When it comes to football, Bengals president Mike Brown can tell a Pro Bowl story. Last month he gave Anthony Munoz, his Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackle, a tale worthy of a Ring of Honor.
After meeting with Munoz about his foundation, Bengals vice president Troy Blackburn escorted him into the office of his old boss for what he thought would be one of those pleasant reminisces. Instead, he discovered that Brown had gathered his family to inform him that the Bengals have created a Ring of Honor and that Munoz and Paul Brown are the first names in it.
"Very humbling but very exciting," Munoz says. "I was here ten years with P.B. The longer you're out of the game, the more you learn and understand what the guy did for the game. It's amazing. You're talking every day he was around. I don't think there was a day until he got sick that he wasn't around. Every trip. Every day of camp.
"To know I had a chance to spend 10 of my 13 years around him every day was amazing. Now you get a chance to go into this Ring of Honor with him and it's pretty cool. It is really exciting. It's an honor," Munoz says. "The organization has had some amazing, amazing players over the 50–plus years of existence. I think this is great because now we get to celebrate all the guys and that's what it's all about."
The Bengals made the announcement Thursday morning with the inaugural class of four set to be inducted at a game to be announced. Season ticket members are to vote to select two more legends to join Paul Brown, the franchise founder who professionalized football, and Munoz, the game's greatest left tackle.
"A special meeting," executive vice president Katie Blackburn says of the Munoz moment. "It's going to be a great addition to the stadium. It's so fond to think back on so many of our players and the role they played here and the things they did while they were here. I think it's a great way to help continue to keep those stories and moments alive in everyone's memories."
Munoz arrived with the third pick in the 1980 draft via the partnership of Paul and Mike Brown. While Munoz saw Paul every day at work, Mike worked next to his father every day for a quarter of a century running the Bengals. It turns out one of the lessons Mike Brown learned helped produce the team's newest chapter with the Ring of Honor.
"I respected him the way a son respects a father, but I also had a huge respect for him when it came to how he went about his job," Mike Brown says. "To this day he's the template I have in mind when we do things. I'm aware of how I think he would have done them. I have a tendency to put that forward. It's the basis of my belief as how to run this team. It all stems from him. He had a great belief in efficiency. He didn't want to waste people's time. He didn't believe in excessive meetings. He believed in delegation. 'Here, you go run with it and we'll judge the results.'"
Which is exactly what director of strategy and engagement Elizabeth Blackburn did. Blackburn, 28, the youngest member of the family meeting, has been on the job for 14 months but has been a Bengal for life. Her inspiration for a Ring of Honor came from the fans themselves during her forays into social media.
On her watch new uniforms are being rolled out and the social media numbers have clicked the Bengals into the league's top tier. But the Ring of Honor is the vision closest to her heart. "I want that bright future to bring along the past," she says and the first four names are ready to be raised as sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow takes them into a new era.
"She took it and she ran with it from start to finish and has made it her project and that's impressive," says Katie Blackburn, her mother echoing the Paul Brown creed. "I couldn't be more proud. She had the initiative and determination to make it happen, which is awesome."
The one thing that gnawed at Elizabeth Blackburn while reading post after post about a lack of a Ring of Honor is that Mike Brown didn't care about his players. Knowing how much they were a part of her family's lives made it doubly hurt.
She has heard about the handwritten letters he has penned players and the ones he has received from them. Munoz has been at those reunions where Mike Brown would invariably end up in the middle of it all with a group of old players and one of his guffaws punctuating a long-ago yarn. Ring of Honor candidates and role players have walked through his door.
"I knew how much of a misperception that was," Blackburn says. "It was because a name on a façade wasn't enough for him. He loves the former players. I think there was concern about just a name on a wall not doing them justice."
Elizabeth Blackburn believes the power of modern communication can turn a stone cold number into warm nostalgia. What better way to usher in the new than honor the old?
"Now with our more enhanced capabilities in content, with video as well as just more vehicles to share photos digitally, it's a perfect time to unveil a Ring of Honor in a way that is more than just a name," Elizabeth Blackburn says. "It is really about the content. The stories people can consume through the app, through the website, as well as video and photo libraries, to really paint the 360-degree picture of each of our legendary players and coaches who have done so much for this franchise as well as the sport and the community at large."
Since Paul Brown was already in the Hall of Fame when he coached the Bengals' first game in 1968, Munoz is the only Bengal elected to Canton in the 53 years of the franchise. Anger at the snub runs in the family.
"The Hall of Fame has chosen to ignore our players to a high degree and this is a way to honor them," Mike Brown says. "I think a lot of our players have been overlooked by the Hall of Fame that deserve consideration. We can do something about that by honoring them here."
Elizabeth Blackburn was five years old the day Munoz was inducted. If Canton won't have a ceremony, the Bengals will.
"The fact we have only one player in the Hall of Fame, I hate it," Elizabeth Blackburn says. "I know that the Bengals have a rich history with an amazing legacy and impact on the sport of football. If there's something in our control that we can do to help celebrate that and remind fans, players, the community, other teams and former players of the beautiful past that we have, I want to do that."
The Bengals are a family of fans. Katie Blackburn, 56, Elizabeth's mother, has a framed Isaac Curtis No. 85 jersey in her office. In his office, her younger brother, Bengals vice president Paul Brown, 51, has a framed photo of mud-caked Forrest Gregg from his Packers playing days before he coached the 1981 AFC champion Bengals. They are as old as the Bengals.
Paul Brown was 11 when the Bengals made that run to Pontiac in '81. He vaguely remembers the last game his grandfather with his name coached and a buzz among the adults about it. But he was only five then. He remembers Super Bowl XVI and that's just one of the reasons he calls Thursday's announcement, "exciting."
"Everyone will be able to look up and see the names in the stadium and have so many great memories of them. Maybe individual memories from their own seat locations of the great plays that they made," Paul Brown says. "For me, Ken Anderson was the first quarterback I really remember and he brought me all the way through my childhood."
No one, says Katie Blackburn, can tell a story like her dad. She immediately falls into football shorthand to tell this old one about how they scouted Munoz before that draft 41 years ago.
"We talked about how when my dad, my grandfather and uncle (Pete Brown) were watching the USC bowl game," Katie Blackburn says. "Anthony had the knee, obviously, and he was back. And they just always tell the story of how dominant he was in that final game of the year when he came back and made it such an easy decision for them."
Just like he made the Ring of Honor's inaugural class such an easy call.