I sat in the backseat next to my girlfriend while her father drove and her uncle rode shotgun. With each passing exit, old memories of my childhood rushed back into my head.
As we merged from I-275 to I-71, we passed my old high school where I was once student body president and a star athlete. Just a little further down the road we passed Pfeiffer Rd. and I could see the Crowne Plaza Hotel where my girlfriend and I first met as sophomores in high school at a business conference.
The memories flooded back to me but what I ultimately realized was that regardless of the commemorative tattoo on my arm, or the residence of my family, I didn’t really have a huge connection with Cincinnati, the physical space, anymore. These recollections forced me to accept that despite being born at the University of Cincinnati and living there until I left for Hanover in 2007, I had moved on. I suddenly felt older, more mature, and slightly guilty at myself for getting so complacent in my current situation that I forgot where I came from and it left me feeling like a foreigner in the city I’ve always called home.
As we turned onto Mehring Way, the Who Dey nation made a grand appearance. Nestled into driveways and parking lots with hand-written, cardboard $20 price tags were endless groups of fans donning orange and black stripes. I was encouraged by the motto of a particular food truck along the way. It read, “Bacon built this city”, lending to Cincinnati’s alias as Porkopolis.
As we parked and set up shop, I could still smell some of that bacon from the Urban Grill Food Truck. Unfortunately, between our parking spot and the food truck were about 20 trash cans full of aluminum with probably a swallow of backwash remaining, roughly ten smoking grills, and three sets of Port-O-Potties so, for obvious reasons, its aroma couldn’t be fully appreciated.
It was 2:15 p.m. on a Sunday in October and the unpredictable Cincinnati weather couldn’t have been better. Having grown accustomed to the climate where we live, in Los Angeles, my girlfriend and I brought several layers of clothes home with us to protect our spoiled bodies from sub-50 degree temperatures. My heaviest layer was an old Bengals coaching jacket from the ’90s that my girlfriend’s parents lent to me for the game. Beneath that I had a t-shirt, two long-sleeved shirts and the white Andy Dalton jersey I received for doing a Nike football photo shoot when I first got to LA.
My girlfriend was layered up as well. She owns a Bengals jersey but it is number 85 and when she bought it, it said “Ochocinco”. She has since removed the nameplate from the back of the jersey but still can’t bring herself to wear it. I tried to convince her that it’s now Tyler Eifert’s jersey but it’s not the same. She still knows whose jersey it is.
We got into a discussion about wearing jerseys of old players. Some jersey numbers (Boomer Esiason, 7; Anthony Muñoz, 78; Ickey Woods, 30) will always make appearances at Bengals games. I don’t remember much from Bengals of the early 1990s, mostly because I was a young boy for most of it, but I recall my grandmother gathering us all up at her house to sit around the television and “watch Boomer play.” I would have worn a different jersey if I had my druthers not because I disliked Boomer, I didn’t, but because of so much more.
In many predominantly black communities, the barbershop is the place where men gather to fellowship and discuss news. As a young, black boy, it was a privilege to go to the barbershop because it meant that I had endured and survived the attempts of seemingly every family member to prove their natural grooming skills. In fact, none of my family was blessed with natural hair-cutting abilities but that didn’t stop them from trying.
Eventually I was old enough to justify paying for my hair to get cut and on my first trip to the barber shop, my grandfather took me to Goodwin’s. Already seated, and waiting his turn, was Bengals safety David Fulcher. Over the course of that season, I went to Goodwin’s Barbershop every two weeks and each time, David Fulcher was there. When I made the connection that the big guy that entertained me at the barbershop was the same guy that wore #33 in stripes, I joined the Who Dey nation. When I reached middle school, and got to choose a number, there was no doubt that I’d wear 33 because it was the first number I ever idolized and my older cousin (also an idol of mine) wore it too. I wore that number until my senior year in high school.
“I won’t buy a jersey anymore,” my girlfriend’s dad, a season-ticket holder of 47 years, said. The only one he has anymore is a signed Tory James AFC Pro Bowl jersey from 2004. “I would need to get one with 24 on it and my name to wear it.” Nearby us was another family that had a collection of personalized jerseys. Just over their vehicle, I had a clear view of the Jumbo-tron that faces the city and it said that the temperature was a balmy 55 degrees. We all enjoyed a few adult beverages before joining the orange stampede 20 minutes before kickoff.
In route to the stadium, I saw an old player’s jersey that was modified as tastefully as possible in order to maintain its relevance. It was #84 for ex-Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Rather than tearing off the nameplate or burning the jersey (as many did when Carson Palmer so distastefully left) this fan simply taped over the middle of his name with electrical tape leaving “Hou” and “deh” as the only letters exposed. Brilliant.
We finally climbed the stairs leading to the entrance gates and after losing track of each other in the pre-game frenzy, we all reunited at our seats.
Our view of the stadium was great. We were even with the back of the north end zone, on the Bengals sideline seated in the highest seats in the first section; handicapped seats, in fact. About twenty paces away was the nearest restroom and the concession stands were so close that I could hear popcorn popping during the national anthem when the singer took a breath. We were positioned such that even if the row of fans in front of us was standing, it didn’t obstruct our view at all. The seats were padded and we had plenty of room to stand up and cheer. When the wind blew from the right I could faintly smell the easily identifiable aroma of Skyline Chili and it had been so long since I’d smelled it that it temporarily paralyzed me and, embarrassingly, I felt like the talking dog in Disney and Pixar’s “Up” who freezes when he sees squirrels.
Just as we got settled, a large wave of boos burst from the seats of Paul Brown Stadium. The NY Jets, our unfortunate opponent, were taking the field. Many of the players exited the tunnel with their arms stretched to their side like children do when imitating the motion of an airplane. My girlfriend thought it was a cool showing of solidarity and uniformity but I thought they looked silly.
After the pyrotechnics and fireworks surrounding the Bengals starting lineups, we were ready for kickoff. We got the ball first and drove 80 yards down the field and scored. Bengals 7-0. Meanwhile, in Oakland, quarterback Terrell Pryor opened the game with a 93-yard touchdown run, the longest in NFL history by a QB. When the touchdown was replayed on the scoreboard, the crowd erupted in support of the former Ohio State Buckeye quarterback.
“Wouldn’t it be crazy if the Bengals had a big win like the Buckeyes did yesterday?” My girlfriend’s uncle prompted.
The answer was overwhelmingly yes considering the Bucks were coming off of a 63-14 thrashing of Penn State but could the Bengals find a way to do that after winning the last two weeks on last-second field goals?
Next thing you know, the Jets are punting and seven plays and 68 yards later, the Bengals were up 14-0.
At the end of the first quarter the Cincinnati defense had dominated, holding the Jets to just 3 rushing yards, and -2 passing yards resulting in one total yard of offense. Nice math skills.
The reality of a Cincinnati blowout was growing more and more attainable and the energy in the stadium was contagious. With every big play, even though I only came with three other people, I found myself giving at least seven high-fives. Not multiple times to the people that I knew, but to anyone in orange and black with a lonely palm. Someone new was constantly turning around to face us with his or her hands high. I never hesitated to return the gesture.
However, looming from the doldrums, as there usually is in Cincinnati surrounding the Bengals, there was an air of skepticism and doubt that the Bengals would somehow find a way to lose the lead. It’s not cynicism but it’s more of a defense mechanism developed over time by a battered fan base. It first appeared when Cincinnati unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-one from the two-yard line and continued when Dalton threw an interception three plays into the next drive. By halftime the score was 28-6 and spirits were high but confidence, that’s hard to come by as a Bengals fan.
That all changed on the first play of the second half when Chris Crocker took Geno Smith’s first interception of the game 32 yards for a score. This was a different team. They didn’t waste anytime getting back on the field making plays and that continued for the duration of the game. Even towards the end of the game, in what some call “garbage time”, the Bengals defense still very visibly took pride in keeping the Jets out of the end zone.
With seemingly each play the Bengals, as a team, chiseled away at my skepticism and replaced it with shame for ever doubting the men in stripes. The final score was 49-9 (Highlights). It was like the players on the field could perceive my emotions and continued to put up points until I was without question that the Bengals are legit.
“It was a good weekend for my B’s. Buckeyes and Bengals,” my girlfriend’s dad said.
It turned out that former Ohio State quarterback Terrell Pryor wasn’t the only one to break a record that day. Bengals receiver Marvin Jones caught four TDs to set the franchise single-game record for receiving scores. It was like watching pitch and catch. Dalton put the ball where it needed to be and threw a total of five touchdowns.
One advantage of watching a game live versus seeing it on TV is that you get a much better appreciation for the subtleties of the game. This time I even had the added bonus of binoculars. After watching him live, I’ve decided that Andy Dalton’s deep ball is just fine he just needs his receivers to make those plays for him. A.J. Green, and Mohamed Sanu both dropped deep balls from Dalton yet his numbers were still impressive.
One completed pass in particular stood out to me. It was a line drive up the seam to Marvin Jones in between three Jets defenders. The television replay doesn’t do justice to the precision of the throw but Dalton remained patient in the pocket before ripping a bullet past the head of one defender into the waiting arms of Marvin Jones while the other two converging defensive backs bounced off of him and fell to the ground.
Jones was only open for a split second and when that time came, the ball was waiting for him. As a former receiver, I greatly appreciate a well-placed spiral and after seeing Dalton live, he has the tools to succeed.
I watched Dalton come off the field through my binoculars after a touchdown throw to Jones and as he approached offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, his eyes widened and it was clear that even he was surprised at the openings in the Jets’ defense. That can be partially credited to the Bengals’ scout team defense since that is whom they practice and prepare against every day. Defense was effective on game day as well accounting for 14 of the Bengals 49 points (Adam Jones also had a 60 yard interception return to go along with Crocker’s).