Cincinnati … Super Bowl

The cold at Paul Brown Stadium that winter day, as I sat there shoulder-to-shoulder in utter climate shock, was the kind that instantly stiffens muscles and sinks so deeply into bones that it takes months to ooze out. Every exhale, every scream from the hardened crowd produced a cloud. Applause, when there was any, was the sound of thousands of mittens pounding together, as much to heat up hands and revive circulation as to acknowledge what was happening on the field. Toes and ears and noses went missing. A frosty beer or three was a way to warm up.

I remember asking myself that day, in late December 2010 or so, a simple question: Why? Why do people do this?

Being a sports fan takes commitment. It’s one thing to casually follow a team, another to openly root for it, still another to buy the occasional ticket to sit in an arctic stadium for a meaningless late-season game. But there’s a more radical fandom; to live with a team, to live for a team, to pull for them even in the worst of times, to invest so much emotion in them — love, hate, anger, frustration, disgust, pride, resignation, hope, depression, elation — that it hurts. To do it year after year, decade after decade, with no payoff?

Welcome to Cincinnati. Welcome to being a Bengals fan.

The Bengals, if you haven’t heard, will be playing in the Super Bowl this weekend, a notion so improbable, even in Cincinnati — especially there — that most would have dismissed it without discussion in just about every year in the past three decades. The Bengals have a long, sad history in the Queen City. Since their last Super Bowl appearance more than 30 years ago (in 1989, after the ’88 season), it’s been among the saddest in the NFL.

Saying they’ve been the worst is too harsh. Other franchises certainly have had worse single seasons. Others have more terrible histories. Among the teams who have been around as long as the Bengals, two — the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions — never have even made it to a Super Bowl. The Bengals, at least, have been there. Twice.

Granted, they’re 0-2. But take that, Cleveland. Stupid Browns.

The litany of failure in Cincinnati is legend:

  • In the early ’90s, as a youngish sports scribe for the city’s afternoon paper, I was subjected to an avalanche of miserable football. My six seasons with the team: 9-7, 3-13, 5-11, 3-13, 3-13 and 7-9. The Bengals missed the playoffs every year. It was, unquestionably, the worst stretch of losing in their history. That one four-year period in the middle was an absolute slog. Joyless. Humorless. Just awful. It was an era, I think now, when Cincinnati fans first began to realize what they were in for.
  • The Bengals played for 14 straight years (1991-2004) and never had a winning season, reached .500 only three times and couldn’t sniff the playoffs at all. Fourteen years is an eternity for a sports fan. It’s enough to make even the hardy hardened. And the Bengals were just getting started.
  • When they finally broke that streak, they popped into the postseason in seven of the next 11 years, yet lost their first playoff game every single time. One and done. 0-7. Brutal.
  • Once that streak ended, they fell into five more losing seasons. In 2019, they lost their first 11 games (a team worst) and won just two of their 16 games overall, a franchise low that was appalling even by Cincinnati football’s diminished standards. PBS was filled to only 72 percent of its capacity that season, an average of a few more than 47,000 fans each game, the worst mark in the stadium’s history. It was amazing that many showed up.

To point to anything resembling glory years in Cincinnati, which fielded an NFL team for the first time in 1968, you’d have to go back more than three decades, to the ’80s, when the Bengals appeared in their two Super Bowls. They lost both to the San Francisco 49ers by a total of nine points. Since that last Super Bowl loss — again, that was 1989, after the ’88 season — until this postseason, the Bengals won one playoff game (in 1991, after the ’90 season).

Until this postseason, the Bengals’ lifetime playoff record was 5-14. That’s a .263 winning percentage, the only slightly better equivalent of a 4-12 season.

Until this postseason.

To get a handle on what the Bengals mean to Cincinnati is to understand what the Red Sox mean to Boston, or the Cubs to Chicago. They are what the Packers are to Wisconsin. Maybe, on another scale, what the Yankees are to the Bronx. Or the Spurs to San Antonio.

To the good citizens of Cincinnati, especially those who grew up there, the Bengals are as much a part of the community as the Ohio River and Skyline Chili. Even non-football fans in the area are interested in how the Bengals are doing in any given year, if only because on the rare occasion that they’re winning, the city’s entire mood changes.

The Bengals, to use an overused term that shouldn’t be used for a professional sports team, are beloved in Cincinnati. Oh, they’re scorned sometimes, certainly. Ridiculed and screamed at, too. But to the people of Cincinnati, they’re our Bengals. Maybe more accurately, the Bengals are Cincinnati.

(The Reds are, of course, also a huge part of the city. The Reds last won the World Series in 1990. It’s been a while for them, too.)

Nothing reflects the scrappiness, the backbone, the hard-edged workmanlike aura of Cincinnati more than the Bengals. They play in a stadium (and practice next door) in the literal shadow of a rusting, aging interstate bridge. Before Paul Brown Stadium was built — they began play there in 2000 — they practiced beneath a viaduct on the working-class west side of town in a place that reeked of toxicity and sewage. Like a good swath of they city, they’re cautious, conservative, slow to change.

Like a family, the team and its fans have scrapped plenty among themselves. The team is renown, at the demand of its unbending owner and to the forever frustration of its fans, for holding a vise grip on spending; for players, for operations, for everything. The Bengals demand fealty from their players (they once wrote a loyalty clause into player contracts) as well as their city. Back in the mid-’90s, the team threatened to leave town unless a new stadium was built at taxpayer expense, a blatant piece of blackmail that worked to perfection.

That stiff-backed owner, 86-year-old Mike Brown, has run the team his way, and his only, since his dad’s death in 1991. (Hall of Famer Paul Brown, Mike’s dad, was not only the Bengals founder, first coach and current stadium namesake, he was a co-founder of the franchise in Cleveland, too, its namesake and its first coach.) Mike makes all the important business and football decisions in Cincinnati. He has played owner and general manager when most teams employ a separate GM, and dismisses any thought of any other arrangement. He has recently ceded much of the control to his daughter, Katie, who does the day-to-day work with a relatively small front office that is peppered with members of the Brown family. Considering the results, none of that has sat well, at various times, with the fans of Cincinnati.

But, it should be pointed out: The Bengals are still Cincinnati’s team. And the Bengals are in the Super Bowl. That may not salve those decades of pain; the bad football, the ineffective front office, the insistence on staying the course even as the team plummeted off the cliff year after year after year. The wounds of a faithful fanbase run deep.

Being in the Super Bowl certainly helps, though.

Earlier this week, I texted one of my brothers-in-law, all of whom still live in Cincinnati, to get a feel for the mood in town.

“Euphoric. Never seen anything like it,” Jeff texted back. And then later, “Crazy how 1 great season brings people back. The amount of Orange and Black you see is unbelievable.”

I texted his 24-year-old son, born and raised in Cincinnati. He’s been a Bengals fan his whole life. He’s never seen them win a single playoff game. Until this postseason.

“Maybe I’m projecting,” he says, “but it feels like everybody’s still in a giddy sort of shock. Something like 30k went to this goofy pep rally at the stadium [Monday] night.” (Fans began to line up at the rally at 3 p.m. It started at 6. Temperatures were already sub-freezing at the start. Nobody cared.)

My wife’s folks, who emigrated to Cincinnati from Italy a few years before the Bengals came to town and still live in the same house in Price Hill, not far from the team’s old training grounds, don’t care much about football. But they know the Bengals are in the Super Bowl. They know what everybody’s talking about. They’re in the mood. They’ll watch the game.

The 2021 Bengals, behind a brash young quarterback they selected No. 1 in the draft after that 2-14 season in 2019, went 10-7 this season to win their division. They’ve since won three thrilling playoff games; one by a touchdown (and four field goals by their steady young kicker), one by a field goal as time ran out in regulation, and the last with a field goal in overtime. They won as many playoff games in January (three) as they have in every season combined since their first Super Bowl loss. That was 40 years ago.

Will they break through against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday and, after all these years trying to get back to the Super Bowl, finally go ahead and win one? Could that really happen?

A lot of Cincinnatians will disagree, but getting this far after so many years filled with so much misery and ineptitude, after enduring long winter after long winter, after so much effort and hope wasted … getting to the Super Bowl seems a victory in itself. For two weeks now, since the Bengals’ overtime win in the game that propelled them into the Super Bowl, Cincinnati has been on a sporting high unlike any it’s seen in decades. Maybe ever. Whatever happens this weekend shouldn’t, maybe can’t, spoil a season that will be remembered and replayed for generations.

But what if …? What if Sunday night, in the warm sunshine of Los Angeles in a brand new stadium three time zones away, the Cincinnati Bengals somehow completely shuck their losing past? What if the payoff for all those cold winter games, all those dashed hopes, all the frustrations and pain that is part of being a Bengals fan, comes Sunday?

There’s a scene in the 1992 Western “Unforgiven” in which a fallen Gene Hackman angrily faces his fate. “I don’t deserve this,” he says to the hired gun Clint Eastwood. To which Eastwood answers, in a classic Eastwood snarl, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

The collective prayers of generations of faithful who have lived and lost with the Bengals, enduring the cold, the disappointment, the embarrassment, won’t make a whit of a difference in Sunday’s football game. And that’s OK. Nobody realizes that more than the people of Cincinnati. They know.

But this, too, is true: No city in America deserves it more.

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