The Bengals executed their annual Hometown Huddle drill Tuesday. They went one-on-one with shrubs, pushed mulch for short yardage, and bench-pressed rows of flowers as they helped groom the grounds surrounding what will be the Bulldogs' first-ever 100-yard practice field.
But if you really want to know the root of it all down here at the Evanston Recreation Area, sitting hard by the busy asphalt of Dana Avenue and I-71 near Xavier University in downtown Cincinnati, you have to go back to Peterson Mingo's income tax check of 1992 for $2,300 that gave rise to the Evanston Bulldogs youth football program.
"My wife was mad," Mingo is admitting Tuesday as he watches the wheelbarrows and shovels make way for a dream. "I bought 47 football jerseys and black pants and now there are about 200 kids and 80 cheerleaders in the program. Our 12- and 13-year-olds won the regional championship last year in Knoxville."
It all began about the time guys like Johnathan Joseph, Andrew Whitworth and Chris Crocker themselves stepped on their first football fields.
Everybody remembers their first football field.
Even the pros.
"Claiborne Field," Whitworth remembers of those first days in West Monroe, La., the left tackle still muddy with planting. "It was part grass, part dirt. It was right next to a cemetery."
Like Mingo did all those years ago, about 25 or so Bengals volunteered Tuesday, along with community members, corporate leaders, and just plain folks, to transform the dust of Evanston Rec into a pearl in another massive project by that juggernaut known as the Marvin Lewis Community Fund.
They helped finish off a Parcourse FitCircuit and a walking path, restored a basketball court, and mulched and planted near the new American Red Cross building.
And then there is that new practice field for the American Bantam League youth football team.
Before this, they practiced close by. Either at Ashland or Owl's Nest. But Ashland, with its tight fenced-in area and parking lot-like surface, has never been big enough or good enough. Over at Owl's Nest, they had to share with the baseball field and the outfield was never quite 100 yards in a straight line. There have been a lot of 77-yard scrimmages in Evanston.
And yes, they practiced a lot here at Evanston Rec in the outfield. But as Fred Thorpe, the Evanston Bulldogs president, stares at the stakes where each end zone will be in that patch of struggling grass, he shakes his head.
"That would be dirt now, but they've had sprinklers on this place 24-7 getting ready for today," says Thorpe, a 20-year man from Procter and Gamble now retired who runs a limousine service. "If we wanted to have a scrimmage game here, we'd have to somehow make it into 100 yards. We'd have to go caddy-corner or go up the hill."
"Camelot Elementary," safety Chris Crocker is remembering from those first days in Chesapeake, Va. "It was pretty nice. We had bleachers for about 200-300 people."
The Evanston Bulldogs, ages 6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, have never had a home game. They play their two home games a year in neighboring Avondale. They need more money for a fence in order to host a game. And Mingo and Thorpe are daydreaming about lights.
"This is what we have to do over at Owl's Nest," Mingo says. "By the time the kids are getting over to practice after school, it's getting near 6 p.m. It's starting to get dark. So we get a couple of our cars and put the headlights on."
It's never easy. Mingo has dealt with 26-year-old women who have four children under the age of 12. Not all that rare, he says.
"They can't afford it," he says. "We have to find a way to pay for their league fees, buy their equipment, and we have to insure everyone in the league from June to December. This is one of the finest leagues in the area. We have 27 dedicated coaches and mentors. We have 10 boosters and support in the neighborhood. You're not just a coach on the field, you're a life coach. A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes and you're looking to give them something they can take from the program."
So sure, Mingo and Thorpe would love the fence and lights. But first things first.
They now have one field that is big enough and nice enough that the organization can call home. When they have fundraisers here at Rec Park for the parents during those 90-degree days in the summer and grill out, Thorpe won't have to lay out the chips and soda on tables. They are going to have a concession stand.
Thorpe would love to get the fence and lights, but he wants the sign first. He sees it hanging on the Dana Avenue side.
"Home of the Evanston Bulldogs," is how he sees it.
"Hargett Park," remembers cornerback Johnathan Joseph from those first days in Rock Hill, S.C. "And when you got older, you moved up to Cherry Park. I guess it was OK. Grass. You're a kid, you didn't care. Now we're adults, so we complain about everything. Field is too hard, too soft. But when you were a kid, you loved playing on anything."
Mingo, 61, a retired Cincinnati Enquirer pressman, remembers those days, too.
If you really want to go back to the root of it all, go back to a Findlay Street game in 1959 when Mingo was 10 and they were playing a team from Jake Sweeney. It rained all day and the field was a mud bath and they only had one set of uniforms for the 12-13 team and the 9-10 team. When the older kids were done playing, the little kids had to wear their soaked uniforms with mud covering the numbers.
"We won 30-0," Mingo says. "I remember our coach crying after the game because he had to put us in those wet uniforms. I made a vow then…"
There had been no youth program in Evanston, so Mingo had been taking his kids to play in the surrounding areas in Avondale and Walnut Hills. When his neighbors wondered why they had to go away to play and suggested he start a league here, Mingo turned to that '92 refund check.
Now a pastor at the Christ Temple Baptist Church, Mingo also works for the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence. But on this day he is the smiling founder of the Evanston Bulldogs.
"Sometimes we use the Evanston Rec Center," says Mingo of their past homes, "but that is really only big enough to do conditioning."
"The field for the Jefferson Independent School District in Jefferson, Texas. Population 2,200," says right guard Bobbie Williams of those first days. "Typical grass field. Nothing special. We had bleachers. It was taken care of. Football is big in Texas. I wish we had something like this in east Texas."
Whitworth and Williams are still wearing the biggest aprons ever made as they finish up their muddy chores. Meanwhile, Crocker sees backup quarterback Jordan Palmer in the distance, complete in jean overalls, struggling with a wheelbarrow.
"Look at that wheelbarrow kick Jordan's butt," Crocker tells a laughing Joseph.
Palmer has to go all the way to Dana Point, Calif., to remember that first field at seven years old.
"George L. White Field," he says. "The South Orange County Patriots. Mostly dirt. A little bit of grass where the parents stood. Very uneven. It was spray-painted by hand, so it was real, real crooked."
Mingo knows all about it. But no more.
"It's a dream come true for all those that coached youth football, especially in the Evanston area," Mingo says of the day. "Guys who were here a long time before we were, who put forth a lot of effort. Who never had facilities, who never had the backing, who never had the finances. They did what they could for the kids."
Like Luther Starkey, the name of the coach that wept in the rain so long ago.
"Look at this," Mingo is saying of his field in the sun and then he gets his picture taken with Crocker and Whitworth.