As an Escalade pulls up to the garage of The Golf Club at Chelsea Piers, I pull up my hair and walk out of the blazing New York City heat on a sunny June day to go meet Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
He hops out of the car dripping in bling, including big diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, bracelets and a watch. He’s joined by his son, Little Dre, and girlfriend Lexy Hight.
We’re about to go to the only driving range in New York City to hit some golf balls, something many Bengals players love to do. Except this isn’t your average driving range. It’s three stories of stalls that overlook the Hudson River. Straight out from our stall is a massive yacht and other boats surround us.
“I might get in trouble, but I’d say Andy Dalton is the best golfer on the team,” Kirkpatrick says. “And Vontaze Burfict. They’re the ones out there talking a lot.”
We’re meeting just days after the Bengals went on a team outing at Top Golf, during which the players were competing for the best parking spots in the garage at Paul Brown Stadium.
“My team came in fourth place. It was me, Josh Shaw, William Jackson and CC,” Kirkpatrick shares as he struggles to think of CC’s actual name. It’s, fittingly, Cody Core. “We call him by his nickname.”
Marvin Lewis picked the captains for each of the Top Golf teams; Kirkpatrick was the captain on his team. He reveals Shaw, who ended up on his team, is the worst golfer on the Bengals. “To see Josh Shaw try to hit the long ball, that was horrible.”
Dalton’s team won and got the best parking spots in the lot.
It’s almost crazy to think 2018 will be Kirkpatrick’s seventh season in the NFL, all with the Bengals. It seems like he was just the young guy in the cornerback room, the guy nabbing two interceptions on Peyton Manning to secure the Bengals a spot in the playoffs in 2014. But Kirkpatrick has now played in 80 games with 48 starts, racking up 195 tackles, 10 interceptions (2 for touchdowns), 55 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries and 2 sacks in the process.
“I was just talking to my coach, Darote Jones about that,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s crazy; I’m the oldest in the room, but I’m still so young at 28. For me to be a leader in the room, the oldest guy in the room, it just shows the trust the team has in me. Instead of bringing an older guy in to lead the room, they feel I can do it. That’s a compliment. And I know I can do it. I’ve been working with the young guys as much as I can. Trying to get them to learn the knowledge and pillars of the game.”
It’s around this point when Kirkpatrick’s son starts requesting his help on the driving range. Little Dre is doing a pretty good job swinging the clubs, but it’s time for dad to step in. Big Dre’s first shot isn’t great. It goes short right. He needs to warm up and while he does, we start talking about Adam Jones, Kirkpatrick’s good friend and teammate since his first day in Cincinnati, up until the Bengals decided to let Jones walk away this offseason.
With Jones out of the picture in Cincinnati, it’s Kirkpatrick and a bunch of guys on their rookie deals in the cornerback room.
“It’s always sad, especially when you are close to someone like that,” Kirkpatrick said of the Bengals moving on from Jones. “Adam is always part of the family, but he’s not around to be part of the things we’re doing right now. It’s tough, especially when you learned so much from a guy. He’s taught me so much, so have Leon (Hall) and Terence (Newman). And now it’s my job to go out there and do the same thing they did for me. Really guide me, teach me and coach me along the way.”
The focus now is on Kirkpatrick pairing up with Jackson, a youngster on the rise in Cincinnati and how Darqueze Dennard can also fit into that picture while on the final year of his rookie deal.
“William Jackson has definitely grown and he’s destined for greatness. Davonte (Harris) and Darius (Phillips) are pretty cool,” Kirkpatrick added, referencing the Bengals’ two rookie cornerbacks drafted in the fifth round this year. They’re in different situations coming in because when I came in I was a first round, when Quez came in he was a first round and when Will came in he was a first round. So it’s a little tough for these guys, but it’s not a job they can’t do.”
Kirkpatrick alludes to the Bengals’ love for first round corners as he started a trend for the team. The Bengals drafted a first-round cornerback in even years from 2012 to 2016. That ended this year, but the team still made sure to add two cornerbacks to the roster via the draft. Harris was selected first out of Illinois State and Phillips came later on in the same round out of Western Michigan.
They’re all being coached by Daronte Jones, who joined the Bengals as the team’s cornerbacks coach in January after spending the last two seasons with the Miami Dolphins as their assistant defensive backs coach.
“Oh man I love him,” Kirkpatrick said of Jones. “You know, besides Vance Joseph, this is the only coach I have a for real bond with. I talk to him, call him all the time, text all the time. He’s been to my house. No coach has ever been to my house. That just shows the relationship he wants to have with me and that I’m willing to have with him.”
The Bengals are hoping that Jones, coupled with first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, provide a big boost to the cornerback group in all areas, including turnovers. Bengals cornerbacks only accounted for five interceptions and one forced fumble in 2017. Dennard had two interceptions, Kirkpatrick had one interception and one forced fumble, Jackson had a pick six and Jones had one interception.
“Me and TA have been getting to bond a little bit, too,” Kirkpatrick said of Austin. “Change is sometimes good and sometimes bad and in this case I feel like it’s good. I love the things he’s doing. He’s keeping everything simple and not over-coaching things. He’s just letting everything play out the way it should and that’s one of the keys to a great coach for me. A great coach needs to be flexible and I feel he’s been very flexible with the guys in the room and the leaders on the team.”
As we take a break from talking, he gets back into the tee box to hit some more balls. The sun is radiating down on us, but he’s determined to hit a ball as far out as possible toward the water hazard, 180 yards away.
He hits one 115 yards.
It’s time for a break. Little Dre takes a club out of the big bag provided to us and starts taking some shots.
“He’s been coming to the stadium since I’ve been with the Bengals. He loves it, I love it,” Kirkpatrick says of his son while taking turns hitting balls with him. “We’ve grown together through football. That’s something you can always tell. Being a football player has given me an opportunity to bond with my son because it’s something he truly loves and has a passion for and for him to be able to watch me is kind of surreal.”
- Dre Kirkpatrick with his son, Dre and girlfriend, Lexy Hight. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick in New York City at Chelsea Piers. Rebecca Toback
- Rebecca Toback
- The golf course at Chelsea Piers. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick on the driving range in NYC. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick taking a swing on the driving range at Chelsea Piers. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick watching his son Dre on the driving range in NYC. Rebecca Toback
- Dre Kirkpatrick at the Chelsea Piers Golf Club. Rebecca Toback
- Chelsea Piers in New York City. Rebecca Toback
The Bengals’ starting cornerback surely has lots of wisdom to share with his young son, but what’s the biggest lesson he’s learned since joining the Bengals?
“Keep your mouth closed and let things play out; don’t force situations. They already have a plan and you can’t just go in and verbally move yourself up the ladder. So just go in and do your job,” Kirkpatrick says.
It sounds like a lesson many NFL players could and should take to heart. Kirkpatrick spent tons of time on the bench in his first few seasons. He started the final three games of the 2013 season, his second year in the league. That was due to injuries at the cornerback position. In those games he had 4 passes defensed, 2 interceptions (1 for a touchdown) and 15 tackles.
But when the team was healthy again at the start of the next year, he went back to the bench in his third NFL season, despite being a first round pick. Again, it took injuries at the end of the season for him to start. He started two games at the end of the year (Weeks 15 and 17), plus the playoff game that postseason. In those three games he had 3 passes defensed, 1 interception and 7 tackles. It was actually sandwiched between the regular season games in which he started, in Week 16 when he didn’t start, that Kirkpatrick had maybe the best game of his NFL career. It was a two-interception game against Manning and the Broncos that put the Bengals into the playoffs. Finally, in 2015 Kirkpatrick earned starter duties after a long time waiting on the bench.
“It showed me discipline, patience and made me realize where I was and where I wanted to be,” Kirkpatrick said. “The system I was in, it was set up for me to fail. It was set up for me to cry and nag about why I’m not playing or why I’m not getting playing time. Instead of doing those things, I just went out and played. I trusted the guys I had around me and I trusted my family.”
In 2017, Kirkpatrick signed a massive contract extension with the Bengals that keeps him in Cincinnati through the 2021 season. He’s as determined as ever to help the Bengals win not only a playoff game but a Super Bowl.
“The number one goal is always to win a Super Bowl, but my expectation for us is to come together, bond better, have better chemistry than we had last year, and get some playoff wins,” he says. “Like I said, the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, but I’d love to see some playoff wins for the city.”
Kirkpatrick doesn’t think it’s a curse or bad luck that’s kept the Bengals from winning a playoff game, he cited the team chemistry as something holding them back.
“I think the chemistry and not necessarily people fighting or anything like that, but I don’t think the chemistry was where it needed to be. You go a long way with chemistry,” he said, noting he’s already noticed a difference with the 2018 team’s chemistry. “Now, guys are really responding to the new coaches. Everybody is ready to work. Everyone was getting tired of the ‘can’t do this and can’t do that.’ I feel like everyone is really buying into the new system and it’s really motivating guys.”
One guy who is extra motivated is second-year wide receiver John Ross who failed to record a catch during his rookie year. Kirkpatrick says so far this offseason, he’s been most impressed by the 2017 No. 9 overall pick.
“I’ve been very impressed by John Ross,” Kirkpatrick says in maybe the most serious voice he’s used yet. “I told him in the offseason when he was rehabbing and I was just sitting back and laying around. I said ‘you need to get focussed and come back with a sense of urgency and know you’re going to make a difference on this team,’ and I feel like he came back with that mindset.”
That’s been the case so far in training camp where Ross has been putting on a show and making daily highlight reel plays.
“Everybody is working hard on defense, but Ross is kind of the standout guy on offense right now,” Kirkpatrick said.
Going back to being one of the most veteran guys on the defense, Kirkpatrick will need to take his game up a notch during Burfict’s four-game suspension to start the season. The Bengals are far too used to dealing with Burfict being off-the-field and Kirkpatrick knows the team is not the same without the troubled linebacker in the lineup.
“The impact Burfict has on-the-field is bringing a lot of energy and his attitude,” Kirkpatrick said. “I feel like a lot of guys feed off his attitude, the way he plays, the hunger he has of not caring about anything but the game of football when he’s on that field, so I feel like that rubs off on everybody.”
With that said, Kirkpatrick trusts his teammates at the linebacker position to step up and fill the void while Burfict serves his PED suspension.
“Preston Brown led the league in tackles and we know he’s going to be a guy who can force on the run and stuff like that, something Tez is very good at,” Kirkpatrick said. “And we still got veteran guys like Vinny Rey to fill in the void, like making play calls and adjustments. It’s hard to say next man up when you’re dealing with the kind of player of his caliber, but I definitely have faith in the guy who will be the next man up.”
For now, the Bengals are preparing to have a much-improved season from last year, which includes the daily grind of training camp.
“I think after your first two or three years in the league, you start looking forward to training camp,” Kirkpatrick said. “My first few years I still wanted to have fun and party, but the older you get the more you take your job seriously.”
As far as this season goes, Kirkpatrick is ready to compete and help the Bengals get back to the playoffs after a two-year drought. In addition to playing the Steelers, he’s looking forward to getting back down to the south where he’s from.
“Of course I’m looking forward to playing Pittsburgh,” he said. “We always get excited for that. But I’m also definitely ready to play Atlanta. It’ll be my first time playing Julio (Jones), so that’s a matchup I know I’m going to take very personally. We played college ball together and the first time you actually see someone on the field, you know he’s going to be ready to compete and I want to be ready to compete also.”
As we finished off our conversation, Kirkpatrick stepped back up to the tee in his quest to finally hit a ball straight out toward the water. He wasn’t ready to give up after hitting a bunch of shots out 150 and 155 yards down the range.
Finally, he hit the shot he was gunning for, straight out toward the water and about 170 yards away. Let’s just hope his persistence in winning this season is as strong as his drive to perfect that shot.