Marc and I not only love sports, we are also loyalists who relish in the joy of victory and hurt with the pains of disappointment. With one of my teams having unexpected success this year, Marc asked me to weave a story.
Growing up in southeastern Ohio in the 1960s, most people in my area were either Cleveland Browns fans or followers. The Browns were the closest team to us – a time long before cable – a time when an antenna delivered three television stations. The Browns were the weekly game that I watched, but I most enjoyed watching the upstart AFL games while rooting for Charlie Tollar, Billy Cannon, George Blanda, Charley Hennigan, and the rest of the Houston Oilers.
In 1968, the AFL expanded into Cincinnati. Many friends hooked up with the Bengals, others stayed loyal to the Browns. Me, the contrarian, latched onto the Miami Dolphins – a team with Flipper as a mascot – a team with my favorite Dolphin: Howard Twilley.
In the fall of 1971, I went cross-state to college where I would be around many Browns fans – but I stuck with the Dolphins. Before the 1972 season started, I told my friends that the Dolphins would not only win the Super Bowl, they would do so going undefeated (17-0). They laughed, then astonished when it happened.
After graduating in 1976, I went to a different corner of the state for my first job in the Cincinnati area. Already a Reds (baseball) fan – a lifer, I quickly gravitated to the local Bengals. Finally, an opportunity to root for nearby team.
At the end of the 1980 season, I suggested to a friend that we get Bengal season tickets for the following year because I felt something special on the horizon. We purchased them, and I still recall the ticket price per game – $9.75.
The 1981 season was unbelievable, finishing 12-4 and winning the division. Locals realized that most of the games were over by halftime. Those Bengals were more than good. They were very good! They ran their West Coast offense for many years before anyone knew that term. Plus, the defense was superb.
That season’s AFC Championship Game was a classic – and I was there. It’s known as the Freezer Bowl – the coldest NFL game on record with a raw temperature of -9F (-23C) and a wind chill of -59F (-50C). That was very cold, and I stayed the entire game to witness history.
The win gave the Bengals their first trip to the Super Bowl. My team lost that game, but I still say they were the better team.
I was still a season ticket holder in 1988 when the Bengals made their second trip to the Super Bowl. Two evenly matched teams hammering each other. The Bengals lost late in the game.
The Bengals would win a playoff game in 1990 before losing in the second round. Then came what Bengal fans call The Lost Decade – an era of ineffectiveness and a lot of losing. It took the Bengals 15 years to return to the playoffs. From there, they made it seven of the next 11 years – but losing every time – losing when favored. Finding a way to lose the game in 2015 that was ready for the taking – a win to break the streak. But no – a win didn’t happen. Losing marked the franchise and the city. Losing hung on the fans.
Losing continued – and many times ugly. 2020 delivered the bright light of a new young quarterback named Joe. One from an Ohio town 3 hours away. One from my home area of the state. The season had some bright spots but still many losses. One with Joe missing many games after a devasting knee injury.
Nonetheless, 2021 had a glimmer of hope. But they were still the Bengals, and we were Bengal fans. We’ve been there, done that. While hopeful, we waited for the other shoe to drop. That’s what Bengal fans do.
While some early games provided hope, some mid-season games delivered ugly reality checks. Facing a difficult closing schedule, the light of hope was a meager flicker. Suddenly, Cool Joe led a dismantling of the dreaded Ravens then beating the vaunted Chiefs. Suddenly, the Bengals were playoff-bound and hosting a first-round game. Then Cool Joe delivered! The team broke the 31-year streak and released the fans from bondage. The local radio call says it all!
The reward for winning round 1 was a trip to Nashville to face the top-seeded Titans. History shows that the Bengals have NEVER won a playoff game on the road. NEVER! Led by some guy known as Cool Joe, another streak was broken. The Bengals were suddenly the darlings of the NFL. (Video will say click to watch on YouTube – so it’s viewable).
Winning or losing this week in Kansas City doesn’t matter. With two streaks broken and Cool Joe leading the way like a seasoned veteran, the franchise, the city, and the fans are winners again. Bengals fans are hopeful again. Bengal fans are proud again. Bengal fans are believing again. The Bengals are relevant again. This is something young Bengal fans have never experienced. At least I’m a seasoned fan who has.
Can the Bengals win one more? Maybe or maybe not. Then again, why not! Why not us! After all, we have Cool Joe.