BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ Inside, Takeo Spikes smolders like bad wiring. But on the outside, the man who would be the Bengals first Pro Bowl linebacker in a generation likes to joke. Spikes can ride anyone, from position coach Mark Duffner to MVP running back Jamal Anderson.
Spikes and Anderson are friends they share the same agent in Jim Sims so Spikes got his needle out the other day. He was on the phone to Anderson, the Falcons running back, urging to him hold off his return from reconstructive knee surgery after the Bengals play here in the Georgia Dome Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"I told him, 'You know you're not playing because you're playing against me, man,' " Spikes said. "I said, 'I've got my boy Brian (Simmons) on the side of me, so it would be smart for you to sit out another week."
Word is Anderson will play against the Bengals in his first preseason appearance, but it doesn't matter. From his weak spot on the outside, Spikes will pursue and flow and hit like a guy trying to make a name for himself. Just like the young Spikes did back in the state semifinals, when he was Georgia's Mr. Football and Washington County High School drove 90 minutes from Sandersville, Ga., to become one of the first prep teams to play in the new Georgia Dome.
"Not a small hick town, but a small town. About 35,000 people," said Spikes, who makes his home here during the offseason "Whether I'm coming from south, north, east or west, Georgia is always home. But it doesn't have to be Atlanta. Any place in Georgia. Big or small town."
Now there have been two years in the NFL of getting entrenched and getting adjusted and getting settled, but Spikes knows this is the year. Duffner knows this is the year Spikes and Simmons can go to the Pro Bowl if it all breaks right. Spikes burns to be noticed. To win. It hasn't happened as a Bengal. That's why he likes playing at home. To remind the folks.
"I've got to let them know it's real," Spikes said. "That I'm still laying wood just like I did in college. Nobody hears about it. It won't change until we win at least nine games. That's not a prediction, that's just when it starts changing. If you're doing something good, you want people to know it. It's a reward for paying the price. That's something I emphasize. It's bigger than Takeo Spikes. It's bigger than Brian Simmons. It's bigger than Akili Smith. It's a team thing. Once we look at it like that, we're going to win some games and everybody's going to get noticed out there. Even the backups. Cincinnati is a football town."
The Bengals have had some very good linebackers who never went to the Pro Bowl.
Only two have gone. Bill Bergey in 1969. And Jim LeClair in 1976, the year Spikes was born. Sports Illustrated came to training camp earlier this week to write a season preview about a defense in the Smith-Dillon-Warrick shadow, giving Spikes rare national pub.
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"I feel like that's a curse about coming here," Spikes said of the Bengals. "You see so many players coming out of college and it's like they drop off the world. You get here and say, 'Damn, he's on this team. I didn't know that.' Like (safety) Lawrence Wright or Tremain Mack. These guys were big-time college players. It's just the bad breaks. But I feel it changing. People can say that sounds like hogwash, but I think it's true. It's the little things that matter. They're starting to do the little things."
Spikes hopes the little things add up the big thing. Winning. He's learned to cope with the losing from a Georgia-bred lesson by his high school coach.
He told me, 'Spikes, you just hang in there,' " Spikes recalled. 'Look at this as a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to change things around.' You've got to get better. If the team doesn't get better, you have to get better within yourself. You have to go out and push yourself. Don't settle for just being good. Settle for when the other team turns on film, they say, 'That's a great linebacker.' "
Duffner thinks Spikes is on his way. Last year's midseason switch to four down linemen has allowed Spikes and Simmons more freedom to pursue without being engulfed by offensive linemen as he bids to become the first Bengal since LeClair with three straight 100-tackle seasons. Spikes changed his offseason routine, chipping off what was left of body fat on granite by watching what he ate at night and mixing up his training.
"That's Spikes' game," Duffner said. "Flow, pursue, finding the ball. His instincts are becoming sharper and sharper."
About 40 relatives and friends plan to watch him in the Dome. He last played there two years ago in another preseason game. But that was different.
"I was a rookie," Spikes said. "I wasn't able to unleash the true Takeo. I want to make my presence felt on the field. Every play. Not take a snap off. I want them to know Spikes was there."
He hopes they pass the word.