In much the same way John Thornton gravitated toward a young Frostee Rucker all those years ago, Rucker grabbed a chair and sat down as Dustin and Derrek Ross ate their lunches with, "Yale, huh? Beautiful campus."
A right guard and right tackle born 15 minutes apart, they were easy to pick out from the kids Rucker toured around Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday as two of the winners of another one of Frostee's Challenges. An A.P. calculus class and a special needs class that collected the most clothes at Oak Hills High School for the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center, along with the student council executive board that ran the drive, won the backstage tour and the chance to see Jake challenge Rucker himself.
"I ran track. I can run 500 miles an hour," Jake told him as Rucker took him by the shoulder and said, "C'mon Jake. Stand next to me," as someone snapped another digital memory at midfield on the stadium field.
On second glance ... hey, that was Thornton taking one of those photos.
In his third year of retirement, some of his more critical fans from back in his pioneering days on The Net would say Thornton has been more visible these days than during his six seasons on the Bengals defensive line. He's a tower on Twitter, an Internet guru and a presence in The Cincinnati Enquirer and local radio on all things Bengals.
He's also the very passionate CEO of JockBiz, a company committed to easing the transition of college players into the pros and getting them involved immediately in the community. Which for Thornton is really no different than when he was playing.
This young, athletic and downright scary defensive line is third generation Marvin Lewis. It was born the first day of Lewis's free agency with the Bengals, the day the Bengals signed Thornton in 2003. When Rucker, Robert Geathers and Domata Peko arrived on the defensive line, Thornton was an automatic mentor. Now while Thornton is taking pictures, those guys are helping the Michael Johnsons and Geno Atkins and Pat Sims of the world.
Which is why the Bengals signed a John Thornton back in 2003. It helps he's a solid player. It's a solid move when he helps players. If there is any team that shows a good locker room is priceless, it's this one.
"I gravitated to Frostee right away," Thornton said of that 2006 draft. "You know I always liked the way he plays. Like Kevin Carter. Inside and outside. He always got out in the community, but he would get kind of frustrated because it was always somebody else's thing, like Shayne Graham's or maybe something I was doing. I sat down with him right away when he retired and now I'd say he's their most productive off-field guy."
Last week, Rucker and Johnson went to a Kroger to buy Thanksgiving meals for needy families. Back in June at home in California he and DeSean Foster put on a charity basketball game at their high school. Before the season Rucker ran a car wash to raise money for a Northern Kentucky football team. He'll also be involved in some family Christmas shopping sprees. Frostee's Challenges, his foundation, is taking a ton of snaps.
For the third year Rucker has hooked up with the Salvation Army and they may still be riding last year's take. Oak Hills collected 26,000 articles of clothing for two local Family Thrift Stores with the proceeds going to the facility's work with men recovering from substance abuse and dealing with other issues.
"This year we collected one full Salvation Army truck; maybe a truck and a half," said Dee Delconte, the student council adviser. "The incentive was obviously to help, but the kids looked forward to coming down here."
Rucker looks forward to this stuff, too. Always has. But he's older now. He's already got more sacks this season (four) than he had in his previous five seasons put together and there is just something a bit more polished about him. Maybe that's what age does. Rucker, the guy that bounced into rookie spring ball after walking to get his degree at USC, is suddenly 28.
"The Salvation Army helped us at times when we were growing up. I don't really remember it. I was too young, but my sisters do," Rucker said. "They do a great job helping people that want help and this a is a great way to put clothes on people's backs and getting kids involved in the community. It broadens things up for them. It shows them how they can help, extend a hand; you know, tell one friend, pass it on."
A teacher persuaded Dustin and Derrek Ross to get involved and they knew they would get a kick out of a PBS tour. It's been a busy fall with two visits to Harvard, a trip to Yale, and tickets to Harvard-Yale a few weekends ago. But they figured between the two of them they pulled about 400 to 500 items out of their closets.
"Other people could use them more than we can," Dustin said. "We all wanted to come down here, so it was fun and we helped at the same time."
Rucker had heard about the twins, the smart guys that want to play at Yale if they get accepted after playing two seasons beside each other on the Oak Hills line. Both have 4.0s. Both got 29s on the ACTs. Both chose the Ivy league over the MAC.
"I think we're both going to play guard in college," Derrek said.
After the tour as the group ate lunch in a room near the locker room, Rucker mingled with the kids over brown bags and juices. He stopped at the twins' table.
"I knew someone that went to Yale, they loved it," Rucker said. "You have to be looking beyond college and that's a decision that's going to help you. The friends you make, the people you meet, it becomes kind of a network for you."
The twins like the Bengals and Dustin's been to a game, but they don't really have a favorite player. They have a tough time watching the games because they work Sundays at Marco's Pizza in Green Township making pizza.
But they seemed really intrigued when the group stumbled on a workout on the field as head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, defensive line coach Jay Hayes and scouts watched a couple of defensive linemen try to make the practice squad.
"We got to meet a couple of coaches," Derrek said.
They also got a chance to meet Geathers, the guy drafted the year after Thornton signed and now the dean of the line. Rucker asked Geathers if he got a chance on his day off to stop by to meet and greet and sign some autographs, and, of course, he did.
And, of course, they met Rucker.
"Great guy," Derrek said.
"He told us how much he loved playing in college at USC. He was telling us to enjoy playing, that's the big thing," Dustin said. "And when we made a decision on where to go, to make sure we're comfortable with the place."
"The girl at the end got a perfect 36 on the ACTs," Dustin said. "She's kind of a genius."
"Wow," said Rucker. "I thought I did pretty well with a 24."
But Rucker wasn't talking about rocket science, anyway.
"Do you guys know what you want to study?" Rucker asked.
"Business," Derrek said.
Just keep focused. Keep your head in the books, is what Rucker basically told them. You've got a lot on your plate. You want to eat it all. Just keep chopping wood, he told them. Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do. You're going to see other guys, other players, and people are going to be saying this and saying that. It doesn't matter. Just stick with your plan, do what you have to do and trust it, is pretty much what he got across to them.
"Not so much advice; just encouragement," Rucker said later. "They're obviously pretty sharp kids. Just a few words from someone that's been there."
Which is what Rucker is trying to do on and off the field these days with the young guys.
"They've got to see you do it. You just can't say it," Rucker said.
It sounds like he's working on that fourth generation.