Bernard Scott knows what he did. He returned a kickoff 96 electric yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and then he filled in capably for injured tailback Cedric Benson, and at the end of the game the Cincinnati Bengals were in first place in the AFC North ... and Bernard Scott was an anonymous sixth-round draft pick no more.
And that's not necessarily in his best interest.
See, Bernard Scott has a past, and it's not the greatest of pasts, and now that he has outed himself as a fabulous football talent, people will start digging into that past. They'll wonder who he is, where he came from, how come he's so old (25) for a rookie.
|Bernard Scott made his name known with a 96-yard kickoff return in the win at Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)|
"So be it," he told me Sunday. "I deserve whatever they say about me."
You see that quote? That's why he's going to make it.
If I just tethered myself to Bernard Scott, well, like the man said: So be it. If he falls, I fall. Fine by me, and I say that knowing some athletes shouldn't be tethered to anything more significant than a salami sandwich. Some guys are habitual screw-ups, dummies of the recidivist variety, but those guys would never, ever tell you, "I deserve whatever they say about me."
Ownership of his checkered past is one reason to believe Scott won't checker his future as well. Maturity is another reason. He turns 26 in February, a long way from the teenager who was kicked off his high school team for fighting, and even from the college freshman at Central Arkansas who was kicked off that team for fighting ... and then for striking at a coach who was breaking up the fight.
That's the bad one, of course. Hitting a coach? Bad stuff there. Far worse, in the grand scheme of things, than any of his five arrests for misdemeanor knuckleheadedness like fighting or traffic violations or stealing (allegedly) an iPod. You can do those things and get a second chance. Hit a coach? You can't do that.
And Scott says he didn't. So does a former Central Arkansas assistant, Chris Thomsen, who comes from the same small town of Vernon, Texas, and who later coached Scott at Abilene Christian.
"From what I understand, there was a fight and someone grabbed Bernard by the shoulder pads, and Bernard brushed that person off trying to get back into the fight," Thomsen said. "He didn't know it was a coach, and as soon as he realized who it was, he stopped."
Too late. Scott was done. He transferred to a junior college in Texas, where he posted the first of three consecutive seasons with close to 2,000 rushing yards. The second and third such seasons came at Abilene Christian, where he ran for 4,321 yards and 62 touchdowns on dominant Division II teams that went 21-4 in 2007 and '08.
Scott had Day 1 draft talent, but his background caused him to drop. He was taken No. 209, the last player selected in the sixth round, and for months that's all he has been: The 209th player drafted. No more notable than No. 208 (Virginia tight end John Phillips) or No. 210 (Georgia Tech defensive tackle Vance Walker). One more face in the background.
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And until Sunday, Scott stayed in the background. No skid marks off the field, no exclamation marks on it. But then he fielded a bad, bouncing kickoff at the 4, eluded traffic at the 15, cut across the field and sprinted into the end zone, pausing only to let Steelers kicker Jeff Reed rumble past him. That was the only touchdown scored by either team all day in the Bengals' 18-12 victory, and as Scott knows, beauty on the field can lead to ugly headlines off it.
When he was a college senior, he put up cartoon numbers against West Texas A&M, accounting for 353 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns. The New York Times dispatched a reporter to Abilene, Texas, to figure out who in the world was Bernard Scott. The Times figured it out, all right.
"He hadn't been in a fight for years," Thomsen says. "And he still hasn't. He's matured, he's grown. He's not the same person he was, and there's not a doubt in my mind that he's going to make it -- I think he already has. But some people will focus on the other stuff."
Now it could happen again: Scott has a great football game, and people start focusing on the other stuff. Maybe it already has happened. Maybe I just did it here by writing this story and noting that the Bernard Scott who electrified the Steelers on Sunday is the same Bernard Scott who had some off-field issues as a younger man.
Scott is OK with it. He was one of the last Bengals to get dressed Sunday because he stayed at his locker for me. On the greatest day of his professional career, he was willing to talk about the mistakes of his past. And that's why he's not going to make those mistakes in the future. I believe that. Open your heart and listen to him some more. You'll believe it too.
"I did those things [years ago], but that's not me," he says. "That was me, but that's not me now. I was immature, but I've grown up. Whatever comes up from this, hey, it's all right. I don't mind talking about where I've been. I should have to talk about it. I can't hide from it. It's who I am."
It's who he was.