I spent four years of my life in Cincinnati while attending college. These are the four years of your life where you’re supposed to have a blast and begin to figure out who you are. Whether I accomplished either of those things is debatable, but I did learn a good amount about the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans.
With the Ravens matchup in Cincy looming on Sunday, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my time in the ‘Nati and how the Bengals and “Who Dey Nation” intertwine with our reality as Baltimore fans. In many ways I dislike the Bengals more than any other NFL team. In others I feel empathy for their plight. More often than not, they simply confuse me.
I arrived in the Queen City (a term nobody uses) right at the brink of the Bengals’ latter-day resurgence. At the time, the team hadn’t made the playoffs in over a decade, and being a Bengals fan was not something many folks openly displayed. Going to a sports bar on a Sunday to watch all the NFL games my first year in the Nati was great because most of the time, they weren’t even compelled to monopolize one of the big TVs for the home team. I also feel that it’s relevant to point out that at this time (in 2001) people were still actively referring to “The Ickey Shuffle.” There are starved franchises, and there are those who are simply malnourished.
The week after September 11th, my parents made the trip out to visit me for a weekend and we went to Paul Brown Stadium to see our defending champion Ravens presumably mop the floor with the lowly Bengals. This did not happen. The Bengals turned in a very un-Bengal 21-10 win, but I came away from that game with a newfound respect for their fans. Going to an away NFL game in the wrong jersey was not at all what I was expecting. People were nice, friendly, and inquisitive as to what had brought us into town. They let me cheer when I wanted to, and didn’t rub anything in my face when Elvis Grbac served up a 66 yard pick-6 to Takeo Spikes. If you’ve ever been around a visiting fan at M&T Bank in recent years, you know that they don’t come out as emotionally or physically unscathed as I did. Maybe it’s easier to be nice when you never make the playoffs?
While playoff appearances may in fact impact how neighborly a fan base is to opponents, something changed over my four years there without a single Cincinnati playoff game. When Marvin Lewis took over the reigns in 2003, there was a definite departure from the status quo. You started seeing Bengal hats popping up more frequently, and the dormant “Who Dey Think Gon’ Beat Dem Bengals” chant was resurrected en masse. It became harder to ignore the sea of “Johnson” jerseys at the sports bar on Sunday, whether they were 85s for Chad or 32s for Rudi. The polite midwestern values of the fans began to deteriorate, at least toward me. One day, while walking back from class, wearing my Todd Heap away jersey, someone shouted “Ray Lewis is a murderer!” in my general direction. These Bengals had fangs.
Around that time, I picked up a part time job across the river in northern Kentucky. This meant an hourlong roundtrip commute where I began listening to local AM sports talk radio, something college kids with iPods who never drive anywhere usually miss out on. It was all Bengals, all the time. It’s like the Reds hadn’t just played a century and a half of baseball. Callers inexplicably started and ended their calls with “Who Dey!,” even when they wanted Marvin Lewis gone or Chad Johnson drawn and quartered.
I don’t know if this was Stockholm syndrome or just genuine admiration, but I began to want good things to happen to Cincinnati. Sure, when they played the Ravens I wanted them demolished, but a soft spot grew in my heart for Johnson (now Ochocino)’s fun-loving antics and reliability as a 1,000 yard-plus receiver. It was exciting to be around a team that had been a joke for so long going 8-8, which to them was like the Patriots’ 2007 undefeated regular season. People had stopped calling them the “Bungles.”
By my final year there, the charm had worn off. I was tired of being in Ohio and wanted desperately to graduate and get the hell out. Everyone who I wasn’t getting along with, whether it was my ex-girlfriend, acquaintances from school, my boss, my professors, also happened to be Bengals fans. In 2005 the Bengals made their first playoffs since 1990 and beat the Ravens twice. “I hope they lose every game they play for the rest of eternity,” I declared to my roommate with a straight face. I remember the final two weeks of the 2006 season when Cincinnati gave away a 24-23 loss to Denver on a blocked extra point and then lost in overtime to Pittsburgh in week 17. Those two losses made them miss the playoffs, and I cackled like a madman after each one. Clearly, I had issues.
As wounds have healed and I’ve found some distance with age, I have started to see that all four AFC North fanbases are not all that dissimilar. If you took away jerseys and colors, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. The Bengals are back in the playoff hunt, with only Baltimore standing in their way. Somewhere in my old neighborhood, guys are cracking Miller Lites and shouting “Who Dey” while their girlfriends are wearing white Bengals visors and painting tiger strips on their cheeks.
Six hundred miles away, I sit here on Purple Friday, rooting for the Bengals to lose not out of spite or malice, but simply because on Sunday, they’re in my way. Who Dey, indeed.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com