Sunday, October 10, 1999

Fans hang hopes on Akili

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Swahili, Kabisa Akili Maradu means “power, creativity and intelligence.” Bengals fans wish it meant “capture the owner and hang him upside down by his toes.” You can't have everything.

        You will get Kabisa Akili Maradu Smith today at 1, though, and that's better than not getting him. Smith may be a rookie, starting his first NFL game. But at least he's not Doug Pederson.

        Confession: I had intended to use this space to rip the home football team. Now that would be original. I was going to urge all good Bengals fans to pray for a big loss in Cleveland this afternoon. If anything could cause team emperor Mike Brown to abdicate, it would be a humiliation at the hands of the expansion Browns.

        Nothing else would convince Brown that his way of running things has not worked, does not work and shows no signs of ever working. It's a thin argument, but it's all we've got. Destroy the village to save it.

Bright side
        But I just can't trash the Bengals. It's too easy, the same way trashing Marge Schott was too easy. Frankly, I'm just a Bengals rip job or two from anger-management counseling. So forgive me for holstering the hatchet. Know I understand the Bengals were awful, are awful and will be awful as long as the emperor reigns supreme.

        I feel your pain. But at least I get paid to watch this stuff.

        Akili Smith, though, is blessedly new. He has heard about Bengal-ness as usual. He knows of the Lost Decade. But he hasn't lived it. He still has hope. Heaven help him.

        Smith has worked 17 of his 24 years to get to today. When he was just shy of 6, his father, Ray, tried to sign him up for Pop Warner football in the Skyline section of San Diego. Akili wasn't old enough. The following year, he played quarterback. Seven-year-old Akili's first touchdown pass was to Rashaan Salaam, a former first-round pick of the Bears, now a Browns running back.

        Ray Smith has been his son's angel. When Akili was in high school, Ray bought 10 metal trash cans and placed them at 10-yard intervals on Smith's high school field. Akili would drop back and practice lofting footballs into each can.

        Ray would round up neighborhood kids, too. He'd have them ride their bikes 20 yards, then turn sharply left, toward the center of the field. Akili would try to knock them off their bikes with his throws.

        “On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say 'Kili was an eight or a nine with the cans,” Ray said the other night. “With the kids, I'd say he was about a 61/2.”

        What a road his son has traveled to get to Cleveland today. “From Pop Warner to high school,” Ray said. “From high school to the (Pittsburgh) Pirates” for whom Akili was a weak-hitting Class A outfielder. “Getting cut by the Pirates, coming home in tears, thinking he embarrassed the community.

        “Junior college football, breaking records, to college” at Oregon, Ray said. “Suspended off the team, go to court, found not guilty. Great senior year. Goes from probably being a free agent to a sixth-round pick, to a third, to maybe the No.1 pick in the draft.”

Chance to lead
        Ray was always there, a firm hand on Akili's back, but also on his shoulder. Now, Ray will be in Cleveland. He's still rounding up all the tickets he'll need; 28 would do it, he said.

        “Words can't describe how it's going to be,” Ray said. “It's an amazing accomplishment on his behalf, the family's behalf and the community's behalf.”

        Akili is different. There is something about him. This is what former coaches and players have said. A charisma, a poise, a confidence. That's not much in the face of an NFL blitz. But it's something. In the dark world of Mike Brown's Bengals, any light will do.

        You can welcome the Age of Akili today. Or you can hide your eyes. Your choice.

        I'm glad I don't have to make it. I've got to be there. It's my job. That's why they call it work.

        Paul Daugherty can be reached at 768-8454. Fair Game, a collection of his columns, is available at local bookstores.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.