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A student of history Inspired by those who came before, Takeo Spikes driven to fill postseason hole on resume

He was always fascinated by the place, but for all the time Takeo Spikes spent living in Ohio, he never set foot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He wanted to wait until the time was right, when his father was in town, so they could make the trip to Canton together, like so many fathers and so many sons.

Someday, he thought, they would go together.

Jimmie Spikes was a man of principle, a hard worker from a different generation. He was the son of a sharecropper. Jimmie Spikes was 12 when his father died, so he quit school and worked in the Georgia fields to support the family. He spent 30 years laboring in kaolin mines, digging out clay used in making porcelain. He instilled his sense of history in Takeo, insisted his son appreciate the people who came before him.

"In order for you to get where you want to go," Spikes said, "you have to remember where you came from."

That's why football's shrine was so important to this father and this son. A look into the past would provide a path to the future. In 2001, before he began his fourth season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Spikes and his father decided to make the trip. They made plans. Someday neared. But someday never came.

Within a few months, Jimmie Spikes was dead. He passed away Oct. 12, 2001, a brain tumor taking him too early, at 61. Takeo was devastated. He has started 111 games since he entered the National Football League -- 111 of 112. The one game he missed was Oct. 14, 2001. He has since dedicated his career to his father.

"We never had the chance for us to go together," Spikes said of the Hall. "We were planning on going, and that happened. We didn't have him for a long time at all."

In July, on his way from Atlanta to Buffalo Bills training camp, Spikes took a detour to the Hall. He was among his heroes, the biggest one looking down from the heavens, when he realized he wasn't simply visiting a football museum. This was a moving experience, something deeper, something richer than he expected.

Yes, he thought, this is where the great ones live forever.

Spikes stood before Lawrence Taylor's bust and thought about LT in a different life, when he dominated with the New York Giants. He spent some time looking at Mike Singletary's bust and remembered his days with the '85 Bears. Spikes was just a kid, fantasizing about the NFL, when they were in their primes.

"I just wanted to see what the great ones did, see what they accomplished and look at their resumes," Spikes said. "I wanted to see what I could do to get to that level. I've learned that you can't accomplish personal goals if it's not set within the team concept. It's on all those guys' resumes, especially linebackers. They had championships. If they didn't win a championship, they played for it."

There lies the gaping hole in Spikes' resume.

He's entering his eighth NFL season, yet he's never appeared in the postseason. He's never even appeared on "Monday Night Football." In 2003, the Bills finished 6-10 after losing seven of their final nine games under coach Gregg Williams. Last year, the Bills had a great defense but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

"It hurts. It really bothers me," he said. "I take it personally when, for the past seven years, I go home for the offseason and I'm hosting a Super Bowl party."

If middle linebacker London Fletcher is the heart of the Bills' defense, Spikes is definitely the soul. Last year, he had 111 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles. His five interceptions were the most by a Bills linebacker since Darryl Talley had that many in 1991. Spikes also knocked down 14 passes.

"I would say he's the top outside linebacker playing in the game right now because he can do it all," Fletcher said. "If you're on a winning team, you're definitely going to get more recognition. If you're a great player on a team that's not winning, nobody sees you. He's been an elite linebacker since he came into the league. Nobody knows because he's been in obscurity. The joke when he came to Buffalo was, 'Welcome to the NFL.' "

"I don't think I realized how good he was until I got here and watched him work in practice," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "You watch what he does in meetings and what he does around here. He's a great character, a leader in his own way. His play on the field comes from the way he prepares. He's an easy guy to follow."

Spikes begins his third season in Buffalo today, and he's made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons while playing on two terrific defenses. Obviously, he's getting recognized across the league. He just might be the best outside linebacker in the league. In fact, he might even be the best at his position in team history.

Cornelius Bennett was a great player, a powerful pass rusher with amazing speed for a man his size. Critics charge he was inconsistent. Darryl Talley was a great leader, a gamer, but he didn't have Spikes' tools. Bryce Paup was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1995, but Bruce Smith deserved at least half the credit.

"The best thing I can say is their legacy has been written," Spikes said. "I still have a few years to go on mine. I'm still trying to fill all the blanks on the paper.

"Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys feels good, but I want to take it to another level. I respect those guys because they did it. I'm trying to get where they're at, where people talk about me bringing a championship here."

Maybe this is the season in which enough comes together for the Bills to at least make the playoffs. Spikes has been waiting for the game that will put the Bills over the top, one that puts him in the spotlight and brings out the best in him. It would bring him one step closer to where he wants to go, the place where fans come to visit him.

As he toured the Hall, hardly anybody noticed him. Pete Fierle, an assistant to Hall Vice President Joe Horrigan, eventually heard Spikes was there and took pictures of the linebacker standing next to the shrines dedicated to Taylor and Singletary, two great ones whose careers will live forever.

"I told him," Spikes said, " 'Save me a spot in that corner over there.' "

Spikes smiled as he looked into the distance.

Someday.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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