1-7-03, 1:50 p.m.
BY JACK CLARY
The Bengals said a final farewell to one of their originals on Monday.
Former public relations director Al Heim died last week at age 73. He was one of the first persons that Paul Brown hired when he came to Cincinnati and established the team back in 1967, and it was one of the best hires PB ever made.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Al Heim was my dear friend, a man I first got to know when I came to Cincinnati in 1977 to begin working with Brown on his autobiography. During the two years it took to write the book, and long after it was published in 1979, Al and I shared a lot of experiences, most of them Bengals-related, and I count myself fortunate to have had him among those I called "friend."
Certainly, I am not alone in this regard. You didn't have to be with Al very long to know that he not only loved Cincinnati, but he seemed to know everyone in town. And on a more than casual basis.
That made him a very valuable person when the Bengals were being formed. PB was already a legend in pro football from his 17 successful seasons as founder and architect of the Cleveland Browns great successes in the late 40s and throughout the 50s. And, he was almost as well known for being a legend from the high school football dynasty that he founded in Massillon and the national championship team he created at Ohio State. Yet those within the environs of the Queen City really didn't know him.
Al Heim helped to change all of that and make Brown's presence a viable
commodity. When PB talked of bringing to life the dream of an NFL team in Cincinnati, everyone listened. When Al Heim worked to spread that gospel as the organization was being formed and nurtured, everyone began to believe it would happen.
Al had been executive sports editor of the Enquirer for eight of his dozen years with the newspaper; he knew the town's media and they knew and respected him. When he asked for their help or sought space in their pages or on their airwaves, there never was a question that it shouldn't happen.
One of his greatest assets was his accessibility to media and non-media alike. He was always available to answer questions, to guide interviewers who requested face time with Paul Brown; and also to be the organization's public face, when necessary, when the Brown family preferred its privacy.
Some in the NFL, and media around the country, used to try and commiserate with him because he had to work with PB, a figure mistakenly considered, cold, abrupt, aloof and unfriendly.
"I had the easiest job in the world working with Paul Brown because he made it that way," Al often told me. "I've never seen anyone who could handle the media with the ease that he did. He knew exactly what they wanted and he gave it to them, to the limit of his satisfaction. He never left any doubt as to what he meant when he spoke and he was decisive in everything he did. No double talk, no games, no equivocation."
Al recalled the time when PB, then the Bengals head coach and general manager, tossed writer Leonard Schecter from training camp. Schecter was notorious for pillorying his subjects, and he had recently done a hatchet job on Vince Lombardi in an article for Look Magazine. He came to the team's training site at Wilmington College to write a story on Brown for Look, and when he showed up at a press conference, PB went right after him.
"Get out," he bluntly told him. "You are not welcome at my training camp, and I have the final word on who will stay and who will go. You slandered my friend Vince Lombardi and I am not going to be a willing subject for you to do the same to me."
"That was it," Al recalled. "I didn't have to do a thing. The guy got up and left and the issue was closed."
Al Heim, the PR man, was friendly and gregarious. Current Bengals PR boss Jack Brennan, who succeeded Heim in 1994, had it exactly right when he said publicly the other day, "Al was one of the most genuinely good-hearted, good-natured people I ever knew. He was very human. He was kind and respectful of every one."
He had the genuine knack of making you feel welcome at first introduction and for as long as he knew you, be it one afternoon in the press box, or over the years. He had a great rapport with the media who covered the team, and those from out of town, for much of his time with the Bengals.
When the relationship between the media and the team became more adversarial, as it did everywhere during the mid-80s, he never took it personally. He was often a buffer between the media and team management, which often bristled at what it believed were overly critical or unfair stories. He understood from his own experience how the media works, good and bad, and never confronted those who "had it wrong."
"Most of the time, they had it right," he often said, "so why cause trouble?"
For years, he enjoyed playing the genial host at dinners with the media on the night before an away game. He picked up more bar tabs on those occasions and during training camp at the nightly get-togethers at Wilmington's famed "Bowling Alley" than the world—or the Bengals—ever could imagine.
Away from the Bengals, traveling with Al around Cincinnati was an unforgettable experience, if only because he seemed to know so many diverse types of people . . . politicians, journalists, artists, craftsmen, lawyers, judges—you name it, and this divergent group seemed to be part of his circle of friends.
Even more interesting was that most of them were Runyonsesque characters,
When they came to Spinney Field to watch practice or visited training camp, even Paul Brown enjoyed meeting some of them because he was always "intrigued" by people who were characters and counted many of them as his friends.
It's impossible to chronicle the wackiness of so many of them, but life was never dull when they were around. There was the guy who always carried his passport because he was forever leaving the country on a whim, and waking up in a foreign land to inquire just where he had landed. There was a guy with a rich New York City accent who wove tales of his life as an undercover agent but who really worked as a bank loan officer. Another was a Cincinnati civil servant who rarely went to the office because he claimed that he didn't want to interfere with his staff's work. But his monologues on events of the day, when delivered in the friendly confines of the now-departed, and much lamented, Second Street Saloon, were classics, though not always for family consumption.
Where ever Al went, he was barraged about questions regarding the Bengals, and at times it was tough because the questions got tougher when season results were lean. But he never wavered in his loyalty to the team, and always took any barbs or pointed questions it in good nature, culminated by buying the interrogators a beer for their trouble.
Once when he was in Boston before the Bengals played the Pats, we were at Jimmy's Restaurant on the famed Fish Pier, where he had made a dinner reservation in his name. As we waited and talked, the PA box boomed out one Irish name after another. Finally, Al turned to me and said, "Don't they have any Germans living up here? Or don't we get tables?"
Good-bye my dear friend. Thanks for your friendship and for so many great memories.
Jack Clary is co-author of "PB: "The Paul Brown Story." His latest book "Field of Valor," explores the five Heisman Trophy winners from West Point and Annapolis and their exploits in combat, as well as tales of heroism by other football players from the two academies.