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Jessie Bates III Ranging To The Elite

Geoff Hobson

Trevon Wilson, best friend and barber, has set up a satellite shop in the basement of Jessie Bates III’s new Northern Kentucky home. So when he’s in town to watch the Bengals he can cut Bates’ hair just like he did in his parents’ basement when they were in high school.

Pool table. Music. His original barber chair Wilson gave to him. “A throwback feel to it,” Wilson says and that’s just about right. Wilson calls Bates “a classic,” and in a year everyone is looking for the good old days his buddy is playing some good old-fashioned NFL safety.

Just ask another Cincinnati classic.

“Jessie Bates covers a lot of ground and he’s a very intelligent football player,” says David Fulcher, the greatest safety in 52 years of Bengaldom who changed the position in the 1980s. “I think he could be elite.

“He’s seeing with his eyes what is going on on the other side of the ball and he’s making plays. When you’re in centerfield, you’ve got to go right center and left center and sometimes to right field and left field.”

Well, maybe not old-fashioned because Fulcher played at 30 pounds heavier than Bates and observes, “The safeties now are all free safeties.”

But Bates, who is only 23 and has one of those ceilings scouts love to scale, has what his mother agrees is an old soul. He still listens to the music that came out of their car when she put him on every travel team that could move out of Fort Wayne, Ind., and they would listen to Boyz II Men and Jodeci before he would go roam in the center of a basketball court as a point guard or a diamond as a center-fielder or a gridiron as a safety.

So when Fulcher convenes the old school, Bates perks up.

“He was a freaking monster,” Bates says. “If he sees something in me, that means a lot.”

Some believe Bates is already elite and that would include the oft-quoted Pro Football Focus, the Cincinnati-based web site that grades players. Here’s a guy that has played 99 percent of the snaps since the Bengals took him in the second round of the 2018 draft and heading into Bates’ hometown game Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 19) in Indianapolis, PFF, as it has most of the season, has Bates rated as the NFL’s best safety.

By a lot. His grade of 89.0 is more than 10 points ahead of No. 2, Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer, and 13 points ahead of five-time Pro Bowler Harrison Smith, rated No. 3.

“I feel good about my game,” Bates says. “I haven’t had a lot of missed tackles. I’ve been a lot more consistent. Things I kind of struggled with in years past. I’ve tackled well. I’m breaking out of the middle of the field the best I ever have. I should have intercepted a few balls. That will come.”

Robert Livingston, his position coach and the one constant for Bates since his rookie year, agrees that first interception of the season is on its way soon. He thinks Bates can become that great all-around safety, in large part, because he wants to be.

Bates’ Google maps range is helping him play the best safety at Paul Brown Stadium since Reggie Nelson snared 23 interceptions between 2010 and 2015. (“He may be more fluid back there than Reggie,” Fulcher says) and Livingston can see Bates being able to make plays like Nelson did in ’15 against the Steelers at The Paul when he ranged deep down the sideline to pick off Ben Roethlisberger.

Being in the same system for two straight years after going through a coordinator change midway through that rookie season is a big help, too. So has the signing of Vonn Bell, whose fiery leadership from the perennial postseason Saints has been a nice ingredient to a diverse secondary stew. Livingston believes the veteran strong safety tandem of Bell and Shawn Williams has made all three of them better with complementary skills.

“It goes back to being a young guy and getting comfortable in the system and knowing where he fits and who he is in the system,” Livingston says. He’s really blossomed that way. He’s super competitive guy. I think, candidly, he wants to play at the level he knows he can.

“When he’s in the middle of the field, I would put him right up there with anybody in the league. When he’s back there reading his keys and doing everything he’s blessed to do, he has the rare ability to go get the ball.”

This break-out season began, where else, in Fort Wayne in the gym of his trainer since high school. Bates likes to spend the offseason working out in warm weather and Lawrence Barnett would only get him two weeks at a time. But when the pandemic hit Bates stayed in Fort Wayne and it coincided with his desire to bulk up for his tackling. After three and a half months at Traction Athletic Performance, Bates had put on about ten pounds when Barnett sent him to training camp at 209 pounds.

“When he was home we would work mainly on his agility, speed and technique, but this offseason he trusted me to develop another program,” Barnett says. “He would go hard with heavy lifting for two weeks, but it’s just as important to recover. So that third week we were doing a few more reps with not so much weight to give the muscles time to recover.

“Then hit it hard again for two more weeks. Plus, he was doing yoga twice a day and staying up to date on his diet. He was very disciplined. Jessie has his goals and his goal is not just to play in the NFL, but to make an impact in the NFL.”

Barnett could feel Bates’ motto driving the workouts. “Just Believe,” and if you believe him that comes from watching his mother as he grew up. Theresa Trotter was in the middle of it all, too, making calls and breaking on the ball.

She raised three children while working in management at Vera Bradley, the handbag and luggage firm, as well as cleaning offices at night to bolster her salary. When the company moved while Jessie was in high school, she lost her job but almost immediately hooked on with Kroger management while taking college classes all the while. Bates has honored her with his foundation Single Mothers Initiative, which helps moms like his.

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“She’s an amazing woman. She’s been with me all the way,” says Bates, who still remembers her leaving Thanksgiving dinners for the extra job that would help make Christmas better. “She showed me and my siblings that work ethic and what she has done for us will impact our family for generations.”

From the northeast side of Fort Wayne, Trotter had seen a couple of relatives take a wrong turn and she vowed that wouldn’t happen to her son. When they began enjoying watching sports together, such as Indiana basketball and the Peyton Manning Colts, she figured she’d get him into athletics to keep him on the right path and he ended up a natural.

It turns out she had something in common with the Colts quarterback. She says her son liked Manning because of the work-ethic and she saw the impact up close this offseason.

“The extra money was so there always wouldn’t be the everyday grind and we could take some vacations,” Trotter says. “And it cost a lot for those travel teams. We would go everywhere. Baseball. Basketball. And then when they started to do that with football with (7-on-7) and we’ve been going to games ever since.”

But even though they went all over, she says he never wandered far from home. That’s why when he went to college at Wake Forest it was a bit of a surprise. But they still made the 8.5-hour trek on Friday nights and came back Sunday mornings. You can take the kid out of Fort Wayne, but …

“What sets Jessie apart from other people is his mentality,” says Wilson, the barber and best friend. “He’s authentic. He doesn’t fake the funk. He keeps his head on straight. He surrounds himself with the right people. He keeps his family and friends around. He’s a homebody. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. He’s not into being flashy. He just likes having the family and the guys around. He’s not into going out and about. When he’s back home, we do what we did in high school and just kick it at our friends’ (houses).”

The beloved fire-engine red 2008 Dodge Charger is symbolic of Bates’ no frills. It dates back to high school, but he left it at home this season because he finally acquired that dream Mercedes. The Charger, though isn’t going anywhere.

“I was happy to see that he went out and got something like that for himself,” Trotter says.

Maybe the flashiest thing he has is his hair cut. Wilson, who has been cutting his hair since high school, says it’s a unique pattern. The only one of his customers that has it.

“Low fade with a quick transition,” Wilson says.

He has to laugh when he’s told it sounds like his buddy’s 2020 season.

“Very detailed,” Wilson agrees.

Just the way Bates likes it. Same center of the field. Same barber. Same sked. Bengals-Colts is two hours away.

“Just another trip to a game,” his mother says.

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