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Red letter opener

Andy Dalton

The red hair came from his mom's dad. The No. 14 came from his dad. No one, though, is quite sure where Andy Dalton got this seemingly innate gift to speak football as if it were his native tongue.

But Pat Dowling, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Katy High School, is glad Dalton can for 14 reasons, which is how many games Katy won Dalton's senior year to get to that Texas-sized 5A final. And it got Dowling two more first downs in this year's opener even though No. 14 is now in the NFL.

"It was funny," Dowling is saying this week about the text he got from Dalton last month. "He said if there was ever anything he could do for me or the team to just let him know. So I sent him back kiddingly, 'If you've got any third-and-long plays, let me know.'

"So he sends me back this three-page text and says 'This one really works well for me,' and he called it 'Blue 4 99 out.' He not only gave me a play, he put it in our language. And I used it twice. Worked both times."

Which is why offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and all the rest have, as Bengals president Mike Brown would say, put their chip down on Dalton as the next Bengals franchise quarterback. Glib with the jargon, unflappable in a sport of chaos, accurate with the ball in a game of nooks and crannies, and, as his first quarterbacks coach at Katy remembers, "a master networker."

"His strength is that he's able to plug himself into any situation," says Jeff Rhoads. "He's definitely a chemistry guy."

The experiment starts Sunday in Cleveland in the Bengals' 44th opener, when the 24-year-old kid with the red hair tries to light a fire under a franchise in transition after its most traumatic offseason in history.

Dalton's predecessor, Carson Palmer, went into self-imposed exile just as Gruden was bringing in his new playbook and just before the lockout dropped an Iron Curtain on the NFL and prevented teams from signing players and coaching them until the week training camp started.

Then when labor peace arrived, the Bengals had 41 days to build their new era and now that the smoke has cleared Dalton is the first rookie quarterback in club history to make his first start in an Opening Day road game and two fellow rookie starters (wide receiver A.J. Green and right guard Clint Boling) make it the first time in 42 years the Bengals have started a season with three rookie offensive starters.

Forty-two. Like 14, it's a good number for Dalton. In 49 starts in four years at TCU, he won 42 times.

And Dalton still hasn't blinked, telling Gruden in the first couple of days when he screwed up a call in his own playbook.

All of which doesn't really surprise Tina Dalton, his mother that gave him the emotion you rarely see. He is his father's son.

"If he's playing basketball, or pool, or ping-pong, he shows it. He's a perfectionist," Tina Dalton says. "But when he's out there playing football, no. I'm so proud of him. There's so much pressure. It just amazes me. There's a lot of his dad's calmness in him."

There isn't a lot of that at games, though. Not at Katy and then at Texas Christian and now on Sunday when the Daltons make the trip to Cleveland. Tina calls watching her son's games a three-hour prayer meeting, where she and Greg are holding hands and praying for his and everyone else's safety, as well as for points and everything else.

Which isn't foreign territory for them. Tina and Greg met at church when they were 14, started dating at 15, stayed together while they went to the University of Texas and have been married long enough that Andy's older sister Ashley has given them a 16-month-old granddaughter.

"Not long after we started dating, Tina's mother died of cancer," Greg says. "I had gotten to know her mother and then when she died, it was as if the Lord had brought us together."

He had to go overtime. Greg was born in Detroit, but moved to Texas when he was six months old when his father, an Air Force doctor, took a job at the medical center in Houston that was just starting to take off in 1960. Tina had a more circuitous route to the growing southwest via Alabama and Tennessee, arriving when she was 14 when her father, Bill "Red" Payne, saw more opportunities in a booming Houston for his financial planning business.

"My dad was 6-2 and played high school football and was supposed to be pretty good," Tina Dalton says. "He went to prep school, but then World War II came and he went in the Navy. He had heart problems and he died when Andy was six months old. But he was so proud when he had a grandson with red hair. He said, 'it will keep the Red name going.' "

Greg and Tina raised their three children in Katy's First Baptist Church, where both taught Sunday School and Greg became an assistant deacon. Tina had urged they move to Katy when Andy was in first grade because she had fallen in love with the community while teaching in its elementary school, but when the kids became involved in sports and a blizzard of activities that included Andy playing guitar in the church's praise band, she chose to leave teaching and stay at home.

But she became the Most Valuable Player. Rhoads remembers her son's rubber arm and how one time he arrived one morning for one of those seven-on-seven passing tournaments where the QBs throw about 200 passes after throwing seven innings the night before. But Andy reassured the worried Rhoads "that my mom iced the arm down on the way here."  

"A very faith-based family," says Rhoads, who went to the same church. "Faith is very important to Andy. Just ask him. Greg did a lot of things at that church helping to administrate it. A very humble, quiet guy."

Which is maybe why Andy Dalton doesn't talk about that faith unless asked. He's not a biblical billboard on the interstate. You do have to ask.

"To me, I think the way I carry myself and the way I do things, hopefully people see a difference in me," Dalton says. "A lot of that's because of my faith. God's blessed with me so many things. This opportunity to play here and the chance to start as a rookie. So many things. I'm just fortunate to be raised right and have my faith and to share that with my wife, too."

Exhibit A:

Dalton didn't have to say a word about how he envisions his role and how much of a leader he knows he has to be in an NFL locker room. Choosing Palmer's corner locker spoke volumes. And putting second-year wide receiver Jordan Shipley next to him said just as much.

Shipley is another quiet but committed Texan when it comes to faith. He didn't play guitar in a praise band, but a couple of times he used it to lead meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter while playing at Texas. Dalton and Shipley played a few times together at training camp and their Texas roots have brought them together, as well as their wives, newlyweds both married just before training camp.

"We've gotten together a few times to cook. The wives have done it so far, but I like to grill out, so we'll do that soon. It's good for our wives. They like to hang out," Shipley says. "I know they have a tradition here where they ask the quarterback who he wants next to him and that was kind of cool."  

There's not a lot of talking. So it makes sense why Greg Dalton doesn't talk too much about that fall of '77, when he quarterbacked Houston's Memorial High to the districts his senior year.

"Mediocre arm," he says, laughing. "We ran the Veer, so all I had to do was read the end, get hit, and make sure I handed it off so there were no fumbles. No turnovers. I was a caretaker quarterback."

The Bengals wouldn't mind his son being that way until he gets settled, but Greg doesn't think he has to give him advice on that score.

"I think he realizes that's all part of managing the game," he says.

In the afternoon you can reach Greg Dalton in his office, where he's a tax attorney and on this day he's scanning the bookshelf trying to find the proper title for a book under discussion.

Raising a Modern Day Knight: A Father's Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood by Robert Lewis.

"It's the notion of raising a son with values and building it on honor and commitment," Greg Dalton says. "We were lucky. We had a good group of fathers and sons about the time that Andy was in high school and we had a bible study once a week and we'd rotate at each other's homes for about three or four years. We'd take breaks by playing basketball or football and then at some point the sons started to beat the fathers. It was good stuff."

Good enough that Andy Dalton wanted to wear No. 14 because of the guy that rarely fouled up running the Veer.

"He's been the role model," Andy says, "for the way to live my life."

But the son got the better arm. It's not a Veer arm. Rhoads and Dowling swear on the arm.

"He could throw it 60 yards in a cup if he tried it," Rhoads says.

"One of the first times I saw him," Dowling says, "he threw a ball to the hash and I said, 'Holy crud.' He stared out slow here, he wasn't real accurate at first, but he got better every game. Same thing at TCU. He always got better."

About Greg Dalton's No. 14. The current Katy quarterback, Brooks Hack, wears it.  

"I kind of encourage it. Around here it has a reputation for toughness," Dowling says. "I like toughness in a quarterback. Y.A. Title wore No. 14 in the NFL and he was a tough guy. But Brooks wears it for Andy, too. Andy reached out to him. Brooks made his second varsity start in the state championship game and Andy called him on the bus on the way to the game to talk to him and give him some advice. And Andy was preparing for the Fiesta Bowl. That meant a lot to Brooks. That number has a good reputation here."

There's also a kid in Austin, Texas that was wearing it and lost it because now he's playing wide receiver.

"He was one of Andy's ball boys in high school and even though he was only 8 or 9, Andy always talked to him," says Jeff Rhoads of his sophomore son John. "John didn't say too much. He was google-eyed. But he always remembered. And when Andy texted out his new number a few weeks ago, John got it. He talked about that for a while.

"We've got a quarterback and John switched to receiver. But he's still got his eye on 14."

Pull up a chair, John. You'll be sitting among Bengaldom Sunday.

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