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Bengals Training Room In Transition As Sparling Reflects On Hall of Fame Career

Paul Sparling in front of Kenny.
Paul Sparling in front of Kenny.

For the first time since Feb. 23, 1992, the Bengals are making room for a new head athletic trainer.

Just like what happened that week in Indianapolis 30 NFL scouting combines ago, Paul Sparling recently made a handshake deal with Bengals president Mike Brown. That year, Brown, dealing with their first season without founder Paul Brown and embarking on a new era with David Shula, the youngest head coach in the NFL, approached Sparling.

Now, Sparling approached Brown. He'll help the club make the transition to a new trainer while he steps back from the training room he's been in since he was a college sophomore and he was "the laundry boy," in the preseason Ken Anderson broke his throwing hand.

"It was time," says Sparling this week, moving out of his Paul Brown Stadium office he designed, a veritable Bengals Hall of Fame stuffed with hotel keys, Super Bowl paintings, autographed photos and the NFL trainer of the year trophy he won two years ago.

"I wanted to spend more time with my wife and kids," Sparling says. "Thanksgivings and Christmases. I wanted to have more business-like hours."

But on this day Sparling, 63, is working through lunch.

Mike Houk, an assistant athletic trainer, brings back some box lunches for the room. Nick Cosgray, Sparling's long-time director of rehab and performance, is in the process of one of his offseason magical makeovers. This time with linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither. His assistant, Dan Willen, shows Sparling some paperwork.

Meanwhile, he's figuring out what he's going to take home and what he's going to put in his transition office. Certainly what is staying is his favorite, the framed signed painting of a tiger head and Ken Anderson about to let loose with one of the most accurate passes in NFL history.

Paul, thanks for keeping me healthy all these years. Ken.

"Kenny had the toughest ankles to tape," Sparling says. "He had these huge calves that kind of just melted into his ankles. It was just hard to do without getting wrinkles. I got pretty good at it and Marv Pollins finally told me, 'You take care of Kenny.'"

Sparling has the perfect pitch of Pollins' soprano. No wonder he can sound just like him. Pollins is the man he replaced, the man he assisted for a dozen years. The man he wanted to meet when he enrolled at Wilmington College as an athletic training major off of nine varsity letters as a high school trainer in Dayton, Ohio.

"I figured since Wilmington was good enough for the Bengals, it was good enough for me," says Sparling and he has plenty of pictures with his mentor to prove it. "Plus, I knew it was the best way to meet Marv. He's doing great. He's 86. I talked to him just before the Super Bowl."

After a decade of assisting Pollins, Sparling ventured into private business in 1991. But that didn't last long.

Feb. 23, 1992 was a Sunday. While local sports talk radio urged the Bengals to draft defense, the morning TV news shows were blaring about Bill Clinton reviving his all but tattered presidential campaign a few days before with a surprising second in the New Hampshire primary. It turns out the same week Clinton began the climb from beleaguered governor to the next President of the United States earning the nickname "The Comeback Kid," Brown called Sparling to the scouting combine in the wake of Pollins' retirement and asked him to come back to the Bengals to head up the training room.

On Monday, Feb. 24, 1992, the Bengals released the statement that Sparling was back. Only the Giants' Ronnie Barnes has been in an NFL training room longer. Mike Brown gave the reason simply in a 2020 story.:

"I trust Paul Sparling. Implicitly, you'd have to say."

So at least one of the Marv Pollins photos is staying. So is the certificate from the Wilmington College Hall of Fame. He's got another one coming next month from the Ohio Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame.

He's also got two of the iconic Jim Borgman drawing that The Cincinnati Enquirer's Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist drew during the Bengals' 1988 Super Bowl season. The one with a huge tiger curled up in front of Riverfront Stadium purring, "Next."

Sparling has one of those in his office and one in his examining room that is connected through a door.

"One day this season Chidobe Awuzie came in wearing a shirt with that picture on it," Sparling says of the Bengals cornerback. "I told him, 'Let me show you something.' He had no idea."

So at least one of the Borgmans is staying. So, too, probably is a framed Boomer Esiason picture with the inscription.

Paul. Thanks for all your help. Boomer.

There are also memories only on the wall of the mind. Like the Wild Card Game Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer shredded his knee on a hit from Steeelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, a former Bengal. As Sparling worked he could hear von Oelhoffen almost pleading, "Paul, I didn't mean it. Paul, I didn't mean it. Paul …"

On Feb. 23, 1992, one of the songs on the radio (not Pandora, not Sirius) was Michael Jackson's "Remember The Time," and this is what Sparling is doing after 44 seasons and more than 800 preseason, regular season and postseason games up close with the most memorable moments in Bengals history.

One of them came less than two months ago as Super Bowl LVI ticked under less than 12 minutes and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow limped off the field with a knee injury and the lead. There would be no exam.

"It was clear to me he wasn't coming out of the game. He just said, 'We'll deal with it after the game,'" Sparling says. "I knew better. You can't force yourself on a player at that time, where we were in the game. If it was the first series, maybe. Maybe you'd sneak a peek at him at halftime. But where we were, that late in the game, you had to let him go. If he could walk, he was playing."

Sparling had already experienced that Joe Grit. He'll never forget Burrow's piercing sounds of anguish in a sick echo of Washington's empty stadium when he tore his ACL in 2020. Or the moment on the bus a few hours later as they rode to the airport

"I told him, 'Joe, my philosophy is to give a player about 24 hours to pout and then we focus on moving forward,'" Sparling says. "And he looked up at me and said, 'There's no pouting. I'm already moving forward,' and that mindset carried him through."

He was up close with another Super moment of courage, when Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie shattered his tibia and fibula in Super Bowl XXIII. While team doctor Robert Heidt Sr., casted him, Sparling held a foot that flopped anywhere he wanted it to.

"The paramedics asked him if he wanted some pain-killers," Sparling says, "and Krumrie told them, 'I don't want any bleeping pain-killers. Give me a bleeping beer.' He stayed on that gurney watching the game on TV until they told him, 'We've got to get you out of here.'"

Sparling shakes his head in the office blanketed with Who Dey towels. There is also a Hard Knocks poster, a painting of the 1988 AFC championship rings and a framed photo of Sparling with Pollins and equipment manager Tom Gray with the 1981 coaching staff that led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl.

Some are staying. Some are going.

Roberto "Berto," Cardona is most definitely staying.

Cardona, 31, is heading into his fourth season as one of Sparling's assistants. Before that he spent two seasons with the Bengals on a minority fellowship, a program that Sparling began in 2006.

"I saw it online," Cardona says of the ad Sparling places on the National Athletic Trainers Association web site. "It encouraged minorities to apply. And the NFL had always been a dream of mine. Paul gave me that chance."

Cardona, who grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas on the Mexican border and got his Master's at Texas Tech, is one of more than 100 students who have come through the Bengals training room. The annual student athletic trainer internship program for unlicensed undergraduates who are not certified and the athletic trainer minority fellowship for licensed and certified trainers are Sparling's legacies.

Not the stuff on the wall.

After Texas Tech, Cardona served internships at Louisiana Tech and the University of Texas at San Antonio before coming across Sparling's call.

"Minorites are under-represented in our profession and I thought it would be helpful for everyone, the students and for us, if we gave them an opportunity they may not get," Sparling says. "I went to Mike and he agreed. I said, 'Let's make it a nation-wide search,' because the numbers locally aren't many. We've had several great trainers come through and I think it's worked well for everyone."

Sparling has also hired women. Kelsey Howell came in as a student athletic trainer intern and then spent two years as a fellow before moving on to the Columbus Crew.

"Paul's opened a lot of doors for people," Cardona says. "Look at Kelsey. There aren't many female trainers and now she's working for the Columbus Crew. I don't think he'll be remembered for just one thing. I think Paul has got a lot of legacies. I know he gave me a chance."

After nearly 900 games, five decades, three Super Bowls, an office stocked with memories, it comes back to the sophomore who got a chance doing laundry.

"I always tell my students," says Sparling, walking out a door he opened for so many, "I wouldn't make you do anything I didn't do myself."