Posted: 11:20 p.m.
ATLANTA - As Andre Smith's truck pulls into the sweeping driveway of the Great Gatsby home overlooking the sprawling Sugarloaf Country Club earlier this week, the Bengals No. 1 pick has the NFL lesson plopped in front of him.
Tony Jones, the old left tackle who anchored playoff teams in Cleveland and Denver in the '90s, welcomes the protégé to his home and cocks his head to an even bigger house across the street.
"Michael Vick's house. I don't even think the grass has been cut," says Jones simply and, really, what else can be said?
What you can say is that Smith is taking one last deep breath before heading to Cincinnati to take part in the rookie camp that begins Friday. Although he's taking a day off from working out, before he leaves he's checking in with the people who worked him back into a top 10 pick.
They range from Olympic Gold Medalist Chryste Gaines, to Jones, the man who protected John Elway's blind side when he finally got the ring, to a fiftysomething who turns eternal every time he goes into his gym and outworks kids half his age.
"He never gave up; that was the big thing," says Ty Felder, the fiftysomething who goes by "Ropeman" because, legend has it the veins pop out of his arms.
"I never say my age," he says, although the white in his beard spreading to his smile is a clue. "I'm in my 50s. But I'll tell you I've got a son 35, a daughter 36, five grandkids and one great grandson."
Jones is 42, but he sees the future of left tackle and it is Smith. Even though the Bengals figure to line him up at right tackle Friday, Smith isn't so sure he'll end up there once they see what they've got.
"That's y'all's left tackle for the next 15 to 20 years; however long he wants to play," Jones says. "Great talent. I see Andre being a Pro Bowler his first year."
Earlier in the day Smith is walking through what is left of Ropeman's gym in a dying strip mall baking off the interstate in Doraville. All that is left is the sweat because he's moved out the place and Smith seems to take delight in the demise of this house of pain.
He leads a tour like he's come back to his old elementary school.
"A lot of pushups and situps over there. The free weights were over here," he says as he makes a beeline for the back door.
The Ropeman's famously dingy hole-in-the-wall was good enough to train such NFL luminaries as Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe, Hugh Douglas and John Abraham, and it saved Smith's plummeting draft stock.
Back in February, Smith pulled himself out of a Florida facility because he didn't think the regimen was hard enough or there was enough attention paid to nutrition.
"If I wouldn't have come here?" Smith asks, repeating the question, "I don't think my pro day would have gone really well as far as the position stuff."
Another NFL lesson Smith has learned before taking the field.
Teams don't care if linemen run the 40 half naked, which is what Smith did at his Pro Day. In classic 21st century fashion Smith's floppy physique got the spin and the substance became buried in the wake. It turned out teams saw him do the position drills so well that they began putting him back where he belonged on their boards.
"It's football; put the game film on," he says, "We were expected to run the ball every single play."
Smith flings open the back door, revealing a rusty pole that may or may not be keeping up a portion of the roof as well as a driveway where athletes supposedly go to puke to the tune of The Ropeman's regimen.
"I did my lunges to that third pole up there," he says of the agonizing walking stretches. "Got to be a bit more than 100 yards with this incline here. That makes it tough."
The Ropeman doesn't make anyone do anything he can't do. While his guys are doing a couple of hundred stepups (on a box), he does 1,200.
"He's never been out of shape," Felder says of Smith. "When he came in he was in decent shape, it's just I gave him a different workout. He was a little winded, but a lot of people that are in shape can't go in there and do my workout. He was never out-of-shape, he just had to adjust to my program."
Smith can only judge his success by the draft and the cusses.
"I seemed to be on time for everything. If you're late, he'll cuss you out," Smith says. "He never had to cuss me out. I've seen him cuss people out. He loves what he does. He's so passionate about it he's not going to let you be nonchalant about it."
Later in the day, Smith ends up looking at ease as one of Jones' couches folds him up in his rec room, right around the corner from the team pictures of his 13 seasons. Gaines, Smith's speed coach who won a gold medal for the U.S. in one of the sprint relays, says Smith is a good listener and right now he's quietly listening to Jones talk about the NFL then and now.
While Smith will wear the No. 71 of the Bengals four-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson, Jones is from the generation before.
"There aren't the pass rushers now; there are no Reggie Whites or Bruce Smiths," Jones says. "Yeah, too many hybrid guys. And they're too worried trying to be somebody else, watching film and copying everybody else. Offensive line stays the same. It's the same moves. The bull rushes, the rips, the swims.
"In the NFL, it's about pass blocking. Anybody can run block, but you want to score points. The Bengals didn't bring him into run block. He can, but they brought him to play left and protect Carson Palmer. Now they can the run ball behind him and on pass protection they're probably going to slide toward him. I don't see a big adjustment. He's already physical, he's already got a mean streak."
Jones and Smith have been working pretty much three times a week for about 90 minutes per session. An Alex Gibbs disciple from his Denver days, Jones is putting Smith through drills for footwork, hand punches and pass-rush drills. While Jones invests in the strip mall section of Atlanta real estate, he also works with young linemen.
"His feet are unbelievable. Most young linemen don't have the total package," Jones says. "He has it already. He has the quick feet and the quick hands. When I talk to him, he already understands football. When I say something, it just clicks. He's been well coached."
One of the reasons Jones hooked up with Smith is he felt he was being unfairly criticized for youthful indiscretions that had nothing to do with his character or his ability to play football. He's particularly galled that there was so much talk about running the 40.
"These are young men; they make mistakes," he says. "Look at the football player himself. Don't judge a guy on the 40 or the bench. Let me see film. We (linemen) don't long jump or vertical jump. We're different. That's not our life. I want to see the film. Can this guy play?"
As Smith sits and listens, Jones pulls no punches about the pressure he faces. Jones may have been a free agent out of Western Carolina, but he played a first-round position against first-rounders all the time. After about two months with Smith, he's convinced he can handle it.
"Andre's going into the league with a lot of pressure; more pressure than I had as a free agent," Jones says. "The Bengals expect so much out of him. He's their new face of the franchise. And he's ready to take on that challenge. He told me yesterday. 'I'm ready to go.' "
Jones says they've already sat down and looked at what pass rushers he's facing this season. Of course, they're lining him up as a left tackle, but Jones still sees Smith going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
"The Bengals made a great choice," he says. "No question he was the top tackle in this draft."
Smith listens quietly as Jones talks about the dream they're sitting in. And, to a certain extent, the dream that died across the street where the grass still grows.
"You pay a price for every dream," Jones says. No dreams come free. Andre already did what he did in college to set himself up personally for his dream. Now Andre's not worried about what kind of money he's making. He's worried about what kind of football player he's going to be. Is he going to be that Pro Bowler this year."
Jones walks Smith to the door and tells him he'll see him next week. As the truck drives away from the country club, Smith is suitably impressed with the life Jones has carved out of a three-point stance.
But he has a question.
"Where did Big Willie live in Cincinnati?" he asks.
The move has started.