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TAKEO SPIKES CONTINUES TO BE A GRID-IRON WARRIOR

By Scott Pitoniak

Jimmie and Lillie Spikes were in a quandary about what to name their third child.

Shortly after their son’s birth on December 17, 1976 in Augusta, Ga., Lillie suggested they make him a Junior, but her husband was against the idea because he wanted his son to have his own identity. As Lillie surfed the television channels in her hospital room she happened upon a news story about Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki.

“Takeo Spikes,’’ she said to herself. “Hmmm, that’s got a nice ring to it.’’

Lillie decided to do a little research to see what the name meant. Upon discovering that it translated to Great Warrior she was sold. And so was her husband.

“This will be my great warrior,’’ she thought, gazing at her new-born.

In the three decades that have followed, Takeo (pronounced tuh-KEY-oh) Spikes clearly has lived up to his name’s translation. Author of more than 1,000 tackles, 15 interceptions and two Pro Bowl appearances, the San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker has established himself as one of the National Football League’s true warriors. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Spikes has earned the respect of teammates, opponents and coaches not only for his fierce dedication, superb athletic skills and team-first attitude, but also for his ability to persevere through serious injuries and a dozen playoff-less seasons.

“Man, I just love this game of football,’’ he explains. “If I could play forever, I would.’’

Takeo was smitten with the sport from the first time he put on the helmet and shoulder pads as an 8-year-old in Sandersville, Ga., a rural mining town about two hours southeast of Atlanta. His favorite team growing up was the Chicago Bears and his favorite player was their incomparable running back, Walter Payton. “I loved how hard he played every play, every game,’’ Takeo says. “I could relate to him because he was from a small town in Mississippi and I was from a small town in Georgia. I tried to model myself after him as far as his passion for the game was concerned.’’

Although the Pro Football Hall-of-Famer known as “Sweetness” may have been his idol, Takeo’s most influential role models were his parents. His dad logged long hours working in the nearby chalk mines, while his mom taught at the local schools. “My brothers and sister and I were given everything we needed, but not necessarily everything we wanted,’’ Takeo remembers. “My parents instilled principles in us. They taught us about the value of money and having to work hard in order to obtain it.’’

Jimmie and Lillie Spikes ran a tight ship. And as Takeo and his siblings grew older they came to understand how lucky they were to have tough-loving parents looking out for them. “I was fortunate enough to be raised by my mother and my father,’’ Takeo says. “So many kids in my neighborhood not only didn’t have a father, they didn’t have a father figure. It made all the difference in the world to me.’’

Takeo’s dad had been hard at work since the eighth grade, when his father suffered a fatal heart attack. Because he was the oldest child, Jimmie had to quit school and begin working in the plantation fields, picking cotton, corn, lima beans and peas in order to help his mother pay the mortgage. He eventually landed a job at the nearby chalk mine, and worked his way up the ladder to an operator’s position.

“Like most parents, my dad wanted us to have a better life than he did,’’ Takeo says. “He wanted us to make sure we took advantage of the opportunities he didn’t have.’’

For added motivation, the elder Spikes made Takeo work for a few summers at the chalk factory. “He asked his company to give me the dirtiest job possible,’’ Takeo recalls. “They had me clean out the sediment inside these two-story tanks that they would fill daily. After they drained them, you’d have to go in there with an air hammer and break it all up, then shovel out the sediment so they could refill the tanks. My dad was a very smart man, because after doing that kind of work in the heat of a few Georgia summers, I knew what I didn’t want to be and what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life – and that was work in the chalk mines.’’

By that time, Takeo already had a good idea about what he wanted to be and do, anyway. And that was to play football for a living. He had a sensational high school career, earning “Mr. Football’’ honors as the top player in Georgia and All-America honors from USA Today and Parade magazine. After being heavily recruited by virtually every major college football program, Takeo accepted a scholarship from Auburn University, which was just a few years removed from an undefeated season and a national championship. The school had a reputation for producing superb offensive players, such as Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, but Spikes wanted to make a name for himself as a linebacker. “From early on, the defensive side of the ball appealed more to me,’’ he says. “Defense was a release for me. I felt like I really could go out there and hit somebody and not get into trouble for it.’’

In 1997, his senior season, he wound up leading Auburn in tackles (136) and earning All-American honors. He capped his career with a 18-17 victory against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, but his signature performance occurred earlier that season in a victory against LSU in which he made 18 tackles, blocked a kick and picked off a pass.

Takeo was projected as a first-round pick in the 1998 NFL draft and there were strong indications that the Atlanta Falcons were going to select him. “I was ecstatic because that meant I would be getting a chance to play pro ball not far from my home town,’’ he says. But his dream did not materialize because the Falcons used the 12th overall pick of the draft on another linebacker, and Takeo wound up being chosen next by the moribund Cincinnati Bengals. Although disappointed about being drafted by a perennial loser instead of his “hometown” team, Takeo was still thrilled that his life-long aspirations of playing professional football had come true. “I was especially happy for my parents,’’ he says. “They represented the epitome of hard work on a consistent basis. Everything they had preached to me for all those years had paid off. It was extremely gratifying to be able to share that moment with them.’’

Takeo didn’t waste any time showing the Bengals they had made the right pick. He became the first rookie in eight seasons to lead the team in tackles and made such a positive impression on his teammates and coaches that they named him captain before the start of the 1999 campaign. His second season was more impressive than his first as he forced four fumbles, recovered four fumbles, picked off two passes and made three sacks.

But despite his remarkable play, the Bengals continued their losing ways, and the defeats gnawed at Spikes to the point where he would shed tears of frustration at his locker following games. After one particularly galling loss, Cincinnati coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau pulled Takeo aside and told him: “I know you are frustrated. But understand that we will win more games when we get other players around you like you – guys who accept their roles and responsibilities and care as much as you do. All you can do is to continue to give your best and control what you can control.’’ Spikes appreciated the heart-to-heart. “Coach LeBeau became like a second father to me,’’ he says. “He was one of the best things about my Cincinnati days. He kept me sane.’’

Takeo’s upward spiral continued in 2000 as he led the team in tackles and forced fumbles. The following season he was even better, recording six sacks, topping the century mark in tackles a fourth consecutive year and scoring his first NFL touchdown on a 66-yard interception return against the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, his stellar play continued to go unnoticed as he failed to make the Pro Bowl because he had the misfortune of playing for a losing team in a small market.

Sadly, though, he would remember the 2001 season for something far more tragic than the lack of recognition. In October that year, Jimmie Spikes died after an eight-month battle with a cancerous brain tumor. “It was a shocking blow because in my eyes and the eyes of my brothers and sister, Dad had been the ultimate warrior,’’ Takeo says. “The guy never missed a day of work. He never was sick. We always thought of him as indestructible.” Following the funeral, Takeo returned to the Bengals and played the rest of the season with an even greater ferocity. His father would have been proud.

The 2002 season would mark Spikes fifth and final year with the Bengals. The linebacker would become eligible for free agency following the campaign, and no one was more aware of his availability than the Buffalo Bills fans who pulled out all the stops to make Takeo feel right at home when the Bengals played their season finale at Ralph Wilson Stadium that December. Many of them showed up in Bills jerseys with Spikes’ name taped to their backs. A bunch of them sat behind the Bengals bench and applauded Takeo each time he came off the field. The recruiting pitch was pretty obvious: They wanted him to shuffle off to Buffalo, which he ultimately did. “The fans really sweetened it up when I showed up for that game,’’ Spikes recalls, chuckling. “They put the whipped cream on the ice cream sundae. It felt like a place where I belonged.’’

Takeo would not regret the move. In fact, he calls his seasons in Buffalo the most enjoyable of his NFL career. And the passion of the fans was a huge reason. “It was almost like playing high school football on a Friday night in Georgia,’’ he says. “They were into it as much as we players were and that was a great feeling.’’

In 2003, for the sixth straight season, Spikes recorded more than 100 tackles (126) and also intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles to earn his first Pro Bowl invitation. The following year, he managed 30 fewer tackles, but more than made up for that drop in productivity with his exceptional pass coverage. He deflected 16 passes – most in the league by an inside linebacker – and picked off five throws, returning two of them for touchdowns to earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors once more.

Takeo was at the top of his game, finally receiving the national recognition that had eluded him in Cincinnati, while putting down roots in Buffalo. Fans loved him not only for his exceptional enthusiasm and play-making skills, but also for his involvement in the community. He and his fellow linebackers instituted a program where they raised funds and regularly visited patients at a local children’s hospital. “I really thought Buffalo would be the place where I would spend the rest of my career,’’ he says in retrospect.

And that might have happened had bad luck not struck him down three games into the 2005 season. He had been hampered by some tendinitis in his Achilles at the end of the previous season and throughout training camp, but he had always been a guy who played through pain. While attempting to tackle Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, Takeo pulled up and felt his Achilles tendon snap. His season was over and some feared that his days as a player might be kaput, too. “That was the first time in my entire football career – from Pop Warner on up – that I had ever missed games because of injury,’’ he says. “It was very, very tough because I always felt like the warrior man that my father was. I had always thought I was invincible out there on the field.’’

Takeo worked incredibly hard to rehabilitate himself in time for the next season. But, looking back, he realizes that he really didn’t start feeling like his old self again until late during the 2006 campaign. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter, because a new coaching staff was taking over the Bills and it decided to commit to a youth movement and traded Spikes to the Philadelphia Eagles.

“It was very difficult to leave because I had developed such a great relationship with the fans and the people of that community,’’ he says. “I really thought I would retire there.’’

Takeo wound up having a solid 2007 season in Philly, recording 86 tackles in 14 games, but the injury bug bit him again as he suffered a torn rotator cuff in Week 15. The Eagles released him after the season, and Spikes was uncertain where he would land next.

The only solid offer came from the San Francisco 49ers, who were attempting to shed their losing ways and were interested in the veteran leadership Takeo might provide. But Spikes was reluctant to leave the East Coast because it would mean he would see much less of his daughter, Jakai. It wasn’t until Aug. 10, 2008 – just a month before the start of the regular season – that he finally came to terms on a one-year contract. “I really didn’t look forward to going there at first,’’ he recalls. “But, then I said to myself, ‘This could be the ideal situation for me football-wise,’ and it was.’’

Fully healthy for the first time in several seasons, Takeo experienced a football rebirth at the City by the Bay. With 96 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles, he turned in his most productive season since 2004 and wound up earning the team’s Matt Hazeltine Award, given annually to the most courageous and inspirational 49ers defensive player. Part of his rejuvenation resulted from him playing for one of his boyhood Bears heroes, Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who wound up taking over as San Francisco’s head coach.

Singletary was impressed not only with Spikes’ performance, but also with his willingness to mentor young players such as the Niners’ superb linebacker Patrick Willis. At Singletary’s urging, the 49ers offered Spikes a two-year contract extension in 2009. “Coach LeBeau taught me early on how to dissect a defense and along the way I’ve learned how to play both a 3-4 and a 4-3 alignment,’’ Spikes says, when asked about his coach-on-the-field role. “So, I have experience that I can pass on to the younger guys. It’s not that they don’t want to study and learn. It’s just that they don’t know how to study. I had people help me along the way, so I’m just trying to do the same.’’

Although he would love to play forever, Spikes realizes he’s much closer to the end than the beginning of his career. Which is why, in recent years, he’s been laying the groundwork for life after football. Though his charisma and knowledge would make him an excellent coach, his real desire is to go into broadcasting. His goal is to become a football analyst. “I want to stay involved in the game because I love it so much,’’ he explains. “I’ve done on-air radio and TV work, and I think I do a good job of commentating about the game. I believe that I can get my words out clearly, better than many people who have played the game.’’

Given the success of his TKO TV reality show in the San Francisco area, Takeo might not want to restrict himself to analyst work. His efforts to show the behind-the-scenes, human side of the game has made his program must-see TV. “I love talking into the camera,’’ says the gregarious man who was extremely shy growing up. “I feel like I have a story to tell every day, and my teammates love it. I see my experiences with the show as leverage that will allow me to jump into something bigger after football.’’

Speaking of causes bigger than football, Takeo continues to be involved in numerous charitable causes, including an annual camp he holds for boys and girls interested in the game. “I knew what it would have meant to me if a professional athlete had shown interest in me as a kid,’’ he says. “So, I just try to give back some of what I’ve been given along the way.’’

When Takeo finally does hang up his helmet and pads, he hopes to take a year off to travel the world. He has been to Japan, Mexico and Brazil, but he wants to expand his horizons and visit China, Africa and Europe. “I really like to experience different cultures and see how they interact with one another and with people like me who are from a different culture,’’ he says.

In the meantime, there’s a daughter to raise, more football to play, more R&B to hear, more episodes of 24 to watch and more catfish and bass to catch.

Despite the injuries and the playoff drought, it’s been a great run so far for a football warrior who’s proven himself worthy of his name.

Scott Pitoniak is a nationally recognized sports columnist and best-selling author. His 13th book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, will be published by Whitman Books in June. You can read more of his stuff at www.scottpitoniak.com.