Bengals mourn passing of one of their pioneers


John Sawyer made sure he brought his binoculars whenever he went to watch his Bengals. And until he became ill four years ago, he saw them play as often as anybody in the history of the franchise.

Home and away.

Mike Brown, the current Bengals president and the only man who has seen the Bengals play more, is pretty sure that without Sawyer's long-distance vision, the Cincinnati Bengals never would have come to be.

"I think it's fair to say it probably wouldn't have come off," Brown reflected Thursday upon hearing of Sawyer's death at the age of 90. "He was instrumental in bringing an NFL franchise to Cincinnati. He was a key person who worked behind the scenes and was always very supportive of what we were doing."

Mike Brown not only lost a close friend, but as reflected in his statement Thursday morning, he lost someone "I am indebted to."

"John was a pioneer with the Bengals," Brown said. "The team wouldn't have come into existence were it not for his efforts. He was our original president and our primary owner for many years."

It was the gravitas of Sawyer, a highly-respected businessman, World War II pilot and son of a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who helped give birth to the Bengals along with founder Paul Brown's Hall-of-Fame pedigree, the spadework in NFL and community circles by Mike Brown, and the contacts and energy of Bill Hackett.

The Bengals came into the world in 1967 with Sawyer as the president and principal owner, Paul Brown as head coach and general manager, and Mike Brown as assistant general manager and team counsel.

Hackett, Sawyer's veterinarian at Orleton Farms in London, Ohio, is remembered as the guy that kept hounding Paul Brown and everyone else to bring football to Cincinnati.

On Thursday, Mike Brown chuckled as he recalled standing in the parking lot at Orleton talking to Hackett when the door of Sawyer's office in a trailer swung open. There was Sawyer holding what looked to be two rolls of toilet paper, but he was actually brandishing the prodigious phone bill Hackett had racked up in his effort to bring the Bengals to Cincinnati.

And Sawyer was all for it. With Sawyer as the down-to-earth, behind-the-scenes principal owner, Paul and Mike Brown had the power to run the football end of the operation. It resulted in the earliest playoff appearance ever by an expansion team in any sport when the 1970 Bengals made it in the club's third season.

As a key cabinet figure in the Bengals' administration, Sawyer, a former part owner of the Reds, helped initiate construction of Riverfront Stadium, where the Reds and Bengals played for 30 seasons.

"We've not only lost a business partner," Mike Brown said. "We've lost a very dear friend."

Sawyer eventually sold primary ownership to the Brown family and stepped down as president in 1993. Yet he stayed a zealous fan. Unassuming and approachable, he was a staple of the Bengals traveling party up until 2011. While Paul Brown sat next to the head coach on the team charter, Sawyer sat with Mike Brown until Paul's death in 1991.

"He was just a pleasant guy to be around," recalled Bengals business manager Bill Connelly. "He wasn't demanding, he just loved being with the team. Back when they let you go in the cockpit, he loved sticking his head in there and looking at how different it was from the planes he flew in the war."

Sawyer was a pioneer in aerial application of crop pesticide and in 1983 he was inducted into the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame. He was preceded in death by his wife, Ruth, and is survived by four daughters and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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