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Pros of being a pro


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Jonathan Baldwin is writing down your name and number as the NFL scouts make their own notes on the University of Pittsburgh wide receiver's climb up the draft board. After talking to former Bengals defensive tackle, John Thornton, Baldwin not only has a backpack with a notebook, pen and paper, but he now takes it everywhere he goes.

"When you talk to a guy like John, you realize this is a guy that has been in the league for a long time and he can tell you how it's done," Baldwin says. "He's been a big help. A good guy to talk to about a lot things you're going to see."

Thornton, it will be recalled, is one of the veterans that a rookie head coach named Marvin Lewis turned to when he rinsed the Bengals locker room. It was the Augean Stables of the AFC, filthy with apathy and avarice. Lewis was looking for professionals as much as solid players and three years into his retirement, Thornton is still teaching kids to be pros.

"Everybody gets so wrapped up in the draft," Thornton says. "Players, agents. And after it's over, everyone exhales. To me, that's the beginning. We want them to hit the ground running at the minicamps. I've seen so many guys come in and it's like once they're in the locker room, they're on their own."

Thornton gets a kick from a guy like Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims calling him to update him on his community endeavors. In Thornton's last season, he took the rookie Sims under his wing and introduced him to programs in the Cincinnati schools, and Sims has stayed involved. That's just part of how Thornton tries to ease youngsters into the true life of the NFL and not The Life of Reality TV.  

Baldwin, who seems to be targeted from late first to the early second, is one of two draft prospects that will join Thornton's stable. Thornton dabbles in a little bit of everything from blogs to radio to marketing, but money isn't the reason. After spending a decade watching clueless kids get chewed up by the NFL's every-day regimen, Thornton enjoys introducing college players to what it takes to be a pro.

"You've got to be respectful to everyone in the building," Thornton says, "no matter where they are. Like the secretaries. You never know. The scouts could be talking to them and asking about him."

The backpack is one of those teaching tools.

"Show people you're ready go work; that you're going to be there all day taking notes," Thornton says. "It's called football character. Everybody puts so much emphasis on the 40s and the workouts. But what keeps you in the league is studying, working with teammates, learning to take care of your body with chiropractors and strength coaches, putting in extra."

Plus, Thornton has a natural affinity for Baldwin, a 6-5, 224-pound specimen he says is in the mold of the strength and reach of the Chargers' Vincent Jackson. Thornton's best friend, former Bengals cornerback Chuck Fisher, is Baldwin's lifelong friend and mentor. They grew up a decade apart in the football factory of Aliquippa, Pa., and Thornton likes having a hand in blue-collar stories that triumph over circumstance.

It hasn't been easy. Baldwin's father is a former construction worker who injured his neck and is on disability. His mother is the manger of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Thornton says he's quiet, but very proud of his town's tradition and is used to the pressure of playing so close to home.

"This is a kid that grew up in a town that's had players like Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, Darrelle Revis," Thornton says. "He understands what's expected, what it means."

"You have to," Baldwin says. "When you go to school you walk by their jerseys every day."

Yet Thornton, who works with many agents and players, is just one cog of Team Baldwin. In order to negotiate the minefields of the modern draft, prospects basically end up incorporating themselves into a conglomerate.

Thornton found Baldwin a trainer in Arizona. Fisher hooked him up with a personal coach, 20-year NFL receivers coach Richard Mann. His agent is the estimable Rick Smith of the Priority Sports group that has repped such former Bengals as Levi Jones and Tory James.

Thornton, 34, still living in a Cincy suburb, is an old-schooler at heart. But he's immersed in the new, complex world of social networking. It has almost become another obstacle for prospects instead of an aid. Or, at the very least, a luxury.

"A couple of years ago I had a quarterback who had a picture of himself sitting on a car on his Facebook page," Thornton says. "Not sitting on the hood. On top of the car. On the roof. It was a funny picture, but teams don't want their quarterbacks sitting on top of cars. I told him he should take it down. Another kid had a picture on his Twitter account of him at a party. You can't do that. It's a different world."

Baldwin has run afoul of the modern machine. He said he thought a text message from a media member asking if he was staying at Pitt for his senior year was off the record and what got reported was his quote ripping his coach and quarterback for the lack of deep routes. Suddenly, he was a young T.O.

"I'm not a bad guy," Baldwin says. "I did think that was off the record, but I did learn a lesson from it. I think once you meet me and spend time with me, that's going to come through."

As Thornton told him, "Don't think you know somebody just because you know somebody."

Then Baldwin got in the middle of a mini-controversy last week when he generally received solid reviews for his Pro Day, but got a poor one from Russ Lande of The Sporting News.'s Gil Brandt said Baldwin didn't disappoint, but Lande said he had a penchant for trapping the ball on his body and that it was "crazy talk" he'd go in the first round.

The draft has become sports' version of the stock market with the daily pulse of the prospects needing to be up or down.

It ended up being controversial because Lande wasn't at Pitt and culled his report from a source at the workout along with film evaluation. Thornton questioned the report because he says the scouts like Baldwin's hands and "if you see any picture of him on the Internet, he's always stretched out away from his body," he says.

What Thornton would have liked to have seen in any report is that Baldwin, like A.J. Green, didn't get to catch balls from his usual quarterback. A few days before he discovered that former Pitt quarterback Pat Bostick couldn't throw to him at his Pro Day because of NFL rules, Baldwin recruited Division II quarterback Josh Portis from California of Pennsylvania. Even about 10 minutes before Baldwin caught all 26 balls they were going over routes.

"I think he's learning about how it's going to be in the NFL with this stuff; these are good lessons," Thornton says. "You have to deal with the media every day. The last four years I had to deal with people saying I shouldn't be here and that I was done and I was overpaid. You have to learn to handle it because you see it every day."

Baldwin is getting plenty of chances to show the pro side because there are a bunch of teams visiting him and he's got plenty of visits lined up to their stadiums. Thornton thinks it is a good sign that after one team absolutely grilled him about the off-the-record-on-the-record quote, they promptly invited him on a visit.

Maybe the most impressive thing about Baldwin's Pro Day is that it was a family affair. There was his mother, father and two-year old son Jaden. Jaden had the scouts looking back at him and smiling. Whenever Baldwin went into a break, he would grunt and seconds later the silence of the workout would be split by Jaden making the same sound. On every break.

Baldwin has been watching it and smiling himself because Thornton videotaped the workout for him so he could study it. Another part of being a pro. But he's got plenty to work with. Thornton takes note that last year during spring break, Baldwin opted to stay in town and spend the week with Jaden.

"The biggest things he's told me have been about staying the course and staying humble," Baldwin says. "And to make a good first impression."

Write it down.

Baldwin is.

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