Zimmer, wife of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The Zimmers and Paytons became close when the fathers coached together with the Cowboys, so close that Vikki and her daughters babysat the Payton children. Zimmer's son Adam was Payton's assistant linebackers coach at the time and Peyton led the delegation that included all the New Orleans backers. And he stayed for the PBS reception.

"There's just a lot of ties to that club. It's more about relationships," Payton says. "The Devon Still thing was really more about the Browns and Marvin and how the Bengals had handled that. That was real impressive. His ownership and leadership, both the Brown family and Marvin, it's just refreshing. It's strong."

Payton's charitable efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina during his rookie season in 2006 and the continuing thrust of his foundation have become the gold standard ("It's all about relationships," Payton says), so Whitworth wasn't surprised in the least to hear back in September that Payton purchased 100 of Still's $100 No. 75 jersey to donate to pediatric cancer research at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. On Wednesday, Still said everybody followed Payton's lead.

"(Payton and Brees) understand what that country is all about," says Whitworth, who knows Brees as a fellow NFL Players Association rep. "As a Louisiana boy, I'm a big fan of theirs and what they're doing. The only bad news for them is I've got a pretty strong record in the dome."

Try a super 8-1 in the Superdome. Whitworth went to four schoolboy state title games there with West Monroe and won three of them. They also won two other games there in a jamboree. Then when Whitworth became a staple at LSU, the Tigers won two Sugar Bowls in the place, one for a national title. Then when Whitworth was a Bengals rookie and Payton was a Saints rookie in 2006, the Bengals somehow fended off Payton's 595 yards for a 31-16 victory. Brees' 504 net passing yards is still the most ever against the Bengals.

"You can see why (Whitworth) is in a leadership position," Payton says. "I'm sure he's a hard worker. He's tough. You can all the traits you want in your own players."

It turns out, of course, one of his own offensive linemen has that Whit brain and toughness. Nine-year veteran Zach Strief is from the Cincinnati suburb of Milford and is looking to make his  55th NFL start Sunday.

"It's kind of reversed," Whitworth says. "He's a Cincinnati guy playing in New Orleans and I'm a Louisiana boy playing in Cincinnati. I see his parents around town and they joke with me, 'We wish it was the other way around, we're headed down to New Orleans.'"

 Now Whitworth is going back to meet Bobby Crouton again and try to make it 9-1 in the Dome.

Hold the salad.

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