Teammate of a solider's story

5-8-04, 9:15 p.m.

BY GEOF HOBSON

While Nick Ayers lives every boy-next-door's dream this weekend, his old teammate, Matt Maupin, is living a nation's nightmare.

Ayers doesn't pretend to understand. There is no gray area where he comes from, which is the East Side of Cincinnati. Or how he got on the Bengals' roster as a free-agent running back by parlaying a fabulous college career on the outskirts of Division I into one last long shot.

But Pfc. Matt Maupin, a member of the 724th Transportation Company, being taken hostage a month ago in Iraq just doesn't seem possible to Ayers. Not so very long ago, Ayers helped make Maupin stronger amid the sweat and steel of the Glen Este High School weight room. Now Maupin is making Ayers stronger in the pressure cooker of a NFL minicamp.

"I don't know if I'd say I'd trade places with him," mused Ayers between practices Saturday. "But as good a person as he is, everybody would think about it. If you know Matt, you can't even picture him over there, or being mean to another person, and now this is happening to him."

If the 5-10, 235-pound Ayers is a long shot to make the NFL out of NAIA Georgetown College, then Maupin probably had the same odds when he came out for the Glen Este team. Blond hair. About 6-0, 180 pounds. A wide receiver. Ayers never saw Maupin on the football field in peewees or middle school. But then he showed up.

"I think his football career was short, but once he learned the system and adjusted, he was a good enough athlete to play some," said Ayers, 23, who was a senior when Maupin was a junior. "He was a special teams guy. You know how the guys on the scout team don't really want to do it? He'd be the first one to go in there and volunteer because he wanted to get better. He never complained. He would do whatever was asked. I can see why he's a good soldier."

It's funny, but that's where Ayers finds himself today after being the show at Glen Este and Georgetown. Now he's trying to catch eyes on special teams. Once the veterans show in another week, he'll be trying to flash on the scout team.

He decided to pay the 45 bucks to park his car at the team hotel so he could get to Paul Brown Stadium ahead of the bus in the mornings. On Saturday, Matt Maupin's old teammate was the first guy here, looking at all the plays squeezed together on running back coach Jim Anderson's grease board at 5:30 a.m.

"He's used to the hard work. He's worked at it his whole life," said Ray Ayers, his father. "His older brother went into baseball as a free agent too, and made it all the way to Triple A before his arm fell off. Nick never had anything come easy for him."

Ray Ayers is the administrator for discipline at Glen Este, as well as a coach of the offensive line, and he remembered the last time he saw Maupin. It was in February up at the fitness center in Mount Carmel and Maupin said he was dong well. But then shortly he was shipped out. Ray said Maupin joined up for the reserves in order to go to college.

Nick Ayers knows he was lucky that he could pay to go to college, but it's not all that easy for him in a different sense. How many guys have the Bengals signed who own his college's career touchdown record with 53 while paying $6,000 each during his junior and senior years to pay for a degree in kinesiology?

Welcome to NAIA.

"What I like about him is his work ethic, his ability to absorb what we're doing on offense," Anderson said. "He's a grinder. A blue-collar guy. He's the kind of guy who says, 'Coach, whatever you want me to do, I'll do.'"

That's what Ayers said when he worked out for the Bengals and Anderson told him he'd have to be a running back because he was a tweener for a fullback. By the fourth game of his freshman year, he was Georgetown's fullback after starting his college career as a nose tackle and then moving to linebacker. A total of 2,990 yards on more than five carries per pop later, Ayers helped the Tigers to 28 straight wins, three national championship games, and two titles in becoming a powerhouse known more than the training camp site for the Bengals.

"Whatever I can do to help. I'm a hustler," Ayers said. "I did a lot of blocking in college. I caught a lot of balls. I think I can do that here."

Ayers took a year off before he began his career, and he spent it back at Glen Este helping out in the wrestling room. Two football players, Maupin and Wiley Kyles, came to him and asked Ayers to help them get bigger in the weight room.

"He was a very motivated guy. He wanted to do well," Ayers said.

Ayers' brother called him at school to tell him the news. He couldn't grasp the news at first.

"I thought he'd been taken hostage somewhere over in East Gate and I was thinking what crazy thing just happened," Ayers said. "Then I turned on CNN, and there he was saying all those things they were making him say. It just stinks. That was a rough day for me and my brother."

Maupin doesn't get to hear the cheers. Ayers does. He's been getting the calls at home. What are the guys like? What is the locker room like? His college teammates want to know how fast the game is.

"I tell them it's overwhelming. There is no one down here who is stupid," Ayers said. "For what you have to know with all the plays, it's unbelievable. I thought I was smart, but I come in here and everyone knows more than me."

Not true. Ayers is smart enough to soak it in. Friday at lunch, former Eagles right guard Bobbie Williams was talking casually about playing with "Donovan," McNabb.

"I'm realizing now that I can say I've played with some great athletes and guys who have played with the great ones," said Ayers, who just has to turn around in his position group to see a first-round pick. "You can see why these guys make all the money. Chris Perry, he's got some gifts, and he's smart and goes about his business."

Ayers knows it's a long shot. Last year, they kept three running backs. Perry and Rudi Johnson are the big money guys. Kenny Watson has averaged more than four yards per carry in a NFL season. Skip Hicks is making headlines in NFL Europe.

"I don't care if I'm here two months, a year, two years, whatever," Ayers said. "I'm going to do my best to get better every day, and I know that's more than a lot of people did who couldn't get here."

Ayers thinks about guys like Maupin and the guys he played against at Glen Este. He felt there were a lot of guys he played against in high school that were better than him, but they didn't make the next step because they fouled up or didn't put the time in. Ayers is putting the time in. A lot like Maupin did when he was trying to take the next step in football. A lot like Ayers plans to do after football.

"I'd like to sell pharmaceuticals, but the job market is tight and if that doesn't work, I'd like to get my degree in special education for my Masters, get my teacher's certificate and be a coach," Ayers said. "If every day I could come to work here, I'd be happy. If I could get to a high school football field and help kids get better and be a good role model and help them out that would be good, too."

It sounds like two kids from the East Side have already done it in their early 20s. They have already been role models for each other just doing what they do.

"He's an amazing person, you'd have to say," said Ayers, who helped along the way.

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