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West Side Story


Joe Windt can't recall seeing many of his son's long snaps. Certainly you could count them on the meaty fingers Mike Windt wraps around the football.

But Joe Windt was there.

He was there at Elder High School's "The Pit," the most storied high school field in Cincinnati's storied prep history. He was there at Nippert Stadium as the Bearcats brought a big bowl of tradition back to the University of Cincinnati. He was there when Elder won back-to-back state titles and UC went to back-to-back New Year's games.

But as Mike stood over the ball, Joe would usually duck his head ever so briefly behind his wife's shoulder before peeking again when the ball was safely kicked away.

"It's not a big deal. I think it just began as a superstition," Joe Windt says. "I don't know how it began, but he's had something like 390 snaps (at UC) and not a bad one. But I'll tell you, if he's snapping for the Bengals I'm going to start watching."

Head coach Marvin Lewis certainly watched this weekend at the Bengals rookie camp that ended Sunday. Lewis hands out hosannas like helium balloons but he floated out the very real possibility that Mike Windt can make this team. He pointed out Windt still has a severe training camp battle with a guy that snapped well for the Bengals last year, Clark Harris. But Lewis also said three times in his Friday news conference that Windt is "talented." Or "very talented."

So even though Windt signed as a free agent and figures to end up having the smallest signing bonus of any of the rookies, he and the guy with the biggest, No. 1 pick Jermaine Gresham, just may be the two rookies with the best shots to start Sept. 12 in Foxboro.

"I'm just going to be me," Mike Windt says. "I'm just going to bring what I've got. I can't remember having a bad snap. I just hope it stays that way. I hopefully can have a long career, and nobody will ever know my name."

You want your long snappers anonymous with nerves of steel.

What a better guy than Windt? He grew up in a cemetery. The one where his dad has worked for the last four decades.

"We moved when I was about seven or eight and it's nice," Windt says of the shift from Colerain. "You don't have any neighbors. That's really the only weird thing."

He grew up snug on Cincinnati's West Side, smack on the Price Hill-Delhi line in New St. Joseph Cemetery, where Joe has been the super for the last 16 years. His neighbors this week in the Paul Brown Stadium locker room were a pair of tryout guys, his Elder buddy Alex Harbin of Mount St. Joseph, and Florida International safety Jeremiah Weatherspoon.

If he doesn't fire a couple of bad ones in the preseason, then he's got a shot to be neighboring in the upcoming season with old friend Kevin Huber, his University of Cincinnati punter he helped make an All-American.

"Best friends," Windt says. "We roomed whenever we were on the road and at camp. Whatever you want to know about Kevin, I can tell you."

They are connected at the hip. The left hip, as Joe Windt discovered not too long ago.

"I didn't realize just how much went into it until last year," Joe Windt says. "Michael actually knows how many times the ball has to spin before it gets back there. I just thought he threw it back there. But Kevin wants it in a certain spot on the left hip every time."

Mike Windt jokes that he's got a louder personality than Huber. While Huber plays it pretty straight, Windt does a pretty good imitation of Cleveland of Family Guy fame and the 6-1, 251-pounder has somehow commandeered the nickname "Chewbacca" off the huge and hairy *Star Wars *character.

There is a bit of fantasy to it all. How many punters and snappers from the same college end up together in the pros, not to mention at the same hometown team?

"It's a dream come true," Windt says. "All my family is Bengals fans, so when they found out I signed as a free agent, word got out pretty fast and everybody was pretty much going crazy."

There are a lot of them in the big German families of the Kellermans and the Hammoors. This is a Cincy story all the way. Mike was raised on Reds and Bengals, and Skyline and Gold Star, and I-75 and 71. The surrounding 180 acres where he lives offered a unique perspective.

"It's usually pretty quiet out here," Joe Windt says. "You might get a deer hung up on a fence or kids playing around, but that's about it. You do have to deal with loved ones from time to time if it is after hours and you just have to realize this is one of the toughest parts of their lives. All they really want to do is talk, so I listen. I'm a listener.

"Yeah, I think Michael is, too. He's a listener. He's a learner."

Mike Windt had to learn on the road to the Bengals. It wasn't as automatic as a snap. He was in seventh grade when he emerged from downstairs after snapping the ball into a pile of pillows and announced to Joe he thought he'd be a good one. He also played some tight end at Elder, but in those last two years the coaches thought it was best if he just snapped and didn't get hurt.

Then after graduation he enrolled in firefighting school, but he got the itch again after a year.

"I missed football. I missed everything about it," Windt says. "I missed playing. I missed being around a team. I missed the whole experience. I missed the winning."

For the last three seasons there have been nothing but bullseyes at UC. Even though Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons heavily scouted Huber before the Bengals picked him in the fifth round in '09, he never noticed the snapper.

Which is, of course, the best attribute a snapper can have.

Like all good snappers, he just goes from snap to snap, kick to kick. Get past the next one. No screwups. Then let's go.

"I just took it year to year," Windt says. "I never really thought about the NFL until, I guess, I was a junior. I saw the success Kevin was having and you start to wonder if you can get there."

When Windt's name surfaced on this year's lists, Simmons was suitably impressed as he began charting.

"He does what he's supposed to do," Simmons says. "That's why he's here."

He's here because he can fling it back to the punter in a blink. He is quick enough that he is approaching the times of the fastest guy the Bengals have had snapping here in recent memory. Windt never heard of Greg Truitt, but back in the mid-1990s Truitt's speed and accuracy became renowned around the league. A network crew once came to Spinney Field to film him knocking over objects with long snaps like it was a shooting gallery.

That speed served the Bengals well. While Truitt was snapping, Doug Pelfrey became the NFL's most accurate field goal kicker of all time and Lee Johnson once finished second in the league in net punting average before uncorking his career best average the next season.

"I've got a pretty simple philosophy," Windt says. "Anybody can throw it back there fast. But if you don't put it where the punter wants it, it doesn't matter how fast you do it. To me the big thing has to be accuracy."

But Windt does remember the last longtime Bengals snapper even though some have tried to forget Brad St. Louis. What they forget before St. Louis blew up early last season when he could no longer complete the short field-goal snap is that he had virtually nine impeccable seasons.

You don't have to tell Windt.

"I imitated everything Brad St. Louis did. He was the guy I looked to every week," Windt says. "His delivery was flawless. I'm not sure what happened to him, but he was so good for so long."

Windt never met St. Louis, but he wore his number 48 at the rookie camp.

"That shocked me to tell you the truth," he says. "But I like it. If you look, a lot of long snappers around the league have that number."

Simmons made sure he introduced Windt to other elements of the big time.

"He's just got to get used to the tempo," Simmons says. "Everything is faster. You've got to go from drill to drill faster. Covering kicks is faster."

Windt says the weekend was an eye-opener. At UC this past season, his special teams coach also coached another position. But here Simmons had Windt all to himself and he's not exactly laid back.

"Everything is a little quicker here," Windt says. "More hands-on coaching."

But Simmons won't get another shot at Windt for at least another month. Because of UC's early June graduation, Windt won't be able to participate in the May camps. While that could be devastating for a position player, it shouldn't be too bad for Windt. He has already been working with Huber off site and he'll be able to do that until he can report.

"I haven't even really thought about it and I don't think it's going to be a big deal," Windt says.

Indeed, the biggest question may be if he gets the job, will Joe truly be able to stand it and start watching?

"Already have," Joe says. "When he went to the Senior Bowl I watched everyone."

Mike Windt is going in with eyes wide open.

"I have to keep doing what I've been doing," he says. "In this job, you can't make mistakes and I have to keep working."

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