Two guys having tough Christmas seasons are shaking hands in the electronics aisle of the Toys "R" Us in Eastgate Tuesday night.
"I want to thank you," says Demetrius Tippett as he shows Carson Palmer the video game one of his sons bought. "What is this, a $60-70 game? He never would have had a shot to get this for Christmas. Not even close."
Palmer smiles out from underneath his beard and stocking cap.
"That's great," he says as he turns to the boys and asks, "Are you guys done, yet? What else are you looking for?"
Palmer and Bengals fans have been Scrooged this season by the Ghost of Injuries Present that have limited him to just four games and none in the last eight weeks. Tippett, 35, a single father of 14- and 15-year-old boys from Avondale, has just about as many plumbing and contracting licenses as Palmer has throws.
Thirteen licenses to be exact, ranging from sewage and tap water and everything else in between. And still Tippett can't seem to string together any substantial jobs in a crushing economy that has brought even harder times to the hardest places.
They find each other Tuesday. They've been doing the down-and-out, but tonight is a night for big throws and catches. There are 55 children each getting a $300 Toys "R" Us card donated by a Bengals player. Palmer has sponsored a group of 10 and as he provides expert testimony on the video games ("If you like World at War, you'll like this"), Tippett admits there are no words to describe it.
"I had just sat down with them," Tippett says of sons Demetrius and Dai-Shawn. "I told them there wasn't going to be a Christmas. I do what I can, but I've got a couple of open contracts and that's it. Remodeling. Rehab. There's just nothing out there. And then two days later I got this phone call. Perfect timing. I'm just speechless."
Palmer signs a football for a young fan. (McDaniel's Photography)
The call came from his pastor, Anthony Hill of Bethel No. 2 church in Lower Price Hill. His "Joint Anointed Leaders Ministries" found its way in the St. Vincent de Paul network, which annually coordinates a holiday shopping spree with the Bengals for needy children throughout the city.
"Some are families that we know and work with during the year at our center in the West End," says Liz Carter, executive director of St. Vincent's. "Others are recommended to us from our volunteers in neighborhoods all over. We're looking for those that have the best stories. For the Bengals to not only give their money, but to come out tonight, it just means so much to these kids. These are kids and families who are always in the back of the line. But nobody gets a night like this."
Tippett's call came from Bishop Hill. But it could have come from Brian Simmons. Even though Simmons hasn't made a call for the Bengals defense from one of his three linebacker spots since the end of the 2006 season and he now lives in Orlando, Fla.
It was Simmons that started it all about four years ago. He and his wife Rachel adopted some families through St. Vincent for the holidays, but they wanted to do more. Rachel liked the idea of a shopping spree for kids at Kenwood Mall and at that first spree there were 30 children crammed into an aisle having pizza.
"When people think of poverty, they think of homeless people and addiction," Carter says. "But it's also people who work but might be having problems because of health, or a sick child, or there is only one parent working."
People like Tameka Wilson, a single parent from Westwood who works for a community action agency. There would be things her two children couldn't have this Christmas. But not now. One of them, six-year-old London, showed Palmer a picture of his room. Three Palmer posters all lined up.
"Nice room, bud," Palmer tells him.
"I really appreciate the time he spent with him," his mother says. "It shows him they're real people. Not a poster."
Levi Jones offers some shopping tips to a group of youngsters. (McDaniel's Photography)
"Every kid has to use some of that money to buy a present for someone else," Simmons is saying from Florida Tuesday night. "That's what it's all about."
On this night there would be pizza and cake and cookies and balloons and Santa Claus next door at the Holiday Inn Eastgate. Then the players and kids and families would get a police escort across the street to shop.
But if it is bigger, there are also the old standbys. Palmer did it that first Christmas. So did Levi Jones and Bobbie Williams. One of Big Bobbie's kids wanted to give him a thank-you hug at the end of the night and after she disappeared into his arms, Williams went out to his car and brought out a shopping list for his own kids.
Also Tuesday there are Stacy Andrews, Kenny Watson and Antonio Chatman. Shayne Graham, who has done everything in the community but go down the chimney, is the guy that picked up where Simmons left off and got heavily involved.
"I love it. The kids get so fired up. This is their Christmas," Palmer says. "There are no price tags. They can get anything they want. Now I guess my idea of a shopping spree is going to Best Buy, but when I was a kid, this was it."
Carter's heart sank when she heard that Simmons wouldn't be back in '07 and her first thoughts were about the families that wouldnt get a chance to spree.
"But then Shayne stepped up," she says.
"The best part of it," Simmons is saying from Florida Tuesday night, "is the smiles. That's what makes it when you see those kids smile. And the thank you letters you get from the parents and kids. That makes it worth it. There were some Christmases I had where there wasn't a whole lot and you weren't really sure what was going to happen. It's not the kids' fault. It's not the parents' fault."
The economy is an equal opportunity crusher, from CEOs to shepherds. Hill hasn't taken a salary for the past two months at a church where everything is volunteer. He wanted to reward the Tippett brothers because they not only sing in the choir, but they serve as his janitors.
"This is such a wonderful event because it fits in with what we're trying to show our young people," Hill says. "That there is a world outside their walls."
The youngest looks to be a five-year-old ball of pink fun in Adriana Daniels of Lower Price Hill. She had already met Palmer at the pizza party, where she told him she had a dog named, "Palmer," and he tells Watson when he bumps into him in one of the aisles, "You've got to see this kid. She's hilarious. She's five and she thinks she's 18."
So now you have the first 4,000-yard passer in Bengals history, a Pro Bowl MVP, and a Heisman Trophy winner walking around saying to Adriana, "Help me find one of those pink dolls." Then the most valuable right arm in Cincinnati stretches as high as it can go as it pulls down a gumball machine.
Later, Adriana wheels around a corner and says, "Come on Carson Palmer, you silly."
At the checkout line, Palmer gets spotted by the customers and as politely as ever tells the Union Township police officers it's OK, they can take his picture with him.
"I was lucky growing up. I never had a sad Christmas," Palmer is saying. "My parents always found a way to put smiles on our faces Christmas Day. We were up and down. We bounced around, but they would make it memorable. This is fun. There are always a couple of kids you never forget. You remember their faces and some of the things they say."
Palmer has already talked to one grandma tonight when a kid punched her up on his cell phone and gave it to Palmer.
"Have a good Christmas," Palmer said.
Later, as he admires the video games the Tippett brothers are stockpiling ("That one is phenomenal. That's my testimony," Palmer said), someone asks Dai-Shawn who's going to get his present for someone else.
"I think my grandma," he says. "She likes movies. Comedies."
"There's a whole bunch of movies over there," Palmer says.
He should know. This is one of the things he'll always remember even when he has grandchildren. Adriana wanted to give him a movie and gave him "Kung Fu Panda."
"We had to tell her, 'Sweetie, that's very nice, but the point is to give it to a family member or friend.' "
All the way down in Florida, Simmons had to laugh.
"I've watched that a few times," he says after leaving his gift behind.