'A family reunion'

5-4-03, 1:05 a.m.


If you care about the Bengals, it was the kind of night that sent chills up your spine like stripes.

This was the kind of night it was.

Anthony Munoz, who began his Hall-of-Fame career on the offensive line in the draft of 1980, shook hands with the Bengals' first starter born in the 1980s, the newly drafted Eric Steinbach whom began his career on the offensive line this weekend.

"I made sure," said Steinbach, who just happened to bump into Munoz on his way back from the food line, "to try to find him and meet him."

This is the kind of night it was.

James Brooks and Willie Anderson, two of the greatest players in Auburn history who happened to continue their careers with the Bengals, finally met for the first time after 6,447 yards (Brooks) and 110 games, four coaches, and two stadiums (Anderson).

"That's a player over there. I know players and I watch offensive linemen and I like this guy," said Brooks, pointing to Anderson from across the way.

"James Brooks," said Anderson after he practically flew over a table to shake his hand. "One of the greatest running backs and all-purpose backs of all-time. He's a legend as much off the field as he is on the field because of how hard he worked to train and how he played 10 times his size. It's too bad guys haven't met him because guys are in awe of him."

This is the kind of night it was.

Bob Trumpy, the still-estimable game analyst who once made a lot of money saying Mike Brown never spent any, said he planned to thank the Bengals president after the night was over.

"I don't care whose idea it was," Trumpy said. "Somebody had to sign off on it and approve it."

Earlier in the day at practice, Brown asked equipment manager Rob Recker to hand out Bengals' jackets and hats to some of the ex-players who had come early to a chilly Paul Brown Stadium. On this night, Brown joked that Trumpy said it was the only free thing he ever got from the Bengals.

And then he laughed and ended the night talking to Trumpy in what appeared to be a warm chat, two old foes who will always have the Bengals in common.

This is the kind of night now that Marvin Lewis is the Bengals head coach.

A buffet spread for former players and their guests, as well as current players and coaches Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium. A chance for the past to break bread with the future. A Lewis power-point presentation of building goodwill in the community and morale in the organization leaping to life as the Ickey Woods of 1988 Shuffled on the television monitors while the Ickey Woods of 2003 gave DeDe Munoz a hug.

"I know a lot of these guys from watching as a kid," said Lewis, the former Steeler fan, as he gazed at his creation.

"It's nice to see them and I'm looking forward to our young guys getting to know them and to realize that we're a part of something special here."

This was a Lewis presentation through and through. He seized the moment to unveil one of his off-season projects Saturday night. He commissioned NFL Films to put together a 10-minute tape to remind his players that the Bengals already have a rich tradition, ranging from the innovations of Paul Brown, to the Freezer Bowl, to Boomer and Sam, and Corey Dillon's record days. Complete with the horns, drums, and baritone narration.

Before the presentation, they ran the tape with no sound and Anderson found himself playing a game of "Who's that?" with Brown after Brown approached to watch a few snippets with him. Anderson, who figures he is one of only two or three players on the current team who can pick the old players out in person, did pretty well with Brown.

"Back in the day, there was the feeling that some of the old players didn't want us to do well," Anderson said. "But a lot of them had jobs (in the media) and they had to do and report what they saw. We didn't give them much good to report on. And then you see how many guys come out to something like this and you know they're pulling for us to do well."

About 50 to 60 of the exes showed up and three times the stories and gags. Like the one John Stofa, the Bengals' first quarterback, told about Trumpy often sneaking a smoke in the shower at halftime.

Thirty-five years later and what else is new? Trumpy was out in the stadium sneaking a smoke and missed when Brown began his remarks to the group by referring to George Halas, the coach/owner who played in the first days of the NFL.

"Trumpy played with Halas," Brown deadpanned.

And linebackers coach Ricky Hunley told a great story. Hunley, the club's top draft pick in 1984 who never played a snap here because his holdout engineered a trade to Denver, signed a deal with the Bengals in January as part of Lewis' staff.

"Mike told me, "Coach Hunley, you're officially a Bengal and are officially invited to the alumni function. We couldn't invite you in the past because you never signed,"' Hunley said.

But Brown was quite serious when he spoke to the group and talked about how Yankee Stadium is nicknamed, "The House That Ruth Built." He looked at all his former players in the audience and at the stadium outside and said they are all Ruths because it was their deeds that got Paul Brown Stadium built.

Meanwhile, Lewis continued to build bridges. His predecessor, Dick LeBeau, did much to involve the alumni. He invited them to training camp and he had them for dinner with the team one night at minicamp. But the former players admitted Saturday night they had never been to a function with as nice a setting or surroundings.

"It's really nice, well done," said cornerback Louis Breeden. "This is as thrilled about the Bengals that I've been since I played. There's a renewed sense to win. I've seen Marvin at a few events and, I'll tell you, he's just thrown himself into the community."

Bob Johnson, the Tennessee center who was the first Bengal drafted because Paul Brown said the game couldn't start without a snap, keeps bumping into Lewis on the banquet circuit.

"He's gone to everything in Cincinnati. I've seen him at six or seven events that I've been invited to," Johnson said. "There's clearly a positive. He came in and identified things right away and has acted on them. I think they stole two players in the draft (third-rounder Kelley Washington and fourth-rounder Dennis Weathersby). Washington is a tremendous player who can run."

Isaac Curtis, or as Ken Anderson calls him, "Jerry Rice before Jerry Rice," thought the draft was "exceptional," and admits he's getting an old tingling feeling.

"I can't wait for the season to start. It's definitely going in the right direction," Curtis said. "This is about as excited as I've been since '81 and '88. It's a great thrill (for the alumni) and I think it shows the younger players some things. There were some teams here to be proud of and, yes, we did have fun here and the fans are tremendous."

Munoz says whenever he has been down to the offices, "You can sense how it's just a different feeling; a different atmosphere."

Trumpy thinks the relationship should be a natural.

"The more you connect the old with the new," Trumpy said, "the more chances we're going to be out in the community saying, 'Why don't you rekindle the faith?' We're salesmen for the franchise. They paid us a lot of money."

David Fulcher, the game-changing strong safety, is a guy who has kept ties to the club. He is the team's NFL liaison for uniform issues on Game Day and he's a part-time talk show host on "The Big One," WLW-AM 700. He is another alum who has wondered why the Bengals didn't openly embrace their tradition more.

"A lot of the old guys have been looking forward to something like this," Fulcher said. "A family reunion where we can sit down and reminisce and where we can talk to the young guys and help them. I've been trying to help Chad Johnson by telling him, 'Don't worry about anything else but your job. Be professional.'"

Fulcher has an idea. In Cleveland, the Browns set aside a room for alumni during games. But he also knows this is a good start and hopes Lewis can turn it into an annual event.

Then, there are going to be more scenes like this:

Brooks told Anderson that his team can turn it around even in one season. He told Anderson how he stood up in a meeting after the 4-11 season of 1987 and said there was absolutely no reason why guys shouldn't be down at Spinney Field in the offseason working out. After all, virtually everyone lived in town.

"I told guys that I would come to their house and drag them out," Brooks said. "We started out with 10 guys, but we kept at it and kept at it and we eventually ended up with 60. That's how we did it. That's how we went 12-4 after winning four games. We worked hard and it brought us closer as a team."

Anderson said that sounded like a good story to tell his teammates. Brooks indicated he'd be willing to tell it. Anderson hunted for a pen.

"Don't worry about it. Jim Anderson has my number," said Brooks of the running backs coach. "I'll make sure we sit down and talk."

That's the kind of night it was.

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