I spent a good chunk of Labor Day weekend 1988 visiting my college friends Mark and Lana, who live in suburban St. Louis. We spent the early part of Sunday afternoon watching their former hometown NFL team play their first regular-season game as the Phoenix Cardinals, who just happened to be going up against my team, the Cincinnati Bengals. The game’s outcome was uncertain until a goal-line stand in the final minute secured a 21-14 victory for the Bengals. It turned out to be the beginning of a magical season for the team with stripes on its helmets.
There was no great reason to think going in to the 88 season that Cincy would do well. They were coming off a desultory 4-11 effort in the strike-afflicted 87 campaign; I can recall seeing a piece on the local news at that season’s end (guess while I was home for Christmas in 87?) announcing that Sam Wyche was being retained. They did have a quality QB in Boomer Esiason, though, as well as a solid offensive line, James Brooks at RB, and a good set of DBs; maybe I shouldn’t have been so pessimistic?
The Bengals started off 6-0, and along the way they discovered a new weapon to spark a fearsome rushing attack within their innovative-at-the-time no-huddle offense: Elbert “Ickey” Woods, a fullback taken out of UNLV in the second round of the draft. Over the final thirteen games of the season, he scored 15 TDs, ran for over 1000 yards, and became an overnight sensation with his goofy touchdown celebration dance, the “Ickey Shuffle.” (Perhaps just as importantly, his not-so-smooth moves led to the beginning of the NFL’s crackdown on endzone celebrations.)
Very early in the fall, before anyone could tell that the Bengals would actually be good, Dad mentioned to me that they were playing at home Thanksgiving weekend. When he asked if I’d be interested in going, I quickly said yes—I’d attended a few Bengals games over the years, but it’d been a little while since I’d seen one. Little did we know at the time that game would be the one to determine home field advantage in the AFC.
The opponent was the other surprise team in the conference, the Buffalo Bills. On that chilly late November afternoon, Buffalo was riding high at 11-1 (the Bengals had fallen back a little bit from their hot start and were 9-3). Dad, Amy, and I were in the upper deck of Riverfront Stadium (the “red seats”), in section 331. That’d be right field if we were there for a Reds game, but I’m visualizing it as a corner of one endzone in its football configuration. There were a number of Bills fans around us, and we learned about their cheer, “Let’s Go Buffalo.”
The home team won pretty easily that day, 35-21—Ickey got to shuffle three times—and I drove back to Urbana that evening a happy camper (as an aside, it turned out to be the last time saw an NFL game in person). In the remaining three games on the docket, Cincy went 2-1, the Bills 1-2; the road to the Super Bowl would go through Riverfront. Buffalo came back for the AFC title game, and went home losers again (it was just the beginning of a great run of sorts for the Bills, though—they went to, but lost, the next four Super Bowls). Seven years after their first visit, the Bengals were back in the big game…
…and facing the same team they had in Super Bowl XVI, the San Francisco 49ers. That game had taken place during my senior year in high school, and while the final score was respectable (26-21), it hadn’t been a close affair. Would the rematch be different?
I took Super Bowl XXIII in at a party hosted by one of my fellow math grad students, Ken, and his girlfriend Laura. It was a competitive but low-scoring game; the Bengals led 13-6 at the end of three quarters and took a 16-13 lead on a FG with under three-and-a-half minutes to go. I dared to hope.
But of course Joe Frickin’ Montana was under center for the ‘Niners. He engineered a 92-yard drive, hitting John Taylor for a TD with under forty seconds to go. For the remainder of the game and a couple of minutes afterward, I stared blankly at the TV. “Dammit….dammit,” was about all I could say or think.
That game took place thirty years ago today. The Bengals have been somewhere between horrible and occasionally better than okay pretty much ever since. Their last playoff win came in January 91, against the Houston Oilers(!). More than half of that time they’ve been coached by the recently-fired Marvin Lewis, who certainly wasn’t bad but was kept on at least a couple of years too long. I’m curious to see how a new set of coaches will do, even though I’m much less invested in the NFL than I used to be.
At some point in that season, GNR’s “Welcome to the Jungle” became a theme song of sorts for the Bengals, and “The Jungle” became the nickname for their stadium. My recollection is that one of the radio guys in town came up with the idea—Bengals live in the jungle, right? It’s stuck through the years—when they moved in 2000 from Riverfront to their new digs just down the river, Paul Brown Stadium, the moniker came along with them (though it’s hardly been a fear-inspiring venue for the most part).
The timing of the song’s chart run was pretty much perfect for the Bengals’ season: “Welcome to the Jungle” was released as a single in October, peaked at #7 at the end of the calendar year/football season, and was just about to fall off the Top 40 on Super Bowl Sunday (although maybe that was a sign of some kind…)
While I’m not a huge fan of Axl, Slash, Izzy, and the rest (though I readily admit “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is legit great), what other song can I play today? Thinking back on that day from 30 years ago, all I can say it’d be mighty fine to see the Bengals finally win the big one, just once.