It's a seven-hour drive from Atlanta to Cincinnati. On Sunday, as I made the pilgrimage to the first playoff game in 15 years for my favorite team, the Bengals, I spent most of that time conjuring up cruel and unusual ways for my team to lose. This is a favorite thought experiment of mine, imagining the worst to inure myself against bad outcomes—which are legion if you happen to root for the Cincinnati Bengals. I confess I never plumbed these horrific depths.
Only the Bengals would lose their franchise player on the team's second offensive play, a mere days after committing north of $118 million in a new contract to the player. Only the Bengals would have to suffer through 15 playoff-free years waiting for such a tragedy. Only the Bengals would have such an injury occur at the hands of an ex-Bengal now playing for a hated division rival. And only I could have driven nearly 1,000 miles round-trip, and spent a couple of hundred bucks in tickets, gas, and food, to have the privilege of witnessing this in person. On the plus side, I did manage not to vomit.
What had I done to deserve this? For 15 glorious minutes, Paul Brown Stadium was volcanic, the Bengals fans unleashing a decade and a half of frustration in a massive pent-up roar that forced a couple of early Steelers false-start penalties and a quick Pittsburgh punt.
Then Carson Palmer, the Pro Bowl quarterback who has done more than anyone to lift the franchise from the doldrums, dropped back to throw a long one. Everyone knew it was coming, but Palmer nailed it anyway, hitting Chris Henry in stride for a 66-yard thunderbolt. The play perfectly encapsulated Palmer's importance to the team. Drafted with the first pick and given the task of bringing hope and victory to a moribund team, he did it. Told he would have to throw deep to beat the Steelers, he did it. For the first time since Boomer Esiason's glory days, I approached every game confident that we could win, thanks to No. 9.
And now he lay crumpled in agony at the 5-yard line.
The mood in the crowd, already riled up by the sight of Steelers black and gold, turned ugly, with off-color chants and several fights in my section. Replays would later indicate it wasn't a dirty hit, but I still wanted a shot at "Turncoat" Kimo von Oelhoffen (a new moniker—when he was on our side, I called him "Very Blockable" von Oelhoffen). We sustained our energy and anger for about a half, as backup QB Jon Kitna did what one would expect—made a few plays, teased us with the faint hope of victory, then reverted to his true nature and dissolved in a flurry of interceptions.
Silly me—I thought spotting Ickey Woods, star of the last great Bengals team, in the plaza before the game was a good omen. There was Elbert, causing a commotion, signing autographs, politely declining to shuffle. Yes, he was wearing one of those idiotic Bluetooth devices in his ear, but if anyone earns a pass for joining that obnoxious social trend, its Cincy's "Greed Is Good" decade folk hero. Had I been thinking clearly, I'd have remembered Woods' fate—blowing out a knee after a sensational rookie season, never to be the same—and connected the dots.
Meanwhile, if there was anything I wanted from this game, it was to send Pittsburgh fatback Jerome Bettis and his giant caboose into retirement without sniffing paydirt. Instead, he scored and gets to keep playing. If Bettis is honest with himself, he'll have a decade's worth of Cincinnati defensive coordinators give him a group induction speech when he makes it to Canton.
One cool aspect of going to a game in Cincinnati is parking in a different state, Kentucky, and walking across the John A. Roebling Bridge to the stadium. On the way back, it was all I could do not to hurl myself into the Ohio River, 100 feet below. And when I got back to my car, I found I'd been given a parking ticket. A perfect ending to a rotten day.
I flipped on the radio to hear the postgame sound bites. Dave Lapham, former Bengal offensive lineman turned overzealous color-commentary man on local radio broadcasts, asked rookie defensive tackle David Pollack about the "irony" of losing both quarterback and receiver on the same 66-yard bomb.
"Irony?" Pollack responded. "More like tragedy." I'd add a strong adjective in front of that last word.
On the long, lonely drive home, I thought of my friend Jason, a University of Texas alum who made the trek to Pasadena for Wednesday's Rose Bowl and was rewarded with his team winning the national championship in a game for the ages. After the game, I e-mailed him congrats and mentioned he might as well stop watching sports—he had reached the ultimate in fandom. Suffering is what separates the true fan from the debutante and makes a breakthrough moment of victory like that all the sweeter. But if I have to wait another 15 years for a shot at some playoff glory, rest assured, I'll be watching from the couch.
OK, probably not.