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Silver tongue

Posted Sep 7, 2010


Dave Lapham

According to Mrs. Riley’s math, Sunday starts Dave Lapham’s 25th season planted in the Bengals radio booth so long and so well that he can two-gap an elephant while taking out a can of butt whip and wrapping his big old muckers around the game he loves before he genuflects on another Who Dey victory if they can avoid the tragedy of turnovers.

That is, of course, LapSpeak, which is the native tongue of Bengaldom and its unbridled passion for all things football and Bengals has become a second language in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. Fitting then that Lapham’s silver anniversary season begins this Sunday in his original hometown when the Bengals play New England about an hour away from Wakefield, Mass.

“I think my brother is a combination of Tommy Heinsohn with the Celtics and Jerry Remy with the Red Sox in Boston,” says Roger Lapham, Dave’s younger brother. “Tommy’s a homer and Remy tells you the way it is. But they’re both former players that the fans trust.”

Roger saw it up close this past Fourth of July when he and his wife came out from New Hampshire to visit Dave and his wife Lynne. They enjoyed a vintage Cincy Fourth. During dinner at Montgomery Inn and a pilgrimage to the river to see the fireworks, Roger couldn’t help but see the number of people that stopped to stare or say hello or say, “There’s Dave Lapham.”

Even before that Roger got a taste when he was in the process of becoming the New England representative for the insurance firm “The Cincinnati Company.” When he phoned in and gave his name, the guy told him, “We’ve got a Lapham out here that announces for the Bengals.” When Roger said, “That’s my brother,” the guy went off and fired out a few Lapisms.

It’s unclear if “dig, dig, dig” was one of them, as Dave has been known to heave at times under his breath to urge a Bengal to the house.

“You never hear anyone say, ‘Well, this guy should be doing it or that guy should be doing it,’ ’’ said Anthony Muñoz of the Bengals radio color job.  “But he’s the guy. He’s the only one that should be doing it.”

Muñoz started his Hall of Fame career at tackle next to Lapham and Glenn Bujnoch, left guards on the Bengals 1980 offensive line, and the two are still in step. The first thing Muñoz noticed about Lapham was how huge his arms were and how they belonged on a man that should have been much bigger.

“He was an excellent player. Very strong. Hard guy to move with those arms,” he said. “And smart. Great guy for a rookie to be next to.”

They drove over to Indianapolis on Thursday night for the preseason finale, which Muñoz worked in the Cincinnati Channel 12 broadcast booth, and Lapham wouldn’t have it any other way. His four greatest loves are his family, football, his teammates, and the Bengals.

“That’s what I still miss about the game; the guys,” Lapham says. “People say it’s corny. But for me, it’s true. I loved being around them and that’s why I love doing what I do. Iove being around the people that play it and coach it.”

His teammates, past and present, feel the same way about him.

Ken Broo, the Cincinnati Channel 5 sports anchor and WLW radio Sunday morning talkmaster, called Bengals games with Lapham for a few years in the early ‘90s and still listens to him.

“You always want to learn and who knows this team better or football better than Dave?” Broo asks. “The thing about him is he can take a complicated concept and explain it so everybody can understand it. As a play-by-play guy, you just get out of the way.”

Ohio was settled early in the 19th century, in many respects, by New Englanders pushing west. How one of their descendants became an iconic sports figure 200 years later is a lesson in universality.

Broo drops a bromide from Hall of Fame Reds announcer Marty Brennaman.

"He has no ego in a business that breeds egos."

“He’s the regular guy like the guy listening to the game,” Roger Lapham says.

“Loyalty,” Lynne Lapham says. “If you cut him open he’d bleed orange and black.”

For her husband it’s a lot simpler than that.

“Wakefield, Mass is my hometown, but Cincinnati is where my two kids were born and grew up,” Dave Lapham says. “Because of that it’s become the anchor for our family and that’s my home.”

Brad Johansen, his play-by-playmate of the last decade, has heard them all and at times he can’t help himself on the air and asks him to elaborate on some of the Lapisms.

“Did you hear ‘Buckethead’ the other night?” Johansen asks.

 But the most important thing Johansen ever heard him say came off the air.

“I was telling him about my kids,” Johansen says, “and I remember him telling me how he used to love laying in bed watching his kids sleep.”

Now they’re wide awake and he’s still raving about them. How the kids and Lynne have settled in Cincinnati working for some of the city’s signature firms. Dave Jr., 34, is a comptroller. Sarah, 32, is director of marketing for Skyline Chili. And Lynne is a realtor for Towne Properties.

“You don’t get more Cincinnati than that,” he says proudly.

Even though Dave and Sarah are long gone from the homestead, Lynne says her husband still talks about “doing what’s best for the home team.” Now that means starting and ending as many days as they can walking a lap together around Landon Lake near their Landon, Ohio, home “to reconnect” during their hectic schedules.

They almost didn’t connect at that New Year’s Eve party when 1972 became 1973. She noticed the same gargantuan arms that Muñoz would one day notice and asked him, “Are those for real?” She also noticed he was drinking Johnny Walker straight out of a bottle and wasn’t very impressed when he said, “I’ll bet you I’ll call you before noon tomorrow and ask you out on a date.”

He groggily beat the deadline by a half hour and invited her to go watch some college football at the home of his Syracuse roommate. He hardly ever has a drink, but the football thing is still going on.

And with the football season heading into hurricane mode, Lynne had to walk solo Tuesday morning because he was back in the house on a conference call for his Saturday Big 12 Game of the Week for FOX Sports Net before racing downtown to tape “Bengals Weekly” with Johnansen.

“It’s always been like this during football season,” she says.

Lapham, 58, is going to call nearly 50 games in the next three months on all three levels and there are no signs he's slowing down. He does a Friday night high school game in Cincinnati and them embarks on a weekly Lewis and Clark venture to the west because whatever happens he can’t miss calling the Bengals game because of his other commitments.

The shrinking airline industry has knocked him out of a few college games the past couple of seasons because he couldn’t get a connection back in time, but more often than not there are stories like the $50 shower.

Once when he was assigned a Kansas at Colorado game, he realized the only way he could get to Paul Brown Stadium in time for a 1 p.m. Sunday game is if he could hitch a ride back to Lawrence, Kan., on the team charter. Then Jayhawks head coach Mark Mangino gave the go-ahead and once they landed, Lapham then hitched a ride with their radio team to Overland Park, Kan.

There wasn’t a room at the hotel, but Lapham didn’t really need it because he only had about an hour or two before he had to grab a cab to the Kansas City airport. But he did need a shower so he could put on a change of clothes.

“Nope,” the guy said. “There are no rooms.”

“How about an employees’ shower?” Lapham asked.

“Nope,” the guy said.

“How about for 50 bucks?” Lapham asked.

“Right this way,” the guy said and Lapham arrived at PBS powdered and punctual.

Saying Lapham can tell a story is like saying Terrell Owens can catch touchdowns. He can still break up a locker room with a bawdy story. But he can also take his auctioneer’s microphone and coax money out of a tight high roller for one of the many charities he donates his 50,000-watt personality. He’s done it for the foundations of Muñoz, Johansen, and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and who knows how many others?

“He came here kind of like a gentle giant,” Lynne Lapham says, “and he still is.”

“A very generous guy,” Johansen says. “He’s got to have a passion for it and he’s a very passionate guy. It makes him who he is. It’s one of the reasons he does something better than most can do.”

What Lapham does is call a heck of a game. He thanks playing for the man that drafted him in the third round in 1974 out of Syracuse, Bengals head coach Paul Brown, and his first NFL offensive line coach, Tiger Johnson.

“They opened my eyes to learning not just my position but everything around me,” Lapham says. “So you know why the center is reaching, why the guard is blocking down, why the fullback is filling. You don’t have tunnel vision.”

Johansen says Lapham never looks at the obvious. Like the ball.

“He’s looking at everything else,” Johansen says. “He sees the whole field. He never gets in trouble like most guys when they say, ‘I think that was holding.’ He knows and he’s right 90 percent of the time.”

Roger Lapham has had to rely on that skill recently as the father of a guy that looks to be the next Lapham in the pros. Richard is a 6-8, 325-pound senior right tackle for Boston College.

“Dave has had a chance to get to a couple of games to watch him and he’s honest and up front,” Roger says. “He not only can tell you what happened, but what is going to happen. And he can tell you so not only that I understand it, but my wife and daughter understand it.”

Lynne Lapham says coaches gravitated to him because he was a student of the game even then. And icons, too. He was legendary Ben Schwartzwalder’s last captain at Syracuse. He was pallbearer for Paul Brown. Nearly 10 years after Schwartzwalder retired, he traveled to Detroit for a Syracuse alumni gig honoring Lapham at Super Bowl XVI and bowled over his old player by his very appearance.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” the old coach said.

“He was raised where education was a high priority,” Lynne says. “His mother saw how smart he was and she encouraged him. He won the Harvard Book Prize.”

The reason Lapham refers to Mrs. Riley is because he had her for three straight years, from third to fifth grade, and it was accelerated math in which he was always in with older kids.

If he broke his mother’s heart when he turned down a chance to go to Harvard, she never said. The regular guy just didn’t feel very regular in Harvard Yard. She probably didn’t mind. He thrilled her in too many other ways. She was the sports fan. His dad was a talented artist who worked as a technical illustrator, but Lapham says, “He wasn’t into sports. He didn’t know if the ball was stuffed or if it had air in it.”

But it was a good 9-to-5 home in suburban Boston on the North Shore. His dad had the work ethic and his mom had the passion for sports. Nothing could get between her and her Red Sox, and they raised three athletes.

Bruce, Dave’s older brother by a year and a half, played some football at Bates College. Dave was a Syracuse All-American and Super Bowl starter. Roger was the running mate for Maine Man Rufus Harris in the glory days of University of Maine basketball in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and when he got drafted by Maine football coach Jack Bicknell to play tight end, he ended up getting selected by the NBA Bucks and NFL Bills.

Neither panned out. As Roger says of his NBA shot, “One day John Havlicek and Bill Bradley were shooting forwards and I thought I might have a chance. Then all of a sudden it was Magic and Bird. The game changed. “

But the work ethic didn’t. Dave always had odd jobs, not to mention a paper route from the time he was in third grade until he graduated from high school. Back at the tail end of Boston’s humming newspaper days, he delivered The Boston Globe along with The Boston Herald-Traveler and The Record-American. That’s how his now-famous preparation got its start.

“I knew every batting average, all the lineups; just like the fantasy guys now,” says Lapham, who says he got his prodigious memory from his mother.

Nowadays, do you think a Boston Globe All-Scholastic football player would deliver the paper that had the news that he made the team?

Back then, Lapham did. And he scoured the sports section every day. He must have been like the excited kid that pored over his depth chart before the game Thursday night and made a note on cardboard black with notes. He caught the name of Colts rookie defensive end Jerry Hughes on the third team, a guy he saw during a Texas Christian game the past few years.

“Oooh boy, he’s quick. He’ll challenge someone tonight,” Lapham said and two hours later Hughes was giving Andre Smith fits on the edge.

Lapham is not bashful about rooting for his team. He doesn’t wear orange and black on his sleeve. His sleeves are usually orange-and-black with Bengals garb. But he’s also not shy about ripping his team.

“I don’t care who plays,” he said in last Thursday night’s pregame, “but please, no nine penalties for 95 yards.”

“I enjoy doing the high school and college games. I just love good football. I just love to watch guys make plays,” Lapham says. ”But there is something about watching your team play. The uniform you wore. That’s big. It’s a different feeling.”

Bengals president Mike Brown likes that. He knows that in order for the fans to come back, Lapham has to call his shot. Positive or negative. He just wants a guy to do his homework, be prepared, and be fair.

“I hope he’s here as long as he wants to be here,” says Brown, when asked if he’d like to see Lapham do it for another 25 years. “He’s part of the Bengals. People see him that way and they should. He’s a key personality for us.

“I don’t listen to the games because I’m at the stadium. But often I’ll listen to the postgame show and he’s fun to listen to.”

Now the 25th is about to start and it’s a long way from that first pro football game Lapham saw. He was about 11 or 12 and it was at Fenway Park and he won tickets in a drawing sponsored by the Stop & Shop grocery store.

“It was the Patriots vs. the Houston Oilers,” he says. “George Blanda was the quarterback for the Oilers. Charley Hennigan was his receiver. There was Jim Nance for the Patriots and Nick Buoniconti was playing linebacker, and Babe Parilli was their quarterback. I remember looking at the program and seeing Bob Dee was 6-3, 250 pounds and thinking if I could just be that big I could play. I can still see that game as clear as anything.”

Which is nice. Because that’s how he’ll make Sunday’s game appear for Bengaldom.

   

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