CINCINNATI — Call me a lapsed Cincinnati Bengals fan.
I quit watching the team a decade ago. I lost all emotional investment. If they were on TV, I wouldn’t know unless I passed the game flipping channels.
History would say I should be among the most dedicated fans around. I should own season tickets and buy a closet full of jerseys every season. I should dress as an orange and black Batman character on Sunday afternoons.
The Bengals are in my blood. My grandfather cheered for the Cleveland Browns until Art Modell fired Paul Brown, the greatest coach in the history of football. When Brown moved to Cincinnati to start the Bengals, my grandfather’s loyalties went with Brown.
As my grandpa’s rooting interests went, so did my family’s.
Years later, I was born. Sometime in my childhood, I attended my first sporting event – the 1982 AFC Wild Card game between the Bengals and the New York Jets. Being extremely young, and having to be carried everywhere, this game is one of my first memories. I remember sitting in a red seat – which is an important bit of information if you were ever attended Riverfront Stadium (red seats, green seats, yellow seats, blue seats…). I also remember it was cold. My dad reminded me the Bengals lost after they were blown out in the second half.
For years I cheered for the team, which had its ups and downs. At least the Bengals weren’t the Browns. If the Bengals got their hearts broken, it was in a Super Bowl, not by eternal Cleveland antagonist John Elway in the AFC Championship game.
But something happened and I stopped caring. Marvin Lewis was a great coach, but he and Carson Palmer seemed stuck on a franchise beneath them. Lewis got the team on track for its best run in the 2010s, but by then Palmer’s elbow was shot and he was gone. Andy Dalton was serviceable, but he didn’t have Palmer’s ability. Dalton struggled mightily in the playoffs and the Bengals couldn't win a game when it mattered. By then, my rooting interest was gone.
I’m not a Hamilton County resident, but I remember what happened with the stadium taxes in the late 90s. Desperate to keep their teams, Cincinnati passed a tax for two new sports stadiums. The Reds said they were never leaving whether the tax passed or failed. The Bengals were leaving if they didn’t get a new stadium.
The Cleveland Browns had just run to Baltimore, and the thought of the same happening to the Bengals was too painful. Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly voted for what would be called the worst public financing deal in history, and by 2011 it was cited universally in studies by academics, civic leaders and politicians across the country.
By 2011, over 16 percent of the county’s expenses were related to the stadiums. The deal was too good for Paul Brown’s son, Mike. He got the best public stadium deal in sports but at a high cost. With some of the team in legal troubles, the costs to the county, and the failure to win, the team had a constant negative vibe.
Watching the Bengals wasn’t fun.
“You’re breaking all of the rules sports fans hold dear”
Sports fans cling to their teams, especially their hometown teams. To quit rooting or supporting your team is heresy of the worst. Especially if it’s a team in your hometown. Friends told me I couldn’t stop cheering the Bengals. I wasn't allowed.
Why? Show me in a religious transcript, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights the rule that says you can't quit being a fan of a team.
So I quit cheering the Bengals. I love football, especially college, and there are plenty of options as far as games go if I wanted to avoid the Bengals. Not that I actively did. I didn’t hate them, I didn’t like them – I didn’t feel a thing. And it felt good.
But my friends who were Bengals fans would insist: “What could possibly bring you back?” Nothing is what I said, for years. They continued to push me for an answer and I finally gave them one.
It wouldn’t fix the past, but it would shut them up, and for sure, I knew this would never happen.
“If they make it to a Super Bowl, I will cheer for them.”
No scouting department for years? I’ll forget about it. What stadium deal? I’ll jump back in, buy some clothes in orange and black and embrace the positive. That was the deal I had made with the franchise 10 years ago. And I had no plan of ever honoring it even if they made the Super Bowl.
They could make three Super Bowls, I wouldn’t care. I wasn’t coming back. When the Bengals repeatedly made the playoffs in the 2010s, I didn’t watch as a fan, I didn’t feel any emotion. I was done.
But then Joe Burrow happened.
Burrow is from Athens County. Both sides of my family are from Athens County. I followed Burrow through high school in Athens, where my cousin used to coach defense, well before Burrow was there. I watched Burrow take the Bulldogs to the state title game and become a legend in Ohio Stadium before he graduated high school. I was ecstatic he went to Ohio State.
He transferred and I didn't care. Ohio State knew he was off to great things, every player repeated it, and I would watch his career with great interest. Every coach I interviewed, every player I talked to called him 'different.' Even when he was riding the bench at Ohio State, Buckeyes running back Mike Weber said he would be the next Tom Brady. At LSU, he definitely looked like Tom Brady.
When he won the Heisman I watched his speech, and with tears in his eyes, he talked about Athens County. I was going to cheer this guy wherever he went – and he went to Cincinnati.
There was no way I couldn’t cheer for Joe Burrow.
When the Bengals started 2020 with five losses in their first seven games, I kept watching. I told one friend after the first four games Joe Burrow was the best quarterback in the league. He laughed in my face.
I asked him to name someone who came in straight from the draft, and had to do so much on a rebuilding team? He was taking sack after sack but still keeping them in games – and he’s a rookie. My friend took a moment before he answered me.
“You have a good point.”
I watched Burrow’s interviews, then Jessie Bates, Sam Hubbard, C.J. Uzomah – I liked these guys. All of them. I liked Zac Taylor. Then I saw Ja’Marr Chase. He may be the most exciting NFL player since Barry Sanders.
Then it hit me – I really liked this team.
Franchise, owners, stadium deals are one thing, but I liked this team. I liked these guys. They played hard, they were smart, they were funny and even in 2020, you could see they wouldn’t quit.
Do you cheer for franchises, executives or commissioners? No, you cheer for the team. You cheer the players. You cheer for the human beings playing the game. I cheer for Burrow, Bates, Chase - all of the guys in the black and orange.
Bengals 30, Rams 24.
B.J. Bethel has worked as a sports and investigative reporter. He’s covered the Ohio State Buckeyes the Cincinnati Reds minor leagues and every eligible OHSAA sport.