It wasn’t quite God calling out from the burning bush, but Dre Kirkpatrick did think he got a message that was heaven-sent Sunday morning.
The Bengals second-year cornerback had spent Saturday night at the team hotel in downtown Cincinnati and then in the morning had slipped home to change clothes before coming to Paul Brown Stadium for the pivotal regular-season finale with the Baltimore Ravens.
When he got home, there sat his dad, Pastor Charles Kirkpatrick, who usually spends Sunday mornings on the pulpit of the Morning Star Baptist Church back home in Gadsden, Alabama.
“He just flew in Saturday night and that was the first I’d seen him,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was the first time he’d ever made the trip on his own and I was surprised.
“He was sitting there drinking his coffee. He’s really chilled, a really laid back guy. He’s a pastor and he never really played sports, ‘cept for a little baseball, but just before I walked out he said, ‘Man, I feel a pick six comin’ today.’ He said it so suddenly, it kind of caught me off guard.
“But I was like, ‘I’m with you, Dad.’ I took it as some kinda sign. Look if he feels it … I feel it.”
That said, the scenario did seem a little far-fetched.
Although Kirkpatrick was a first-round draft pick two seasons ago, he hadn’t quite lived up to the All America billing he had coming out of the University of Alabama.
Last year, in his words, was “devastating.”
He was sidelined by a knee injury, a concussion and then another knee injury for most of the season. He never got on the field until November, appeared in just five games, made just four tackles and was shelved for good on Christmas Day when the Bengals put him on the injured-reserve list.
“This time last year I was lying in bed with my knee propped up,” he said Sunday. “I was at the lowest of my lows. I felt I had let everybody down. There had been so much expectation about me and I was doing nothing.”
As this season began there were whispers that he was one of the big busts of the 2012 draft. And in the second last preseason game against Dallas – still a bit hobbled – he did nothing to dispel those doubts.
He gave a up a touchdown to Cowboys’ receiver Dez Bryant, committed two pass interference penalties, missed three tackles and saw nine Dallas receptions made against his coverage.
The veterans in the dressing room – especially cornerback Terence Newman and safety Chris Crocker, who have 22 NFL seasons between them – took him under their wing,
Sunday – filling in for the injured Newman – Kirkpatrick made his third career start in a game that would help position the Bengals for the playoffs.
And midway through the fourth quarterback – with Cincinnati holding a 10-point lead, but the Baltimore offense at midfield – he intercepted Joe Flacco’s fourth-down pass at the Cincinnati 16.
The Bengals were able to burn 3 ½ minutes off the clock before they had to punt and then with Flacco again trying to rally the Ravens, Kirkpatrick immediately picked off another pass at the Baltimore 21.
And this time he made Dad’s words the gospel.
He ran the interception back for a touchdown and that sealed the Bengals 34-17 victory. Cincinnati will play San Diego in the first round of the playoffs next weekend.
In the dressing room immediately after the game, one Bengal after another approached Kirkpatrick’s locker to offer congratulations. You could tell the other players were truly happy for him.
“Last year I had a lot to overcome,” he said. “I was able to do it because of a great locker room of guys here. And that’s why I went over and hugged Terence. He’s been my backbone.”
As he stood there, still in his uniform, he was almost giddy and Crocker, who dresses two stalls away, sensed it and came over.
“Ask him,” Kirkpatrick gushed. ‘Last week I told him, ‘In 10 years you’re gonna come back and look at me and say ‘Man, that looks like me all over again.’ I learned so much from him, from Terence and Pacman Jones. They are great leaders and I’ve learned how to be a pro from them.”
That’s why he put Sunday’s glory into perspective:
“Look one day I want to be great. I want to be a Hall of Famer, but I know it doesn’t happen on one play. Sure I feel great, but I know we got Terence coming back and if they figure it’s better to go with him, I’ll just play my role. I just want to win a championship.”
A few feet away Crocker nodded in Kirkpatrick’s direction: “He’s growing. It’s hard to be in his situation. He didn’t play a lot last year, but he’s coming along as good as he can.
“He’s a young guy who’s really hungry and emotional. He wants to play, And I’m really happy he’s getting the experience because look, me and Terence and Pacman , we are not the future. We’re old guys . The young guys have to step up … and today he did.”
While it would have been better had Kirkpatrick just batted down that fourth down pass rather than intercept it – the Bengals would have had the ball at the 50 instead of their own 16 – he at least secured the ball for his team.
“I know I should have just knocked it down, but I wasn’t thinking,” he said.”When you’re young and hungry like I am and you see that ball, well, that’s all saw.”
Coach Marvin Lewis said Kirkpatrick certainly made amends on the second interception though.
“It was a great moment,” Kirkpatrick quietly admitted. “It’s playoff time and this is when stars are born.”
Afterward he certainly looked the part.
He traded his uniform for rhinestone-trimmed black sneakers, jungle motif pants, a tiger shirt and two gold necklaces.
“They call it swag,” he said with a chuckle.
Before packing up, he hustled to the dirty clothes bin and retrieved his No. 27 jersey: “They’re not washing this. This is going to my mom.”
Then he headed to the equipment room to pick up the two footballs he had intercepted. One was going to his 7-year-old son, Dre. Jr., and the other – the pick six ball – was going to his dad.
“He deserves it,” he said. “I’m thanking heaven for that one.”