Like one of the quilts Nancy Brown is known to lovingly piece together, this Christmas season has been a patchwork. Everyone, it seems, is relying on a combination of the virtual and the nostalgic.
So it has been this holiday stretch for Brown and her life-long passion of helping the Salvation Army help families. Brown, wife of Bengals president Mike Brown, mother of executive vice president Katie Blackburn and gracious den mother to generations of fans and players spanning original tight end Bob Trumpy to the latest running back Joe Mixon, has had to adjust like any coach or player in 2020.
Instead of a November auction that annually raises money to supplement each family's gift bag with dolls, stuffed bears and books, there was simply an invitation. No silent auction but a hopeful announcement.
"Every year she says she's never going to do it again and I know she will," says Sylvia Osterday, her good friend and partner in time and money behind one of the Army's auxiliary groups. "We sent out the invitations that we can't have the silent auction and we asked for donations and we got as many donations in that we would have made on the auction. Nancy said, 'See, I told you. We don't have to do all that work.'"
The irony, of course, is all the work that Nancy Brown has put into the auxiliary for more than three decades is what made the donations flow. In years past, the efforts featuring the hundreds of hand-made doll dresses combined with the Bengals' other endeavors with the Army that have become a staple of a Cincinnati Christmas, such as adopting families, collecting toys via the U.S. Marine Corps at a game for donation to the Salvation Army Toy Shop and players and staff volunteering at the toy shop.
This year the pandemic has cancelled basically all of it and so the Bengals are hosting the online virtual Kettle at bengals.com/give, encouraging fans and staff to donate to the kettle, as well as promoting the Army's holiday campaign through the club's marketing assets in radio and TV spots.
But that didn't stop Nancy Brown and her friends. As she does every year, she purchased many of the auction items far in advance.
"My family is going to get a lot of Bengals stuff this year," she says, but she'll also donate because that's what she does.
Nowadays, pre and post-pandemic, Osterday and Brown share the silent auction year-long planning, right down to making the baskets and packages that, quite naturally, usually have a Bengals theme and stocked with Bengals items. But for a long time, it was just Brown buzzing with that endless but easy energy that has always amazed family and friends. And she's still a force.
"A very generous lady. Needless to say," Osterday says.
Nancy Brown's connection to the Army runs deep. Her mother had a brother who was a member of the Salvation Army and every year it was a family rite of the season to rummage through closets and drawers to give what they could.
"I just like the work that they do and how they help families that need it," Brown says.
There is virtual and there is reality. Brown is a familiar figure at the Paul Brown Stadium tailgates and her fellow tailgaters have also been generous auction givers. One fan painted a Bengals car with a Barbie doll in it and they auctioned it off (Nancy bought it, naturally) and the Bengals Twins, Steve and Jeff Nagel, are also long-time diehards that have donated their time and money creating Bengals packages and projects for Nancy Brown's version of an action auction.
This is where she gets nostalgic. There have been countless of those intricate clothes sewn on dolls throughout Cincinnati, figuring 200-300 a year and she was buying some for her daughter Katie back in the day. Then Katie bought them for her daughters. Now one of Nancy's most generous auction supporters, Katie has also donated dolls to various organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club.
Five and six-year-old girls get the dolls. Boys and girls get bears. Everyone gets books. The bears have become a big hit. There's a recent year Anna Peko, the wife of nose tackle Domata Peko, put a Bengals jersey on a bear complete with her husband's miniature jersey and his real life signature, plus a little football helmet.
"I bought that one. That's a treasure," says Osterday, who also bought a Rey Maualuga bear.
The Army's event isn't the only auction where Nancy Brown has made an impact. She was the leader of the group she formed with her friends, "The Marvinettes," a Marvin Lewis fan club that avidly helped his causes and events.
And at the Bengals' annual Taste of the NFL event in the spring, Mike Brown must make sure he is the high bidder so Nancy and her friends can dine with the some of the top draft picks or other players who are volunteering their lunch hours to raise money.
"I just love Joe Mixon," says Nancy Brown after a couple of lunches with the fourth-year running back. "People must think, 'Why are they bidding? They can see them anytime.' But we can't.
She's met Mixon's mother at games and makes sure to keep in touch with her to let her know how her son is doing. She also keeps up with another favorite, Robert Jackson, an '80s Bengals safety. Pat Trumpy, the wife of Bob Trumpy, is still a close friend more than 50 years after they met on the '68 original Bengals.
Then, there was the time wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, picked them up for lunch in a limo with roses.
"Chad and T.J. were so fun," Nancy Brown says.
Maybe more memories than anything this year. But she'll take them and hope for next year.
"I've had fan and tailgaters ask me if there's anything I can do to help," she says of the Christmas Past. "To me, that's a big, big part of what I enjoy about the auction. When it comes to the Bengals and their fans."