When it's more than a game

11-22-02, 5:35 p.m.

Just hours after Oliver Gibson got booed out of Paul Brown Stadium, he called Mark Vanskee to simply see how his man was doing.

Gus Frerotte's wife sent Vanskee a note with a name and number for a second opinion. Mark Duffner talks about Vanskee in his meetings around the Xs and Os. While Willie Anderson prays for Vanskee, Takeo Spikes exhorts him.

Vanskee has been cleaning the locker room after practice ever since the stadium opened two years ago. A tough, funny, 43-year-old guy who makes working and living with a club foot look easy and carefree when it is everything but.

And this is why Vanskee still comes to work.

It's a Steelers weekend. But it doesn't always have to be about football and winning and losing and GMs stepping down and team leaders stepping up and the salary cap and incentives and the talk shows and the waiver wire and . . . .

Because it's not always about that.

Sometimes, it's just about people.

They took most of the tumor out of Vanskee's brain three months ago and they're giving him 21 pills of poison a week to kill the rest.

But this is why Vanskee keeps coming to work. It's probably for only three to four hours and maybe not every day.

But this is why he keeps putting on the green Paul Brown Stadium golf shirt and empties the waste barrels, or sweeps the big chunks of tape and grass off the locker room carpet to get it ready for vacuuming, or wipes clean the glass doors leading to the weight room and the cafeteria.

"This is my road to recovery," Vanskee says. "This stadium, being around these guys, it keeps me going. Everyone of these guys has kept me going. "

Vanskee needs the Bengals. But in a very real way, the Bengals of 1-9

and national punch lines and local outrage need him, too.

"He's loyal no matter what," says Rich Braham, just after icing his knee and talking to Vanskee while he swept out the training room. "He makes us feel good. He can't go to the games because of his health, but he's watching on TV. Yeah, there's not much love out there for us, but this guy is with us no matter what. That's what you really have. People in and around the family."

Vanskee, a fixture on the night shift as a stadium maintenance supervisor, is known as a "kick-butt," guy to Bengals equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner.

"People respect anyone who works hard," Recker says. "Before and after, he still does. He gets it done. He does what is ever needed without being asked. A great guy with a sense of humor."

In that vein, Recker still screams at Vanskee what he has been screaming at him for two years when he throws out some kind of gargantuan, awkward box of which Vanskee must dispose.

"To heck with Vansk-e-e-e," Recker yells as he kicks the box at him. Or, he yells something like that.

"He's always looking to do something extra," says Duffner, the late-staying defensive coordinator known to go the extra yard himself.

Then July 30. Vanskee had a slight headache a few days before. Sinuses acting up, he thought. But now he could barely make the drive in from Fairfield and when he walked into the offices, the room tipped. After the seizure, they told him he had a Grade 4 out of 5 tumor.

On Aug. 15, they were able to remove everything but the tail of the cancer. That's what they are trying to kill now, first with radiation and now with chemotherapy.

"Duffner and those guys kept calling me from training camp before and after the surgery to keep my spirits up," Vanskee says of defensive coaches like Kevin Coyle and Louie Cioffi. "(Tight ends coach) John Garrett called me. One of those guys would call and then who was ever in the office or coming and going would get on the line and say something."

After the radiation treatments, Vanskee came back to work in mid-September.

"Why sit around the house and just think about it?" Vanskee asks. "It's better to be down here. The guys are positive to me and I try to be positive for them."

Gibson had a particularly tough day on Sunday, Oct. 27. He officially ended the Bengals' chances to beat the Titans when the defensive tackle jumped offside to give Tennessee a first down in the last minute.

But the next day, he called Vanskee. Vanskee returned the favor two weeks ago when Gibson suffered a season-ending torn Achilles'.

"I sent him a card, too," Vanskee says. "You know how bad he must have been feeling, but he still called."

Ann Frerotte's mother is going through a similar illness, so Gus made sure Vanskee got the number if he wanted another opinion and Ann sent it along in a card. Spikes has also lived it. He lost his father to a brain tumor a little more than a year ago.

"I see him and I tell him, 'One more day. One more day is good,'" Spikes says. "That's all. One day at a time. He's making it."

A lot of times, Vanskee is the last guy Anderson sees as he's leaving the locker room. That reminds him to say a prayer.

"I tell him to believe in the power of prayer," Anderson says. "He says he does. I really believe in that. In God's will."

That's why Vanskee keeps coming to work. He really went all out last week to work all five days, but a virus knocked him out last Friday.

"You see a guy like that, being here every day, fighting it no matter what," Spikes says. "That means something to you."

Sometimes it's not all about the matchups and the meltdowns and the numbers and the crunchers and the movers and the shakers and the network blazers talking about Donovan McNabb's ankle as if it's the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sometimes, it's about a guy in a green shirt with a broom in a locker room full of football players.

"To heck with Vansk-e-e-e," yells Recker, kicking another box, and it's all good.

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