IT'S THE FINAL HOURS FOR LINEBACKER TAKEO SPIKES AS HIS BENGALS PREPARE FOR SUNDAY'S GAME IN PITTSBURGH. HERE'S THE FOURTH INSTALLMENT OF HIS DIARY THIS WEEK AS COMPILED BY GEOFF HOBSON OF BENGALS.COM.**
SATURDAY, 10 AM
It's four hours before the Bengals catch their charter flight to Pittsburgh, but plenty of time for a last look at film in the office of linebackers coach Mark Duffner and one final walk-through on the field.
And there's always time for Spikes to be the defensive captain. He has been furious ever since he heard the, "We're going to destroy Cincinnati," quote from Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington.
He's been hammering the point to the men who will play Washington Sunday. Rookie receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans
"If that's not going to get you pumped and ready to play," Spikes tells them, "then you have to go down that Yellow Brick Road and get some heart."
For the moment, Spikes is on Duffner Boulevard as the coach goes through some last-minute adjustments. But mainly this is a lab review compared to the long lectures earlier in the week.
Such as, which receivers the Steelers like to throw to on third down.
"Knowing if that guy's on my side, I have to be more aware when I'm in a zone coverage," Spikes says. "I've got to get my head back and forth from the quarterback to the receiver and try to keep my eye on the ball also. And when it's third down and the go-to-receiver is on the other side, then I can stare the quarterback down and get a good read so now I can flow to that spot where he's throwing. It's little things You can't coach that. It has to be natural."
As Spikes gets on the TWA 757 the Bengals are chartering to Pittsburgh, he asks one of the flight attendants to announce over the intercom that the linebackers have won the ultimate poll and have been named the best-dressed position on the team.
Spikes carries the backers by himself. He doesn't hide two of his bigger beliefs when he shows up for this road trip. He's wearing a crisply tailored suit that matches the Steelers' gold-and-black, so he's always thinking about the next day's opponent during the flight.
"If you look good, you play good. I've been a firm believer in that ever since high school," Spikes says. "If you look shabby, you feel it. If you look good, you feel well put together. Like you're ready to do it."
Spikes can only hope his defense will be this coordinated Sunday. His fashion tip? "If you've got a gold or silver watch, you've got to have a gold or silver belt buckle."
Spikes' white gold watch hangs at the end of his solid yellow shirt that sports a yellow tie. He's got a silver belt buckle around gray pants and a silver buckle on his shoes and matching cufflinks.
" I like wearing the opposing team's colors," Spikes says. "It stops me from buying suits that are all black or brown."
Spikes is in the back of the plane in a window seat. Rookie linebacker Armegis Spearman is on the aisle, where Spikes expects to get an hour's worth of Spearman's imitations.
"He loves (Dick) LeBeau," says Spikes of Spearman's ability to mimic his new head coach. "But today's a Duffner day. 'Men, I don't want to hear it.'"
Spearman is one of the last guys on the plane because as the rookie, he has to bring the rest of the linebackers food for the trip. He brings some Popeye's chicken, but you also have to bring some tough skin to sit with these guys.
Spikes remembers one trip when Reinard Wilson, one of the more verbose guys on the club, was eating and talking a blue streak at the same time. Just after someone warned him, "You better shut up and eat your food before you choke," Wilson choked hard enough that, "someone had to beat on his back. Then Reinard just throws it back down and says, 'Just a bone.' It was funny as hell."
Ever since middle linebacker Brian Simmons hurt his knee in the opener and is sitting out, Spikes' road roommate has been running back Corey Dillon.
Make that Corey Dillon, linebacker Adrian Ross and the current hottest video football game. Dillon and Ross are inseparable when they've got down time to go video. And this afternoon in downtown Pittsburgh at the mid-century Westin William Penn Hotel, the computers are buzzing.
But Spikes is more than occupied watching his alma mater, Auburn, get drilled by Florida. In fact, it heats him as much as Dewayne Washington. He nearly breaks a foot rest as Florida keeps rolling. When a friend calls late in the game, Spikes shakes his head into the phone.
"They went down there and didn't do a thing," Spikes says. "Nothing."
The players don't have to eat the 6 p.m. team meal, they just have to check in. But they have to be back for a 7 p.m. team meeting. Not many are going to eat because tackle John Jackson has a heap of catered food in his room from The Crawford Grill, a spot Jackson knows well from his 10 seasons with the Steelers.
"That's pretty much what we do when we go into a town where we've got some connections," Spikes says. "Willie (Anderson) and I did it when we played in Atlanta. Reinard brought some food in when we were in Jacksonville."
Spikes is in his room killing time before the team meeting and can't finish his plate from Jackson's room. There is chicken, collard greens, macaroni salad. He's still digesting Spearman's chicken.
But he is drinking. He didn't eat the team meal, but came back with two bottles of water and two fruit juices. Spikes drinks enough water during the week that he drains the five-gallon jug in his house every 10 days.
Now he's thinking about what special teams coach Al Roberts said about learning what to do on the field.
"He says 33.3 percent of guys learn by going out and doing it," Spikes says. "Another 33.3 percent learns by doing it and studying it on paper. The other 33.3 percent, they do it by doing it and seeing it on paper and doing reps both ways over and over. I fit into the category if I see it on film once, I'm all right."
It's about now that Spikes starts to see what he wants to do the next afternoon. He's been doing it since high school, when his coach told him he had a better shot at doing great things if you see them first.
He knows much of Sunday's game depends on how the Bengals control Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
"I try to visualize myself making hits on people," Spikes says. "It's not so much what I see doing to Bettis. The question is what do I see myself doing against the whole team. He'll play a big part in the game, but it will be much bigger than Bettis. And I promise I'll be around the ball everytime."
Spikes checks his text pager every five minutes or so. There are just too many calls as the game gets closer. And he's starting to get edgy and distracted.
Why love it?
"Football is the only time you can take your emotions out on somebody, basically hit them, and not get in trouble," Spikes says.
The question hangs in the air. Even if he has a Pro Bowl game, are people going to know as the Bengals struggle with a young team?
"It's tough," Spikes says. "It's hard. But other players know. And that means a lot."
It has come down to this. The focus on Pittsburgh that began on Monday while still nursing the bruises from Tennessee, is ending with Duffner talking to his backers in a corner of a hotel conference room 300 miles away.
Duffner is reading straight from "the tip sheet," he's given them to study tonight and tomorrow morning. There are 28 points on the handout, which he's boiled down from the Steelers' scouting report he gave them in mid-week
Duffner's 28-Point Plan consists of a few words and some diagrams that amplify his mantra of Alignment-Assignment-Adjustment. It's what he's been telling them all week. It's going to be a physical game and you guys are capable.
At the bottom of the sheet, he writes, "We work all week-all year for 60 minutes on Sunday _ DO NOT BE DENIED! Good luck! Coach Duff."
The backers leave the room, with Duffner telling them to keep drinking fluids. He calls Spikes over to let him know he's made a few calls for a fellow backer they know who wants to keep playing in the pros. Then Duffner wants to meet with the rookie Spearman.
Spikes heads back to his room, where he'll hit the hay early. Probably before the 11:01 p.m. bed check. He's already thinking about the pre-game routine.
"When I tape my wrists, I draw a cross and then the initials of the person I'm dedicating the game to," Spikes says. Last year, he did it for his grandmother and uncle when they died weeks apart.
"This year I've been putting "56," he says.
Which is the number of Brian Simmons.