Andy Dalton (right) and Andrew Whitworth sign autographs at Wednesday's Taste of the NFL at Paul Brown Stadium.
"Food, Football, Fun. That's what tonight's all about," were the opening words from Bengals radio analyst and co-emcee of the Taste of the NFL, Dave Lapham.
This Year's Taste of the NFL was the 11th annual put on by the Cincinnati Bengals in partnership with the Freestore Foodbank.
The Freestore Foodbank is the largest provider of food and services to our neighbors in need in the Tri-State. The Taste of the NFL fundraiser has raised more than one million dollars for the Freestore Foodbank since 2003, all of which helps provide emergency food relief and other services to the 20-county region it serves in the Tri-State.
Kurt Reiber, President and CEO of the Freestore Foodbank, continues to be impressed and excited with the dedication of the Bengals organization and the Cincinnati community at large.
"Over the past 10 years, because of the Bengals organization, they've allowed us to raise over one million dollars to feed food insecure individuals," Reiber said. "We have over 100,000 food insecure individual kids that are in our community that we serve with the Freestore Foodbank. By having the Bengals organization get behind us, it out-pays all of the other taste of the NFL events, and that's what's impressive. The players are here. The coaches are here. The owners are here and the community is out to support it. It's a great thing."
On Wednesday evening Bengals fans swarmed the Club Lounge West at Paul Brown Stadium to be a part of the unique event. Fans were given the opportunity to mingle with Bengals players, coaches and alumni, as well as sample over 40 of the finest restaurants Cincinnati has to offer during the dinner-by-the-bite event.
Host Carlos Dunlap speaks to the crowd as emcees Dave Lapham (left) and Brad Johansen look on.
Approximately one hour after the event began, emcees Lapham and Local 12 Sports Director Brad Johansen took to the podium to welcome everybody to the event. After speaking for a few minutes, they introduced the co-hosts of the event, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, and Chef-Restaurateur David Falk (Boca, Nada, Sotto).
Dunlap and Falk addressed the crowd separately, thanking all of the fans for their support and the Freestore Foodbank for all of the good things they do.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was next to take the podium. He thought it was a great thing for fans to be able to meet and interact with the players in a way that they were not used to seeing them.
"This is a great opportunity for our fans to meet our players without the jersey number and helmets to see what they're like in person," said Lewis.
Following Coach Lewis, Lapham and Johansen began the live auction. Fans were able to bid on various experiences with players, such as dinner with left tackle Andrew Whitworth and his wife, dinner with the special teams unit, dinner with the Bengals first two 2013 draft picks (Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard) and many more.
The item that drew the most buzz and created one of the most exciting points of the evening was an auction for dinner with the Bengals defensive line at Jag's Steak & Seafood. A bidding war ensued between Bengals fans Henry Karamanoukian and Randy Franz for the chance to have dinner with Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and others.
The bid started at $500 and was quickly escalated by Franz and other fans to $2,000. That's when Karamanoukian got into the action. The two men traded bids up to the $4,000 mark, much to the delight of Kurt Reiber and the folks of the Freestore Foodbank.
Karamanoukian bid $4,100 and Franz opted to bow out. Thinking quickly on his feet, Lapham called an auctioneer audible. He asked a representative from Jag's if they were willing to host two dinners. Jag's obliged, as did Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on behalf of the players. Lapham was able to get Karamanoukian and Franz to each agree to a bid of $4,000 to have their own separate dinner with the Bengals defensive line and six of their own guests.
"The fact that the Bengals and the Freestore Foodbank are getting together for the community to support Cincinnati is a wonderful thing and all of us as citizens of Cincinnati should be a part of that," Karamanoukian said.
While eager and willing to support the cause, Franz had slightly different intentions for his purchase.
"Last year we went to dinner with the linebackers and we wanted to stay with the defense because defense is number one for the Bengals," he said.
In addition to the live auction, there was also a silent auction going on throughout the entire evening, including various autographed Bengals memorabilia, and other Cincinnati sports-themed items such as a pair of seats from Riverfront Stadium.
When it was all said and done, the ticket sales and live and silent auctions amounted to $125,000 for the Freestore Foodbank, enough for the organization to provide 375,000 meals to families in the Tri-State.
"This is just one of those events that helps the whole community," Lapham said. "I've done the national Taste of the NFL. It's a big fundraiser the night before the Super Bowl and they raise millions of dollars for world hunger. Every NFL city does their own Taste of the NFL but not every city ends up doing it. The Bengals Taste of the NFL in Cincinnati is supported more than New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and those bigger markets. People have really taken this party on and it's an annual event for them, and people keep coming back every year. It's all about evening the playing field, feeding people that are in trouble and need some help. We all know Cincinnati's a very giving community when people are in trouble, others reach out and help."