Playing with Vision

Cornerback Leon Hall, his partner in the Bengals secondary, calls him "Old Man Crocker." Left tackle Andrew Whitworth says his intensity helped change a locker room. His future wife Karrie left her job at State Farm Corporate Headquarters in Cleveland to follow him when he got traded. His single mother once worked two jobs to make sure he had things like a violin and trumpet when he was growing up.

Bengals safety Chris Crocker is a lot of things to a lot of people and a lot of them showed up this past Monday night for his charity event at the downtown Cincinnati restaurant Nada. After two years of uncertainty, Chris and Karrie celebrated the last two years of stability by lending their name and efforts to VISIONS Community Services, a local non-profit agency geared to helping single and teen mothers through education.

"It shows how much he cares and how passionate he is," says Whitworth, sitting at a table with his wife Melissa and motioning for the Morgan Trents to join them. "That's who he is on the field, too. He's all-out and lays his body around. If he cares about something he'll tell you."

Anybody notice that when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took Crocker off the waiver wire on Oct. 30, 2008 the Bengals were 0-8 and they are 16-10-1 since? He's not the only reason, but he's a big reason and on a night that Zimmer, head coach Marvin Lewis, and secondary coach Kevin Coyle slipped briefly out of game plan meetings to attend the event, the gratitude goes both ways.

Assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi, in charge of the safeties, couldn't make it because as Crocker noted, "They wouldn't let him out of the dungeon."

"I love those guys," Chris Crocker says. "For them to show up and for my teammates to show up like that, it means so much. I always tell them, 'Let's keep winning so we can all stay together.' When you've been around a few places, you know the window is always small. The Brown (family) likes to keep coaches and players around. 'Let's keep winning and stay together.' We know it's rare."

Crocker knows the Bengals have to win to do that and at 2-1 with Sunday's trip back to Cleveland, the quest continues with a bid for a ninth straight AFC North win. It is a lot brighter than it was two years ago, when you probably wouldn't have seen an offensive lineman and DB sitting together at dinner. Or defensive linemen sitting with receivers.

"It shows you the kind of team we have," Whitworth says and that begs the age-old question if chemistry spawns winning or if winning spawns chemistry.

In the NFL where everyone wants a reason, there are always two or three and so it is probably a little bit of both. All the Crockers know is that after eight seasons of the shocking trade and an even more stunning release from Miami, they have found a home in Cincinnati and want to give back.

"We hope we're here for awhile, but we know how the NFL works," Karrie Crocker says. "This reminds us of Cleveland and that felt like home. Although they were very nice to us in Atlanta, it just didn't seem like home and Miami … Chris says that was just a drive-by."

When your mother raised you and your three siblings in the same home and still lives there after 36 years, stability means something if you're Chris Crocker. When you've been with the same girl since that first week of college at Marshall after they glanced at each other at the gathering for the athletics' physicals, you know something about stability.

It is why after 80 games for three teams in the first five-and-a-half seasons, the 24 games in the last two-and-a-half years in Cincinnati have meant so much. A four-year, $10 million deal after his first eight games in which he wasted no time hitting (i.e. the Santonio Holmes concussion) and leading in the classroom was a big help in making Crocker feel at home.

But money has never been that huge of a factor. Stability has been around a lot longer for him than money and stability is also a reason why Monday night was kind of a celebration of his mother, too.

Blanche Crocker just retired after 32 years of working for Verizon recruiting large business customers, overlapping the care of her children ranging from 38-26, and the three-bedroom house bought and paid for in Chesapeake, Va., that she has lived in for 36 years. Her oldest is a home builder. The youngest is a public relations manager. Her oldest daughter is a social worker. Chris, 30, is the glue, just like his mother.

"Chris didn't know it at the time, but he didn't have a lot growing up," Karrie Crocker says. "But he had a great childhood because he had a lot of support from neighbors and family. With his mom working, they needed that kind of support and that's why this program really hit home for him. What about the kids that don't get that?"

On Monday night Blanche Crocker can only shake her head about that winter she tried to work a second job.

"Working the phones for QVC," she says. "I just couldn't do it and raise the kids, too. I cut coupons. I still do. I always take them with me. Clothes weren't on my radar. I didn't go out to movies. I've always said you've got to do whatever you can for your kids now, in the present, because you're never going to get that chance again. So I made sure they had what they needed. All of them were in the band. I'd get into the fundraisers for their trips. Cheerleading. Cleats."

Just a day after she used a $5 coupon at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Blanche Crocker's son is trying to get a good deal for the kids at Visions.

"Great program. They've got everything there," Crocker says. "I had the benefit of living in the same house, never bouncing around, and having an extended family. This is for young mothers who don't have anybody else. It helps them get back on their feet with job placement, education and day care, and educational development on site for their kids until they can start school.

"I look at most of my friends and a lot of my teammates and we had the same kind of experience growing up. This is a way to make it easier on the kids coming up."

Crocker always smiles when a Cleveland game is mentioned. Let' face it. He loves to go up there and get the chance to beat the Browns. In the three games he's played against them as a Bengal, the defense has allowed three touchdowns and Cincinnati is 3-0. When the Browns traded him to Atlanta in March 2006 just before his fourth season, it was a stunner for not only him, but Karrie. Despite the move, they ended up getting married a couple of months later. If he's bounced back, so has she. The former Marshall point guard is now a personal trainer.

"I love the fans in Cleveland; they treated me great," Chris Crocker says. "It just goes to show you. Whether it's a good team, bad team they're going to do whatever they think they have to do to get better. I was playing well. I was contributing and I wanted to be a part of what they were trying to do. But it didn't matter."

In Karrie, he had somebody who understood. Her self-scout of her days at the Marshall point: "I was tiny, but scrappy, always trying to get in there and play like I was as big as Andrew Whitworth."

"I think it helped I was an athlete and I know what can happen in sports," she says. "Chris and I have always had a motto: No matter where we are, we're going to treat it like home."

And making some homes along the way.

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