Gene Atkins knew early.
Gene Atkins was one of the fiercest NFL players during his era, a 5-foot-11, 202-pound projectile during an era where knockout blows were celebrated. And as a safety for the New Orleans Saints from 1987-93 – and later, for the Miami Dolphins from '94-'96 – few were as adept at administering punishment as was Atkins.
But Gene knew that his son, Geno Atkins, would not be a safety.
"I knew he was not going to be a skill guy from when he was 5 years old, because he was too big then," Gene Atkins said. "I knew he was not going to be a DB."
Father knew best. Geno Atkins kept on growing, right into a 6-1, 302-pound defensive tackle who is the anchor of the defense for Cincinnati, the Saints' opponent on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I'm always going to be black and gold," Gene Atkins said. "But my son plays for the Bengals. It's almost like, Who Dat and Who Dey. I'm home either way I go."
Among former Saints, quarterback Archie Manning sets an unparalleled mark in terms of successful offspring, with two Super Bowl-winning, Hall-of-Fame bound quarterback sons in Peyton and Eli Manning.
But Gene Atkins' son has been a royal pain for the players playing the same position as the Mannings.
Geno Atkins is a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler who has six sacks (second on the team), eight tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits and 25 tackles this season for the Bengals (5-3). Gene Atkins, whose 21 interceptions rank fourth and 324 return yards off interceptions rank fifth in franchise history for the Saints, knew that stardom was coming for his son, too.
"I always saw that he was going to be a star, because sometimes I would tell him that sometimes we're late bloomers, but when we bloom, we blossom," Gene said. "And that's how my son was.
"So was it a surprise to me that his name is as big as it is right now? No. He had it from the beginning. I'm not trying to brag on my son or anything like that, but you kind of know when the person has talent and they can take it to another level. And that's what he decided to do, and that's what he's doing."
Geno Atkins aside, the Bengals defense has struggled this season. Entering Sunday's game, Cincinnati is 30th in points allowed (29.6), last in total defense (447.8 yards), last in passing defense (319.4) and 26th against the run (128.4).
Still, Atkins must be accounted for.
"He's a real good football player," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "He's active, he's strong, I think he plays with great leverage and great get-off. So we'll have to handle that on the road, especially."
Atkins is the latest in a line of standout defensive linemen that the Saints have faced, including Rams tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh last Sunday.
"Each of those players has different traits, skill-sets that separate themselves," Payton said. "But the key for us is watching as much tape as you can when (the Bengals are) at home and watching (Atkins') get-off, how he sets an edge. What he tries to do when he's pass rushing, how he plays a double team – all those things that can take place. He's isolated a lot because he playing a lot of three-technique, but he's a good football player."
One of the keys to making Atkins a good football player, Gene Atkins said, was to not have him play football at all in the beginning.
"What I did was, I did not put him in any football, Pop Warner football or anything like that," Gene Atkins said. "I put him in everything else but football, because I wanted to make sure that he developed the way he needed to.
"So I put him in basketball, baseball, soccer and stuff like that – hand-eye coordination. Because when guys are big, sometimes they don't have the hand-eye coordination like they need to. So what I did, I put him in sports where you have to have hand-eye coordination. I knew he was going to be a big guy, so I knew he was going to be an offensive lineman or defensive lineman.
"They tried him at offensive line one year when he was in high school, then they put him at defensive tackle, trying to figure out what he played best. And defense pretty much was what he was born to do."
There's no debating that he does it well.
"I'm very proud of my son, because he's pretty much doing his thing," Gene Atkins said. "He shows up to play each game, each season, and that's all you can ask for anyone to do: Love the game and play it the way it's supposed to be played. And that's what he does."