The Bengals are set to open their first-ever home training camp Friday with their first practice of the season on the fields adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium. We offer the takes of a season ticket holder, the head coach, a player, a business owner and the Bengals business manager as they begin the groundbreaking 23-day event that features the unique sight of an NFL team preparing for its season in the heart of a city's downtown.
"The excitement is palpable. You can already feel it. It's getting momentum very quickly," says Jim Moehring, owner of the Holy Grail.
Those involved sound like they're getting on the big roller-coaster at Kings Island for the first time. They know it sounds good and they think it's going to be good, they just don't know how it is going to all unfold. Even the players are starting to get into it.
"I think it will be good for everybody," says middle linebacker
THE SEASON TICKET HOLDER
Kevin Snider's dad Jim bought the tickets the year Joe Morgan blooped the Reds over the Red Sox, four years before he was born. It is 37 years later and Kevin Snider's oldest son is almost five and his other son is almost three.
While wearing the smallest of Rey Maualuga's No. 58 jerseys, they have already watched the Bengals win on the road. They traveled to St. Louis back in December. and watched
The ticket stubs from their first Bengals games are in their room. Maddux "Max" Snider was eight months old. The little guy, Cooper, may have been six months for his first.
The lovely Lisa patiently listened to her husband ask his groomsmen for a "Who Dey" in the middle of their vows all those years ago at Spring Grove Chapel. Who Dey, their dog, died not long ago but they've got a new one named "Boomer." It's not a basement, but a Bengals Room with an '88 Super Bowl Bengals mirror Jim rescued from a rummage sale in Atlanta perched on the walkway and a
"I'm thrilled training camp is downtown," says Snider, 32, a salesman for Arnold's Printing who lives in Anderson Township. "We'll go to every practice in the stadium. We can take the kids and for a night practice you don't have to worry about trying to get out of work early and it's not going to be a long night. You're going to be home in 15, 20 minutes."
This year? He's lived and died with them all and so he can't hide the expectations. "What I love about this team is the young nucleus and they've got (three) really good coordinators," he said. "You can't predict what (offensive coordinator) Jay Gruden is going to do."
Training camp is what turned his life black and orange. Jim Snider's parents lived a few houses down the road from Wilmington College, the first Bengals summer home, so it was free parking and a weekend of watching five practices wasn't out of the question.
Neither was stumbling into the head coach, which happened in the late '80s when Jim and Kevin were walking past the gym as Sam Wyche strode out of the dorms.
"He stopped and talked to us for about 10 minutes," Snider says. "How great was that? I've always loved Sam, anyway, because of 'You don't live in Cleveland.' We had a camera and my dad took a picture of Sam and I, and my mom still has it hanging up in their house. And I remember one time having pizza when Boomer Esiason and Eddie Brown were at the Pizza Hut.
"The way we've always looked at training camp, it's always so dang friendly. The players are great. You get to see them up close and personal. The big thing isn't getting their autographs, but just saying, 'Hey,' and having a conversation. And you see it. It's human beings. They're not robots out there. And at Wilmington, you could stand at the top of the bleachers and watch the wide receivers and running backs on the main field and then just turn your shoulders and see what we came for, to watch the offensive and defensive lines go at it."
When the Bengals moved to Georgetown College in '97, so did the ritual. By then, Kevin Snider was helping Anderson High School football coach Vince Suriano turn Beechmont Avenue into a gridiron yellow brick road as a tight end/linebacker/punter.
By the time head coach Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003, a trip to Georgetown, Ky., was no longer a trip to Grandma's. Lewis's first-camp-weekend concoction of the intrasquad scrimmage on Friday night and Mock Game on Saturday afternoon gave rise to the annual road trip.
"The first couple of years we caravanned down with 15, 20 people and stayed in a hotel Friday night," Snider says. "One year we had a room so big we stayed up all night playing cornhole. As the years went by, the group got smaller with jobs, kids, and some of the wives probably weren't as flexible as Lisa. But we always made sure we went to a night practice with Max and Cooper.
"I loved Georgetown because you could be right on top of practice and the players were great. I'll never forget Maualuga's rookie year. Rey was just absolutely great with Max. He talked to him, high-fived him."
Hence the No. 58 jerseys in St. Louis. Snider admits he's "apprehensive" about having moments like that again. He fears that intimacy may be missing in the stadium. And as for the limited seating at the workouts on the practice fields, he's worried about being able to get down to the ticket office at 10 a.m. and waiting in line for what looks to be about 1,600 seats. Eight of those practices are on weekdays.
"I don’t know how that's all going to work. I guess we'll see. I'm really hoping there can be some of that interaction with the players," Snider says. "But I think it's a great thing for the city and the Bengals. I think it's great for people who aren’t as lucky we are to have tickets. It gives them a chance to see them. It's like when we go to the spring game at Ohio State. It’s what I can do if I don't feel like I can spend all that money for the games.
"And I like how it gets the Bengals better known in the community. They've always been out there with a lot of guys having foundations and Marvin's foundation is just tremendous. But now more people seem to be talking about it."
One plan has already been made. On Saturday, Aug. 4, he'll see another intrasquad scrimmage in a third different venue.
"And we've already got Reds tickets for that night so that's just going to be a great day," Snider says. "It's another first and the boys can experience it."
THE HEAD COACH
The old joke? Well, now it's an old joke.
There were only two guys in the organization that liked going away for training camp. They just happened to be the two most important guys: Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown.
No Bengals head coach has ever worked a 10th season. No Bengals head coach has ever come into a season off a playoff year with a Pro Bowl rookie quarterback. And no Bengals head coach has ever run a training camp downtown.
Let the games begin for Marvin Lewis, who when it comes to training camp likes them tough and serious and scoffs at the eye rolls from players.
"That's the benefit of training camp. That's why you go to training camp. That's what training camp is all about," Lewis says this week during an interview on his camp outlook.
"We don't have to rent trucks and movers to move our infrastructure south an hour and a half. We have it right here. The challenge is to have the same mentality. We still have to have the training camp mindset even though we're going to be here. And everybody around here has to understand that, too."
Lewis liked going to Georgetown because his players could rest right at the facility. For Lewis, the two hallmarks of a camp are learning and rest. Now they won't have to compromise their education by packing up just some of their software. But rest is why he also ordered players to stay at the Millennium Hotel.
"You have to have a way to recharge your body and mind every day for practice," Lewis says. "We have the learning environment and the teaching environment. That's superior in our facility. But now we have to do whatever we can with the rest environment and guys have to take advantage of it."
Lewis doesn't like practicing on a synthetic field. Too hard on the players' legs. That's why he changed the Friday practice routine the past few years and held most of them across the street instead of in the stadium.
But he's got two things going for him this month. New stadium turf, so it's springy and gives more. And he's got two brand new Bermuda grass practice fields. Bermuda is more durable than bluegrass and the fields are so new that equipment manager Jeff Brickner doesn't have to worry about using different length spikes. The players will be going out there with molded cleats. Plus, there are twice as many practices on grass.
But for Lewis, this month is about mind over matter. He's got to make his players think "camp," even though the only thing they're packing are their new Bengals backpacks with playbook iPads.
"It is going to be different but it still has to be training camp," Lewis said. "As an organization we have to learn and we have things in place to secure and shelter our players so they have the ability to learn and rest. And adhere to that and understand that. Everybody has to understand that. Everybody's got this feeling, 'we're coming back home.' But the only thing that's changed is the location."
Look for Lewis to have the same kind of training camp T-shirt motto that he had last year. It is going to be along the lines of "Start Fast," which quickly gets to his top priority:
Being ready to absorb the frenzied Ravens homefield advantage in the opener and responding aggressively.
"We have to have the calmness to go play," he has been saying.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is the face of training camp. Intense and passionate on the field, friendly and accessible off it. His No. 58 jersey is the biggest seller in the Pro Shop for a guy who doesn't touch the ball.
"I don't think it will be any different," Maualuga says. "Everybody will be more familiar with the area being downtown and I think as far as the crowd, it will be a lot bigger.
"No matter what, the heat is always going to be there. If you're practicing in Cincinnati, Kentucky, whatever."
He says the hardest thing about camp has always been leaving his family and this is his first one with his six-and-a-half month old daughter. But the new camp should ease that. He already lives downtown.
"It's tough being away from people you get to see every day, but I guess in the game of football everything is about sacrifice and discipline," Maualuga says. "You just have to know you're going to be away from your family and when the time comes you deal with it. But most of our families have a 20-minute drive at most. They can come hang out at the hotel and be with us. It will be fun. It will be easier for everybody."
Maualuga isn't sure how the shuttle service is going to work. He says Lewis has banned mopeds and Segways and he says there might even be some nights some players take their sleeping bags to the stadium and spend the night.
"It depends on how sore my body is," Maualuga says.
Lewis will probably ban that, too, but it shouldn't keep anybody up nights.
"I think it will be good for everybody," Maualuga says of the move. "It will be the first time, so I'm anxious to see how things work out."
THE BUSINESS OWNER
Minutes after the Holy Grail Facebook page bannered the Bengals-Reds joint promotion for the four days they're both going to be in their stadiums during training camp, owner Jim Moehring figures the Holy Grail got into the 3,000-hit club. More than even new Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. He can only imagine what type of blitz awaits his bar and grill once the Bengals hit the practice field.
"I worked over at the arena for seven years," Moehring is saying this week as his lunch rush neared, "and I've never seen this type of cooperation between the two big teams. Ever. It's unprecedented. In my mind it can only mean great things for business downtown."
The Grail sits across the street, right on the altar of Great American Ball Park and a Hail Mary bomb from PBS. Since it opened on St. Patrick's Day of 2011, it became a Cincinnati staple as quickly as
"The only thing I can compare it to is Reds Opening Day," Moehring says. "The excitement is palpable. You can already feel it. It's getting momentum very quickly."
Moehring is managing this one by the book. On the stadium doubleheader days, as well as the five other days the teams are both working, he's going to double his staff. On those four stadium days, he figures he'll take in between 50 and 60 percent more than usual. And on the days the Reds are on the road and the Bengals are practicing, it's 100 percent right away.
"I think back to all the people who told me I was crazy for coming down here," Moehring says. "They told me it would never work because of the others that had tried it and didn't make it. Well, it's looking pretty good now."
The radio stations are now calling Moehring for remotes. Last season it was the Monday night home of "Bengals Line," so Bengaldom is comfortable inside his walls and on the patio. He called Bengals business manager Bill Connelly for just the right shade of black-and-orange for his Bengals wall, where a Freezer Bowl picture dominates, the No. 14 of Ken Anderson hangs proudly, and the No. 65 of guard Max Montoya protects it just like the old days.
The Holy Grail is one of the sponsors of Anderson's Fountain Square Kickoff on Sept. 10, so Moehring has opened the place to Montoya for meetings and Montoya stopped in a few days ago to say hello. And Moehring won't be all that surprised if some of the current Bengals come in to grab something to eat when they get a night off or some time to themselves during the day.
Maualuga and safety
The Grail has never gone for gimmicks. There won't be any 2-for-1 Andy Bombs or anything like that. Moehring figures he's done well shooting straight with reasonable prices, so why change now? Like everyone else, he's not exactly sure what's going to happen.
"I'm thinking back and I don't think we've ever had a Reds game and a big Bengals event at the same time," he says.
Oct. 10, 2010? When the Bengals gave up 10 points in the final four minutes against Tampa Bay in PBS and a few hours later the Phillies didn't blow their 2-0 lead and swept their divisional series against the Reds?
"We weren't open yet," Moehring says.
What if there's just too much? What if the people are everywhere milling the streets between the scrimmage and batting practice? What if tripling the staff can't handle them all?
"I hope so," Moehring says with a laugh.
THE BUSINESS MANAGER
How long has Bill Connelly been Bengals president Mike Brown's point man at training camp? Paul Brown had retired the year before as coach.
1976. Wilmington College.
"Here I am a 21-year-old kid from St. Clairsville, Ohio via Ohio State and Columbus and P.B. is the general manager and he comes up to me and asks, 'Bill, are there differences with what we do here and what they do in Columbus with Woody Hayes?' "
"Yeah Coach," Connelly found himself saying. "We don't hit as much. There's not as much contact. At Ohio State there's a lot more running around and tackling."
Connelly smiles. It might as well have been yesterday.
"P.B. sidles up to me and says, 'You don't see Rolls Royces in demolition derbies, do you?' "
But after 21 camps at Wilmington and 15 more in Kentucky at Georgetown College, Connelly can no longer rely on history for the first training camp ever downtown. From temporary bleachers to serving trays. He does have a history with head coach Marvin Lewis going for him and they've clicked efficiently in their nine camps together.
"There are more things that we don't know than we do know," Connelly says. "It is entirely different. The first year will be a major learning curve. We were in such a routine at Georgetown. The people in Georgetown were up to speed. They knew what to expect. A lot of the questions we have to answer right now for this location were already answered in Georgetown. We'll make decisions on the fly. I've been saying we're going to be calling audibles."
Think about your daughter's wedding. Now multiply it by about 50,000 issues and as Connelly says, "There are things that don't give anybody headaches but me. We'll figure it out and adapt and adjust."
His practice fields are now flanked by an invasion. Portable restrooms. A Pro Shop tent. Sponsor booths. Concessions.
But the two biggest questions?
"How many people will come to camp and what do we do with them so as not to upset very many people," he says. "That's why we've got five practices on the game field."
And that's why, in the end, Connelly thinks the huge transition is going to be worth it. "To be able to practice right in the middle of your fan base, that's going to be great for everyone," he says.
Another thing he has been saying is "there are going to be similarities and there are going to be differences." The biggest differences are going to be those 11 workouts on the adjacent three practice fields with temporary bleachers and limited sideline space compared to the sprawling room at Georgetown.
"When we're on the grass practice fields we figure we can get about 1,600 fans in here," he says. "But is everybody going to be sitting cheek to cheek? And if they don't sit close and we have overflow, can we accommodate them down on the sideline? These are things we'll find out and quickly and we'll make it work for everyone.
"Coaches prefer that players practice on grass and players prefer to practice on grass and the five game-field practices (where the team will practice on new synthetic turf) puts pressure on the coaches. That's only one field for 90 guys when they were spread over three fields in close proximity at Georgetown. Marvin likes to have one long, 360-yard field and have two shorter perpendicular 60-yard fields. There are all kinds of things we can do to move around."
That's just outside. Inside, Connelly's major challenge is feeding them with Aramark, a company that's used to serving 50,000 people in a stadium setting. They do feed the Bengals breakfast and lunch during the season, but never three meals and a night snack a day.
"They wanted to know why they needed serving trays," Connelly says. "It's a college food service type situation we're dealing with here."
During the season the Bengals eat in the gym, where there are no windows. Given that the camp days are longer and unique, they'll now be taking their meals upstairs in the West club lounge that overlooks the Ohio River and practice fields.
"The idea is you don't want them just taking their food and going back into the locker room," Connelly says. "You want to get some level of camaraderie at the dining room table. So I've got seven chairs at each table. You don't want one guy sitting at his own table. You want guys to talk, share stories. That's what training camp is all about. That's that the NFL is all about. Bonding with teammates and making friends for life. Look at Dave Lapham and Kenny Anderson. Roommates and now friends for life."
That's another thing. Roommates.
In Georgetown, the players were in townhouse quads where they had their own bedrooms. They were usually housed by position or where they were the year before. Now there is no year before. Now Connelly is assigning two roommates per room with big input from Lewis for the downtown Millennium Hotel. Some players are going to have their own rooms based on NFL seniority, he says.
"Marvin's two criteria are that he doesn't want guys together that are competing for the same position and guys that are going head-to-head on the field when it's offense vs. defense," Connelly says.
Ah, the hotel, which is merely up the hill a few blocks from the stadium. Connelly's not sure how many guys are going to drive their cars to and from the facility or opt to take the shuttle vans. Lewis has banned the Segways that populated Georgetown the last couple of years, envisioning disaster on city streets.
"Do they rent a golf cart?" Connelly muses almost to himself. "I don’t know if it's legal to drive a golf cart on the sidewalk, so I guess that's something else we'll find out."
Here's another wedding issue that only keeps the father of the bride up at night:
"How many guys are going to be driving and if it's going to be a lot is it going to slow down the hotel valet?"
Some things are going to be different. Some are going to be the same. Connelly thinks fans are going to have the same kind of up-close-and-personal feel with the players that they had in Wilmington and Georgetown when they work on the practice fields. And at the conclusion of every practice, groups of players will be available for autographs for 15 minutes on the perimeter of the practice field as it's always been under Lewis.
But for the safety of pedestrians, no autographs will be allowed as players enter or leave the practice fields. And the perimeter at the PBS practices means players are going to have to reach up a seven-foot wall.
Yet Connelly knows he'll be working out the bugs every day of this first camp.
"The thing we've tried to stress is that the No. 1 goal of training camp is to get the team ready for the playoffs. That's what training camp is all about. Autographs are nice, sponsorships are nice, marketing is nice. Having people come and watch practice close up, and seeing guys with their helmets off is nice. That's all part of it.
"But you're also thinking the goal at the end of all of this is to be playing after the regular season. How do you get there? Hard work in training camp without distractions so you can start 6-0 and we don't know what the distractions are yet. But we will."
Connelly smiles. A lot of work under the hood. But he likes the idea of a Rolls Royce parked downtown.