Georgia’s Bengals: It’s a life of 'Hard Knocks' for 7 UGA players

semerson@macon.comJuly 29, 2013 

Seven former Georgia players spend their training camp in front of HBO’s cameras

CINCINNATI -- The cameraman sees the two stars talking, and then the biggest star moves toward them and beckons to his co-worker, who has the boom mic. This is a money shot. They have to get it.

So the crew from HBO’s “Hard Knocks” captures the conversation between three of the most notable members of the Cincinnati Bengals. A.J. Green, the offensive star. Geno Atkins, the defensive star. Robert Geathers, the most-tenured player. A light moment between a power trio.

Of course, there’s something else those three have in common.

“Make room!”

That’s a security guard bellowing a warning for fans, who are allowed into this Saturday training camp practice. Many of these fans are wearing the jerseys of Green and Atkins.

They clear a path, and here comes the offense. Here comes Clint Boling, a starting guard. Here comes Dennis Roland, until recently the tallest Bengals player. Here comes Orson Charles, the college star now trying to make the team at a new position.

And out on the practice field, threatening to be the only rookie to start this year for the Bengals, is Shawn Williams. Just the latest former Georgia Bulldogs player to join the club.

Seven players from the same school, on the same NFL team, five of whom are likely to start.

“We’re just a good group of guys, a good group of Georgia boys,” Atkins said.

“It could be coincidence, or it could just be Georgia players are hard-working and get after it,” Roland said.

To hear some tell it, this is not a coincidence. This remarkable convergence is not just a story about these seven players and their alma mater, but also the Cincinnati Bengals.

The character question

Geathers was the first. Well, not the very first Bengals player from Georgia. That was tackle Mike Wilson, who was with the club from 1979-89 and played in two Super Bowls. But the Bengals quickly went into a tailspin of mediocrity in which they became the NFL’s biggest joke.

Geathers arrived in 2004, a fourth-round pick. The organization was mired not just in losing, but in bad behavior, with numerous player arrests and off-field problems.

One such problem involved a Georgia player. Linebacker Odell Thurman was a second-round pick in 2005 but played just one year, derailed by drug and alcohol problems. The Bengals also took David Pollack in the first round of the 2005 draft, but Pollack’s career ended after two seasons because of a neck injury.

Being burned twice in one draft didn’t scare away head coach Marvin Lewis, now entering his 11th season in Cincinnati. Lewis has gone back to the Georgia well five times in the draft and also signed Roland as a free agent six years ago. This season, the organization is set to pay former Georgia players a combined $9.15 million, give or take a few dollars.

“They’ve got good players,” Lewis said. “And to me they’re not maxed out, there’s a lot of growth still. They have an opportunity to still grow and prosper as NFL players.”

Lewis pointed to former Georgia strength coach Dave Van Halanger, now a player development adviser for the Bulldogs. Lewis said they’ve also leaned on head coach Mark Richt and receivers coach Tony Ball.

“Obviously we really feel great about Coach Richt and his staff, and Mark and the things they do there. And going back to when Coach Van was there, and guys like that in administration, I think you really feel comfortable with the kind of person you’re getting,” Lewis said. “That’s key, and the guys all seem to have great work ethic, they all get better as they go, and they’re great teammates for everyone.”

Citing character might seem interesting, given Georgia’s own off-field issues in recent years, and Charles had a DUI a few months before the Bengals drafted him. But Lewis indicated that Georgia coaches have been a good sounding board on character, and Geathers directly tied it to the Bengals’ interest in Georgia players.

“When I first got here, character was a big issue in this locker room,” Geathers said. “It’s a total 180 from when I first got here, and I think that’s a big part of it. They know they can go down there (to Georgia) and get great players and good-character guys. Guys that know how to do it the right way.”

The best example of that might be Green, whose low-key and modest demeanor is a huge contrast with former Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.

“For a star receiver, he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy,” Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan said.

The Georgia boys

They don’t hang out, really. That’s the surprising revelation about the Bengals’ seven former Bulldogs players. In fact, there was no party to watch last year’s SEC championship game, with players spread out in hotel rooms or restaurants to pull for their alma mater.

“We’re different ages, different positions,” Geathers said. “Obviously Geno and me are defensive line, so we get to spend a lot of time together. A.J.’s a wideout. Everybody’s got a different personality. We don’t hang like that, but we definitely have a connection coming from Georgia.”

Typically, when the Bengals draft a Bulldogs player, their former teammates text them, and they often welcome them to Cincinnati by taking them out. Charles showed Williams around town this spring.

“What to do, what not to do,” Williams said.

But after that, players tend to go their different ways and form different friendships on the team. None of the Georgia players have lockers next to each other. Roland and Boling, as fellow offensive linemen, only have one stall between them. Atkins and Geathers are a few stalls away.

Occasionally, Atkins will send a text out to the UGA players, and they’ll get together to play pool, watch a movie or do something to forget about football.

“But it’s not really talked about around here,” Charles said. “It’s pretty well-known that we have seven Georgia guys on the team, and I applaud Georgia for doing something right to get so many guys ready for the NFL. But no one really said anything so we tend to forget, so we go to the practice field and A.J.’s making a catch, Geno’s making a tackle, Clint’s out there doing his thing, Roland, Robert, then we start remembering: Oh, we’ve got seven guys here from Georgia.”

Hard knocks life

Those who have been on reality TV programs say that they eventually forget that the cameras are there. That largely holds true at Bengals camp, which is at Paul Brown Stadium, the team’s home stadium.

“Hard Knocks” has free rein, and the Bengals can only censor anything if there is something competitive, such as a special snap count or a trick play. But since NFL Films handles the filming and production, and they’ve been doing “Hard Knocks” for six years now, they tend to know the ropes.

“You see cameras, but coaches start talking, so it’s like the cameras are not even there,” Charles said. “When Marvin is talking, the camera might be in a corner, you’re not really thinking about the camera.”

Another difference between the pros and college: Players refer to their head coach in passing as Marvin. You won’t hear any Georgia players referring off-handedly to “Mark.”

Williams, the lone rookie in the bunch, said the lifestyle is different but the hours are not.

“That six o’clock alarm is still the same,” Williams said. “Getting up, working out, meetings, the playbook, etc. It’s almost the same schedule but different things. You know you don’t have people making sure you’re here. You better be here or you’ll hear about it. You’ll get fined for it.”

Professional concerns now trump old rivalries. In the corner stall of the Bengals locker room sits Carlos Dunlap, not only a Florida Gators product but a high school rival of Green back in Charleston, S.C. But now they’re teammates. And Dunlap’s locker is a few feet away from Atkins, who along with many others has had some fun with Georgia beating Florida the past two years.

“Of course they’ve been rubbing it in, because when we were in school back in college we were rubbing it in,” Dunlap said. “Now they get their little two seconds of fame before we come back.”

Of course, the Georgia players heard it from a couple teammates, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and tackle Andre Smith.

“Alabama guys are always talking,” Green said, shaking his head.

At this level, the college connection usually only comes up for that reason: Bragging rights. When Geathers, Atkins and Green were grouped together on the sideline, it was less the Georgia connection than the star connection.

But yes, they do keep up with their former team.

“They’re gonna be good,” Green said. “I know the defense is gonna be young, but that’s about it. I know it’s gonna be fun.”

“It’s great to see them get back to that success, after we left, and go to back-to-back SEC championships,” Atkins said. “It just shows you what type of program it is, and to be that close away from winning the national championship.”

On a visitor’s way out of town, a dinner recommendation takes you to Hyde Park, an upscale area with outdoor restaurants. As you drive on Erie Avenue, in between an outdoor bar and restaurant, a visitor from Georgia might notice a green street sign that makes them stop and smile. It’s a coincidence, right?

Yes, Cincinnati has a Herschel Avenue.

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