Monday June 13th, 2011

Bobbie Williams, an NFL offensive lineman for 12 years, walked off a college football field last week after an impromptu practice to offer some of the smartest words uttered since the Super Bowl ended, and this longest of offseasons began:

"I feel blessed to play this game,'' the Cincinnati Bengals guard decided. "No matter what, I feel privileged.''

So maybe that's it.

The lockout means different things to different players. To a man like Williams -- secure in his finances, content with his family, closer than most to the career finish line -- the lockout offers the rarest of chances in pro sports. It suggests the most precious of commodities:

Perspective.

You don't have to be freed from prison, it turns out, to find your NFL humility.

Last Tuesday, a majority of the Bengals defense gathered at an indoor soccer facility in a northern Cincinnati suburb. They borrowed some things from a local high school: Cones for drills, water dispensers, a few air horns. Footballs. They placed five rubber trash barrels in a row, across the artificial surface. The cans represented offensive linemen. Bengals pass rushers practiced technique.

The following day, nearly 50 locked-out players, offense and defense, massed in ancient and quaint Nippert Stadium on the campus at the University of Cincinnati. It was already close to 90 degrees when they met on the turf at 10 a.m., to stretch. The city would declare a heat emergency later in the day.

They had no coaches, little equipment, no company health insurance, no pay and no union to help them with any of it. Their careers were in the air, floating. They were men in shorts, living in the moment, dependent on men in suits, gathering in rooms of leather chairs and importance. They could have just as easily been filming a light beer commercial.

I asked Williams if the day seemed strange.

"Nah, man,'' he said. "I like being out here. It's not up to us when this gets settled, but we can do our part, right here. As players, it's up to us to be ready when this thing ends. We have to hit it running. It can't be a slow progression.

"You know, I still respect this game, no matter what's happening right now. Not everyone can do what we do for a living.''

Maybe this thought is occurring wherever unorganized team activities are being held now. Across the league, players who have taken good fortune for granted are giving that presumption a second thought. They've been introduced again to some Real World concepts: Finding their own health insurance, arranging travel, budgeting for a possible loss of income.

Maybe, as the impasse persists, they'll also acquire a small acquaintance with how fortunate they are.

Most players would play at a greatly reduced rate, if not for free. That's what these unorganized team activities make plain. They might be wealthy, comfortable with (and expectant of) the excesses of wealth and fame. Mainly, they're overgrown kids who have had their game taken away.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is Cincinnati's player representative. He took the lead in getting players in one place, for a week of workouts. "I'm not really sure how to be a coach and a player, and organize all this,'' Whitworth said. "But it has been great. Everyone has been on their best behavior. Guys just want to play football. That's what we're bred to do.''

"We're just trying to make sure nobody's diving for the ball. It would be stupid for somebody to get hurt out here,'' cornerback Adam Jones said. "You don't have the coaches, you don't have the whistles, you don't have the speed. But it's football, man. Football is what we do.

"Strange?'' Jones said, repeating a question. "I've been through a lot, so it's not that strange.''

But it is. It is bizarre watching millionaires and would-be millionaires come face to face with their gravy train's temporary derailing. Pro athletes are extremely talented in what they do. Also, extremely fortunate that we deem what they do to be worth tall piles of cash compensation. Faced with the loss of that compensation, they're just like the rest of us.

"A little bored, sure,'' Whitworth said. "Anxious, antsy. I mean, this is our livelihood.''

The Bengals face the added lunacy of trying to school a rookie quarterback in the middle of a work stoppage, with a new playbook authored by a new offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, who is forbidden to coordinate. Andy Dalton, former TCU QB, Cincinnati's second-round draft pick, has a playbook but no teacher. Given that the team's franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, has said he'll retire rather than serve the remaining four years of his Cincinnati deal, the Bengals are in almost a unique situation. And not in a good way.

Dalton "has been put in a position of pressure'' was how Whitworth described it.

Williams had a better explanation: "God help the young man,'' he said.

And heaven help the NFL. Reports suggest the sides are getting closer. SI's Peter King says a deal could come within a month. While there is a perverse pleasure in watching the well-off rattle their jewelry at 10 paces, the masses need their NFL meds. Here we are now, entertain us.

"We still have some time. When July starts running out, come ask me again,'' Williams said. "To play 16 games and compete on a high level, we need to be working with the coaches right now. We need to go into training camp on schedule.''

Said Whitworth: "I'm shocked it's gone this far.''

He shouldn't be. In the NFL, with greed and egos on the line, anything is possible. Even humility.

"We all appreciate what this game has done for us,'' said Adam Jones. "We want to get back to it.''

Meantime, men in shorts gather to practice their swim moves against garbage cans. The lockout lingers. No one is sounding arrogant.

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