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A football guy's birthday

8-10-01, 4:15 p.m.

PONTIAC, Mich. _ This is how a football guy spends his birthday.

He's up at 7 a.m. in another cookie-cutter hotel eating the optional team breakfast and talking about everything from the president's speech to his favorite baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, to quarterbacks.

And if you are Mike Brown and you are the football guy who owns the Cincinnati Bengals, it's the start of a very long 66th birthday.

It won't end until around 3 a.m., about four and a half-hours after the Bengals finish their pre-season game here against the Lions. That's what time he should finish driving from the airport back to Georgetown, Ky., and the Bengals' training camp to get started on his 67th year.

Which means another week of meetings and practice, a routine he has shown no signs of giving up since going to his father's Massillon High School practices when he was little more than a toddler.

"Ever since I can remember," mused Brown this past week during practice, "football has been the center of my universe."

A businessman? If a businessman owned the Bengals, he'd most likely be jetting to the airport and getting limousined to the Pontiac Silverdome just in time for kickoff after being hunkered down in an office all day.

Or maybe he wouldn't come at all.

But at 5 p.m., Brown will be sitting on the stadium bus next to head coach Dick LeBeau, a roster most likely folded in his shirt pocket and the team on his mind.

It always is.

After breakfast and a three-mile run around a nearby golf course, Brown met with his daughter and son-in-law, the highest-ranking active administrators in the organization next to him. No birthday bash. Just a talk about the team, which happens everywhere and anywhere. The office. The living room. The dinner table.

This birthday in this place is more than symbolic than most. Brown has been to every Bengals game but one. That was here 10 years ago. In the preseason of 1991. Aug. 2 to be exact, when he stayed in Cincinnati to be with his dying father. It turned out to be the last game of the Paul Brown era and marked the transition to Mike Brown as the club's president.

Paul Brown was in and out that night, but he watched the game the Bengals lost, 24-20, to Detroit.

"He would go to sleep, then wake up, and be alert for awhile," Mike Brown said. "One time he woke up, looked at the TV and said, 'What the hell is he doing in there?' And he was right on that. I wanted to know the same thing."

The next day, Paul Brown was barely able to scratch his name on a

$100 check made out to Mike Brown and dated Aug. 3. He always gave Mike $100 on his birthday, but he told his son he might not be around on the 10th. He was gone just after midnight as the 4th turned to the 5th.

"I've still got the check and when I look at it, it reminds me of him," Brown said. "And it reminds me to keep tending to your business no matter what. He had something to do and he made sure he got it done it."

The birthday lunch, like most of his lunches around Cincinnati at Mike Fink's or Frisch's, was low key. He and close friend Jack Schiff, a Cincinnati businessman, walked over to the mall across the street and got a bite. Then he found a store where be bought a map of the United States and a map of the world for his two granddaughters.

"I don't know if little girls like maps, but I think they can be useful to them," Brown said.

Ask Mike Brown about these last 10 years and the dreadful 47-113 record is his biggest regret.

"But there have been good things. It hasn't been as perhaps as difficult as it may appear," Brown said. " I've had good fortune with my family, my kids, my grandkids. Those things are right about where I would want them. The team not winning is my biggest regret, but I also feel we've worked hard at securing the NFL in Cincinnati for the future. Now I want us to do the other part and win on the field."

Mike Brown knows Paul Brown Stadium keeps the franchise in town for the rest of his lifetime and he hopes the lifetimes of his kids and grandkids. He s grateful to the people of Hamilton County who built it with their tax money and he's also proud of his family's role.

Mike Brown has also overseen the organization's massive staffing explosion, beefing up his father's once infamous lean organization. The 2001 media guide lists 47 full-timers in administration, player personnel, public relations, sales, and football operations. Not to mention 15 assistant coaches, which would really make Paul Brown wonder who the hell was in there.

In 1991, there were 10 assistant coaches and not more than 10 to 15 full-timers. Brown is embarrassed when he occasionally runs into an employee he doesn't know.

But Mike Brown knows no one will remember the progressive things he did if the team continues its awful ways. He won't join in a favorite list game and name his five biggest mistakes (Hiring David Shula? Drafting David Klingler? Letting Boomer Esiason go to ABC? Not firing Bruce Coslet after the '99 season?. . .)

"I'm not going to point the finger at anyone," Brown said. "Some things have worked better than others. But if there's one person to blame, it's me."

Which sounds like a football guy instead of a businessman walled off by faceless suits with titles.

After lunch, Brown fiddled with the roster, maybe made a call to the trainer, and tried to find out if he has to be in Chicago for an owners' meeting. There is a birthday phone call with wife Nancy.

"I know there's only one thing you really want," she told him. "You want to win the game."

Brown sighed. That's all a football guy ever wants. But there is always something to worry about. The turf. The quarterbacks. The Lions looking for bear in Matt Millen's debut.

"That would be a nice present," said the football guy as he waited for the bus.

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