Teammates always


Ickey Woods rushed for 1525 yards in four seasons with the Bengals. (AP photo)

Jovante Woods didn't just call him "Joe" or "Uncle Joe." Like all of Ickey Woods' kids, he called him "Unclejoekelly." Kelly still calls him "JoJo."

Joe Kelly isn't sure why. But then, he's not really sure why all the old Bengals remained so close down through the years.

But after Ickey Woods called him back to Cincinnati's Children's Hospital that awful Saturday night 10 days ago when JoJo died, Kelly had a few ideas. When he saw the lobby packed with offensive linemen and linebackers and DBs now in their mid-40s rallying for a teammate as if the Steelers or Oilers were still waiting for them on Sunday, he had a few theories.

Anthony Muñoz and wife DeDe. The Hall of Famer who resides in Canton but still lives in Cincinnati.

The tackle on the other side, Joe Walter, the Texan still massive, still friendly, and still on radio and TV commercials.

Max Montoya, the right guard on that line through which a 22-year-old rookie Ickey ran for 1,000 yards and infinite fame, sent over some food from the Penn Stations he owns in Northern Kentucky.

Kevin Walker, the linebacker the Bengals picked in the round after they took Ickey in that '88 draft, brought some sandwiches after a day of selling real estate.

Two guys from the SWAT Team secondary, cornerback Eric Thomas, the local strength guru, and safety Solomon Wilcots, one of the national voices of the NFL who always comes home to Anderson Township.

The lobby mushroomed into the Jovante Woods Memorial Fund as Ickey's teammates made sure his medical and funeral costs would be covered.  

"He's been my friend since '88 and that's what you do; you rally around a friend," Kelly says. "Can you imagine it? I can't imagine it."

On Tuesday Kelly was saying that the night they were bringing JoJo back from his memorial service in Fresno, Calif. It is still hard to imagine that two weeks ago at 16 years old JoJo collapsed from an asthma attack and died a few days later.

He will be buried this Saturday in Cincinnati where he grew up and Unclejoekelly envisions Lincoln Heights Baptist Church jammed with kids and emotion when they say goodbye in an 11 a.m. service.

"The kids grew up with him; they were all friends," says Joe Kelly, who has two daughters ages 10 and 14. "They were like cousins, really."

Mike Martin, the wide receiver from Washington D.C., another who stayed in town and ended up reviving inner city football as the head coach at Taft High School, just saw Ickey and JoJo at the grocery store a few days before. Martin's son, Marcus, went to the prom with the daughter of Tim McGee, the wide receiver from Cleveland. They'd all been making plans to go watch Barney Bussey's son play college ball this fall.

Ickey might have been over at Kelly's house with some of the guys, like Barney or Ira Hillary, and they'd be watching a Bengals game or some other sports event while playing spades or dominos. And their kids would be downstairs playing video games.

"Sometimes Ickey and I can get going playing dominos and we just keep going until three or four in the morning," Kelly says. "So the kids just have a sleepover."

Jovante Woods has done us a huge service. He has shown us how it used to be in pro sports and how it may never be again.

These Bengals of the late '80s and early '90s played on the cusp of free agency in the hours before revolving rosters, guaranteed money, and routine seven-figure deals.

Sports has become like the rest of American society. The more popular the NFL has become, it has become more rootless. A league of transplants. Not many players hang around for the summer, anymore. Flights and homes are just too accessible, the offseason schedule just as much of a grind as the season.

"No, I agree. It will probably never be like this again," Kelly says. "You sign $40 million contracts and it changes things."

Not that former teammates won't help each out in the '20s and '30s. But they certainly won't be able to gather so quickly in a hospital lobby.

The '80s and '90s were the last days of one house in one city even if you played in six towns in 11 years like Unclejoekelly. Kelly played the last of his 156 games at linebacker in 1996 in Philadelphia, but he came back. He came back to the home in Loveland, Ohio, where he was moving in that day in 1990 the Bengals gave him a plane ticket to New York.

Traded to the Jets for the rights to rookie wide receiver Reggie Rembert.

"Couldn't believe it. It was like I was leaving my family. It really hurt," Kelly says. "But I came back because a lot of my friends were here and I knew it would be a good town to raise a family."

Kelly is still in the house. He owns and operates several group homes and independent living facilities for at-risk youth.

"Trying to get them on the right path with a job and a home after such a rough start," Kelly says. "Going to the Super Bowl (in '88) was such a great experience with those guys. We became so close. We were all the same age. We all came in together and we had that success."

McGee, who wore No. 85 before You Know Who in that Super Bowl, blames head coach Sam Wyche and offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet.

"We were the No. 1 offense in football," McGee says. "And you know that took a lot of time in the offseason to do that. We didn't have any camps or anything like that. We just stayed around. We had our families here and we were all friends."

McGee stayed and became a businessman and is raising three daughters. He owns McGee's Courts for Sports in Mason, Ohio, where he also runs the restaurant Geeter's, his locker room nickname from those days. He's also an agent for some NFL players and one of them doesn't have to own anything or do much else.

"He goes to the mailbox every 30 days," McGee says, "and gets his money."

He laughs. He was the 21st player taken in the 1986 draft, 10 spots after the Bengals took Kelly. His rookie contract? Half a million to sign with salaries of $150,000, $175,000, $225,000, $250,000.

"Good money," he says. "But it says something about inflation."

Indeed, Bengals rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, the 21st pick 24 years later, got more than $10 million guaranteed.

This Friday at Geeter's, McGee is running a 7 p.m. fundraiser for the Woods fund as they try to make sure his family of five children isn't devastated financially by the tragedy.

Martin did the same last week at Rhinos Live Night Club in Sharonville. Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, who has had five 1,000-yard backs since Woods' run, helped supply the family with food and drinks for the trip back west. Eric Ball, Woods' former backfield mate and the Bengals director of player development, has reached out to the NFL's Caring Program for former players. Bengals president Mike Brown sent a check. There have been donations from the people in the hospital lobby. That firm of Muñoz and Montoya and Walter and Kozerski and Reimers, one of the greatest offensive lines that ever played and the numbers say so, is planning to do something as a group.

Fans. Neighbors. Cincinnatians.

"Everybody liked Ickey," McGee says. "He was different. He had the ponytail. He was from California. And he had that stupid dance where you hardly did anything."

The dance.

The Ickey Shuffle.

The first modern end-zone touchdown dance. The Ocho and Terrell Owens have The Ickster to thank. But, like everything else, it just wasn't as slick as the stuff now.

"We dared him to do it," Kelly says. "He was showing us and we dared him to do it. We didn't think he would. Then when he did it, there were always other guys around. It was like a team thing. Then they began to do the Woo-Woo, where the DBs would walk around (Woods) moving their fingers around. It was for everybody."

Woods is the kind of guy that ended up being a favorite player for even some of his teammates, never mind if you were in junior high in 1988.

"He was my favorite player," McGee says, and not why you think.

"I remember when Ickey was going door-to-door selling meat and sometimes he'd do The Shuffle," McGee says. "And I'd hear people say, 'How could he do something like that?' Or, 'How could a former professional athlete go around doing something like that?'

"And I remember thinking what a great thing that was. Here is a guy that didn't care. He was doing whatever he could to support his family. It didn't matter what it was. Oh yeah. He's my favorite."

Unclejoekelly has one final theory.

"It was like we were all displaced. I'm from L.A. Ickey is from Fresno. Barney Bussey is from South Carolina, Mike Martin from D.C. Tim McGee is from Cleveland. We became our families."

Thanks JoJo.

You let us get a glimpse of what it means to be a teammate.

In any era.

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