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Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow defying perceptions

You think you know a guy, don't you?

You have read all of the headlines. You have heard all of the punch lines. You have kept up with all of the controversies.

By now, you know his reputation, and you have measured his character, and you think you have a pretty good handle on his personality. From a thousand miles away, you have judged whether he is a good guy or a bad one.

It is the way of the American sports fan. Give people a few highlights, tell them about a few lowlights, let them spend 10 minutes googling a guy's history, and they think they can see into his soul.

Then a player such as Kellen Winslow Jr. comes to town.

And, surprise of surprises, he invites you to take another look.

Give him a chance, and perhaps you will discover that he is not at all what you might have suspected.

Winslow walks into the meeting room at One Buc Place, and his voice does not bounce off the walls, and he does not beat his chest, and he does not demand the ball. His voice is quiet, insistent. His passion is obvious; his standards are high. He is insightful, analytical, entertaining and, in case you wondered, delighted to be here.

This is Winslow laid bare. For the first time since coming to Tampa Bay in the offseason, Winslow has lifted the shade to let people see what is inside.

"I got a fresh start here," Winslow says. "I couldn't ask for anything better. Our record is what it is, but I'm truly happy. You look around, and guys are really having fun around here.

"We got our first win. It is only one win, but I haven't won in a long time (13 games, dating back to last year with the Browns). Coming from Cleveland, it was pretty frustrating over there. I'm just all smiles here."

The Bucs are smiling, too. As Winslow gets ready to return to Miami, where he starred as a tight end for the Hurricanes, he has 35 catches for 352 yards and five scores. Even for a player who hasn't had three starting quarterbacks this year, those are good numbers.

"Since he's been here, he's been nothing but special, nothing but a good guy, nothing but a good teammate," Bucs coach Raheem Morris says. "He's found a home, and I hope he's here for a long time."

Yet the old controversies still follow Winslow around. When he was 19 and a sophomore at Miami, he compared himself to a soldier during a postgame outburst. When he was 21, he had a motorcycle accident that threatened his career. In a league as troubled as the NFL, should a silly comment and a serious accident define a man's career?

"I learned a lot from the whole soldier thing," Winslow says. "When Kellen Winslow's son says something, it gets magnified. So I learned to stay quiet.

"People believe what they believe. What they read. What they hear. What they see on TV. You look up Kellen Winslow (on the Internet) right now, and the soldier thing is right there. People like negative."

Do people still care? Put it this way: The better Winslow plays, the less Tampa Bay fans will worry about things that happened long ago and far away.

For instance, did you see Winslow's touchdown catch against Green Bay? When Josh Freeman threw the ball, the first thought was that it might break something on the pirate ship. Somehow, Winslow managed to leap high enough to catch the ball and come down in bounds.

"He looked like he was getting ready to windmill for a dunk," receiver Sammie Stroughter says.

Winslow shakes his head. "I wasn't high at all, man," he says. "I can't really jump that high any more. It really wasn't that hard of a catch. It looked better than what it was. It wasn't a LeBron James or a Kobe (Bryant) jump."

To understand Winslow, perhaps you should start with his expectations. After all, tight end is a family profession around the Winslow home. That's why Winslow wears pads during those practices when it is not required, why he runs plays with the scout team after practice is over, why he seems almost obsessive about playing the position.

"I want to be the best," he says. "Plain and simple. That's why I play the game. That's what I've always wanted to do. Play tight end. Be better than my dad.

"I love this game, man. More than anybody. I was born into this. I see my dad (former Charger Kellen Winslow Sr., a Hall of Famer) as this god figure when I was growing up, and that's what I wanted to be like. Ever since I can remember, since I was 4 or 5, this is what I've wanted to do."

His father can be hard on him, Winslow says. He can be hard on himself, too.

"I haven't done anything yet," says Winslow, nicknamed K-2. "This is what I think: If I ended my career today, I've done nothing. I've done what a lot of other tight ends have done. That's no disrespect to them, but I have higher goals."

He can recite the current statistics of other tight ends. He studies them in cut-ups, trying to pick up this from Tony Gonzalez and that from Antonio Gates and something else from Jason Witten.

Part of the success of a tight end, Winslow points out, is having a good quarterback to work with. Dallas Clark has Peyton Manning. Gates has Philip Rivers. His father had Dan Fouts. Winslow? He has hopes that Freeman will be the one.

"He can be," Winslow says. "Just looking at him, his mechanics for a young guy are very good. That's what's going to set him apart, because everyone has ability. He's going to be good. It's going to take him a while. He couldn't even get the plays out six or seven weeks ago."

Want to know how much football means to Winslow? Go back to the darkest moment of his career. It was after his motorcycle accident when doctors told him he might never play football again.

"I really thought of suicide, to be honest," Winslow says. "But my wife (Janelle) was right there by my side. I was told I was never going to play. I was miserable. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to live anymore.

"I'd say it lasted for a couple of weeks. 'Just what am I doing? What am I going to do now? My dream is gone.' But I didn't let it beat me. I came back, and I'm here."

He could own this town, you know. He has the ability; he has the charisma. If only he would talk a little more, if only he would let people get to know him, a lot of fans would be wearing No. 82 jerseys.

"On offense, you have to play a certain way," Winslow says, grinning. "But if I played defense, I could say whatever I wanted. I'd be a totally different guy. You would see the real me. I would be a (Warren) Sapp, a John Randle. I'd talk more stuff than anyone on the field."

Playing defense is obviously a subject Winslow has considered. A lot. He'd like to play outside linebacker. In a 3-4. Lined up over the right tackle. If you can work it out, he would be willing to start today.

Settling for offense, Winslow has been the Bucs' most consistent contributor. If you disagree, look at what the Packers did to try to stop him. They took their best corner, Charles Woodson, and moved him to cover Winslow.

"As soon as I saw that, I smiled," Winslow says. "I knew that was going to create mismatches for someone else."

All of that said, the Bucs are only 1-7. For goodness' sake, even the Browns, Winslow's former team, are 1-7.

This, he says, is better. Here, he says, he can see progress.

"We're going to be d--- good," he says. "It just takes time. We didn't think we were going to be 1-7 when we came in, but there is just a lot of positive energy around here. It's really because of Rah (Morris). He's going to get us there."

From here, it seems like a lofty goal. From here, it seems like a difficult goal to reach.

Then again, maybe Winslow can leap high enough for that one, too.

Bucs at Dolphins, 1 p.m., Land Shark Stadium, Miami. TV/Radio: Ch. 13; 103.5-FM, 620-AM

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow defying perceptions 11/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 8:31pm]
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