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Other side of rookie story


Onterio McCalebb

He is the other side of the coin, the rest of the story, the postscript, the sidebar, and anything else that gets lost in the snap, crackle and pop of life.

Not everybody coming out of the NFL Draft gets hugged by Roger Goodell. Or even gets to hear the do's and don'ts of being an NFL player at the league's annual rookie symposium.

Bengals cornerback Onterio McCalebb is like the 200 or so players gathering in greater Cleveland this symposium week. He is a rookie, too, and like them has just finished six weeks of intensive scrutiny in the three phases of rookie camp, voluntary field practices (OTAs), and mandatory minicamps.

But as an undrafted rookie he gets no invite to listen to the past and present that have made the most of their shots, like Brian Dawkins, and those that haven't, such as Cincinnati's Adam Jones. And yet this obscurest of rookies has a story worth telling this week in front of them all.

"I know everybody has stories," McCalebb says. "Everybody comes from different backgrounds. I just want everybody to know I'm not here to mess around. I'm here to win. I love the game so much. If I didn't love the game, I would have just quit and been back on the streets like everybody else in my hometown doing nothing with their life. I just love the game and the stuff I went through when I was little, this is the way I can (put) it out of my mind and not think about it by playing ball."

When McCalebb left the final Bengals workout for rookies last Friday, he had no place to stay for the first time in five years. Since he left his hometown of Fort Meade, Fla., to attend Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., the prep school that got him ready for Auburn.

"I was taken from mom when I was little," McCalebb says. "My mom was on drugs and I bounced around from house to house."

Sometimes it was a teammate's family. Maybe a cousin. But never his own. Unlike the Tyler Eiferts and Giovani Bernards of the world, he wasn't sure where his next bed would be this week after staying in the team hotel at the Millennium in downtown Cincinnati.

For most of the stretch between now and the July 25 start of training camp, McCalebb figures he can stay with his girlfriend's parents while working out in Atlanta. But before he does that, he has an appointment this week with Ken Riley in the former Bengals great's hometown of Bartow, Fla., right next door to Fort Meade.

Riley is planning to teach McCalebb the finer points of cornerback, a venture that has had a rocky start after the Bengals signed him following the draft. But no surprise there since the last time the 5-10, 171-pound McCalebb played corner was at Hargrave.

It's a longshot all the way and now after six weeks of being a fish out of water, he's looking for anything to get back his sea legs.

"(Riley) was an All Pro at it. I know he can teach me how to be comfortable in backpedaling and technique," says McCalebb, a pass-catching, productive back at Auburn. "I know the route concepts. I'm quick enough. I can get past the DB. It was easy on offense, now it's reversed. It's hard when you've been an offensive guy to run backward and he's running forward. (Riley can help) how to play against the routes.

"I love playing offense. That's my specialty. (But) I'm going to work my tail off to do whatever I can to make the team. I just want to go out there and help us win on the defensive side of the ball. Just go out there and help us win. If the team wins, everybody has one goal here and Coach (Marvin) Lewis talks about it every day. Every time we have a team meeting, our one goal is to win the Super Bowl."

After the Bengals paid for his plane flight back to Atlanta, McCalebb planned to get a lift to Florida from his girlfriend's father, driving down on business. From there he wasn't sure where he was going to stay. The last resort is just that.

A hotel.

"I've got to talk about it with my agent and see where I'll end up going," McCalebb said before departing Cincy.

After taxes, McCalebb figured he'd get about $2,400 of his $3,500 bonus. The rookies only get expenses during the spring, so the per diems for room, board and parking are designed only to cover the necessities and not for walking-around money.

McCalebb wants to win but he also says, "I want to help my family."

In order to do that, the longshot has to come in at $400,000-1. That's the minimum salary, but he would have to make the 53-man roster to get it. If he could grab a practice squad spot and hang on to it all for all 17 weeks of the season, it would mean about $100,000.

There's just no in between.

"There is a very fine line," says Adam Heller, McCalebb's agent based in Columbus, Ohio. "There are rookies with the big bonuses and the assurance of at least that rookie salary. And then there are guys like Onterio and, believe me, he's not the only one. You stay in a hotel and you've already got bills to pay and the bonus isn't a big one. It's tough.

"But Onterio is one of those guys that he thinks he's truly blessed to have a chance to make his dream come true."

That's exactly what NFL leaders are trying to bludgeon into the rookies at the symposium with everything from breakout sessions to breakfast at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

McCalebb says he'd be glad to stand up and tell his story to anyone. He already has.

"I'd like to tell my story in front of the team. At Auburn, we never told it in front of the team. We always did it as a running back group," McCalebb says. "Every year during two-a-days, each person would tell their story in the running back (room). I don't know if Coach Lewis knows about it or not."

No doubt he does. But it's still a pretty good message for those 200 or so draft picks that know where home is Monday night.

"I want everybody to know it's just a blessing to be here," he says. "If I'm here after preseason or not. If I move on, I'll still keep fighting because that's what I've been doing all my life."

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