Posted: 9:35 a.m.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph was one of the players closest to wide receiver Chris Henry. As a native of Rock Hill, S.C., Joseph was only about an hour from the home of Henry's fiancée in Charlotte, N.C., and he visited whenever he was there during the offseason.
But he also has some very special memories of Henry on the field. He remembers that route Henry ran so well. The "Nine Route" that receivers simply beat the defense deep in a straight line down the sideline. And how after Henry would run a couple and he was fighting and spitting for breath, he still couldn't wait to line up and run another one.
Joseph agreed. The best way to remember Henry on Sunday in San Diego is to have everyone run Nine routes for 60 minutes.
"The guy loved to play. He loved to run down and catch the ball and he was great at it," Joseph said. "I remember one time I saw him catch one and he really did have one hand behind his back. It was pinned, but he reached out over his shoulder with the other hand and caught it in front of him. Another time I saw him go over the middle, catch it one-handed in front of him and put it around his back. How many guys you ever see that? The guy was unbelievable."
NELSON'S START: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer looked at rookie safety Tom Nelson before last week's game in Minnesota and saw him in a tie and sweater and thought he looked like a high school kid.
But Nelson makes the grade Sunday in San Diego with his first NFL start in place of the injured Chris Crocker and it's a reminder how many hits the Bengals defense has taken as they brace for the fifth-ranked Chargers offense.
There is no Crocker or Roy Williams at safety and no Domata Peko or Antwan Odom on the defensive line. But the coaches have confidence in Nelson's strong suit of brains and brawn at 5-11, 203 pounds. They don't care he was undrafted. Since he showed up he's always seemed to be in the right place.
"He's got kind of that Napoleon Complex," said safeties coach Louie Cioffi. "From a small school, small guy, and it always seems like he's trying to show everybody he can play. And he can. He's smart, he's usually in the right place, and he's come up with some big hits."
Nelson was at his locker last week running through his phone, but he said no one had texted or called about his first NFL start. "Nobody really knows and I'm not going to tell them," he said.
His last start came at home last year when Illinois State hosted Southern Illinois. Nelson had 11 tackles, the norm in a career he started every game in his four seasons for the Redbirds.
"Some people would say it's a long way. But not to me. To me, it's just football," he said.
The unassuming Nelson doesn't mind being an Everyman.
"Yeah, that's me. I'm just a guy," Nelson said. "I'm just hanging out."
He may look like a grad assistant coach among his teammates, but he became one of the stars of the documentary Hard Knocks in his rookie training camp. One snippet caught him and his girlfriend in a horse-drawn carriage in Cincinnati during the preseason and when asked where they were from and if they were on vacation, he explained they were from Chicago and on a job search.
As it turned out, she found a job back in Chicago before Nelson made the team. Things change quickly in the NFL.
"I'll say," Nelson said.
Nelson knows what Crocker's absence means because he's a guy that has helped him through. On Friday before practice, Crocker and Nelson emerged from the training room and stood in the middle of the locker room talking about what looked to be a particular coverage.
"The great thing that he does is that he knows what is going to happen before it happens and that's so big at the safety position," Nelson said.
It helps that Nelson rooms with the other starting safety, Chinedum Ndukwe, near the University of Cincinnati and they often look at film together. Sunday's task would be tough enough for any veteran safety. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates looms, as well as a duo of running backs in LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles that have a tough brew of strength and speed.
"You just have to go out there and do your job, that's all," Nelson said. "I go against the Cincinnati Bengals every day in practice and that's as good as competition as any right now."