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Why They Walk In His Shoes Sunday

P.J. and Quez.
P.J. and Quez.

Ann Johnson, who thinks of Darqueze Dennard as a family member, doesn't even really think about it now when the Bengals cornerback swings by her Colerain Township home to pick up her 13-year-old son P.J. to take him to the stadium, the gym or BurgerFi for a gourmet grill on The Banks.

"Or just hang out," says the grateful Johnson, a medical assistant for the Cincinnati Health Department. "It's going a lot better than last year. He had nobody on his side … Just to be around somebody who has been in his shoes, being a great mentor, to help him on his adventure as he grows."

That's why two of his teammates also want to be in Dennard's shoes Sunday in Cleveland (Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns when they don cleats promoting the Dennard Difference Foundation as part of the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats," weekend.

"He does a lot of stuff here and back home to give back. Look at the house that he gave to the family that didn't have anything. That's my brother and I support him," says safety Shawn Williams. "P.J. thinks the world of Darqueze. It's a big brother type thing. That's huge. He's a stand-up guy. Does things the right way. He's helping someone else realize their dreams. That's kind of big."

Jessie Bates III, the other safety, was out of town that day back in the spring in Cheviot when Dennard gave a family with nine children seeking simply a roof over its head a house that his foundation purchased, rehabbed and furnished with the help of more than 20 local companies and organizations.

But Bates was there at the casino when they raised money for the project. And last week he went with Dennard to P.J.'s basketball scrimmage. His own foundation, which honors his mother by assisting single moms, is just getting off the ground and while there is plenty planned, such as an upcoming video, there are no cleats yet.

"(Watching Dennard) makes me want to do more," Bates says. "He's one of my best friends. He asked me to wear them and I want to support him."

This is why they want to walk in his shoes Sunday.

Dennard is more than a mentor to Parrish Feagin Jr. He's a friend to Parrish Jr. P.J. for short. Or sometimes Dennard just calls him "P." And it wasn't set up by some slick P.R. startup or captured by every local news crew craving a different drive-by sound bite or tantalized on Twitter.

"I was throwing away a cup. I shot it like a basketball and I missed," P.J. says of how they met. "He saw me and kind of started talking trash. I started talking a little trash. I knew he was a player, but I didn't know which one."

P.J. offers a little nervous laugh even now when he thinks about it. Didn't he wonder what in the world he was doing trash talking with an NFL player?

"Exactly," P.J. says.

No worries. Dennard loved it. It reminded him of somebody he knew 15 years ago down there in Twiggs County, Ga.

"We hit it off from there. He started talking a little trash and it kind of reminded me of myself a little bit," Dennard says. "We've been cool ever since. A lot of kids are afraid to show their personality. But to be able to interact with a professional athlete, it was like second nature to him. Really good kid. Very confident. And my first love was basketball, so all of that reminded me of myself. We talked and I think it was kind of mutual. I think I told him we'd shoot hoops some time."

The occasion of the meeting was the first day of the Bengals' weekly diversity program with youth that took place at Paul Brown Stadium over six weeks earlier this season with the help of members of the Cincinnati Police Department. Several Bengals, such as Dennard, Williams and Bates took part in an agenda during their off night that included discussions and flag football games.

Ann Johnson's sister signed up her son and P.J. Ann is a little concerned about her eighth-grader playing football because of his asthma, but he loves all sports and she thought flag football would be a perfect compromise. It turned out to be a lot more than that.

It wasn't long before Dennard was picking up P.J., then stopping for a Banks burger, then shooting hoops in the Bengals weight room before heading to the program.

"They would give us food," P.J. says of that second go-around. "But all I would eat is fruit. I like fruit. We talked about (the program), basketball, education … He told me to always have an education and don't get in trouble in school. Some colleges don't like that … I've got all "A's and two "B's. I've got a 3.5 or 6."

If it sounds like P.J. has an outsized personality, he does. He's also got a deadly jumper. All "five-foot-and-a-half," of him. Dennard watched him drain two three-pointers on the way to 12 points in Colerain Middle School's home-court victory Wednesday over Wilson Middle of Hamilton. He's been ranked on some state boards but when Dennard asked him to rate his performance in the gym right after the game, P.J. gave himself a "C."

"I used to be hard on myself, too," Dennard says. "I had people say to me they would do things and they didn't t do it. When I have the opportunity, if I have the time to take out my schedule and support a kid and be encouraging, I'll do it. I think that makes a difference."

This is why they want to walk in his shoes Sunday.

Dennard has built his foundation righting old wrongs. Quez and sometimes P. calls him the name his teammates call him along with his sisters and mother moved into his grandparents' trailer. When his mom got an apartment with the help of a government program, Dennard stayed with his grandparents. But he never forgot how much that boost helped. During his first offseason as a Bengal he bought his sisters and mother a house near Macon, about 15 minutes from where they grew up. Then came the home in Cheviot back in May.

"Everybody needs stability. A place to put their things," Dennard says. "For kids, it's huge."

Kids are at the center of his next project. He just closed on a building in Macon to be a learning center, an after-school gathering place. He envisions lawyers, doctors, engineers and other local professionals tutoring children of all grades. Naturally, he hopes sports are a part of it.

"But," he says, "They can only play sports if they also go to the tutoring sessions."

Dennard's idea of tutoring could be a burger, a basket, or just showing up for a game. He did it twice this week, once after a heavy Wednesday practice. Or just a trash-talk smile.

"We go back and forth," P.J. says. "(His friends) come and shake his hand once in a while (at the games) … Jessie came to a scrimmage with him. Monday and Wednesday it was just him …. I call him sometimes and just talk about stuff. … It's most likely not about school. I don't have too many problems in school. It's probably about basketball. He tells me, 'Use the same jump shot.'"

This is why they want to walk in his shoes Sunday.

"It worked out that way," says Ann Johnson, who was looking for a moment and found a mentor.

During Week 14, Bengals players will have the opportunity to showcase their chosen charitable cause on their game cleats. See what they will wear.