Preston Brown wanted his fellow linebackers to hear all the stories the other night at his dinner. And from "The Trade" to "The Girl With The Balloons," his two special guests delivered.
Brown, the Bengals' first middle linebacker in the post-Vontaze Burfict era, knew something had to change as the club's roster underwent the generational change spurned by any coaching move.
Without Burfict, their best backer and Vincent Rey, their most experienced and reliable one, a leadership vacuum in the middle of the defense has beckoned throughout the offseason.
"I'm looking to take the next step as a leader," Brown says. "If I see something that's wrong, it's not just, 'It's all right.' I have to say it. I just can't let stuff go. You build bigger problems. "It can't be, 'If I do the right thing, maybe they'll see it kind of thing.' I have to be the vocal leader as well. It's the perfect time for me."
Check out the best images of Bengals linebacker Preston Brown from 2018.
Before this season, Brown was quite comfortable with the lead-by-example stuff. But "the perfect time," can sneak up on you at 26 years old. It's been a busy 26 heading into his sixth NFL season that already includes a league tackling title in Buffalo and a return to his native Cincinnati that was marred last season by a series of injuries that forced him to miss his first game since Northwest High School.
So the "perfect time," meant he made the veteran move last week when he turned to Wayne Box Miller, the pre-game and post-game host of the Bengals Radio Network who has worked with Cincinnati professional athletes during four decades.
Miller, who went prime time with the Super Bowl Bengals of the '80s and then later Prime Time himself with a part-time Reds center-fielder named Deion Sanders, set up a dinner with the current crop of linebackers and Joe Kelly, their starting right inside linebacker in Super Bowl XXIII.
Brown and Miller added a nice touch when they also invited Mike Brown, Preston's father, a Cincinnati coach and teacher who had a cup of coffee in a long ago Broncos training camp.
"Nine days," Preston Brown says. "And then you've got a guy like Joe who played 11 years and had a great career. Two different perspectives."
Not only would the current backers bond with a nice meal with Brown footing the bill, they'd soak in some experience. Miller made another veteran move when he made reservations for the Montgomery Inn Boat House, along with Kelly's '88 Bengals another Cincinnati landmark that has stood the test time.
Kelly, 54, figured it's the first time he broke bread with Bengals linebackers since Reggie Williams was leading them when he wasn't serving on Cincinnati City Council.
And he loved it.
"I'm just telling some honest stories," says Kelly, who felt he had a pretty simple and enjoyable assignment. "When you're playing and you're in the middle of it, there's not a lot of time to sit back and realize some things. The things that were important to me back then aren't so important now. When I think back, it's about the guys, it's the camaraderie. It's the brotherhood."
Kelly likes what Brown is doing. He can tell leadership when he sees it. In his first days as the Bengals' first-round pick in 1986, he knew no one in Cincinnati and with a day off the next day, Williams, one of the most famous NFL players on and off the field, asked Kelly what he was doing. Knowing the answer, Williams told him he'd pick him up at the hotel at noon for a trip to Kings Island, complete with his wife and two little sons.
"It'd be a great story for Preston," Kelly says. "Coming home and all that. A great ending. You don't hear about great endings a lot anymore."
It's home for Kelly, too. He played for five other teams after the Bengals, but settled here and since he retired 22 years ago he has run group homes for at-risk youth. Many of the '88 Bengals also put down roots here and they became a big family while raising their families. Their children call each other cousins.
And that was after "The Trade."
Kelly was in his fifth season and flexing his own muscles as a leader in that 1990 Bengals training camp, the first one after Williams retired. But two weeks before the season, the same day he moved into his new home on the north side of Cincinnati after the coaches urged him to buy, he was gone. Traded to the Jets to help a depleted receiving crew for the rights to Reggie Rembert.
But he stayed in the house for 24 years.
"I was living the dream. It almost wasn't reality," Kelly said. "Making money, playing football, having the time of my life. That was, wow, slap your face. Wake up. It could have been a blown knee, a broken neck. I could have been cut. You have no control over that."
Kelly made more money at the dawn of free agency, but the league was still trying to figure it out. One year he led the Raiders in tackles and was the fourth highest paid backer. One year his backup made $1 million more than him. But he was still playing. And he chalks that up to a meeting in the training room before practice his rookie year.
He walked in and the stars were in the tub. Reggie. Anthony Munoz. Max Montoya. Kelly, who figures those were the days he was going to practice right from the club, was intrigued. It was already hot out there. What was going on?
"They just smiled and said, 'Keep playing,'" Kelly says. "When you're a kid, all you think you have to do is stretch. It was probably my eighth year in and I couldn't do anything unless I went into the training room first."
Nick Vigil, the Bengals' fourth-year linebacker halfway there, heard that one.
"Take care of your body. Have to take care of your body," said Vigil, who already does, but appreciated the reminder. "You see a guy like Joe who played so long and when he talks to you, you're going to listen. The guy behind him making a million more? He told some great stories and you can tell how much he loved the game."
That was Kelly's point to the kids before the food came. The money didn't always add up. But that's not what he thinks about when he pulls out his Super Bowl ring.
Brown's father told the best story of all, though. He had all of nine days in Denver before he got the early camp cut and flew back to Cincinnati. His girlfriend didn't much care. He was coming home. So she was there at the gate, waiting for him with balloons and flowers.
Patrice. The girl he'd marry. Preston's mother.
"He said it was like he was the MVP of the Super Bowl," Vigil says.
For Mike Brown, it was an easy story to tell to the next generation.
"I knew then she was the one," Mike Brown says.
Preston Brown has probably heard that story a thousand times. And he didn't mind hearing it again.
"Everybody doesn't make it as long as they want to," Brown says. "Once we go on after football, there have to be other things that make you happy. I've seen it my whole life."
A nice appetizer for a guy looking to dine out on leadership.