The scruff of Takeo Spikes's broad, thick neck began to tingle,
and the leader within him emerged. "We need to shut their asses
down--right now," Spikes barked at his Cincinnati Bengals
teammates as 64,217 fans at Paul Brown Stadium roared. It was
one of those moments that Spikes, the Bengals' standout
linebacker, defensive captain and unfettered firebrand, will
never forget. As Cincinnati closed out an emotional victory over
the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 14, Spikes sat on a sofa 435 miles
away, screaming his lungs out.
For the first time in his four-year career Spikes wasn't with the
Bengals on game day, but on this Sunday they didn't need him.
Cincinnati's 24-14 victory over the rival Browns served as a
testament to the work Spikes had done to end the NFL's
longest-standing joke. On this day Cincinnati's most animated
player swore his teammates could hear him all the way from his
parents' home in Sandersville, Ga. "Somebody make a play!" he
yelled as Cleveland was driving late in the third quarter, and
when several defenders stopped Browns running back James Jackson
for no gain on third-and-one, tears ran down Spikes's cheeks. For
a few seconds he felt a surge of satisfaction not unlike the ones
his father, Jimmie, had experienced on so many Sundays. Then the
gnawing emptiness returned.
Two days later the Bengals made their captain cry again, when
three Cincinnati defenders, end Reinard Wilson and linebackers
Brian Simmons and Adrian Ross, strode into the Union Hill Baptist
Church to pay their respects to Jimmie Spikes, who had lost his
battle with brain cancer on Oct. 12. "I'll never be able to
explain how much their presence meant," says Takeo (pronounced
The Bengals have no such difficulty explaining Spikes's
significance. "He is our defense," says defensive tackle Oliver
Gibson. "He's the motor. When he gets hot, we're hot." Another
veteran, fullback Lorenzo Neal, says of the 24-year-old Spikes,
"The guy doesn't seem like a fourth-year player; he's got the
aura of a veteran. His will to win is unbelievable, and he
challenges everyone to match it." If Cincinnati, which fell to
4-5 after Sunday's 20-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans, continues
its drive toward respectability, Spikes's fingerprints will be
all over the steering wheel.
"When I got to Cincinnati, the atmosphere was horrible," Spikes
recalls. "We had more guys focused on Monday--payday--than on
Sunday. My father used to tell me, 'Tough times don't last; tough
people do,' but I knew that if we were going to turn this around,
it would take a hell of a lot of work."
Selected as a captain by his peers before his second season,
Spikes has worked hard to change the Bengals' mind-set. He has
reached out to teammates and spoken up to his bosses about the
things that needed to change (the franchise's reluctance to spend
money) and those that needed to stay the same (he led a
successful effort to persuade management to retain interim coach
Dick LeBeau). Because Spikes plays for the Bengals--whose 10-year
playoff drought is the league's longest and who had the worst
record in the league in the '90s--you might not realize how good
he is. However, many of those in the know regard Spikes as one of
the NFL's best weakside linebackers, if not one of the best
"Takeo is as good as Ray Lewis," says Pittsburgh Steelers running
back Jerome Bettis, who butts heads with Spikes and Lewis twice
each season. "He just doesn't have the supporting cast." LeBeau,
Cincinnati's defensive coordinator from 1997 until his promotion
to interim coach in September 2000, says Spikes "is like a
younger Junior Seau. When you talk about the top linebackers, Ray
Lewis and Junior are great, but our guy deserves to be
Known to his teammates as TKO, Spikes last year became the first
Bengal in 21 years to exceed 100 tackles for a third consecutive
season, and in 2001 he has 87 tackles, 4 sacks and an
interception. For a franchise notorious for first-round gaffes,
selecting the 6'2", 245-pound Spikes with the 13th pick in '98
was a huge score. "His ability was impossible to ignore," says
Cincinnati tackle Willie Anderson, a sixth-year veteran who has
been friends with Spikes since they played together at Auburn.
"That's why we made him a captain so quickly."
Leading has always come naturally to Spikes. As an eighth-grader
in Sandersville, Spikes came up with a plan for a weekday party
at his parents' house and persuaded a group of classmates to
attend. Recalls Spikes, laughing, "We had it goin' on--video games
in one room, card games in another and our own little disco in
the back." The music stopped abruptly when Spikes's mother,
Lillie, came home early from work after being tipped off by a
school official about a rash of absences. "Children flew out the
back door," Lillie says. "I took Keo back to school and made him
finish out the day."
Lillie is a high school special-education teacher, but Takeo says
it was his father who stressed academic achievement, "because he
didn't want me to have to go through what he did." Jimmie Spikes,
says Takeo, "was basically a sharecropper growing up. He lived in
a farmer's house, and when he was 13, his dad dropped dead while
working the fields. To avoid getting kicked out of the house, my
dad had to quit school and work the fields. Then he spent 30
years working in a kaolin mine."
The third of Jimmie and Lillie's four children, Takeo took the
SAT several times before achieving a score that qualified him for
Division I-A competition as a freshman. His persistence paid off
with a scholarship to Auburn, where as a junior he earned
All-America honors. Soon afterward he declared for the '98 draft
and moved to Atlanta. Sweet-talked by Falcons officials on draft
day, Spikes grew excited as NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue
announced that with the 12th pick, Atlanta had selected
linebacker...Keith Brooking of Georgia Tech. Recalls Spikes,
"My fist went up when he said 'linebacker,' then I bowed my
head." Spikes asked James Sims, his agent at the time, "Who picks
next?" When Sims answered, "Cincinnati," Spikes grimaced.
Who could blame him? The Bengals went 11-37 in Spikes's first
three seasons, and though the team was hungry, it was not for the
reason you might expect. "They didn't serve much of a breakfast
at the facility," Anderson says, "so you had a lot of stomachs
growling at practice." Adds Spikes, "You'd ask for a new pair of
socks, and our former equipment guy would say, 'First give me
back your old socks.' Or he'd tell you to reach into a bin, and
you'd have to match up a pair of used ones." (Says another
veteran, "That's nothing. They had a bin for used jockstraps.")
Continues Spikes: "Everything was a hassle. As a team leader you
don't want to put too much emphasis on that because it doesn't
help you win, but what pissed us off was that we weren't asking
for red-carpet treatment, just the norm. Some of us had it better
Only 22 when he was appointed captain, Spikes was unsure how to
handle the responsibility. He read books on leadership, heeding
the advice of experts ranging from Air Jordan (For the Love of
the Game) to Sun Tzu (The Art of War). Hoping, he says, "to
figure out a way to get into everybody's little bubble," Spikes
began socializing with teammates on their terms. He says he hung
out with defensive tackle Glen Steele "at this redneck bar in
Covington [Ky.], where people didn't have a whole lot of teeth."
He met wideout Darnay Scott at "a hole-in-the-wall bar downtown,
all smoky and muggy." Says Scott, "That wasn't his type of party.
He said, 'Man, I can't be seen out here, wildin' out with you.'
He had a ball, though."
Spikes's personality doesn't fit easily into a box. On one hand
he is down-home country, having eaten, he says, "everything on
the hog except the oink," not to mention squirrel, pigeon,
rabbit, wild boar and goat. Last Thanksgiving, Spikes hosted a
large gathering that included 12 of his teammates, many of whom
were repulsed by the barbecued raccoon appetizer that kicked off
the feast. Then again, many players call Spikes "Hollywood," a
nickname reinforced by his recent guest stints on Disney's The
Jersey, BET's MAAD Sports and VIP with Pamela Anderson. In June,
Ebony magazine named him one of its 29 most eligible bachelors.
Although Spikes says he wants to be treated as a "VIP everywhere
I go," the Bengals' lowly status hasn't helped him achieve that.
Since midway through last season he has kept a jar of macadamia
nuts in his locker as a reminder that he has yet to be selected
for the Pro Bowl. "It's the little stuff that really turns my
dial," Spikes says. "For instance, a guy who plays for a winning
team can walk into the ESPN Zone [in Atlanta's Buckhead district]
and get seated immediately. With me, it's like, 'You play for the
Bengals? It'll be just a minute.'"
Determined to upgrade the team's image, Spikes and Anderson met
with Bengals president Mike Brown late last season. They told him
the players were in favor of retaining LeBeau, suggested ways of
improving the work environment (such as adding a nutritionist to
the staff) and asked to be involved in the recruitment of free
agents. Some of the topics broached were touchy, but Spikes
doesn't mind putting his opinions--or those of his teammates--on
the line. Before Cincinnati faced the defending Super Bowl
champion Ravens on Sept. 23, Spikes took shots at Baltimore
quarterback Elvis Grbac, who had spurned the Bengals' advances in
free agency because, Grbac said, he wanted to play for a winner.
"We were all mad about it," Gibson says, "but Spikes is the one
who stood up and voiced it." Then he backed it up, playing a
brilliant game and clinching a 21-10 upset with a 66-yard
interception return for a touchdown.
That's the type of performance that earns players trips to
Hawaii, but Spikes has more than individual glory on his mind.
His contract will expire after next season, and while he
entertained notions of bolting Cincinnati, he now hopes to see
his mission through. Since learning of his father's illness last
February, Spikes has become more focused and less willing to
settle for anything other than excellence. For Takeo (his parents
chose the name after seeing a news report on Takeo Miki, Japan's
prime minister at the time), every game is an opportunity to
honor his father.
"Sitting there after my dad died, watching us play the Browns,
made me realize how much I love football," Spikes says. "I was
wondering, What else would I be doing at age 24 if the game had
been taken away from me? Losing my father ripped me to pieces,
and my outlook is different now. I play every play like it could
be my last, and it isn't just about me. Nothing makes me prouder
than to go out there and represent the Spikes family."
Jerome Bettis. "He just doesn't have the supporting cast."