Fontenot outran a hurricane and learned the Bengals offense on the fly
Posted: Friday September 24, 2004 3:19PM; Updated: Friday September 24, 2004 3:19PM
Jerry Fontenot is in his 16th season as a pro.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Nine hours into a leisurely drive on his day off, Jerry Fontenot suddenly became a bit disoriented. "Can you hold on a second?" Fontenot asked. "I need to make sure I'm going the right way."
Placing his cell phone on the passenger seat, Fontenot squinted out the windshield last Tuesday evening to confirm that he was on the correct highway out of Knoxville, Tenn., and not headed up some remote backroad through the heart of the Smoky Mountains. Satisfied, the 37-year-old center resumed his tale of a week-long odyssey that unquestionably ranked as the strangest of his 16-year NFL career. "It's been crazy, man, just crazy," Fontenot said, adding a hearty laugh for emphasis. "My family has been uprooted -- hell, we were running from a hurricane -- and I haven't really slept, and everything's been going 100 miles an hour. But you know what? I'm loving this."
Fontenot still had nearly three hours of driving to endure before reaching Cincinnati, where, as of last Thursday, he joined the Bengals and began learning a wholly unfamiliar offense. Three nights after signing, the longtime Saints starter was pegged as a last-second replacement for hobbled Cincinnati center Rich Braham and became the line's primary signal-caller against a fearsome front seven on national television. Though Fontenot wasn't perfect, he performed admirably in the Bengals' 16-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins, earning heartfelt hugs from his new teammates and coaches and effusive praise from football insiders who truly understand the odds he'd faced.
"It's one of the most awesome stories in the history of pro football," says injured Rams tackle Kyle Turley, Fontenot's good friend and former Saints teammate. "The dude basically had one serious practice, and he went out and kicked ass and called signals in an offense that was totally new to him. The guy is like the ultimate warrior -- he rolls into town, performs his service and collects his bounty."
At the start of the 2004 season, Fontenot wasn't sure he'd ever play football again. The Saints had released him on the final cut-down date on Sept. 5, sending him into an emotional tailspin that had him questioning his immediate future. He understood the rationale of the move but not its timing. Saints coach Jim Haslett, Fontenot says, had told him over the offseason that the team planned to move LeCharles Bentley to center, thus relegating Fontenot to backup status. "I asked whether I was going to have to fight for a (backup) job," Fontenot says, "and Jim said, 'No, no, no -- don't worry about that.' So I figured I was safe as a backup, at least, and planned accordingly."
That meant that rather than return to their home in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Fontenot, who began his career with the Bears, and his wife, Stephanie, would spend another fall in the New Orleans area. Thus, instead of sending their three daughters (Gabrielle, 8, Madeleine, 6 and Camille, 5) to a highly regarded public school, the Fontenots would shell out $45,000 in private school tuition.
When Fontenot got released last month, he says the hardest thing "was having to break it to my daughters that they'd be leaving the only school they'd ever known. The business aspect of it, I understood. I know how football is, that guys my age tend to be less than a hot commodity. Look, if they had other guys who could step in and play center if something were to happen to LeCharles, that's fine. My only beef is, I wish they could've let me known earlier, so I could've made some personal preparations for my family." (Turley, as is his custom, was far more critical of the Saints: "They totally screwed him. Jerry should've been the starting center, and they know it.")
The Fontenots were packing up in preparation of their impending move back to Chicago when they learned of a far more ominous disruption to their reality: Hurricane Ivan was said to be headed straight for New Orleans. As the Packers and Panthers squared off in the first Monday night game of the season, Jerry, Stephanie and the kids were at a shopping center near their home in Metairie, La., stocking up on food and other supplies. "When I got home," Jerry says, "there was a message on my voice mail from (Bengals line coach) PaulAlexander. He said, 'Jerry, are you still interested in playing football? Because if you are, we'd like to get you ready to go this Sunday.'"
Fontenot called back and said, "Are you kidding me, coach? Absolutely."
It wasn't that simple -- Alexander wanted to book a flight for Fontenot out of New Orleans the following day, but the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder wasn't the only one trying to get out of the Crescent City. With the hurricane bearing down, every flight was booked solid. Plan B was for Jerry to drive Stephanie and the kids to Lafayette, La., where his parents live -- and where they'd be spared the full force of Ivan's wrath. Jerry would then fly out of Lafayette first thing Wednesday morning and join the Bengals later that day.
Jerry and Stephanie spent Tuesday packing and securing their house -- which is six feet below sea level. At 6 p.m., with the car loaded to the brim, they hit the road for what is normally a two-hour drive to Lafayette.
"Fifteen minutes into the drive,"Fontenot says, "my oldest daughter said, 'Dad, I don't want to ask this too much, but are we almost there?'"
Uh, not quite. "We hit the interstate," Jerry recalls "and for about a mile-and-a-half we were going 50. Then, boom, we hit the brick wall [of traffic]."
Fifteen hours later -- and no, that is not a misprint -- the Fontenots arrived in Lafayette. "For the next four miles on (I-10), we averaged about eight miles an hour," Fontenot says. "We saw everything -- people had run out of gas and were parked on the side of the road, some of them sleeping. Volleyball and badminton nets were set up; games were going on all over. It was crazy."
There were plenty of stressful moments. "My kids had watched the Weather Channel before we left, so they were pretty freaked out," Fontenot says. "We'd be on a bridge and they'd say, 'Here comes a wave!' Plus, I have three girls, so you know someone has to go to the potty every 25 minutes." Near Baton Rouge, the family pulled over at a gas station in search of a restroom. Instead, they found one of the most peculiar parties they'd ever seen.
"All the pumps were dry, but there were people everywhere -- drinking beers out of ice chests and just hanging out. It was after 1 a.m., and all the facilities were shut down. We ended up having to pull over to the side of the road so the girls could do their thing."
Three hours later, they were still stuck in traffic near Baton Rouge. As the family crawled toward Lafayette, Fontenot realized he had no chance of making his 6 a.m. flight. He called his agent, who contacted the Bengals, who re-booked him on an 11 a.m. flight. After arriving at his parents' house, Fontenot barely had time to shower before rushing off to the airport. He had slept a total of 40 minutes during Stephanie's shift behind the wheel in the middle of the night.
"I was so wiped out and bewildered about the situation," Fontenot says. "I was feeling extreme remorse about leaving my family there, wondering if I'd abandoned them in a time of need. I almost didn't go, but I'd made the commitment and wanted to see it through."
The odyssey continued when Fontenot arrived at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport, where a problem with his ticket kept him from being allowed to board his connection. He was forced to switch airlines and had to navigate his way to a different terminal -- which, if you've ever been to DFW, is like completing the Boston Marathon while dodging golf carts steered by scores of riled-up RobbyGordons. He made it to his Cincinnati-bound flight with only minutes to spare. Upon landing, he waited 45 minutes for a Bengals trainer to meet him at the baggage-claim area, as the trainer had not yet been alerted to Fontenot's flight switch.
He was driven to the facility that Wednesday night, where he met coach MarvinLewis and the rest of his staff. Then Alexander started going over the Bengals' playbook with the nearly delirious Fontenot. Less than an hour into their cram session, Alexander said, "Your eyes look completely bloodshot" and sent Fontenot back to his hotel room.
The next morning, Fontenot rose before dawn for a physical, but when he arrived at the facility, the team doctor wasn't there. "There'd been an accident on the bridge from Kentucky to Ohio," Fontenot says, "so we had to drive out to his office." By the time Fontenot got back to the facility, he had missed all but 10 minutes of the offensive gameplan meeting -- making an already daunting task even rougher.
"I was basically trying to erase everything that had been etched in my mind the last five years and learn an entirely new set of verbiage," Fontenot says. Not only was there no crossover between the Saints' and Bengals' systems, there were terminology crossups that added to the confusion. For example, the term "Ringo" is used on both teams, but it means something entirely different in Cincinnati than it did in New Orleans.
Still, the Bengals had the right man for a nearly impossible job. "The guy's a natural general, and he's a genius when it comes to football," Turley says of Fontenot. "He could be the best coach ever with all he knows about the game."
Says Fontenot: "Before I signed, Paul Alexander had spoken to [Saints line coach] Jack Henry, and Jack had told him, 'If anyone can learn your offense in three days, it's Jerry Fontenot.' It's the truth, but I appreciate that he said it."
After the meeting, Fontenot was whisked up to the office of President PaulBrown, who had a contract waiting for the player's signatures. Midway through the 20-minute process Alexander entered the room and said, 'We've got walk-through right now. They're holding it up for you. Let's go.'" Fontenot plowed through the last few pages and rushed out to the practice field, where his new teammates looked at him with perplexed expressions.
"I was wearing cargo shorts, a red T-shirt and some Nikes," Fontenot says, laughing. "Some of the guys on the team were like, 'Who's the new coach?'"
He was shaky then and in that afternoon's practice, predictably screwing up assignments and becoming winded on a hot, humid afternoon. "We went in and watched film and man, it was ugly," Fontenot says. "I kind of looked like a lost duck looking for water."
From Thursday night through Sunday afternoon, Fontenot crammed heavily, immersing himself in his playbook whenever he left the facility. (He also received some good news: Ivan had spared the New Orleans area, leaving his house unscathed. "It was very fortunate -- for New Orleans," Fontenot says. "It wasn't so fortunate for some other people, though.")
At one point Fontenot went over his assignments with Braham, the Bengals' longtime starter, who indicated he hoped he'd be able to play through his knee injury against the Dolphins. Sure enough, minutes before Sunday's opening kickoff, the public-address announcer at Paul Brown Stadium introduced Braham with the first-string offense. "Rich started running through the tunnel," Fontenot says, "and about halfway through he was limping. Sure enough, he came up to me on the sidelines and said, 'Look, I can't run. You've going to have to go out there.' I'm looking over at Junior Seau, Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Larry Chester and all those other studs on Miami. I knew I had my work cut out for me."
The Bengals won the toss and got the ball first, and Fontenot was the man on the spot. The first play was a run, and he was slightly late on his block. On the second play, he made a wrong call, instructing the guards to stay in the middle of the line rather than shading to the edges. The result: Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer got sacked.
In the third quarter, Fontenot made his only other glaring mistake, a missed call that led to a tipped pass which the Dolphins intercepted. "My fault," Fontenot told his teammates. "Don't lose faith. I've got this down now. Let's just keep pounding."
Bengals K Shayne Graham celebrates his game-winning field goal against the Dolphins.
From then on, Fontenot was a force. "Everything just clicked; you could see it watching on TV," Turley says. "He was standing over the ball and calling out the (blocking assignments) on the linebackers, just like with the Saints."
After the Dolphins tied the game on OlindoMare's 47-yard field goal with 1:53 remaining, the Bengals drove right back down the field to set up Shayne Graham's 39-yard game winner. When he got to the locker room, Fontenot received praise from awed teammates and was thanked by Lewis, Alexander and several other coaches. "I'm saying, 'Hey, thank you for giving me this chance,'" Fontenot says. "I started feeling like a mercenary, a hired gun who comes in and makes his kill and then goes on his way."
Chances are, Fontenot won't be leaving Cincinnati anytime soon. This may indeed be his final season, and it remains to be seen whether Braham will regain his starting spot. There are still logistical hassles -- being apart from Stephanie and the kids, who'll live in Illinois; having to endure another marathon drive, albeit at much faster speeds, last Tuesday -- and he still hasn't caught up on his sleep. But right now, the man feels as though he's enjoying a dream ending to a remarkable career.
"It's great to have this opportunity, but how I go out is not that important of an issue," he insists. "Because right now, I'm not even thinking about going out. I'm just living in the moment."
What a wonderful week it's been in Kansas City, where the 0-2 Chiefs are exhibiting less composure than Oprah Winfrey did while giving away someone else's cars. Let's see, you had defensive end Eric Hicks berating a reporter who wondered whether, given the wretched performance of K.C.'s defense thus far, the team might have considered making at least one significant personnel change over the offseason ... cornerback Eric Warfield got picked up for suspicion of drunk driving, for the third time ... and coach Dick Vermeil riled second-year running back Larry Johnson by stating it was time the former first-round pick "take the diapers off" in the wake of PriestHolmes' ankle injury. Unlike former Raiders coach Bill Callahan, whose "We must be the dumbest team in America" comment last November sapped him of all remaining credibility in the Oakland locker room, Vermeil will survive his regrettably reckless remark: That's what two Super Bowl appearances and a long track record as a first-rate coach will afford you. But keep an eye on this grumpy crew, especially if they (gasp!) lose to the Texans at home this Sunday. Don't laugh, it could easily happen.
As for Gordon, the NASCAR driver now on double-secret probation, I'm not questioning the severity of his actions or the appropriateness of his punishment. But in all honestly, how many of us haven't at least fantasized about doing on the highway what Gordon did to Greg Biffle at New Hampshire International Speedway?
EYE OF THE STORM
Thank you, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, for making the world safe from JanetJackson's breast and allowing our great nation to remain a prudish punchline in international circles. After absorbing its record $550,000 in fines, I was actually beginning to feel sorry for CBS as I watched a cool CSI episode about murdered strippers Thursday night.
WE'RE NOT WORTHY
Want to sum up the difference between me and my brother-in-law, Sacramento-area labor lawyer Paul Goyette? While I was in Seattle Thursday night enjoying one of the great fresh-fish scarf sessions of alltime -- thanks to the ceaseless creations of Aki, the Bill Walsh of sushi chefs, at Shiro's in Belltown -- Paul was a couple of counties to the east, traversing a mile-high mountain called Razorback Saddle with a flashlight on his forehead while subsisting on energy bars and a psychotic supply of will. I'm not exaggerating, either: Paul and three associates form policedefenders.com, an adventure-racing ensemble that is competing in the Subaru Primal Quest, perhaps the most outrageous test of endurance and skill in a realm that is beyond insane.
The 400-mile race, which combines trekking, mountain biking, orienteering, kayaking, climbing and other endeavors, was conceived as a nonstop affair that would take anywhere from five to 10 days to compete. During a quick break from the near-constant motion of shoveling sushi into my open mouth, I opened the front page of the Seattle Post Intelligencer and saw this headline: Despite racer's death, competition will continue. Then I scrolled down to see, in larger type: Falling boulder kills Australian.
I'll spare you the details of this horrible tragedy, other than to note that a front-page photo featured "members of the Australian and New Zealand teams [singing] a version of Men at Work's Land Down Under in memory of their friend and teammate."Following a prayer service and barbecue to honor the stricken competitor, Nigel Aylott, the racers resumed their Primal Quest (albeit a slightly scaled down version) early Thursday morning.
While I would argue that Paul's sister, Leslie, to whom I am married, has been known to display similar resolve in the course of, say, a discussion concerning my travel calendar, it's my brother-in-law who clearly has taken his family's intensity gene to an uncharted level. In case you're wondering, Coach Vermeil, he removed his diapers a long, long time ago.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.