6-12-04, 7:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Kevin Coyle felt the chill down his spine again.
The first one came at Cincinnati's University Hospital about six weeks ago, when the nurse in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit told Dennis Weathersby to give a thumbs-up if he understood Coyle, his secondary coach at the Bengals, was at his bedside. Coyle, who had been watching Weathersby sleep for 10 days, couldn't believe it as the hand slid across the sheet and the thumb came up.
The second one came Saturday, when Weathersby walked into Coyle's meeting of defensive backs with a smile as wide the doorway.
"Dennis didn't want to make a lot of fanfare about it, so he came in as the meeting was wrapping up," Coyle said. "Everybody's eyes got big when they saw him walk through the door and I think he felt good being in the locker room and being with his friends."
Weathersby, out of the hospital for nearly a month, appeared for the first time at Paul Brown Stadium since a one-car accident in Springdale April 12 left him with a severe brain injury. For those who cared for him at University and later at Drake Center, they consider that nothing short of a miracle.
He won't play football this year and he won't know if he ever can play again for maybe several more months, but after being unconscious for so long, the game has become just that.
"I'd like to thank them for their concern and their prayers," said Weathersby of the countless fans who have e-mailed, phoned, and written their support. "I'd just like to thank them for believing in me. I'd just like to say, `Thanks.'"
Coyle, his mother, and his Oregon State teammates on the Bengals, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and cornerback Terrell Roberts, were just some of the ones who believed. They believed even though they weren't sure he could hear them as they spoke to him during each of those 10 days he was unconscious.
"We would just tell him to hang in there, do what the doctors tell him, tell him we were there, and he was going to be fine," Coyle said. "We didn't know if he could hear or not."
On Saturday, Weathersby walked out and back to practice, tossed a football to himself, ripped the officiating of the Lakers-Pistons series, and basically acted like he did before his car slid on a rainy highway ramp into that pole 61 days ago in Springdale.
"Night and day. I've seen him when he was out, when he couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't do nothing," Houshmandzadeh said. "To see him like this, this is cool."
Weathersby wants to play football again ("It's what I do best"), and Houshmandzadeh thinks he will. After all, he's already seen his friend come back once from devastating circumstances. Nearly a year to the day of the car wreck, Weathersby was shot through the back but recovered in time to play in all four pre-season games. He only played in four games during the regular season, but was ticketed to be the nickel cornerback before the accident.
" don't think like that, `Why me?'" Weathersby said when asked if he was snake-bit. "What I went through last year and this year and to still be living, I feel blessed."
Before the accident, there was some question if Weathersby brought enough fire to the game. Houshmandzadeh doesn't know about all that, but he thinks the accident has changed him.
"He's going to come back and he's going to do well," Houshmandzadeh said. "His attitude is much different than it was in college, than it was last year. His attitude is different. I believe it's because he's had so many setbacks, he's realized (football) is what he does and this is what he wants to do. He's got to cherish it and try to make it happen.
"Just talking to him, it's different the way he talks," Houshmandzadeh said. "'I know I can do this. I haven't proven to anybody I can play, and I want to.' He's never talked like that."
Weathersby has never spoken all that much, but he was pretty effusive for him when he talked briefly to a couple of reporters after Saturday morning's practice. He said he has been told he is not going to have permanent damage and he says his memory is improving daily.
But he admits, "it's real serious. It's not a broken bone."
Among those he thanked was head coach Marvin Lewis. It was Lewis who accompanied Weathersby on that dreadful night as he was air-lifted from Mercy Hospital in Fairfield to University. It was Lewis who helped him with the medical questions Saturday.
"It's too early, in the process to tell where Dennis will down the line at this point," Lewis said... "The doctors are basically saying the recommend that he not play football this year, and they'll evaluate him in another couple of months, and continue to monitor his progress. He's been able to run and work on his training, as he continues to regain his strength."
Coyle never stopped coaching him, either. He had a sense the guy was going to come up with a big play. The day he stirred from his sleep is the day they were supposed to perform a tracheotomy to help him breath. Coyle had just got used to all the tubes sticking out of his head and now he was trying to get ready for this and, they didn't have to do it because he was coming out of it.
The next day, he started moving around more, and his leg kept flopping out of the bed. Coyle must have put it back in the bed four or five times, and finally he said, "Dennis, lift up your left leg and put it back into bed."
"When he did, the people there couldn't believe it," Coyle said. "He has really progressed so much. It's such an amazing story."
Coyle can't say enough about how Houshmandzadeh and Roberts have responded to their friend during the crisis and how they helped his mother. Houshmandzadeh is convinced Weathersby is going to be in good shape whether he plays football or not. A four-time selection to the Pac 10 All-Academic team, Weathersby won several academic honors as liberal studies major.
"In college, he liked to play football, but it didn't mean everything to him," Houshmandzadeh said. "Getting a degree meant just as much. For a lot of people, including myself, football was everything."
It's still important to him. Important enough for him to walk with his teammates again and dream about running with them.
"its fun to be around them again," he said.
DOG DAYS:** Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive line coach Jay Hayes supplied the players with some entertainment at the end of the second practice Saturday with an exhibition of German dogs by members of the Greater Cincinnati Schutzhund Club.
The dogs ran around the field putting on displays of tracking, obedience, and protection. One even pulled out a bag of marijuana that had been planted in the golf cart used by equipment managers Rob Recker, Jeff Brickner, and Scott Hill. Hayes owns and trains one of the dogs, 5-year-old Kora, "who won't bite you unless I tell her to."
There is always a point, isn't there? There is the aggressiveness and, "you look at how disciplined they are and how they listen," Hayes said. "I can control them better than my players."
MINI TALK: All Bengals appeared present and accounted for when their mandatory minicamp opened Friday, although a handful didn't work because of nagging injuries that aren't believed to be serious. Wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) did some individual work in the morning, but didn't go in team or during the afternoon session. Running back Chris Perry (hamstring) and wide receiver Patrick Johnson, tight end Tony Stewart, and tight end Matt Schobel also didn't work with what is believed to be a variety of muscle pulls. Wide receiver Kelley Washington left the afternoon practice with dehydration.
The talks with former Broncos DE Daryl Gardener had yet to be resolved after Friday's practices and both sides want a deal, but the situation is believed to be resting on the health of his back. He underwent back surgery in both 2000 and 2001 after suffering a disc herniation, and now there might not be a quick decision. Head coach Marvin Lewis spoke on the subject for the first time
Friday and all he could say was, "We'll see. It's not decided yet."
But Lewis was more definitive about defensive tackle Tony Williams' future with the team. Williams hasn't been exactly pleased with what has been written and said about what Gardener's signing could do to his role, but Lewis said Friday, "I'm very confident that Tony Williams is going to be a big part of this team this year and that he's going to have a big season for us. It's nice to know that he would like a longer term relationship with us, but it is what it is. We're thinking about this year and we're glad he's here."
Williams would like to sign an extension beyond 2004, but, far from acting like a malcontent, Williams showed up at Thursday's team outing at Princeton Bowl, as well as all of Friday's activities.
"Let me tell you something, there are going to be a lot of guys who went bowling who are going to be cut," said Williams, whose contract is up after this season. "When you think about it, everybody is in my situation, some guys just don't know it. We're all year to year in this league. If you don't play well, anybody can get canned. I'm looking to have a big year. Training camp is the real thing."
Williams, who played for head coach Denny Green in Minnesota, sees similarities with Lewis and he says he'd like to play for him a long time.
"A lot of the stuff Coach Lewis does, Coach Green did," Williams said. "Some of the stuff is better. I talk to Marvin quite a bit. Marvin thinks about a lot of stuff. "
Given Gardener's health if he does sign, the Bengals won't want to let go a durable veteran like Williams that has started 41 straight games for Cincinnati.
SLANTS AND SCREENS:** In preparation for the Bengals' first Monday Night game in 12 years, ABC is at minicamp this weekend shooting individual video pictures of many of the players. You know, "I'm Willie Anderson, Auburn, right tackle."
Anderson, the Pro Bowler who has never played on Monday night, is looking forward to his shot Saturday: "I'm thinking of saying, 'Big Willie Anderson.' I don't know. Something. It will be fun. They know the name, but nobody knows my face. What's that movie? Fifteen Minutes of Fame?" . . .
Head coach Marvin Lewis and director of business development Troy Blackburn are putting a facelift on the locker room area. The wall in the hallway leading from the locker room to the cafeteria and meeting rooms is now lined with a color mural of photos from the past with a painted Paul Brown quote: "Winning makes believers of us all." Also, the weight room hallway is going to be painted black and orange.
Lewis is also installing a clock that is always going to be running that will tick down to the 1 p.m. kickoff against the Jets Sept 12 in the regular-season opener. It's not installed yet, but when business manager Bill Connelly tested it, it showed 92 days, 23 hours, 13 minutes and 45 seconds. . .
T.J. BATTLES: Carson Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a combo virtually invisible last year in practice because of Palmer's lack of snaps and Houshmandzadeh's injuries, carried the offense Friday.
With wide receiver Peter Warrick backed off the last three weeks as he takes his time with his rehabbing knee, Houshmandzadeh has taken the bulk of the snaps as the slot receiver. Then on Friday, wide receiver Patrick Johnson didn't work with an unspecified injury and Kelley
Washington left the afternoon practice with dehydration.
"He's as solid a receiver we have. . .Three of our key guys went down and T.J.'s right there and steps up," Palmer said. "He's backing up Chad, he's
backing up Peter, he's backing up Kelley. He's backing up everyone on the field."
Of course, none of this surprises Houshmandzadeh, a guy confident in his abilities. With the free-agent signing of Patrick Johnson and the drafting of Maurice Mann in the fifth round, some have put Houshmandzadeh on their training camp bubble.
But he asks, so what else is new? He also points out that the year before he got hurt, he had 41 catches: "If the best play, and I'm healthy, I feel like I'm one of the best."
Houshmandzadeh, heading into his fourth season in the league and this offense, didn't even take any snaps last year at this time with an injured wrist. Then he played just two games after injuring his hamstring the week before Opening Day.
But he says his body has responded to an offseason in which he ran longer distances than sprits. He ran a mile once or twice a week, and some 800- and 400-yarders.
"My body isn't a hindrance," Houshmandzadeh said. "My body feels good.
"I prefer playing the outside, but I'll play tight end if I have to. Today was the most comfortable I've felt (in the slot) since I stared doing it the last couple of weeks."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski hasn't forgotten him, and thinks this slot work is going to help him in the roster fight.
"You know the old expression. The more you can do," Bratkowski said. "He's been around long enough to where can make that move to the slot position. It's a good experience for him. He runs good routes, he's smart and he's a pretty sure catch of the ball. He has some issues that he's working with and the first thing he has to do is stay healthy, but he's doing that."
Suddenly, the combo you never saw last year is looking for each other.
"He knows the offense. He coaches up the rest of the receivers a lot," Palmer said. "We always know he's going to go to be in the right spots. As far as seeing the hot routes, if they're blitzing, we know he'll get the right depth on a certain route."
DVD STUDY:** Palmer is the subject of an ESPN SportsCenter piece next Tuesday in which he sits down with a crew to show how his study of the Pro Bowl trio of Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Tennessee's Steve McNair, and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning have aided his development even though he isn't exactly a carbon copy of any of them.
But he is learning from McNabb's feet, McNair's playmaking, and Manning's mechanics.
"You throw in a tape of McNabb and he's electrifying, a quarterback running all over the place making plays," Palmer said. "Two completely different quarterbacks, but you can learn from anybody.
"It's not that I'm trying to be like McNabb, or I want to play like McNabb," Palmer said. "It's that I want to learn from his mistakes and his positives that he does. Regardless of what style we play in."
Palmer has particularly been impressed with McNair's strength and Manning's play-action rhythm and his footwork with running back Edger in James.
"McNair is so strong in the pocket, he makes so many people miss," Palmer said. "His receivers and his offense have that confidence in him that they should already have the ball, but he had to juke out two guys and stiff-arm somebody, and they don't give up on their route, or they don't give up on their patterns. They know he can still get the ball down field to them."
Palmer has literally seen an eyeful from Manning while watching him watch the defense.
"The way he gets defenses in a certain situation and coming back across the field, "Palmer said. "Just the way you never know where the ball is coming. He's never staring at (Pro Bowl receiver) Marvin Harrison. He knows where he's going to be. He looks off to the left and he knows where Marvin is going to come out of his break and he pops back to the right and throws it. Things like that, you can pick it up pretty easily."