"I think the result will be very different in the very near future," said Dick LeBeau, the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, after the team's 30-24 loss last week to the Tennessee Titans. Be more specific, coach. Does that mean the team's star running back won't be tripping over the pulling guard on fourth and goal, coming up inches short of what should've been a game-winning TD? That the defense won't blow a two-touchdown lead against a heretofore punchless offense? That the special teams won't fumble away any more kicks?
To most football fans, the Bengals are a sideshow, a punch line. Cincinnati is proof of how bad their teams could be: "There but for the grace of God" … But not me. For I'm one of those pathetic wretches you've heard whispered about in stadium restrooms across America, the lifelong, die-hard, hopeless Bengal fan. Yes, we do exist.
I'm not from the Queen City—I've never even been there. I've attended two Bengals games in person in my life, both road games, both losses. People greet my Bengals fandom with incredulity. Their first question is, "How did this disastrous relationship begin?" At age 7, I say. Their second question is, "When are you going to start rooting for a real team?" I already do, is my defiant if unrealistic response.
The Bengals have managed to circumvent one of the NFL's basic tenets, which is that parity (achieved though free agency, the draft, and scheduling) can lift road kill like the Rams, Ravens, and Patriots to the Super Bowl. Despite near permanent residence at the top of the draft, the Bengals haven't made the playoffs since 1990; during that span, they've never once signed a significant free agent. Our own players call the team a laughingstock (Lorenzo Neal), threaten to quit and take up more favorable employment—like flipping burgers (Corey Dillon)—and are fired for daring to speak their mind about the tragic state of the franchise (Doug Pelfrey). The brand-new stadium has a playing field that might be worse than the artificial turf monstrosity of Riverfront Stadium. Even the local municipality is threatening to withhold tax payments to the team unless it improves.
As everyone knows, the core problem with the Bengals is the five-and-dime-style ownership of Mike Brown. This is a man who constantly claims that a decade of horrendous football can be undone by having a franchise quarterback, then drafts interception machines like David Klingler and Akili Smith. Instead of trading for Drew Bledsoe this offseason, he brings in Gus Frerotte. He flies in potential free agents economy-class on commercial airlines while other teams chauffeur them in private planes. Assistant coaches, the most beleaguered men in the league, are given the further responsibility of scouting, for which every other team uses a full-time dedicated staff. For years, the practice facility lacked such basic amenities as whirlpools.
So why fight it? Why continue to pull for a team that has little chance of sustaining a touchdown drive, much less winning a game? Why not just switch over to the Falcons, my current "local" side, or just pick the Texans and go from there?
Well, for one thing, there is a special place in hell for people who swap allegiances. Whether they are front-runners who turn to good teams because they like coming out on top all the time or just fans tired of losing, they betray the very essence of what a fan is. The word "fan" is derived from the Latin "fanaticus," meaning "of a temple." To change your rooting interest is akin to tossing away your religion. Not only would I be betraying other Bengals fans, I could hardly look a devout Packer fan (for example) in the eye and claim "you and I are brothers." I'd rather the Bengals went 0-16 for 10 straight seasons than live with that hypocrisy.
Maybe the religious overtones are no accident. Standing in for religious artifacts like Torahs and dreidels are football cards, media guides, helmets, shot glasses, bobble heads, and other Bengals-related crapola taking up space in my crib. The accumulation of this quasi-biblical detritus is yet another answer for agnostics who insist I alter my faith. What, I'm supposed to just throw away my "Ickey Shuffle" sweatshirt? Carelessly heave my autographed copy of Toss, Boomer Esiason's novel ("In the high-stakes, winner-take-all field of pro football, blindsided by a shadowy underground of drugs, corruption, and sudden death, Derek Brody is going to have to use every play in the book—in order to survive")?
And what to do with a lifetime's worth of wretched Bengals memories? Of guaranteeing, seconds before it happened, that Montana would hit Rice on the last play of the game to beat us in 1987? Of nearly quitting my job in 1997 when I was maneuvered out of a chance to interview Esiason for the NFL show I was working on at the time? No team provides such a steady stream of woe.
Sadly, that 0-16 season doesn't seem too far-fetched at the moment. But I draw strength from the knowledge that a Bengals turnaround could be but one impact player, or better yet, one Mike Brown industrial accident away. Meanwhile, I feel secure in my suffering, wearing it with pride like the striped hard hats worn by the faithful in Cincinnati. That which does not kill me makes me a better fan.