Pro Bowl Dad


Geno Atkins

WEST OAHU, Hawaii — At age 47 Gene Atkins has discovered this week at the Pro Bowl that not only is no man an island, but no island makes a man. He can thank the namesake for that.

"I think it's great to come over here ... it's a paid vacation," said the father of Geno as he waited for the family to come down to the hotel pool for a lunch-time swim Saturday. "But it doesn't stamp how well you can play.

"Just coming over and seeing these guys, I didn't miss that much."

Still, Atkins The Elder admits he has come full circle on the Big Island. After playing 143 games for the Saints and Dolphins in the '80s and '90s and after what he considers Pro Bowl snubs from 1990-92 when he was the hammer of those dominating New Orleans defenses, he officially became a fan at Saturday morning's AFC practice at Aloha Stadium that set up Sunday's Pro Bowl (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) featuring four Bengals.

As if to close the circle he bumped into his first special teams coach in the hotel lobby, Joe Marciano, Sunday's AFC special teams coach from the Texans staff.

"When I heard those words, my son going to the Pro Bowl ... I'm a fan now instead of being a former player," he said. "I've got my cameras and I filled up my bags. It's the first time I've done that (with Geno). I've done that with my younger sons. When they're playing, I'm a cheerleader."

The Pro Bowl may have eluded Gene, but this week it also validated his strategy for Geno all those years ago. He still had the aches and pains of 10 NFL seasons when he steered Geno to every sport but football. Soccer. Basketball. Baseball. If he ended up playing, he would at least be schooled fundamentally with versatility.

"Football is a dangerous game. I held off until he was in high school," Gene Atkins said. "I had people tell me, 'What are you doing? He's too far behind.' But I told them if you have the love of the game and the desire to do it, it doesn't matter.

"When he called and told me he wanted to play football, I laughed. I told him, 'You don't even know how to put on the pads.' He told me, 'My coaches will show me.' After he said that I told him if he's going to do it, do it right. The rest is history."

It is also Gene's story as well as Geno's.

He made certain he sat in the stands and didn't go on the field Saturday as he helped Geno's brothers, 13-year-old Jared and nine-year-old Jason (the guy with the 97 Atkins Bengals jersey), get pictures of their favorites. Jared is all over Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but as of Saturday they were still waiting to get autographs.

Atkins, a feared hitter who was the James Harrison of his day, is more cuddly these days.

"He's a nice person; he's not mean," Jared said. "He's always respected the game and I love my dad."

Jared and Jason may have to wait to get those autographs. Although the 5-11 Atkins looks like he's right around his playing weight of 200 pounds and could take a few nickel snaps with only a few gray hairs sticking out of light beard, he doesn't want to flex those muscles. 

"I'm not looking to walk around here as a former player," Atkins said. "And I like that. I don't have to walk around with a game face or be like 'Mean Gene.' I'm Dad Gene.

"Sometimes the NFL swallows you up. Thinking you're a superstar and some guys have been out of the league 20-30 years. I don't want that. I try to tell all my kids to be humble. Things change every day."

That's probably why he got a kick out of meeting rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, the one teammate he's seen over here.

"He seems like a laid back, country guy with his hat on," Atkins said. "He's not walking and talking like some quarterbacks with their heads up there. He doesn't have that … swagger … where it's 'you can't touch me.' Just walking normally by himself. Just being relaxed. That's what it's all about."

Gene Atkins doesn't have to be a Pro Bowl veteran to know what is in store Sunday. All he had to do was watch Saturday's so-called workout.

"That was a practice?" Atkins laughed. "That was a warmup walkthrough. What it is is a dress rehearsal to put on a show for the fans. No one is going to hit anyone. The running backs aren't going to run hard and try to truck somebody. Don't get me wrong, I don't know what's going to happen. But everybody realizes everybody has a life and a career. They won't try to make a name for themselves."

Which is what Sandra Atkins has been trying to tell her oldest all week. In between excursions with his four younger brothers and sisters, Geno has been treating this like a real game.

"He's got a massage at noon today. He's sticking to his pregame routine even though it's not a real game," Sandra Atkins said. "He told me, "I think the NFC is practicing.' "

Sandra, operations manager for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, is using her engineering degree to see and do as much as possible since arriving Wednesday.

"We've done everything at the hotel and we were a little isolated so we rented a vehicle," she said. "We drove into Waikiki yesterday and went to the beach and (Geno) saw how crowded it was. We're going snorkeling today and tonight we're going on a dinner cruise. Then I think we will have done everything possible."

Geno and his girlfriend have been with them pretty much the whole time because this is a nice family moment. The boys live with Gene in Atlanta and the girls with Sandra in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"The kids come first,' Gene said. "Everything else is second."

Still, it is Sandra Atkins that states the most eloquent case for Gene Atkins, would-be-Pro Bowler.

"We knew we were battling with the San Francisco 49ers and Ronnie Lott was the safety of the decade," she said. "We were in New Orleans, a small market where it's hard to get yourself known. He was just as hard-hitting and his numbers were there. He just never got the votes."

She said Geno was disappointed with the first alternate finish even though he was the NFL co-leader in sacks by a tackle and she found herself giving the same words of encouragement she gave her husband 20 years before.

"'You play in Cincinnati, a small market, you're not on TV,'" she said. "I never would have seen him play in Florida if I didn't have DirecTV. They weren't on any national games. Half my friends haven't seen him play. You can have the numbers every year and still never go because it's a popularity contest."

Which is probably one of the reasons Gene isn't all that interested in glad-handing. He's letting Jason and Justin be in awe. He's only asked for one player's autograph since he went to the NFL.

"Lawrence Taylor," Atkins said of the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker. "He had a dislocated shoulder and still had 2.5 or three sacks against us. After the game I went to the trainer to get a pen and piece of paper and went and got it."

Sandra is in the same boat with Jason and Jared.

"Wow, this really is the cream of the crop. I walked in and saw the guy from the Falcons," she said of tight end Tony Gonzalez. "I can see why fans think they know them from TV, but they really don't."

Gene Atkins knows this after three Pro Bowl snubs.

"It means more to me now because it involves my son, because I want him to achieve whatever he can," he said.

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