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True believers

Jermaine Gresham

The True Believers and The Truth had a summit Tuesday in the heart of Bengaldom.

During lunch hour, a total of 196 took tickets at the Bengals Pro Shop to get autographs from No. 84, Jermaine Gresham, one of those rare No. 1 picks that plays like it. The rain matched everyone's mood. A chilly 2-7 rain that went to the bone. But they were both here yearning for sunny days.

On Monday, Gresham thought about his appointment and wondered what would exactly happen down here. After all, it was he who had fumbled the ball Sunday in the final 2:23 in Indianapolis with the Bengals going in for the winning touchdown. It was he who had slightly wandered out of his route 10 minutes earlier, costing quarterback Michael Johnson another interception and giving the Colts their final three points.

But the True Believers were here to see the kid that caught nine passes in that breakneck fourth quarter. They were here to see the guy that ran the right route on Palmer's 19-yard touchdown pass that brought the Bengals to within six with just minutes left. They wanted the signature of the man on pace to tie Dan Ross with the most catches in a season by a Bengals tight end with 71.

"We've got good, young talent in him and (Jordan) Shipley," said James Ernest of Florence, Ky., wearing an hhgregg hat. "These young guys are the strong cornerstones. The older guys need to go."

Never mind the offense. Even the fans are in transition. A preschooler with his mom and dad wore an 84 jersey, but with "Houshmandzadeh" on the name plate.  

Ernest came down here on his day off. He always does when there's an autograph signing. Except on the weekends, when there is no time at the Florence hhgregg for a lunch hour. But Jennifer Cavanaugh did spend her lunch hour Tuesday making her way here. She lives in West Chester, Ohio, but the flavor company for which she works is a quick slant from Paddock Road to Paul Brown Stadium.

"I think he's awesome," said Cavanaugh, who made sure she was here for the defense when Dhani Jones, Vincent Rey and Michael Johnson signed. "I think he's special as one of those first draft picks. They were smart to pick him." The way she saw the fumble is, "He was fighting all the way."

No, Gresham didn't have to wonder about his foray into Bengaldom.

"They were going through the line talking to me. Really nice people. It wasn't too bad," Gresham said. "Very supportive. 'Just keep your head up.' They weren't too down about it. They're true fans here. Very nice people here. Very considerate. More than anything, they were saying, 'Forget about this week, get ready for next week.' A lot of fans said that."

But he could still feel it. The rain made it feel Monday.

"More than anything, I'm disappointed we couldn't win for them," he said. "I still feel disappointed. Not winning like we should."

Gresham signed like he lives and plays: All business. No frills. Polite. Quiet. A smile here for a photo, a "thank you" for a pen there. When he was done, he had his own shopping to do. With the help of Pro Shop manager Steve Wolf, he first he went to the youth section and then to the adults to get about 10 No. 84 jerseys to send back home.

"They can't find them back in Oklahoma," Gresham said.

Told if he catches 71 balls they just might be able to, he laughed.

"Hopefully," he said as warehouse manager Ron Runk collected them for shipping.

"Should be there by the weekend," Runk told him.

"Thank you," Gresham said.

All business. This is what Palmer loves about Gresham and what he was trying to tell him after the fumble.

"He's so humble. He has been given so much talent. He doesn't act that way, he doesn't work that way," is what Palmer said. "He works like an underachiever."

This is what tight ends coach Jon Hayes loves about Gresham, too: He's all football. Which means he can be a bit salty once in a while. For instance, he treats the media politely but prefers to say as little as possible during the season because it has nothing to do with what happens on the field.

In college he could get away with it, but not in the PR-conscious NFL. Hayes and Jack Brennan, the Bengals PR chief, have been working on Gresham, and he's been coming around. His performance in front of his locker Sunday while patiently answering every question about his gaffes was textbook 101. For not only rookies, but 10-year vets.

"Every day the offense is coming, with Carson coaching me and telling me where I need to be," Gresham said. "It's coming along pretty well. I'm just worried about doing my job and helping us win games instead of helping us lose games."

Someone gave him a quick summary of Bengals history. The late Ross caught those 71 balls in 1981 when the Bengals went to their first Super Bowl, where he broke the record for the most catches in the big game with 11 in a performance that has stood up for 28 years and been tied by Jerry Rice, Deion Branch and Wes Welker.

"Wow," Gresham said. "I'd substitute all those catches for the Super Bowl that guy played in. I tell you that. Right now. Yes sir, yes sir."

There was one more thing to sign. A truck that had been pulled around to the front door of the pro shop. And parked under a sliver of a roof so Gresham wouldn't get wet as he wrote his name. They were fans like Floyd Gillie of Covington, Ky., who has collected enough Bengals jerseys to outfit his home. As he had Gresham sign the jersey his wife and son gave him for his birthday, he told him, "Kick butt. We need a win."

"Nice people; reminds me of home," Gresham said. "Reminds me of Oklahoma. Not as much country. I'm from country.  But not bad."

Bengals country, it turns out, has his number.

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