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Bengals' Atkins sees dream come true

If there was ever a question about being able to fill the shoes of his football heritage, Geno Atkins has answered that.

“I remember my mom telling me about how when I was real little I’d go into the dressing room when my dad played for the Saints and I’d put players’ shoes on and try walking around in them.

“I went to a lot of NFL games when my dad was with New Orleans and the Miami Dolphins. I’d sit with my mom during the games and I’d wear the team shirts and everything, but then other times I’d get in the dressing room around all the players. It’d be like a kid being in here now around us.”

The Cincinnati Bengals’ 300-pound defensive tackle — a Pro Bowl pick two years in a row now — was sitting in the team’s dressing quarters at Paul Brown Stadium one morning this past week before heading to a practice session for today’s AFC Wild Card game with Houston.

A man of few words, Atkins did take a little time to talk about his second-generation link to the game. It’s a subject he broaches rarely in public, so much so that neither his defensive coordinator nor the guys who dress next to him said he’s ever really discussed it with them.

“Geno doesn’t say anything, I mean ever,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “(Ask) ‘How you doing, Geno?’ and (he says) ‘Good coach.’ That’s about it. He’s a great guy, but that’s all you get out of him. He talks a lot more around the guys than he does you or me, but I wouldn’t put him on the speaker’s tour.”

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who dresses two lockers away, said: “I’ve heard his dad was a heck of a football player — same as he is — but Geno is a very quiet guy and he doesn’t say too much. He just lets his actions speak for him.”

Fellow tackle Domato Peko, whose locker is next to Atkins’, agreed: “I’m not too familiar with all that because Geno doesn’t say much. He’s pretty humble. But I heard his dad was a hell of a football player.”

Peko heard right.

Gene Atkins — “Mean Gene” as he was called — was a hard-hitting safety and kick returner who played 10 years in the NFL in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The Saints made him a seventh-round draft pick out of Florida A&M in 1987 and within a couple of years he had a reputation as bone-jarring force in the secondary.

In 1991, his best season as a pro, he started all 16 games and had 198 tackles (12.4 per game). He also had five interceptions, four forced fumbles, three sacks, a pair of fumble recoveries and returned 20 kicks.

He was picked up by the Dolphins in 1994 and was a physical force for them as well until signs of trouble began to surface in 1996. There was a shouting match during a game with coach Don Shula and then he was reprimanded for grabbing a reporter by the throat because he had been displeased by a story the guy wrote.

Midway through the season the Dolphins waived him and Gene Atkins — after 143 games, 118 starts, 586 tackles and 25 interceptions — was out of football.

Soon after, the trouble escalated.

“Domestic dispute involving his wife, an arrest, business failures, depression, constant headaches and, by 2000, thoughts of suicide,” is how Evan Weiner of newjerseynewsroom. com once summed it up in a story.

Some of the stuff got especially crazy. He was acquitted at trial after being charged with orchestrating the firebombing of the home of a former business partner who had been his college roommate. There was a confrontation with police when he wielded several knives and was subdued by a Taser.

Two of his big-hitting counterparts from those days were Philadelphia’s Andre Waters, who committed suicide in November 2006, and Chicago’s Dave Duerson, who took his own life in February 2011.

Those who know the 48-year-old Gene Atkins think his troubles stem mostly from the head-banging way he played football — he once estimated he had at least 20 concussions during his playing days — and the possible brain damage he was left with because of it.

That point was brought home all the more when he was featured in a 2007 episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. It was a story about the lasting effects of concussions and that point was made dramatically when Atkins was asked to recite the first six months of the year in order and he could not.

He admitted to struggles with concentration and focus and said he had persistent headaches and pain. After examinations by several medical professionals, it was theorized his condition was due to brain injury caused by concussions.

It’s a plight that affects many former NFL players. The problem for many of those retired pros is not only that the NFL requires three seasons of play to get any pension — and with the average career less than four years many guys don’t qualify for the benefits that kick in at 55 — but also that the league-paid health insurance expires five years after retirement.

By contrast, if a Major League Baseball player spends just one day on an active roster, he qualifies for lifetime health care.

This past September, “Head Games,” a documentary about brain injuries in sports, was released and it featured Atkins and his cognitive struggles.

Also in September, a federal appeals court denied his lawsuit against the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Players’ Retirement Plan. He had sought “football degeneration status,” which would have provided him with additional benefits.

“He’s still bothered by headaches and things,” Geno said. “He’s just making it day to day as best as he can.”

Regardless, he said his father has taken a special interest in his career: “My dad follows me every week. He texts me before each and every game with words of encouragement and how I should prepare that week.”

The messages certainly have taken hold.

For the second year in a row Atkins leads the Bengals in sacks. This season his 12.5 sacks lead NFL interior linemen — Detroit’s  Ndamukong Suh is a distant second with 8.0 — and that made him a unanimous pick as a Pro Bowl starter. Last season he made the team as a first alternate, replacing New England’s Vince Wilfork.

With Atkins as the cornerstone and the defensive front as its strong suit, the Bengals have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They rank third in the league with 51 sacks and are sixth in net yards allowed with 319.7 per game.

In each of the past three games, all Bengal victories, the defense has scored a touchdown.

Asked if by following in his dad’s footsteps he fears that he too may one day have to deal with the debilitating effects of the game’s violent collisions, Atkins shook his head.

“No, I don’t worry about that,” he said. “We play two different games. My dad was more physical than me. He was a hard, hard hitter. I really don’t have any hard hits.”

Quarterbacks like Baltimore’s  Joe Flacco, whom he sacked twice in the season opener, Jacksonville’s  Blaine Gabbert, who had the same fate three weeks later, Miami’s  Ryan Tannehill, Pittsburgh’s  Ben Roethlisberger, Oakland’s  Carson Palmer, San Diego’s  Philip Rivers and several others whom he bulldozed once — they might disagree.

But it’s that kind of play that has made one other childhood memory come true.

Atkins said watching his dad play and being around those NFL dressing rooms fueled one fantasy.

“You always dream of going to a Super Bowl or just playing in a game where everything is on the line. You want to play in a big game some day.”

Today is that day.

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