The old veteran drew a blank when asked about the youngster sitting just a few yards away in the middle of what he called “a dream come true.”
“Can you imagine what Tony Dye feels like now?” James Harrison was asked after his Cincinnati Bengals had just crushed the Cleveland Browns, 41-20, at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
The 35-year-old linebacker who had just played his 154th NFL game and now was sitting on a stool in front of his locker, looked up in puzzlement:
Tony Dye, he was told, his teammate who had just played his first-ever NFL game and run back a blocked punt for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“Oh 44?” Harrison asked.
That’s Dye’s number and though he was sitting just a few yards away from Harrison, it’s obvious the kid is not a quite a household name — even in the Bengals dressing quarters.
But at least he’s not stuck in the football shadows as he has been the past 2 ½ seasons, he said: “It’s been a long, long road for me.”
If ever a guy deserved a good break — after such a bad one three seasons ago — it’s the 23-year-old safety out of UCLA.
“I played the first three games of my senior season at UCLA with a broken neck,” he said quietly. “I missed most of the rest of the season and came back just for the final game. But I fell off the draft boards after that.”
How could he play with such a serious neck injury?
“I thought it was just a stinger,” he said. “It ended up being a small fracture and some pinched nerves. The doctor told me I was really lucky, playing those three games with that injury could have been real bad.”
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound defensive back went unpicked in the 2012 draft and though he was crushed by the snub, he said he was buoyed some when the Bengals called.
“Coach Lewis called me and said, ‘We know you’re a great player and we’re gonna take a chance on you.’… And I thank him every day for it,” said Dye. “The thing is, it’s not how you get to the NFL, it’s what you do once you get here.”
Unfortunately, when he got to Cincinnati last year, he promptly injured his ankle in the preseason and spent the entire 2012 campaign on the Injured Reserve list. This year he played in the four preseason games, but was waived in the final roster cut-down on August 31.
Cincinnati resigned him in late September and since then he had toiled on the Bengals’ practice squad.
Basically, that means you are practice fodder, helping the roster players prepare for the opposition each week.
“Practice players — we are people, too,” Dye said a bit defensively when that point was made. “But it is a humble life.”
On game days, practice players do get to stand on the sideline, but they wear street clothes. And after the game? “We’re the first ones to leave the locker room,” Dye said.
He started last week watching Browns’ game film and learning their plays so he could simulate Cleveland players in practice. But as the days wore on it became obvious to Cincinnati coaches that veteran safety Chris Crocker was not going to be able to return from injury. They told Dye there was a possibility he might finally be activated and Saturday that’s just what happened.
The team cut cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris and put Dye on the roster, with the intention of using him mostly on special teams.
“Everything happened so fast, but I was able to call my mom,” he said.
During the week, all the special team players — and especially the new players — take notes during team meetings conducted by special teams’ coach Darrin Simmons.
“I try to write down everything Coach Darrin says,” Dye said nodding to a scribble-filled notebook lying in his locker.
Across the dressing room, rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche had done the same. When it came to goals, DiManche said he wrote down, “Block a punt against Cleveland.”
And in the second quarter — just two possessions after fellow rookie Shawn Williams had partially deflected a punt by Cleveland’s Spencer Lanning that went just 9 yards — DiManche beat his blocker and threw up his left hand, “Just like I was blocking a shot in basketball.”
He smothered Lanning’s punt and the ball skittered along the ground a few yards away.
“I heard it — heard the thump behind me — and started scrambling around the ground looking for the ball,” Dye said. “It kind of rolled right in my lap, but I was so excited I missed it the first couple of times. Finally, I went to the ground and got it and that’s when instinct took over.”
Although he was in a tangle of bodies, it turned out no Cleveland player had touched him while he was on the ground, so he could get up and run.
“I just took off for the end zone,” he said. “It was all pretty surreal. I don’t have the words for it. How do you describe a dream come true?”
His last few steps into the end zone he high-stepped like a marching band’s drum major. “I caught myself then,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t know the rules for celebrations so I was like, ‘Let’s calm it down a little bit.’ I took it back to my high school days.”
Officials reviewed the play — to be sure the ball could be advanced — but during the lengthy delay, Dye said he never once checked the big, overhead video board.
“To be honest I was so tired I didn’t look, I just waited to hear the cheers — or boos.”
Soon the Bengals crowd was roaring in delight. The score put Cincinnati up 21-13 and the rout — after Cleveland had led 13-0 — was on.
On the this day with the offense struggling early, the defense and especially the special teams lifted the team until quarterback Andy Dalton got his unit back in sync.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Dye said. “You help each other.”
And on this day he also helped himself.
“This was an important game for me personally, too,” he said. “When you’re in a situation like I’m in and you get a chance, you have to make the most of it. These are the games people talk about … the ones where you get people to know who you are.”
And with a little post-game prompting, James Harrison now does.