CINCINNATI -- Five years ago, Sam Huffman had a decision to make.
He had a wrecked car in his possession -- his daughter’s 2001 Volkswagen Jetta -- and he’d always wanted something big, something he and his friends could use for tailgating at Bengals games.
As if by divine intervention, he found a partner who was willing to make a trade. The vehicle wasn’t perfect -- it was a bright blue bus from the Clermont County Correctional Facility -- but Huffman saw the potential.
“I always tailgated with my friends at Bengals games,” said the 53-year-old Huffman, who lives in West Chester. “But I needed something we could all climb in and have fun in together.”
He made the trade.
And with an orange paint job, some graphics and an upgraded sound system, his Bengals bus can now hold up to 22 people.
For night games, they pull into Lot 1, just north of the practice field under the Interstate 71 bypass. Huffman lights up the grill, his friends bring extra speakers and sometimes a DJ comes out to spin records. Three or four more buses will show up alongside theirs, and then the real party begins, Huffman said.
“Outside of the stadium, this is where you want to be,” he said.
Few fans would argue. Having a Bengals bus -- or any kind of vehicle that is decorated in orange and black -- is a goal of many of the fans who tailgate on a regular basis. But it’s not easy to achieve. There’s the cost, for one. Then there’s the constant need to keep adding on, getting bigger and better features. Call it an arms race for Bengals buses.
But it’s all worth it, owners say.
Three years ago, Jeff Covode, 44, of Greenhills bought an old van from his boss, stripped it down, painted it and added throwback graphics to make his own Bengals bus.
He painted it flat black so it looked like the van from The A-Team, and every year he makes improvements to make it more fun.
“This year, it was my grill,” he said. “You have to keep making upgrades -- because this is the best way to root on a Bengals win.”
Across the parking lot, nothing can compare to the party being had by the Bengal Bomb Squad. For the few who don’t know them, that would be the group of 100 or so led by John Robinson and Shawn Moore.
The pair proudly show off their Who Dey Heroes bus, which debuted during the 2009 season. Robinson said they were looking for an old bus for tailgating -- and found their prize on Craigslist. They paid $3,000.
“We never knew how big this was going to get,” said Robinson, 40.
Now the crew hauls all of its gear: six tables, a cornhole set, two kegs, 12 tents, three heaters and two generators -- and that doesn’t even count food and beverages.
“We used to tailgate out of my Honda Civic,” Robinson said. “So one day, we just thought, ‘We need to do this right.’”
Like all of the bus owners, Ron Patton wants his vehicle to be the best. Four years ago, he bought a van that he turned into his Bengals bus. At a recent tailgate, he threw open all the doors to let this music fill the parking lot from an outstanding sound system, while his wife and children threw around a football and jammed.
“We’ve been coming to Bengals games for 10 years, and it’s just so fun to be around all these fans,” said Patton, 50, who lives in Casstown, Ohio. “I’m going to add three more woofers to the sound system soon. Who doesn’t want to be the best? We love this.”
But what about those fans who have loved and lost? Kevin and Megan Shew, both 45, live in Mason. They once owned a Bengals bus for three years before selling it to buy a van. Now, the only remnants of their bus are two stuffed tigers that sit perched atop that van.
So what’s life like without the Bengals bus?
“Boring,” said Kevin Shew. “I’d buy another one if she’d let me. You want to be the spectacle here. I wish we had it back.”
His wife didn’t say no -- but she didn’t say yes, either.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said.
“Maybe we’re on the road to buying another one!” Kevin Shew said hopefully.
And then the fun could start again.