I love pro football. I have as far back as I can remember. My first sports hero was Roman Gabriel. You probably don’t remember Gabriel because the rings of your personal tree don’t run as deep and aged as mine, so indulge me while I introduce you to him through the eyes of a thirteen-year old boy.
He was, to put it simply, a god in shoulder pads. He was tall. He was strong. He was Hollywood handsome. He had a cannon for an appendage, an arm that led a mighty Southern California team full of talent. He was the MVP of the NFL in 1969. He had Bernie Casey and Jack Snow on the receiving end of his scud missiles. He had 11-time Pro Bowl guard Tom Mack protecting his flank. And, of course, there was the thundering Fearsome Foursome — Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy. They had an innovative and driven head coach in George Allen. And then, there were those helmets. God, I loved those helmets. I lived and died with that team.
It wasn’t all touchdowns and rainbows. To be a fan of those Rams was a real character-builder for a young boy. Yes, they had five straight winning seasons and secured two divisional titles. But, for all the winning they did, they were a soap opera of a franchise that could never capture the big game. There always — and I mean always — seemed to be a meaningful Sunday when someone else seemed a bit better. At one point, Rams owner Dan Reeves wanted his head coach gone, but even firing him backfired as his players revolted, forcing Reeves to reinstate Allen.
I cared way too much for my bridesmaid Rams and my father found more than a little amusement at the abuse I laid upon his Naugahyde recliner while watching my Rams succumb once more to Joe Kapp and those hated Purple People Eaters from Minnesota. By the time I finally witnessed my first Rams Super Bowl, the quarterback was Warren Beatty and I was in a movie theater in Florence, Kentucky.
But time marches on. The Rams got old. Gabriel would be traded to the Eagles. The Cincinnati Bengals, always lurking on my periphery as a young man in Northern Kentucky, became my new team.
The Bengals were a team worth watching in those years. Paul Brown brought history, respect and a Beau Brummell fashion sense to a fledgling franchise trying to find its rightful place in the league. Players like Ken Anderson, Issac Curtis, Dan Ross, Anthony Munoz, and Reggie Williams made you proud to wear those funky pajama-like jerseys in public. Two trips to the Super Bowl and names like Boomer, Ickey, Wyche, Collinsworth, Fulcher and Brooks kept you looking up-the-road to Wilmington, Ohio and the next NFL training camp.
And then, in the summer of 1991, Paul Brown died.
We couldn’t know it then, but it would become a turning point. Whoever else son Mike Brown is, he was never his father when it came to running a football franchise.
But he sure knew how to make money. When he wasn’t wearing a ski mask and holding up Hamilton County taxpayers for a new stadium under the threat of moving the team, he was pushing a bare bones product on his fans, selling Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks at caviar prices. To spend an afternoon in Paul Brown Stadium is akin to watching a Lockup marathon on MSNBC. The grey, somber expanse of concrete looks more Hamilton County jail than sporting venue. The aforementioned rich history of the team is almost nowhere to be found amidst the dank concourse and the sparse, prison-like lighting.
The jailhouse motif fits an owner that seeks out the more troubled among the NFL’s citizenry. Brown would have you believe he’s a redeemer of men, placed on this artificial turf to offer salvation to the less fortunate among us who wear jockstraps and shoulder pads to work. Yet, somehow, you couldn’t help but feel that The Redeemer is really more interested in The Remuneration than playing the humble servant.
There’s no need to revisit Mike Brown’s history of hiring miscreants and malcontents. It’s legendary. Hell, it’s an NFL meme. To be fair, they had seemed to somewhat shed the label over the past few years, but in hindsight, we now know it was more than just a blip on the police blotter.
Adam Jones has been Brown’s latest project and a failing one at that. His off-season arrest by Cincinnati police and the accompanying video begged for a final resolution. Instead, he was given bengal absolution.
Who Are Dey? C’mon, if we’re being honest with ourselves we know precisely who dey are. We’ve pretty much known for a long time, but the 2017 NFL Draft cemented that assessment once and for all and no obfuscating or tortured fan logic suffices. I’d need all the moves of Walter Payton to shimmy, pivot and slip around the truth now.
The NFL is today’s version of Hyman Roth’s U.S. Steel. It’s bigger than big. Nobody will say it, but the National Football League is the heroin of the sports landscape.
Like the Ray Rice video before it, it’s the visual horror of the violence that pushes the needle into the red of our temporal lobes. I watch the video, but it’s quick and without audio. I don’t hear the sound of her hitting the floor, Warren Zevon’s “proverbial sickening thud.”
There are those who say that if we could see what trauma surgeons see when they operate on gunshot victims, the discussion about gun control would take a dramatic turn. Would all of us who worship at the foot of The Shield on every fall Sunday take violence against women more seriously if they had to watch a doctor wire a woman’s jaw shut or listen to the quiet sobs in therapy, years removed from the life-changing event. Blows like the one Joe Mixon leveled on Amelia Molitor rip through the human psyche with every bit the devastation of a bullet shredding flesh and eviscerating organs.
I’d like to invoke my daughter and tell you I couldn’t look into her eyes after cheering a Joe Mixon touchdown. I’d like to tell you I couldn’t truly set an example for my son on how to treat women if I celebrated a Bengals win that Mixon contributed to. But, it’s more practical than that. Shaving can be messy and painful when you can’t look yourself in the mirror.
All these things weigh heavy on my Sunday fandom. I’m decades and many personal depositions away from that little boy whose Sunday afternoons revolved around a 4:00 game 2,000 miles away on some far away planet called the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. To be a fan of these Bengals was a real character-builder for an old boy. Yes, they played in five straight playoff games and secured two divisional titles. But, for all the winning they did, they remain a soap opera of a franchise that could never capture the big game. There always — and I mean always — seemed to be a meaningful Sunday when someone else seemed a bit better. Joe Kapp and the Vikings — meet Ben Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
Now, a failing and fraudulent franchise has re-hired a head coach that most observers nationally and locally had assumed was a dead man walking. If you didn’t see this coming, it’s only because you weren’t paying attention. It’s not crazy to think that Mike Brown watched the whole world fire Marvin Lewis and simply thought “you’re not the boss of me” before re-upping Lewis for another two years.
Mike Brown abhors being told what to do. In fairness, so do most of us. But, most of us don’t run professional football franchises. Most of us don’t have fathers who had their life’s work and legacy stolen out from under them by a guy named Art Modell. If you want to understand why the Bengals are who they are today, you need to go back to January 9, 1963, when the man who led a Cleveland team that bore his name to seven championships suddenly found himself on the outside, his nose pressed against the glass.
[Mike] Brown still remembers details of his father calling him on the day Modell fired him.
“He said to me, ‘They took my team away from me,’?” Brown recalled. “That’s about the only time his voice ever broke when speaking with me.”
If you want to know why the Bengals don’t have a GM, why they’ve had no interest in names like Parcells or Gruden, that phone call tells all.
The local media chronicles the latest coaching shakeups as ownership pretends changes abound to stem the tide of another disappointing season.
We know better.
What won’t change? The Brown family. They know what they know. And what they know is that outsiders cannot be trusted. New blood, new ideas will alsways be anathema to a front office that often appears as decrepit as old Spinney field.
For me, football is in its waning days. My belly is full. Between the brutal brutal play on the field and the brutality inflicted on women off the field, I’ve slowly figured out I can find a more productive way to occupy my Sundays.
But if you, young Bengals fan — Bengal Boy and Bengal Girl — want your own memories, want weekend salvation, understand that nothing changes as long as fans pour through the turnstiles. If enough fans stay away, the NFL may eventually become embarrassed just enough to move the franchise and The Family to some faraway corporation limit hungry for the pro football teat. Then perhaps, professional football can return to Cincinnati with a new owner, one without the haunting past the Brown family carries with it like a lonely carpetbagger.