Bengals' Winston balances playing, leading union

Posted at 4:26 AM, Sep 12, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) — Bengals offensive tackle Eric Winston heads to midfield as the game ends so he can briefly catch up with players from the other team. Every so often, one of them extends a hand and says thanks.

Winston has just spent four quarters pushing them around. Now he's back to representing them as their union president.

"I get a lot of that, which makes me feel good," Winston said. "Just guys coming up and saying thanks for everything and thanks for the work you've done. That means the most to me."

The ninth-year pro was elected president of the NFL Players Association in March 2014. He was out of the league and contemplating retirement until the Bengals signed him last December with their line depleted by injury.

His dual roles sometimes put him in unusual spots.

The team owner is not only his employer, but someone who sits on the other side of the table when the union and the league hash things out. He competes with other players for a job while also representing them as union members.

And the coaches are aware that when they say things in meeting rooms, they've got the union leader listening.

"He understands he has a huge responsibility within the NFL, but he also understands he's a teammate to these players and a participant in the organization here," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "I don't go into a meeting worrying about what I can say.

"Sometimes I can get a little mouthy, and I don't look at Eric and wonder if I can say this because it might be an issue. That makes me comfortable."

That's the thing everyone notes about Winston: His personality is perfect for the job. He's a good listener, he understand complex issues, and he's passionate about helping players, some of whom aren't entirely sure of what he does as their union president.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth accompanied Winston and other Bengals for the coin flip before the final preseason game in Indianapolis and wondered how many of the young Colts shaking their hands realize they were meeting the union president.

"Basically all these things they enjoy and think are cool about playing in the NFL, here's somebody that's working their butt off for you to have all that," Whitworth said. "So I think it's a position that you can't take lightly. It's a lot of work, and he's adamant about being good at it."

It has been a progression for Winston, who had never done anything like it. He played at Miami and has degrees in international finance and marketing as well as political science.

"I was always interested in the issues, just in how things work," Winston said. "That's kind of been with everything, not just the union. Throughout my life, I've always tried to figure things out — how do things work, how do things work well, in my opinion."

He got more deeply involved with the union during his six seasons at Houston. Much of his work lately has involved player safety and concussions — things that affect people's lives.

"You look at when I came into the league a decade ago and now, and it's night and day," he said. "The awareness, the precautions, the protocols, everything. Even five years ago it was different."

Winston is proud of the progress that's been made in protecting players' health. Part of his job is helping them understand the changes and what might be coming down the road.

"Eric's extremely thorough," said Whitworth, who has been the team's union representative for years. "It means a lot to him. He's always looking for new and inventive ways to make sure our guys understand the business of this game and all the ways they can benefit, and finding new ways to benefit from the game."

Winston spends a lot more time on union work in the offseason. During the season, he talks to the union's staff several times a week on average. He also takes a lot of questions by email, text or phone from other players, both teammates and those on other teams.

There are a lot of demands on his time during the season.

"That's kind of the interesting part of it, but I think it's good," he said. "I've always thought that it's important for the guy holding this position to be playing, just so guys in the locker room understand he's one of us and he understands what we're going through now."

Winston doesn't have a lot of dealings with team owners outside of their formal meetings. Sitting on the other side of the table was a new experience.

"The first time you step into that meeting room, it's like game day: 'Oh how is this going to go?'" he said. "But it's like anything else. You do it three or four times, and it's old hat.

"It's about building relationships. We've got to find ways to figure out our differences."