Posted: 10:30 p.m.
The Bengals are considering activating wide receiver Maurice Purify from their practice squad in time for Sunday's AFC North showdown in Pittsburgh. But if it happens, it's more than a minor transaction buried in the agate print of the sports page.
Jack Lakin, Purify's coach at Eureka High School in Eureka, Calif., watched him drive away from his high school graduation headed to a junior college tryout at City College of San Francisco. Now he's crossing his fingers because he's holding Bengals tickets to next week's game in Oakland, a four-hour drive away.
"We were just hoping that he would go to school to get exposed to something beyond Eureka and take the steps that would set him up for a productive life," Lakin said Thursday night over the phone. "We really weren't thinking beyond junior college. But then came the opportunity to go to a great school like Nebraska and to be exposed to that kind of environment. We never dreamed of anything like that, never mind the chance to play in the NFL."
Purify is not there yet, but all signs point to it, including the obligatory clutch of media circling him in the locker room before Thursday's practice. And the not so obligatory remarks of the franchise quarterback, who started talking him up Sunday even before the cast dried on Chris Henry's broken forearm.
"I'm really excited about him," Carson Palmer said Thursday. "He's got the big body. He can catch the ball. He can body people up. He's not Chris Henry. But he can run. He uses his body well."
Purify, 23, has been hearing the praise since Monday but then, he's used to hearing Palmer praise him in the two years on the practice squad. It is not the first time.
"What Carson said was a big deal," Purify said. "I appreciate that from him that he trusts me and is willing to step up front and say something like that about somebody."
Told that Palmer's endorsement should help him, Purify said, "He might carry a lot of weight."
Purify has always seemed to have people like Palmer in there pitching for him. Coaches like Lakin and Nebraska receivers coach Ted Gilmore and Bengals receivers coach Mike Sheppard and high school counselors like Heidi Moore.
"He's a hard worker. He's a good person, someone you feel comfortable to be around," Lakin said. "He's a survivor. I'm thrilled for him. He appreciates this opportunity, I know."
Eureka is a tough place to grow up. Lakin says that 70 percent of the school district qualifies for free and reduced lunch, meaning they are under the poverty line. What made it even tougher is that Purify ran into trouble once he got to Nebraska. He agreed to a plea in an assault charge and being arrested for driving while intoxicated. He was also cited in an incident after his senior season and later served a week of house arrest for violating probation.
The brushes with the law ruined his chances to get drafted in 2008 after he caught 16 touchdowns in two seasons at Nebraska and while he knows he was wrong, there is also another side.
"I had to get beyond some things in my life. I had six people I was very close to die in three months," said Purify as he sat in his locker, choosing his words with care. "My coping with that led to drinking and that's how I got my DUI and in the bar fight, so people don't understand the things I was going through. It's not like I had my family with me to help me through. This was going on back in California while I was in Nebraska."
Two of his brothers got shot to death in the Bay Area, one while he was robbed. One of his best friends got killed in a car accident and soon after a former girlfriend he had dated for eight years and had remained close to was also killed in a crash. And an aunt and a baby niece also died.
"All in three months, right before my senior year," Purify said. "What can you say? Life goes on. It's a hard thing to cope with. My mother came out to Nebraska to hang out with me for a week, but it was tough."
Lakin says Purify's experience with the Bengals has been priceless, just like the experience at Nebraska. They went down to L.A. to check out his old high school teammate, USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, and now Maualuga is his teammate in Cincinnati and a big comfort.
"I remember going out to the USC game with him and just the change in two or three months in him was amazing," Lakin said. "I think the Bengals have been great with him. Mike Sheppard has been a very good mentor for him. I think he's matured a lot. That was a time when he drank to relieve the pain and I think he's grown up quite a bit."
Purify certainly appears focused because his teammates rave about him in practice. The fact he played most of the opponents' No. 1 receivers on the scout team says something about his build (6-3, 225) and talent and what the good receivers are starting to look like nowadays. Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230), Braylon Edwards (6-3, 215), Andre Johnson (6-3, 223).
"And he caught more balls than any of those guys did on our cornerbacks, who are really good," said one teammate.
Purify talks like a guy who has done it the hard way. And he has. Just like the tryout at City College, the only way Purify made the Bengals is when he survived a tryout at rookie camp.
"I'm a possession receiver. I like to do the dirty stuff the other receivers don't want to do," Purify said. "The blocking, get down on the linebackers. Tack on the D-end. All that stuff.
"I'm not saying Chris didn't do anything, but we've still got three great receivers. I'm just coming in replacing somebody. I'm not really fast. I just get open. That's all I do. Get open and do my job."
For openers, the Bengals will take it if they give him the nod.