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Old school

Kyle Cook (Bengals photo)

Posted: 6:50 p.m.

From his sweatshirts to his three-bedroom ranch to his F150 Ford truck with 140,000 miles on it, Kyle Cook likes it old school.

Which is just about right because there are guys in the Bengals locker room who are starting to say that Cook is a Rich Braham throwback. A center that rarely gets thrown and gives it back as good he gets.

"He's a mini Richie the way he's going," says Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, the highest of praise from the highest of sources in referencing the long-time Bengals center who retired in 2006.

"He's what you want in your center. Nasty. Tough. Smart."

Finally, Palmer has found a groove with someone after relying on Braham for so long. He gets along with Cook well enough that Cook, a fan of bandanas for his longish hair, was seen making up a new one for a practice recently.

It was a black T-shirt with Palmer's face on it and Cook was adjusting it so all that could be seen on his head was the face.

Cook has been wearing No. 64 since he arrived here off the waiver wire just before the 2007 season, but he might as well have had a question mark splayed across his chest. All spring and summer the offensive line was the Bengals' biggest concern and Cook was the biggest question on it.

When May dawned he was the No. 1 center with no NFL snaps getting ready for a division of fire-breathing nose tackles. An undrafted free agent out of Michigan State in 2007, Cook had been cut by the Vikings just before the season started and picked up five days later on the Bengals practice squad. As patience ebbed with Eric Ghiaciuc early last season, Cook was poised to get some action against Dallas before suffering a season-ending broken toe in a collision during pregame warmups.

The Bengals had liked Cook coming out of college. With one of their seventh-round picks they debated Cook or Notre Dame center Dan Santucci. They opted for Santucci and the two would have battled for the job this camp if the hard-luck Santucci hadn't suffered his second straight season-ending foot injury.

Still, Cook was the question mark.

But with his bench-press strength that once bagged 39 reps of 225 pounds, Cook has straightened it into an exclamation point in the first seven games. Running back Cedric Benson is the NFL's leading rusher, Palmer has been sacked less than twice per game, and Cook has the Bengals lined up well enough against the AFC North werewolves that they are 3-0 heading into another division drain job Nov. 8 at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens.

If the offensive line is the most pleasant surprise of the season, then Cook is the guy carrying the birthday cake. Right guard Bobbie Williams and left tackle Andrew Whitworth give the line seasoning and leadership. But it gets its physical, overlooked everyman identity from Cook.

"He's far exceeded the expectations. It is fun playing next to him," Williams says. "No hard feelings with Ghiaciuc. It's strictly business. But Cook is a great fit with this line. With his football savvy, it's a plus having him in there. He doesn't have that (mental) block. He seems to get it where in the past we might have had a guy or guys not get it. He not only makes the call, which is key. He makes the right call."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander says Cook's feel for the game is "uncanny." Since all mental errors can be traced to the center, the fact the Bengals have the number of those after seven games that would normally be reserved for two impresses a coach immeasurably.

"And you can coach him hard," Alexander says. "He's doesn't get flustered. He's unflappable. Plus, he's got help. Bobbie and Whit are really smart veterans and the other guys are bright. Our meetings are like brainteasers."

At 6-3, 310 pounds, Cook has the strength and he's a good enough athlete that he played basketball and track in high school. But he knew he needed more to win over his line mates after watching the previous two seasons unfold.

"I had to show them that, one, I had the smarts and, two, that I had the physicality to back it up," Cook says. "Veteran guys like that aren't just going to let anybody walk off the street and direct them. They're going to want somebody they have confidence in and trust. The biggest thing is obviously gaining their trust. My biggest thing is I don't want to let them down. I do everything in my power to make life easier on them. If they have better games because of the calls I make and the things I can do, that's the way I want it. If it benefits them, it will benefit me."

Old school.

But maybe not as old as the Michigan State hoodie Cook wore to work one day. The letters are peeling off and he joshed equipment manager Jeff Brickner, "Maybe when all the letters fall off I'll wash it."

He figured it for five, six years old. At least it's not as old as the truck he drives to the stadium, the 2001 Ford 150 with all the mileage. Cook has an '07 Ford 150 but he prefers to only drive that when he goes back to visit his Michigan home "so I don't get stuck on the side of the road."

"I like old stuff," he says. "Country boy. I'm a Black T-shirt and jeans kind of guy."

He's had one suit coat (black, of course) since college. He lives in a ranch built around the Korean War in a post-World War II subdivision in Loveland, Ohio, about a half-hour northeast of the stadium. The nice lady next door is also named "Cook," and they chat whenever they have to bring each other's mail.

"Nothing fancy," he says. "When I retire from football, if I'm blessed to play a long time, or from a construction company, I'm going to go live on 14 acres in Michigan in the middle of nowhere, population about 700. That's kind of my deal."

Sort of a biker-country motif. Asked if he indeed does have a motorcycle, Cook politely doesn't answer. But with the clothes and the flowing hair that Williams occasionally sees in a ponytail, he might as well.

"Cook is Cook, the ponytail and all that," Williams says. "What I like about him is that he doesn't worry about fitting into anything. He's got his own identity. But you know what? All I care about is that he knows his stuff. And he knows his stuff. And he's nasty."

Nasty? Oh yeah, Williams didn't have to go back very far for an example. Try a day or so. Against the Bears when a defender trailed back on a play that had gone past, Cook cut him to the ground.

"It was legal, all legal," Williams says. "He could have just pushed him or not even touched him and just let him go past. But he blocked him. That gets defenses' attention. Hey, these guys are nasty. They're playing hard at every point. That's the kind of nasty, tough identity we're trying to get."

Cook has sold tough sells. The Sage, a former NFL player with double-digit years of service who participates on the weekly roundtable matching up each game, likes that nasty streak.

Not only proving that Cook can survive the great North nose tackles like the 340-pound Haloti Ngata, but he can also dish it out. Cook finished off one play, The Sage noticed, when he knocked Ngata head over tea kettle in the pile. He can get tossed every so often and blown back, but not very much. His size, Alexander says, is on the top end of NFL centers and his feet are quick.

"The problem will be when he starts thinking he's doing well," Alexander joked. "But that's the way our line is. We do it on hustle and guts and if we try to do it any other way, we're not going to be good."

He probably won't have to do that with Cook, the Everyman on the Everyman line.

"Everybody is talking about how the offense needed a breakout game and that we got it," said Cook of last Sunday's win. "But we don't want the seventh game to be the highlight of the season. We want another breakout game. We want to keep scoring 35."

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