Bittersweet journey

Posted: 6:05 p.m.

Joanie Ross doesn't want closure. She wants to always keep it open. Just like Danny Ross will always be open in the end zone with his arms raised showing the record 11th catch of Super Bowl XVI.

That's when she and her kids about lost it last weekend, their first trip back since Big Danny died suddenly at 49 after a jog nearly 18 months ago.

That life-sized picture of Ross is one of those on the hallway stretching from the players' locker room to the coaches' locker room and the meeting rooms and into the heart of his widow.

"My kids know that he was a better dad and husband than he was a football player and he was a great football player," Joan Ross said, now back in New Hampshire but still living the weekend in Cincinnati. "But when they saw those pictures I think they realized just how important he is here and what he meant to the Bengals."

The other picture hangs in the gallery of the greats at the entrances to Paul Brown Stadium at Gate A and Gate D. Joanie, who knew as much football as they did when she would go out with Danny and his friends ("Why are young bringing her?" they would ask) around the bars surrounding Boston's Northeastern University, can recite her husband's career backwards and forwards.

Good guy. Tough player. Made the game with Kenny Anderson look like pick-and-roll basketball. The surest catch in the AFC, the guy who somehow made the grab of Anderson's longest throw in the Freezer Bowl diving on turf rock solid at minus-59 degree wind chill.

But to see the pictures...

"It was overwhelming," she said. "Second-round pick. Pro Bowl. Super Bowl. Super Bowl record. He did about all you could do. But he always told me, 'Joanie, when I die I don't want to be remembered as a football player. I want to be remembered as a husband and father.' So the kids knew it, but they really didn't know it was like this."

Joan Ross wanted Jillian, 25, born the June after the 11 catches, and Little Danny, born that last full season in Cincinnati in 1983, to know where Big Danny, one of the men who revolutionized the tight end position at the dawn of the '80s, had played and where they had lived. She took along the family of her brother and the family of Danny's brother, Artie, and came to Cincinnati just like when she and Danny were starting off life 28 years before after spending their whole lives in the North Shore town of Everett, Mass.

She thought it would be the right weekend. Enough time had passed. The hometown Patriots were in town. So were their dear friends, Patty and Max Montoya. Even though they hadn't seen the Montoyas in years, Joanie and Patty can still finish each other's sentences because they have never stopped talking on the phone. Californians and the New Englanders bonded by the 1979 draft.

"I called Patty the night before we left and I said, 'I don't know why, but I'm so nervous,' " Joan said. "I knew it was going to be bittersweet, but I guess I didn't know what I was going to feel."

Saturday night was more sweet than bitter. Just like the old days, she took everybody to their favorite Cincy restaurant for dinner. Even when Ross retired back home, he would send for Montgomery Inn ribs.

She was shocked when another old friend, Bengals business manager Bill Connelly, showed up and said his boss, club president Mike Brown, told him not to leave without picking up their tab.

"Mike didn't have to do that. It was unnecessary but very nice," she said of the man who scouted her husband.

As the Bengals assistant general manager, it was Brown who got a tip and went up to Boston to see Ross play in a non-football conference at a commuter school. But he recommended him with the draft's 30th pick.

"He was smart. He had good hands. And the big thing is that he was a very good athlete," says Brown. "Very athletic."

When Joanie took everybody to the stadium for Sunday's walkthrough, Brown gave her a hug and he saw the same assertive, outgoing girl that came to town with the quiet, reserved tight end. They would become as good a combo as the one Ross formed with Anderson to catch 71 balls in 1981 on the way to the Super Bowl, a Bengals record that stood for 14 years.

"You've still got that sparkle in your eye," Brown told her, and she laughed later and said, "My poor husband. I talked enough for both of us."

Head coach Marvin Lewis stopped his golf cart for a chat ("I'll root for him the rest of my life; so gracious," she says) and some players wandered over to sign stuff for the kids. But the highlight had to be Little Danny taking his cousins into the locker room to see Chad Johnson and seeing Johnson's face flicker with recognition and hugging him.

Later on the field, Johnson, four years old when Ross caught those 11 balls, tugged on Joanie's elbow and took her aside to tell her he knew of Danny's exploits and that he enjoyed watching him on tape.

"Chad was really great to the kids; he signed everything," Joanie says. "I asked Patty about that later and she said she thought that Chad knew a lot about records. It was nice of him to say all that."

Ross wanted to be remembered as a husband and father, and he certainly was. He never missed a recital or a game. He coached his kids in every sport they played. He had Little Danny on the golf course at six years old playing three days a week because, Joanie said, "He wanted to be able to play something with him his entire life and he said he could play it when he was 80."

But in Cincinnati, they were quickly reminded that Ross is remembered for being a football player. Tommy Ross, Artie's high school son, showed up at the game Monday night wearing one of his uncle's game jerseys.

"There were thousands of No. 85 jerseys," said Joan Ross, "and one No. 89."

But the nameplate "Ross" above No. 89 was hard to miss. Soon fans were telling the group that he was the best tight end the Bengals ever had.

"My son doesn't need to grow three more inches," Joanie said of Danny who is no longer Little. "But he did."

Just walking into the stadium was a chore for his mother. She heard the buzz, smelled the tailgate smoke, saw the orange and black and the stripes and it was 1981 all over again.

"I told Artie that I had never had an anxiety attack before, but whatever it is, I thought I was having one," she said. "I felt funny, like I was going to actually see him on the field when I went in there."

The family is loaded with Patriots fans, but not on this night. Joanie's experienced eye caught it all.

"After the first couple of series I was thinking, 'Here we go. It's going to be a barnburner. Right down to the end. That's what we came for,'" she said. "But it didn't keep going. I was kind of sick about it."

Bittersweet, right?

The kids haven't stopped talking about the trip since the plane ride back and now the plan is to have the Montoyas out to New England every year.

"You won't be able to get rid of me; I'll be back," Joan Ross told Connelly, and later when she got home she thought, "I feel like a part of Cincinnati, a part of the fans."

It turns out, the last thing Joanie Ross wants is closure.

"People come up to me and say, 'Can I talk about your husband?' and I say, 'Please,' " she said. "I don't ever want anyone to stop talking about him."

Consider it done.

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