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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Cheer for the Cincinnati Bengals

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

The world is a broken place, and I usually write about serious topics relating to human rights and international affairs. However, my long-suffering Cincinnati Bengals play tonight in the Super Bowl. Some reflections.

Tonight, the lowly Cincinnati Bengals will compete in the most unlikely of Super Bowls against the high flying and star-powered Los Angeles Rams. For those unfamiliar with American football or who don't pay attention to the NFL, the Bengals have struggled for decades to win. And by decades, I mean they went 31 years without a playoff victory. But through grit, determination, and a young roster of new stars, they will play tonight before millions.

The Bengals are the underdog worthy of your support. The team has overcome much to get to football's most prominent stage.

Early Success

The Bengals were a 1960s expansion team, created when Cleveland fired their legendary coach, Paul Brown. He exacted revenge by starting a rival team in the same state of Ohio with the same color - orange. Relocating to the state's southern end in the Queen City of Cincinnati, the new team was the Bengals. Not many frills, their name just stenciled on the helmet for a decade, but it fit the blue-collar fanbase of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.

Success came in time—the first Super Bowl trip in 1981, 13 years after their founding. New uniforms introduced that year with tiger-striped helmets were the talk of the League. Traditionalists hated them. Then a child in small-town central Kentucky, the Bengals to me were exciting and the epitome of cool. They lost a close game in Super Bowl XVI to the San Francisco 49ers.

Fans didn't have to wait long to return, with the Bengals heading back in 1989 for Super Bowl XXIII. The rookie running back Ickey Woods created a touchdown celebration called the Ickey Shuffle. The NFL banned it, earning it the nickname the "No Fun League."

Again, the Bengals played the 49ers. Again, they lost a close one. Joe Montana became a superstar. Little did we know the Bengals would begin a tailspin into irrelevance — for decades.

Struggling to Win

For 13 years, from 1991 until the 2005 season, the Bengals did not have a winning record. Not once. Known as the Lost Decade, Bengals football was painful to watch if the game was even televised.

In the 2000s, a modicum of success returned. They won a few division championships and made short-lived trips to the playoffs. But no postseason victories.

A glimmer of hope arrived last year when the Bengals drafted Ohio native Joe Burrow from Louisiana State University. Comfortable with the limelight, he led LSU to a National Championship and won the Heisman Trophy. But hopes were dashed again, his season cut short by an ACL tear. The Bengals finished 4-11—more of the same.

Now Something Special

But this season, things felt different. The team didn't play like the old "Cincinnati Bungles," but had confidence and swagger. They fished 10-7, winning the AFC North Division and earning a home game in the playoffs.

Yet, even after the remarkable turnaround, Bengals fans everywhere were afraid to hope. We'd been burned too often to believe that this postseason could be different.

The first-round game against the Raiders was, therefore, enormous. The last Bengals' playoff game win came in 1990 against a team that no longer exists (the Oilers) when the Internet and pocket computers (iPhones) were science fiction.

But then the unbelievable happened. The Bengals won with a last-second interception, snapping a three-decades-long draught. The endgame excitement was truly incredible. All Bengals fans have learned to expect the worst, the team finding a way to lose usually in gut-wrenching fashion (see playoff losses to the Pittsburg Steelers in 2006 and 2016). But they pulled out a victory.

Next, the Bengals had to face the Tennessee Titans, the top team in the American Football Conference. Few picked the Bengals to win. Again, late-game defensive heroics gave the Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson a last second field goal attempt. As cool as ice, he nailed it, giving the Bengals the upset over the shell-shocked Titans on their home field.

From there, it was to take on the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs. Conventional wisdom said this upstart Bengals team couldn't win the AFC championship, not against the Chiefs, and not in Kansas City. No one gave them a chance. Even CBS decided to hype the game by showing highlights from 2018, seeming to forget the Bengals come from behind victory in Week 16 this season.

Once it began, Kansas City looked in control, the game running to the preordained script. The Bengals fell behind big in the first half, the Chiefs seemingly scoring at will. But I felt an unusual emotion — hope. This Bengals team had proven it could come back. Bend but not break.

And they did, winning in overtime—another late-game interception of the supposedly invincible Patrick Mahomes. Then the rookie kicker McPherson nailed another game-winning field goal. Super Bowl Bound!

Cheering for the Bengals

I've been asked over the years why I'm a Bengals fan. It was not easy to stay with them, year after losing year. None of the mystique like the lovable losers in Boston or Chicago, and even the Red Sox and Cubs eventually won championships. When I’d tell people I’m a lifelong Bengals fan, it felt like saying my dog has cancer. Their eyes would say, “I’m so sorry.”

But the Bengals were the local team from back home. They even, for a time, held their pre-season practices at my alma mater Georgetown College in central Kentucky.

The club isn't wealthy, owned by the next to poorest (but still rich) owner, Mike Brown, son of the founder. In contrast, the Rams owner's net worth is 10x Brown's, which allowed the Rams to construct a $5 billion stadium in LA. The Bengals don't even have an indoor practice facility.

Yet other small-market teams could win (Green Bay), so why did I care for so long? Loyalty. Or stubbornness. A desire to see something through. (A friend suggested this lost cause is why I'm drawn to human rights work.)

But I'm glad I never left. Finally, the Bengals have made the Super Bowl after a long, often discouraging, road. It made waiting all the sweeter.

The Bengals are in the Super Bowl. I still can't believe it's true. The bandwagon is open for new members.

And quarterback Joe Burrow looks confident. While Burrow and this young team are fighting against history, thankfully, they are making their own.

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