Season of faith

Bobbie Williams

His grandfather calls him "Sneaky," and so that is six-year-old Domata Peko Jr.'s nickname. But he's hard to miss with long hair like his dad and Uncle Rey and walking out of the Toys"R"Us Tuesday night without a goodie bag.

"He gets pretty much anything he wants for Christmas," said Domata Peko Sr., the Bengals long-haired, big-hearted defensive tackle. "I wanted to bring him along tonight and show him not everybody is as fortunate and that there are families out there struggling and we should give back."

Sneaky's dad may play up front but he wants to play safety, so he'll often be Reggie Nelson on Madden. Ethan, the kid in the next aisle buying anything with a wrestler on it, is Peko whenever he gets a chance to play.

"And Maualuga," said Ethan, who is nine.

Not much bigger than the rangy Sneaky, but a lot older because he was just adopted into a new family two months ago.

"And Williams," Ethan said. "I can find him."

Bobbie Williams, the Bengals huge, humble and happy right guard, was real easy to find Tuesday night. He had blinked off the Madden screen and was over here helping Ethan find another electronic game. It was Brian Simmons, the Bengals former linebacker that started it all those years ago and now Shop-With-A-Bengal has turned into one of the team's great traditions and passed to guys like Williams, Peko, Rey Maualuga, Andrew Whitworth and a newcomer.

Cornerback Nate Clements painfully missed last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh with a hamstring injury, but he had committed to the Shop and here he was checking out one of his kids.

"My man," he said to a little guy that had to stand on his tiptoes to peer into the shopping cart he had just stuffed half the North Pole, 'is on a mission."

Each of the five players had 10 children they allow to buy $300 worth of toys. The only stipulation is they have to buy something for someone else.

"I've got a kid, I think he's so overwhelmed he hasn't bought anything yet," Whitworth said. "He's just walking around with a football. Maybe he's just never been in a store like this. Sometimes they'll ask, 'You mean I can get more than one thing?' "

If there wasn't Shop-With-A-Bengal, Eric Young doubts the 50 kids would have much of a Christmas, if any. Young, the community relations manager for St. Vincent de Paul, says many of the children and their families have been provided services during the year.

"A lot of our families are making some tough decisions this month," Young said. "Buy food or gifts."

Lisa Dayringer was kind of doing double duty like that Tuesday night. A recent graduate of Miami University with a degree in international relations, she's an AmeriCorps volunteer who is a client Advocate for Notre Dame Mission Volunteers working out of St. Vincent de Paul. She also just happens to be the lady that Ethan, his twin Emily, and his 11-year-old brother Corey has just moved in with in the Walnut Hills home she shares with their uncle, Joe Moore.

The way Joe told Bobbie in the aisle, their home life had deteriorated so much that the kids, growing up in Newport, Ky., were about to be sent to the Commonwealth. Joe and Lisa didn't want that for them. So they won custody to raise them. Never mind that she's just 24 and working on a volunteer's stipend and that Joe's not getting much sleep these days since the kids arrived as he's balancing his third-shift job at Biggs.

"Those blessings will come back to you," Williams told Joe. "Be sure of that. You and your girlfriend are doing a great thing."

"We've had them since the end of September and I think it's been great. It seems to be working out," Lisa Dayringer said. "Even before they used to stay weekends with us and hang out. People tell me I'm an old soul. I like to knit and it seems like I've always been one to help take care of people."  

Emily popped in and out to show Lisa what she was piling up, including the necklace Corey bought her. Corey had everything planned out and went on a bee-line to get a computer tablet.

"It's nice," Corey said, "to actually have a house where we can sit down and eat dinner."

Tough for Joe Moore to hear. But heartwarming, too.

"You know, I think they're thriving. I think this is the happiest they've ever been," Moore said and Lisa knows how long they had been looking forward to Tuesday night.

"They've known they were going to do this for about three or four weeks," she said, "and they've been asking me every day how many days left."

As for Ethan, he was chatting with Big Bobbie. Standing up on his tiptoes he said, "You beat the Browns. But you lost to the Steelers."

Williams leaned down with that big smile.

"We gave it a valiant effort. You have to play the cards. Every Sunday is different. Every game is different," he said.

"I watch every Sunday," Ethan said.

"He tells me when they're on,' Joe Moore said. "I've been a fan since I was a kid and Ickey Woods. James Brooks. Boomer Esiason. Bobbie seems like a real down-to-earth gentleman. Very genuine. Someone you could spend a lot of time with. I think it's great how these guys actually come out here do the shopping with the kids. They've had a tough upbringing. This is probably one of the best things that has ever happened to them."

Williams spent a lot of time with Ethan, wondering if he was going to buy anything that wasn't WWE or WWF. As they checked out, Emily wanted to get a picture of Williams and Ethan comparing their hand sizes.

"You're so tall," said Ethan gazing up at Williams.

"No, it's the light. We're actually the same size," Williams said and Ethan just laughed.

Emily carried the day with a shopping cart full of good buys that included gifts for three cousins. She also bought herself an overnight bag for when she gets invited to a sleepover.

"You've got to say goodbye to Bobbie," Ethan told her.

Williams doled out Cincinnati's biggest hugs and then Sneaky Peko came back in from the parking lot because he forgot to get a hug from Williams when he left.

"Boy, he's getting big," Williams said.

"See you at work tomorrow," Peko said.

Williams was left in a sea of older kids chatting him up.

"Ethan's a good kid. I just liked his personality," Williams said. "He's his own man. I told him to keep faith in the Bengals. He said he is. He said he still has faith in his Bengals."

After all, December isn't just an NFL stretch run. It's supposed to be a season of faith.  

"They just told me," Lisa Dayringer said of her kids, "it's been their best Christmas ever."

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