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'You got a phone call'

Posted: 4 p.m.

(Where are they now? In another installment of a season-long series, endeavors to find the stripes of 1988.)

Draft Day 2008, and Solomon Wilcots had more wires hanging out of him than an FBI plant.

Wilcots, the former Bengals safety who has become one of pro football's most plugged-in correspondents as a ubiquitous member of the NFL Network and CBS' Titan of the Telestrator, had been charged with chronicling his old team's draft for The Network.

Seconds after the Bengals selected USC linebacker Keith Rivers with the ninth pick, the cameras cut to Wilcots seamlessly spitting out analysis for the world.

Now cut to 21 years ago when Wilcots got that same call from the Bengals as a senior at Colorado. It came in the eighth round, which no longer exists. But then, the NFL as we knew it in 1987 doesn't exist, either.

No cell phones. No gavel-to-gavel TV coverage worthy of major international treaty. No Internet, so not even any message boards bashing the pick of a DB that didn't play in any all-star games.

"I had roommates who didn't pay their bills," Wilcots said. "So we didn't even have a phone. I had to give teams the number to the apartment across the hall. So there's a knock on the door. 'Hey, you got a phone call.' It was Dick LeBeau telling me, 'Young man, I hope you're ready to play some football.' "

Remember, when the Bengals called their last draft pick in 2007, another safety, Chinedum Ndukwe, was working three phones.

But in '87, Wilcots simply got on the horn to his family in Los Angeles waiting for him to call since there was no other way to find out.


"That's why you can't sleep the night before the draft," Wilcots said. "I didn't have a choice. I came to Cincinnati. I met my wife here. My kids have been raised and gone to school here. I played for Dick LeBeau. I've got a lot of great friends here. It's so tied into fate. What if it had been Green Bay? Who knows what would have happened?"


Or free will?

Wilcots bought into LeBeau's playbook and can recite it inside and out. And when he was done playing, he volunteered to work the worst shift in television in order to learn the new game.

Fate or free will?

What we do know what happened here is that Wilcots has become one of the best examples of what a man can do with an NFL career no matter how he gets there. He's a man as much at ease greeting friends at the Beechmont Avenue Panera before a round of golf in his adopted community as he is grilling a Pro Bowler on why he makes so much bread.

A year after the '87 draft, Wilcots was on posters all over the city trumpeting the SWAT Team, the nickname of the Bengals secondary at the front of Cincinnati's run to the '88 Super Bowl.

That was a year after Bengals head coach Sam Wyche called Wilcots into his office following the rookie camp. Suitably impressed with Wilcots' size, brains and instincts, Wyche told him, "Don't think about where you were drafted. Don't count numbers. Just play. You're going to have a chance to make this team."

"Really," Wilcots can say now, "that's all you can ask."

Wilcots could sense even during that first camp that the Bengals were building something special. They had all these weapons on offense and the year before they had drafted high a cornerback in Lewis Billups and a linebackerish safety named David Fulcher that would change the position, as well as the secondary.

Then Wilcots arrived with his roommate at the scouting combine, a second-round cornerback from Tulane.

"I walked into my room in Indy and there was this guy laughing and talking loud," Wilcots said. "Eric Thomas. We had Nos. 22 and 23. We were together the whole time.

"That secondary was young and we went through the typical rookie hazings by the veterans. But they respected us because we practiced hard and we got into our playbooks and with the strike, we went through a lot together. The next year, it came together. I think the respect the veterans had for the young guys was really important. We didn't lay back. We were aggressive. We wanted to win."

Even the combine was different then. Wilcots doesn't remember getting interviewed by one team. Now the teams have 60 slots of 15-minute allotments they can use to interviews players, as well as open sessions at night.

"If anybody got interviewed," Wilcots said, "it was just the top 10 prospects. It was a pure cattle call. That's all it was."

How long is 21 years ago in NFL years?

Wilcots had been invited to the Senior Bowl, but he never knew it until it was too late. When he came back from Christmas break, he found a letter in his locker postmarked from the fall with an invite to the game.

Nowadays, he would have been saved by the 'Net because that bit of information is all over cyberspace. But back then, it meant that he missed one of his few chances to impress the scouts.

"I'm not blaming anybody," he said. "So I wasn't expecting much. I really had no idea who was interested. I just wanted to go to a team that didn't have any good defensive backs and had a good coach."

The second part of his wish came true in the person of LeBeau, the former Detroit great then the Bengals secondary coach and defensive coordinator. By the time of the second half of Wilcots' NFL debut in the '87 preseason opener, LeBeau had him ready to play cornerback in certain packages for the first time in his life.

"Dick LeBeau is such a great teacher," Wilcots said. "He could not only explain things, but he could do things that were different than what everybody else was doing. If you're a smart player, you can play for him."

One thing about the '88 team. They knew the game and now some are still a name because they are able to tell people about it.

The roster looks like a casting call of analysts: Wilcots, Cris Collinsworth, Boomer Esiason and Sam Wyche on the national level, and closer to home Thomas, Fulcher and Anthony Munoz.

It is probably no coincidence then, that Bob Dekas, producer of CBS's football coverage, says the two best he's ever seen at handling the Telestrator are Wilcots No. 1 and Wyche No. 2.

"Solly just has the knack for being able to see the right angle of the play," Dekas said. "He's so quick to see it develop and to pick out one or two things to highlight what was important about the play."

Wilcots credits LeBeau with that.

"I know formations and that's the one thing Dick wanted to make sure that we knew," Wilcots said. "Formations and sets. It's a marriage of football and television and football is the perfect sport for television. Baseball isn't."

Dekas, no doubt, has seen his share of Jockcasters, former athletes that have added only hot air to the mix. But Wilcots was different right from the start, since his start was at Channel 5 in Cincinnati.

"Solly did it the right way," Dekas said. "He started out writing and producing his own stories and it gave him a great background. To me, he's a guy that really is a journalist and when you put that together with his football knowledge, he's very valuable."

George Vogel, the long-time Channel 5 sports guru, couldn't quite believe what he had on his hands when Wilcots showed up on the doorstep in the mid-1990s.

Here was Wilcots, a Super Bowl vet who had played in the NFL for seven seasons, volunteering to work the Weekend Lobster shift: 2-10 a.m.

"That's when we had a live sportscast on Saturday and Sunday mornings," Vogel said. "Solly wanted to learn from the ground up, so he wanted to be the overnight producer. He wasn't even on the air. He edited tape, he wrote scripts. He wanted to know what it was like so when he was on the air he would know why things were happening."

"How many guys who have been in the league would be willing to do that?" asked Vogel, still amazed more than a decade later.

On Draft Day, Wilcots flashed the objectivity when he questioned his old team for not moving up in the draft to take a guy he felt could be a foundation of its defense in tackle Sedrick Ellis, Rivers' 'SC teammate. Or for not moving up in the second round to take Indiana wide receiver James Hardy.

"I just think it's hard at the end of the day to say you couldn't get your top guys," Wilcots said. "But I think their contingency plans were good. Rivers is a good player and we know they need linebackers, too."

The more visible Wilcots becomes through NFL Network's Total Access and Playbook segments, he has become more rooted in Cincinnati, specifically Anderson, the township where he has lived for 16 years.

His daughter, a 2003 grad of Anderson High School, is graduating this month with a business degree from Cal State-Northridge. He has a son at Moeller High School and the youngest, a son, attends Summit Country Day.

The move back to Los Angeles, home of NFL Network, a few years ago for a couple of years just didn't work out. Not with the CBS gig and the several trips a year to NFL Films in New Jersey to shoot some of the Playbook shows he shares with other analysts.

"Not with all my East Coast obligations and it was easier with the kids," Wilcots said. "And I really enjoy Anderson. The people there are great and are always friendly."

Hall of Fame Reds announcer Marty Brennaman is Anderson's most famous resident. But Wilcots must be closing fast. They were the featured guests at this year's Anderson High sports fundraiser, but when weather postponed it to another day Wilcots couldn't make it.

"Out of town," he said.

That's where the fast track out of the eighth round usually takes you.

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