Seeking the right key

8-1-02, 4:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ As if he didn't have more challenges than a corporate accountant (leading a rebuilding effort into its critical season, playing splendidly but obscurely, negotiating a contract extension), Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes took up another one during the offseason.

Learning to play the piano.

Not just playing the piano by reading notes. But playing the piano by ear. He watched teammate Bernard Whittington, an accomplished Jazz musician, serenade some of the guys in a hotel last year and he was hooked.

Spikes signed up for lessons at Atlanta's Woodard Academy and he's learned two tunes. He brought his keyboard to training camp, but hasn't touched it since he's been here because of the biggest passion in his life.

Football.

"I'm too busy here for that," Spikes said. "It's going to be about two years or so before I make my debut (in public)."

On a day Spikes' eyes lit up when the cash registers sang of Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis' $19 million bonus for his contract extension ("That can only help me"), he talked more about flat notes than C-notes.

The biggest challenge at the piano, he says, is making the trigger finger work with the pinky. A bigger challenge, really, than when he was nine years old and he told his mother he just couldn't take piano lessons anymore.

It was Lillie Spikes who told him he could play football only if

he took piano lessons. Then Takeo saw Liberace play the piano on one of those 1-800 C.D. commercials, didn't like that non-football look, and begged his mother to get him out of it.

"It's a challenge and I like challenges," said Spikes of his change of heart. "And it doesn't hurt with the ladies."

At the moment, Spikes, the Bengals right outside linebacker, isn't saying very much about his contract duet with middle linebacker Brian Simmons as the Bengals seek contract extensions for both before they go into free agency after this season.

But he is talking about how much he wants to be with this team when it finally hits the jackpot, and how this has to be the year or else, and how they have to bust out of the gate and win at least three pre-season games.

Which the Bengals haven't done since the Super Bowl season of 1988.

"It sets a tone," Spikes said. "I don't think the preseason is going to determine how we do. But it sure won't hurt us. We have to win at least three games. It teaches you how to win . . .You learn how it is to work together and pull it out. For the backup guys, too. The starters aren't going to be out there all the time."

And Spikes can't wait for it all to get started because he thinks his defense that finished No. 9 last year can get so much better with everyone returning.

"If we're ever going to do it," Spikes said of winning, "it has to be this year. That's how I truly feel. I'll go crazy. Then you'll have something to write about."

What everybody wrote about last year was how he coped with his father's mid-October death of brain cancer. It turned out that Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau was right when he told him he was lucky he could throw himself into football to take his mind off it with the help of his buddies.

"I don't know if I ever thanked him. I thought he was crazy," Spikes said. "But it worked out. The toughest time that I had dealing with it was in January. . . It was hard. For a month I couldn't even look at my mother because when I saw my mom, I'm used to seeing him."

The enormously proud Spikes has never backed down from the fact he enjoys national recognition and how the lack of it is a result of being on teams that have gone 17-47 in his four seasons.

But if a contract can get worked out, he wants to stay.

"From my first year here, there were guys (saying they) can't wait to play out (their) contract and leave," Spikes said. "I want to be here through the tough times. I've been here through the tough times, and now seeing a little sunlight, I want to be here. Myself. Brian. Willie Anderson. We've been together. What story is better than that? It gets no better than that."

Before Thursday night's practice, Spikes had one of those rare national moments in a session with ESPN.com senior NFL guru Len Pasquarelli. Yes, he said, he was proud last year when Steelers running back Jerome Bettis put him in a class with Baltimore's Lewis and he says he has to agree for the sake of his competitive juices.

Now the question is invariably going to come up. Should he be paid in Lewis' class? The Bengals have already gone on record saying they want to keep both Spikes and Simmons but can't do it if both want to be paid at the top of the league.

Spikes' agent, Todd France, called him virtually first thing Wednesday morning when he got wind of the Lewis numbers, reported at $50 million for seven years.

The working assumption is the Bengals will have to tag one of them with the transition designation after the season if they aren't signed. The assumption follows that player is most likely Spikes, and the Lewis contract drives up the one-year offer the Bengals have to tender Spikes that is required of the tag. This past offseason, it was $4.6 million for a transition tag on a linebacker. Bengals President Mike Brown had no comment on the Lewis deal because he hadn't seen official numbers.

"It only makes it better for me on both ends," Spikes said. "From a financial standpoint for the franchise and transition tag and all that. I've said all along in these negotiations that there's no pressure on me. I've been going out there for four years playing successfully. I don't see the fifth year as I have to do this or have to do that."

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