The third of Jimmie and Lillie's four children, Takeo took the SAT several times before achieving a score that qualified him for Division I-A competition as a freshman. His persistence paid off with a scholarship to Auburn, where as a junior he earned All-America honors. Soon afterward he declared for the '98 draft and moved to Atlanta. Sweet-talked by Falcons officials on draft day, Spikes grew excited as NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that with the 12th pick, Atlanta had selected linebacker... Keith Brooking of Georgia Tech. Recalls Spikes, "My fist went up when he said 'linebacker," then I bowed my head." Spikes asked James Sims, his agent at the time, "Who picks next?" When Sims answered. " Cincinnati," Spikes grimaced.
Who could blame him? The Bengals went 11-37 in Spikes's first three seasons, and though the team was hungry, it was not for the reason you might expect. "They didn't serve much of a breakfast at the facility," Anderson says, "so you had a lot of stomachs growling at practice." Adds Spikes, "You'd ask for a new pair of socks, and our former equipment guy would say, 'First give me back your old socks.' Or he'd tell you to reach into a bin, and you'd have to match up a pair of used ones." (Says another veteran, "That's nothing. They had a bin for used jockstraps?) Continues Spikes: "Everything was a hassle. As a team leader you don't want to put too much emphasis on that because it doesn't help you win, but what pissed us off was that we weren't asking for red-carpet treatment, just the norm. Some of us had it better in college."
Only 22 when he was appointed captain, Spikes was unsure how to handle the responsibility. He read books on leadership, heeding the advice of experts ranging from Air Jordan (For the Love of the Game) to Sun Tzu (The Art of War). Hoping, he says, "to figure out a way to get into everybody's little bubble," Spikes began socializing with teammates on their terms. He says he hung out with defensive tackle Glen Steele "at this redneck bar in Covington [Ky.], where people didn't have a whole lot of teeth." He met wideout Darnay Scott at "a hole-in-the-wall bar downtown, all smoky and muggy." Says Scott, "That wasn't his type of party. He said, 'Man, I can't be seen out here, wildin' out with you.' He had a ball, though."
Spikes's personality doesn't fit easily into a box. On one hand he is down-home country, having eaten, he says, "everything on the hog except the oink," not to mention squirrel, pigeon, rabbit, wild boar and goat. Last Thanksgiving, Spikes hosted a large gathering that included 12 of his teammates, many of whom were repulsed by the barbecued raccoon appetizer that kicked off the feast. Then again, many players call Spikes " Hollywood," a nickname reinforced by his recent guest stints on Disney's The Jersey, BET's MAAD Sports and VIP with Pamela Anderson. In June, Ebony magazine named him one of its 29 most eligible bachelors.
Although Spikes says he wants to be treated as a "VIP everywhere I go," the Bengals' lowly status hasn't helped him achieve that. Since midway through last season he has kept a jar of macadamia nuts in his locker as a reminder that he has yet to be selected for the Pro Bowl. "It's the little stuff that really turns my dial," Spikes says. "For instance, a guy who plays for a winning team can walk into the ESPN Zone [in Atlanta's Buckhead district] and get seated immediately. With me, it's like, 'You play for the Bengals? It'll be just a minute.' "
Determined to upgrade the team's image, Spikes and Anderson met with Bengals president Mike Brown late last season. They told him the players were in favor of retaining LeBeau, suggested ways of improving the work environment (such as adding a nutritionist to the staff) and asked to be involved in the recruitment of free agents. Some of the topics broached were touchy, but Spikes doesn't mind putting his opinions—or those of his teammates—on the line. Before Cincinnati faced the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens on Sept. 23, Spikes took shots at Baltimore quarterback Elvis Grbac, who had spurned the Bengals' advances in free agency because, Grbac said, he wanted to play for a winner. "We were all mad about it," Gibson says, "but Spikes is the one who stood up and voiced it." Then he backed it up, playing a brilliant game and clinching a 21-10 upset with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown.
That's the type of performance that earns players trips to Hawaii, but Spikes has more than individual glory on his mind. His contract will expire after next season, and while he entertained notions of bolting Cincinnati, he now hopes to see his mission through. Since learning of his father's illness last February, Spikes has become more focused and less willing to settle for anything other than excellence. For Takeo (his parents chose the name after seeing a news report on Takeo Miki, Japan's prime minister at the time), every game is an opportunity to honor his father.
"Sitting there after my dad died, watching us play the Browns, made me realize how much I love football," Spikes says. "I was wondering, What else would I be doing at age 24 if the game had been taken away from me? Losing my father ripped me to pieces, and my outlook is different now. I play every play like it could be my last, and it isn't just about me. Nothing makes me prouder than to go out there and represent the Spikes family."