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Football with a purpose

Ex-Bengal Payne learned from game

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BRIAN BAHR/Getty Images

Football taught former Michigan and Bengals center Rod Payne a lot more than blocking techniques and offensive schemes. The ex-Bengal learned the importance of teamwork and friendship.

Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler

If you remember Rod Payne, you're a Bengals fan of the first order. A 300-pound center drafted in the third round, 1997, right after Corey Dillon, he was around for two years and, until the tail end of the second season, precisely as many plays. The main problem was injuries, a lot of them. Also, the Bengals.
"You're talking about a time when there weren't any positives with the Cincinnati Bengals," he said, with no agenda, from his shop in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he customizes cars. "I came from a storied tradition of winning at Michigan, and I had been co-captain and MVP (this is a man who once broke his right wrist during a game with Michigan State, and proceeded to snap the ball thereafter with his left), and I felt like I was drafted into a black hole."

There was a contentious parting when the Bengals released him in September 1999, during the week of the first game. Payne claimed the club knew he was injured, again, and filed a grievance, which was ultimately settled. He sat out the year -- laid out would be more like it -- while both knees were operated on. Then he signed with the Baltimore Ravens and earned a Super Bowl ring before retiring in deference to, he isn't sure, his 11th or 12th surgery.

All of that is not the point, though; and then again it is. Because Payne believes his football career was about more than leverage and blocking assignments and bad knees and a great big ring.

It was roughly a year after his last game that Payne began to make sense of his three-point life, to understand its purpose and what it really meant. It happened in a call from his friend, Steve Rom.

They had met in Ann Arbor, where Rom was a beginning sportswriter and Payne had returned to the scene of the glory to find his next thing. He thought it would be coaching. It turned out to be Rom.

They were odd friends, and not because of the color difference. The athlete was roughly twice the size of the writer, and from a locker-room culture in which the latter would not ordinarily be welcomed. "But we really hit it off," Payne recalled. "It was pretty much the same story for both of us. He was from sunny L.A. I was from sunny Miami. He was an only child, I was an only child. Both of us were in Michigan because we had kind of set out to embark on whatever life had for us.

"We really looked at it as a blessing. Something like, 'You two are going to come together for more reasons than you might know.' We had a time where we just really shared. I had a chance to share with him what was real about football."

The friendship was about six months along when Payne drove Rom to the airport for a short trip back home over the holidays. A few days later, Rom called back to tell his buddy not to meet him at the airport for the return flight. There had been a major delay.

At first, Rom thought it was a bad, peculiar flu. At the hospital, they told him it was leukemia.

"When I called Rod," remembered Rom, "I didn't have to wear kid gloves like I did when I talked to my girlfriend or a family member. He'd had 12 surgeries. I told him straight.

"I was already well into chemotherapy, and was taking morphine every hour for the pain. I don't remember all of what we said. I certainly don't remember him saying he was coming out to L.A. All I remember is that, about two days later, my mom left me for a while, and about an hour and a half later, she walks into the room with a big smile on her face, and there comes Rod. He just walks in, drops his Ravens duffle bag on the floor, puts his Super Bowl ring next to my Kleenex box, and asks, 'What's up, bro?' He stayed there the next four days, sleeping on a fold-up cot."

They were hard days, healing days, amazing days. But not to Payne, really. For him, it wasn't much different than a left guard needing some backup from the guy on his right.

"When Steve's illness came up," he said, "here was an example of how you sacrifice for teammates. That was just fundamental. Football is not like regular work, where people say all the time that they have your back. In football, we're taught to really be there. The average Joe doesn't have to count on his buddies the way a guard has to count on his center. That creates a loyalty.

"I think the real side of the NFL is that that's what our story is mainly about. That's what football is. I think more people should understand that."

It helped that Payne had been in plenty of beds like Rom's, and had been there with nobody at his side. Mostly, though, it helped that Payne's entire life, up to that point, had prepared him for that hospital room.

"We became brothers," said the former All-American. "I knew Steve didn't just need me to sit by the bedside hoping. He needed me to be in there with him calling plays, pulling him up off the mat. Steve's illness was his to fight, but he needed some backup at key times. I realized not just how much the game teaches you, but how much it teaches other people."

The lessons were about friendship and resolve and the healing power of both. Somehow, lying there with tubes in him, dulled by drugs, demoralized by doctors, weakened by chemo, awaiting a bone marrow transplant, Rom's soul was soaring.

"Before that moment," he recalled, "even though we were really relating more than I had related to anyone in my life, I still had doubts that this relationship would last. What would he possibly want with a friend like me? He could call up Charles Woodson and hang out any time he wanted. But when he walked into that room, I thought, oh my God, this guy is there for me. I knew I had a friend for life. And I knew I would kick this disease.

"He just empowered me with the feeling that this is not going to be the end of me. You don't have any fear around this guy. I mean, I've seen people in bars, drunk and unruly, and when they see Rod, they sober up pretty quick."

In the beginning, Rom was given a 50 percent to 70 percent chance of survival. Payne rebuked him when Rom became discouraged. Payne rebuked the fertility doctor when he talked football instead of attending to the patient. Within a month, the proportion of Rom's diseased blood cells were down from 80 percent to 5 percent. The 29-year-old Californian went to stay with his mother, all the while anxious to know if a donor would be found for his transplant.

He had lost about 40 pounds. When Payne came to visit again, the big fellow would have none of it. He warmed up some stew and ordered his friend to eat it, no matter what. Rom perked up. A donor came forward in Germany.

The operation went well, after which Payne told Rom to get back to Ann Arbor on the double. He had found them an apartment and equipped it with the furniture he bought when he first signed with Cincinnati. He didn't want his buddy living with his mother, feeling unready for the world. They had things to do.

"I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have made it without Rod," Rom said, "but I'll tell you what, I'm not very strong mentally. I would have had a hell of a time. I would go to the grocery store with my mom and be frightened if somebody would be coming down the aisle. And here he was asking me to come back to Michigan."

So Rom did that. And he got strong. And then a better job was offered him in Flagstaff, Ariz. Payne picked up the leather signing-bonus couch and stuffed it in a U-Haul truck. The television, too. He hooked up Rom's car to the back of the truck and headed southwest. When Rom reported to work the first day, the football player walked in with him. Then he went back to Michigan.

They still talk. They have those two-way phones, and they use them every day. And they tell their story.

Payne tells it because he wants people to know what a game like football is really, truly about.

Rom tells it because he wants people to know what a man like Payne is really, truly about.

Contact Lonnie Wheeler at lwheeler@cincypost.com.

Publication Date: 02-27-2004