As the team breaks its huddle and begins to disperse—a tall cluster of helmets and shoulder pads separating into massive, chiseled individuals glistening with sweat—the first things you notice are his feet. Not his massive arms, a pair of tree trunks sprouting from either side of his black cutoff T-shirt. Not his shoulders, broad enough to haul a mid-sized sedan on his squat, wide frame. Not his barrel chest, currently emblazoned with bengals in orange block capital letters. No, the first things you notice about Geno Atkins are his feet.
“He walks like a duck,” says fellow Bengals defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry.
Atkins is lumbering across the grass, another training camp session completed, stopping every few seconds to sign an autograph or pose for a picture with the fans lined along the side of the practice field. As he walks, his feet splay outward, his gait slow and plodding.
“You can’t really take him serious,” says Gilberry. “But then you see him on the field and you’re like: Holy shit! This mother can play. ”
In just his fourth year in the NFL, Atkins has developed into not only the anchor of a very young and talented Bengals defense but perhaps the league’s best interior defensive lineman. He’s also one of the key pieces of a franchise in the midst of a lengthy rebuilding process, securing back-to-back playoff berths last season for the first time in 30 years (though a playoff win has remained elusive since 1991).
His talent speaks loudly—booms across the field, in fact. But it’s the personality beneath that orange-and-black-striped helmet that’s something of a mystery. There is no shortage of praise from teammates, coaches, opponents, and analysts when it comes to his on-field production, yet Atkins himself has a reputation as a quiet guy, not one for bombastic quotes or flamboyant in-game celebrations. It’s why I’m waiting for him today and have been bugging him all week, even pestering his teammates for anything that will get Atkins to open up and talk about himself.
“That’s just how Geno is,” says teammate Carlos Dunlap. “He lets his pads do the talking.”
Atkins sees me waiting at the end of the autograph line and offers a nod. He finishes posing for one last picture and waddles over, giving me the chance to ask and him to evade more questions about his silent stardom. As we begin to chat, walking side-by-side, cornerback Leon Hall comes jogging past.
“Speak up, Geno,” he hollers. Then, turning and jogging backward, he adds, “We can’t hear you! We can’t hear you!”
Atkins just smirks and continues walking. No reply.
“What’s your greatest strength as a player?”
“Teamwork,” says Atkins.
“Alright, what’s your second greatest strength?”
“Listening,” he replies.
“What aspect of your game do you feel still needs the most improvement?”
Atkins grew up in Pembroke Pines, Florida, the son of former NFL safety Gene Atkins Sr., a name and career passed down from father to son. “He was always Gene,” says George Smith, Atkins’s high school football coach. “We never called him Geno down here.”
A natural on the gridiron, he played for the Raiders of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale under Smith, winner of six state championships during his 34-year career as head coach. And other than his first name, Atkins was more or less the same then as he is now. “Man of few words but always smiling,” says Smith, now the athletic director at St. Thomas Aquinas. “Had a walk to him like, I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere, but I’m gonna get there. Humble guy. He just took care of business.”
A two-sport athlete when he arrived at the University of Georgia in 2006, Atkins competed in football and shot put all four years as an undergrad before the Bengals selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, hoping to land a niche inside defender who could pressure the pocket on passing downs. At 6-foot-1, he was projected as too small to play against the run. “He’s short,” says Jay Hayes, the Bengals defensive line coach. “He’s not the prototype [for a defensive tackle].”
His size and situational skills caused him to slide down draft boards, but it didn’t hinder his performance at the professional level. By his second season he had developed into an every-down, All-Pro-caliber defensive tackle, followed by a monster third year that included 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus, a statistical evaluation website that grades each player on a game-to-game basis, declared Atkins’s 2012 campaign the best ever by a defensive tackle since the site began tracking league-wide performance in 2008. “You notice him so often, and you don’t normally see that with a defensive tackle,” says Khaled Elsayed, the chief operating officer for Pro Football Focus. “He’s just so explosive.”
Respect for Atkins spread rapidly across the league. In a second consecutive playoff season for the Bengals, the young defensive tackle led the charge for a unit that finished sixth in total defense, earning himself another Pro Bowl invite and making First Team All-Pro. This past offseason he was voted No. 36 on the NFL’s Top 100 by fellow players.
“He is the type of guy that makes plays. He’s not flashy. He just plays his technique and plays it well—and he’s disruptive,” says Hayes, who’s worked in the NFL and major college programs for 25 years. “He’s the best player I’ve ever coached.”
The time: a sunny but cool Sunday afternoon last November. The place: Paul Brown Stadium. The situation: First and 10 for the Oakland Raiders. Quarterback Carson Palmer, now wearing Raiders silver and black following his ignominious exit from Mike Brown’s clutches, is facing his old team for the first time and receiving nothing but scorn from the home crowd. With the ball at the 35 yard line, Palmer steps behind his center. To his right, opposite the offensive guard’s outside shoulder, lurks Atkins. He’s hunched over, his right arm firmly planted, left hand cocked in anticipation.
The ball is snapped. As Palmer turns to his right on a play-action ball fake, Atkins blasts off the line and shoots past Raiders right guard Mike Brisiel. A simple shove with his right arm is all that’s needed to neutralize a feeble last-ditch effort to slow him down. As Palmer fakes the handoff and turns his eyes up-field, Atkins is already in his face. Palmer leaps backwards out of sheer surprise, clutching the football to his stomach, and Atkins, a 300-pound blur, wraps the airborne QB in his arms, slamming him to the turf for a seven-yard loss.
The entire sequence takes less than two seconds.
Sixty thousand fans erupt in a vengeful cheer. Fellow defensive lineman Michael Johnson rushes over and offers his teammate a few congratulatory slaps to the helmet as Atkins hops to his feet and ambles back to the huddle.
“I’m gonna give you the uncut Geno: He’s a lazy piece of shit. He doesn’t work hard. He’s definitely overrated. He walks around like he’s this big macho guy, but he’s not. He’s soft. He takes all the glory. We soften them up and he comes in, knight in shining armor, riding his black horse with pretty little roses hanging from its hair. That’s it. That’s the true Geno Atkins for you. And you heard it from me first.”
Wallace Gilberry unleashes a juicy cackle, drowning out the muffled laughter of several defensive linemen seated around him. Gilberry has no shortage of quips at Atkins’s expense, though according to him, it’s purely payback. The narrative of Geno Atkins as the quiet, shy standout is not one that exists within the Bengals locker room.
“He’s not quiet with me,” says fullback Chris Pressley. “He won’t stop talking.”
“He jokes the most out of any of us,” claims Gilberry. “They say I’m the prankster, but Geno, he’s sneaky. He stirs up the hornet’s nest and we walk straight into it.”
This is not the Geno Atkins I’ve been hovering around the past few weeks. He’s always polite, always smiling, always willing to listen, but far from forthcoming. And that’s when I can find him; he is known to slip into the players’ lounge during interview sessions to catch a nap on one of the La-Z-Boy recliners. But maybe it’s just a media thing, a defense mechanism. Maybe he really is a wisecracking chatterbox until the cameras and notepads come out.
“Not really, no,” chuckles Hayes. “He’s very quiet, always has been. He talks to his teammates, but usually when I come around, it’s more respectful. I think he’s just a quiet person.”
That duality shapes his off-field personality as well. There’s the typical 25-year-old—playing Call of Duty with Carlos Dunlap, going to concerts with Chris Pressley, grabbing a bite to eat at Mr. Sushi with Michael Johnson, catching a movie with the guys. (“He’s a movie buff,” says Johnson. “Doesn’t always pick the best ones, but if we wanna go see a movie, we ask him.”) And then there’s the other persona, the side he so often displays on the field and in public. Call it The Quiet Side of Geno Atkins.
“He’s a nerd,” says Pressley with obvious affection. “Likes to keep up with technology, play board games, listen to indie rock.”
“He’s the kind of guy that you’ll catch at Newport on the Levee, watching a movie by himself,” says Gilberry.
“And he’s got two pet turtles,” adds Johnson. “When we have our breaks, he’s always trying to go feed them. He really likes them.”
No one has a bad thing to say about him. No one is even ambivalent. “Geno’s one of those guys—everybody loves him,” says Gilberry. “You can’t hate him because you don’t have a reason to.”
“Word is you’re a big movie guy,” I tell Atkins one day after practice.
He nods his head. “I watch a couple movies.”
“Who’s your favorite actor?”
“I just like to watch movies.”
“What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?”
“There really hasn’t been a great movie this summer.”
Five seconds of excruciating silence.
“So I hear you have pet turtles.” He perks up a little.
“Yeah,” he says, encouragingly. “I have a red-eared slider and an African sideneck—Henry III and Longneck Rex. See, the African sideneck has a long neck, so he uses his neck to extend out and get his prey.”
“What about Henry III?”
Atkins shrugs. “I decided to name the next turtle I got Henry.”
I can’t help myself. “So…why turtles?”
“I can’t get a dog,” says Atkins, “so that’s the next best thing.”
Hard to tell but that might have been a joke.
One of the biggest factors in the Bengals transition from perennial NFL cellar dweller to annual playoff contender has been the organization’s improved ability to evaluate and select talent through the draft. For years the franchise botched top 10 picks like they were grade school science projects, with prospect after prospect crashing and burning as the team stacked one losing season on top of the next. Blame was generally directed at the notoriously frugal owner and general manager Mike Brown, skewered by fans and media for being too cheap to hire a competent coaching staff or employ a proper scouting department. Yet over the last couple of seasons the script has flipped. The generally accepted plot twist for this remarkable about-face? An increase in the number of scouts on the payroll. But it’s more subtle than that. While the structure of the scouting department has remained largely the same over the past decade, more weight and responsibility is being given to the scouts’ evaluations.
Each year the scouts whittle down a list of targeted draft prospects and present them to the coaching staff and front office for consideration, looking for commonalities between their assessments. As Brown has dialed back his tight control of the roster, the scouts and coaches have gotten better at drafting and seen a better return on their investments. Certainly, luck plays a part in the equation—sometimes a player falls to you at the right spot, sometimes he doesn’t—and the Bengals have been both wise and lucky in recent years, hitting on most of the team’s first-round picks while also successfully cherry-picking starters and major contributors in the second round and beyond. Geno Atkins is the premier example. He was a situational player who fell to the 120th overall selection in the 2010 draft. Overlooked and undervalued—except in the eyes of Bengals scouts. They saw an intelligent, motivated guy with a good work ethic and the potential to develop beyond his initial draft value.
“I think Geno—his production, everything he’s done—has warranted the reputation that he’s garnered. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league,” says head coach Marvin Lewis. “Anytime we draft a player, we’re hoping he continues to ascend. It hasn’t surprised me how effective Geno has been.”
Atkins’s ascension also corresponds with the scouting department’s long-term goal to develop players in-house and retain them beyond their initial contract. In early September, just before the start of the regular season and with one year still remaining on his rookie deal, the Bengals extended Atkins for another five years at $55 million, the second largest contract extension for a defensive tackle in NFL history. It was a deal that had been on the docket since the end of last season, a worthy reward for his body of work. But it also represents the challenge that accompanies performances like the one Atkins had in 2012, the on-field adjustments that come with All-Pro selections, double-digit sacks, and now, multi-million-dollar contracts. His success will necessitate extra attention from his opponents, forcing him to adapt, to continue looking for ways to gain an advantage.
Atkins, however, appears unfazed. He still trains and prepares in the same quiet, modest, methodical fashion that’s gotten him this far—in effect, projecting a vibe that says: Why change now?
“I don’t think that’s in Geno’s blood,” says receiver A.J. Green, who also played with Atkins at the University of Georgia. “He’s the same humble, funny guy. He always stays true to himself.”
“He’s the type of guy that you love to coach,” says Hayes.
Again the team huddles and breaks at the end of another training camp practice, and again Atkins heads for the sidelines. It’s about two weeks before he will sign the contract extension, though rumors of an increased effort by the Bengals to finalize the deal have been swirling. Atkins claims he pays no attention to the issue, just lets his agent handle it. (His only comment to me once the deal is inked? “It’s a blessing.”)
Fans are stacked four-deep along the edges of the practice field, their outstretched arms holding posters, photos, T-shirts, footballs, and helmets in one hand, black Sharpies in the other, shouting the names of their favorite players as they get closer. Atkins takes his time, signing as many items as possible. After nearly a half hour, he’s the only player left. A Bengals staffer moves in, trying to hustle him through. “I think I already got y’all,” Atkins says to a cluster of lingering fans, incapable of simply ignoring them and walking away. They smile appreciatively and glance back at their memorabilia, searching for his signature. Atkins tries to hide a smirk as he turns to leave. “Mind tricks,” he whispers to me. “Mind tricks.”
As he exits the practice field and heads toward the stadium, Atkins asks me for the time and mentions that his mother, sister, and girlfriend are all coming in for a visit over the weekend. He still has a few things to get ready at his house.
“Any big plans?” I ask.
Atkins teeters along, another team official waiting to whisk him away for a radio interview. “Probably just do our ritual,” he says. “Clean my house and go grocery shopping.” It’s a somewhat prosaic response from a man who terrorizes quarterbacks and upsets the best laid plans of opposing coaches on a weekly basis. But what else would one expect a 25-year-old to do when his mom comes to town for a visit?
Maneuvering his bulk through a nondescript stadium door, he glances back with a slight smile. “They help me get situated before the season starts,” he says. “I’ve been busy.”
Originally published in the November 2013 issue.