The 21st century NFL is about as romantic as a boilerplate.
For one thing, those cozy training camp tableaus of hardscrabble college dorms and roommates’ hijinks and singing the alma mater on a cafeteria table captured in such pro football classics as Brian’s Song, Paper Lion and Instant Replay are long gone. Now it is ESPN glitz and HBO approved and when the Bengals veterans report for camp Wednesday, the only players that have roommates in a plush riverfront hotel are guys with fewer than four years of experience. Everybody else has a single like they are at some hardware convention.
But it was one of those old-time training camps powered by head coach Sam Wyche’s new-wave thinking that set the table for one of the greatest seasons in Bengals history. That’s what those once-in-a-lifetime roommates say 30 years later as they begin the season of reminisce, when they unknowingly became role models in 1988 for a culture still searching how to bridge gaps. Somehow the ’88 Super Bowl Bengals seem not only ahead of their time, but this time.
Wyche sifted through the rubble of the ’87 players’ strike made all the uglier by a 4-11 record, four losses in the final 1:48 after blowing fourth-quarter leads and the rabble of replacement players. He realized his biggest challenge for the next season had to close schisms instead of running lanes. So he sent his players an off-season letter detailing his plan to re-shuffle the training camp rooming list at Wilmington College’s Pickett Hall.
Offense with defense. Vets with kids. Blacks with whites.
“My objective was to make the team more familiar with each other,” says Wyche recently, vowing to find the notes from that camp. “There was a lot of division in the locker room (because of the strike), a lot of close games we could have won but didn’t for every reason imaginable. (Translation: A 25-yard TD pass on the last play after failing to run out the clock with six seconds left. A blocked field goal for a return TD in a tie game under two minutes.)
“I wanted them to be able to look at each other in the fourth quarter in December with the playoffs on the line and know their teammates’ wives names and know what was important in their lives, what they wanted to do after football. Truly a team, a family that would work for each other because they knew each other that well. I was wondering how many guys left after bed check, but nobody seemed to.”
That’s because they thought it worked and helped form a team that’s as tight today as it was when Wyche jammed them together for a summer.
Cornerback Eric Thomas (defense, black, kid:) “That move was so significant at a time when you had a league that was fractured because of the strike. You had a team that was fractured because of the strike. We were fractured. We splintered like hell. One of the ways Sam wanted to bring us together was to do that and that right there got things going in the right direction.”
Quarterback Boomer Esiason (offense, white, vet:) “A great idea. I think it helped, but when you’re part of a winning team, that helps more than anything. The foundation of whatever we built in ‘88 was probably laid that July and part of that foundation was the whole rooming situation that Sam put together.”
Left tackle Anthony Munoz (offense, perennial Pro Bowler:) “That was a big move. I think it really brought us together. We were in camp for about five weeks because we played in the Hall-of-Fame Game that year. That was a long time. What a great time to make that move when we were in camp for an extra week or two … I never saw (racial tension). We used to joke that Max (Montoya) and I would be the officials if there was a fight because we were two brown guys.”
If there was racial tension on the team, no one saw it. There were too many guys like veteran kicker Jim Breech, who says he attended the most integrated high school in the country in Sacramento, Calif. Guys like second-year safety Solomon Wilcots, who grew up in Los Angeles watching fellow southern Californians Munoz and Montoya and approaching them in his first Bengals camp like an awed teenager and the Pro Bowlers telling him, “Whatever you need.”
And too many guys like Esiason, the unquestioned leader even before he went vertical in front of a bus carrying replacement players during one of the strike’s seminal moments the year before. Outside of the quarterbacks, the voluble blond Long Islander’s closest friend on the team was a soft-spoken black South Carolinian, running back Stanford Jennings.
“There wasn’t a race problem, but I think there were a little bit of different cliques,” Jennings says. “After the strike, it was not a happy place. A lot of uneasiness. You had guys cross the picket line, some didn’t. For me, I thought it was great Sam recognized there was a lot of re-connecting that had to take place.
“Black players rooming with white players, that’s fine, but the idea was to understand what was important to (other players). It was more so about family, what was important to each player and what was their motivation? … You learn a little more about that person and you become more invested in that person. Which makes you do a little extra for that guy.”
Jennings and Esiason were unlikely roommates that summer. They were already close since they knew each other from the combine circuit before they were drafted in consecutive rounds in 1984 and they both played offense. But Wyche was smart enough to know you can’t outsmart players.
“They were role models for the rest of the team,” Wyche says. “When they started looking around to see what was going on, you knew there was some evaluating going on. They knew me well. They knew I was trying to do something for the good of the team, but at the same time I could run into some head winds if anybody objected.”
Nobody seemed to and, besides, Jennings-Esiason would quell any storm. But there were some pretty odd pairings, too. Breech, the personable pint-sized kicker from northern California, ended up with Eddie Brown, a quiet former first-round pick and wide receiver from the rough part of Miami.
“Eddie maybe said ten words the whole camp,” Breech says. “But we hit it off really well. Other guys said that’s how he was typically. It was not only the fact it was black and white, it was offense and defense. You’re pretty much with one group or the other. The specialists always hung out together. You never really spent much time with other guys. So it really did get to know guys better.”
There was Munoz, the first Hispanic in the Hall of Fame, with linebacker Leo Barker, the first NFL player ever born in Panama. Barker, whose muscles had muscles, would get teased by the offensive line whenever Munoz’s mates stopped by the room those last 30 to 45 minutes of the day.
“We’d tell him, ‘Hey Leo, stop flexing. You don’t have to flex now,’” laughs Munoz even now.
Wilcots says that is the genius of the move. It was more so the grouping of positions. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “Human beings are tribal and they’re going to stick with their kind. Look at a football. For the most part, the secondary has African-Americans. The offensive line usually has several white players. And I can’t think of two positions football-wise that would spend less time together than those two because of meetings and practice.”
But here’s what Wyche did in an effort to get “two guys that would never have any time together during training camp spend about 30-45 minutes together.” He roomed second-year defensive backs, Wilcots and Thomas, with veteran guards. Wilcots went with taciturn Bruce Reimers, a white Iowan, and Thomas to the gregarious Montoya. It was a pleasant experience even if Wilcots didn’t get many words out of Reimers. But when Reimers’ good friend Joe Walter stopped by the room at night, Wilcots also got to know the big Texan right tackle.
“That happened collaterally,” says Esiason, who also found himself talking to guys that came to see Jennings, like Thomas, the young corner from Sacramento.
“Love Joe Walter. How could you not?” Wilcots asks. “Guys like Bruce and Joe. Just tough guys. You want to be in a foxhole with a guy? Joe Walter. You look at the stereotype. But not until you get to know him. Teddy bear. Great guy. Look at the great things he’s done staying around the city and giving back to the community.”
Thomas was 23 and unmarried with no kids that camp. Montoya was 32 with a wife, two kids and a successful business. That was a big part of Wyche’s plan. More than black-white, offense-defense. Let the vets rub off on the kids. When Thomas shared with Montoya how he committed to his second pro season by staying in Cincinnati to work out with running back James Brooks, Montoya told him he couldn’t have picked anybody better and Thomas remembers how good that made him feel.
“We obviously weren’t going to talk a lot about schemes and schematics,” Thomas says of the disparate positions. “So we had a chance to talk about family and kids and life. Max was a guy that had been in the league a long time and I was looking for longevity, too, and to listen to a veteran like that was an invaluable experience.”
So what came first? The camaraderie or the winning? Despite the unmitigated disaster of ’87, they knew they had talent. If they didn’t, Bengals founder Paul Brown told them so in his annual address to the team the first night of camp in what Wilcots thought helped define the season.
“Teams are afraid to come in here and play you,” Wilcots remembers the soon-to-be-80 Brown telling them. “But which team is it going to be?”
Jennings remembers a moment in the first pre-season game at the Hall of Fame in Canton. Eddie Brown went back to receive a punt and dropped it.
“On the sidelines I looked over at Boomer and did The Twilight Zone (music). Doo-doo-doo,” Jennings says. . “But it ended up not hurting us and we won the game. It was like, maybe we can overcome these things that we didn’t last year.”
What came first? The closeness? Or the winning? The Bengals didn’t lose until Oct. 16 after sweeping the preseason and starting the regular season 6-0. Probably a little bit of both.
“It just goes to show you how good we were. How good the drafts were, how good the Bengals front office did putting the team together. We had the right coaching staff with the right coach at that moment,” Esiason says. “I don’t know how it would have went if there had been another coach there. Sam was in a really weird position and he kind of navigated the whole thing.”
Esiason remembers the post-strike feelings were so raw even between him and Wyche that during that last week of the ’87 season he invited Wyche out with the quarterbacks to see Ray Combs at a comedy club. Kind of a let’s-put-it-in-the-past-and-move-on type of thing. Not sure it was on the up-and-up, Wyche pulled aside backup Mike Norseth and told him, “If this is a joke, I can’t cut Boomer, but I can cut your ass.”
It was no joke, but Wyche has the last word to this day. You can debate the impact of his move. But know that team is still extremely close. Many of them live in Cincinnati after raising their families here and still socialize and are there for each other.
It could be Barker calling up Munoz years ago and after an exchange of “Hey, Roomie,” Barker telling Munoz his daughter was going to the University of Cincinnati and could he recommend a church for her?
Or it could be a community event, like last week’s celebrity softball tournament benefitting The Dragonfly Foundation’s effort to aid children with cancer and ’88 Pro Bowl safety David Fulcher managing a lineup of past and present Bengals while pitching. Or it could be Thomas occasionally catching Montoya’s daughter Allison on TV as a local news anchor and reporter and recalling how her dad brought her down to practice to romp.
Or it could be Jennings, the Midwest sales manager for New Balance based in Atlanta, flying into New York for business and hearing Esiason tell him, “You’re staying with me.”
Or it could be rallying around a teammate in need, like the awful day eight Augusts ago Ickey Woods lost 16-year-old son Jovante to an asthma attack and former Bengals crammed the hospital lobby. Even Bengals that weren’t here made the journey for the funeral. Jennings flew in for “Ickey, my guy.”
Or when they rallied to Mike Martin the day four years ago his son Marcus succumbed to a massive heart attack in Washington D.C. at the age of 25. The calls came instantly from everywhere. Tim McGee and Ira Hilary stopped by the house with a plane ticket to D.C. “Be with your son,” they said.
“I got calls from (teammates) all over the country within two hours and I think it’s because Jim Breech and Sandy Schick put the word out immediately,” says Martin of Wyche’s secretary then and Marvin Lewis’ secretary now.
Esiason was one of those calls in the early wave telling him how much he hurt and that as tough as it was, Mike had to be the strong one for the family and get everyone through. It wouldn’t be the last of their conversations. When Martin puts on his annual football camp in Marcus’ memory, Munoz’s foundation donates shirts and local guys like Breech, Hillary, McGee, Joe Kelly and the ubiquitous Barney Bussey always seem to be there coaching the kids.
You can debate if that ’88 training camp is why they still hang together. Breech thinks the camaraderie stretches back to ’81 and Esiason says, “The one thing about those teams out there is that we were always close.” But they also say it has to be a reason.
“After the strike and a losing season, we were pointing fingers,” Esiason says. “The best way to counteract it is bring guys together and make sure whatever tension there may be, the best way to get people together is make them share a room together and make them spend time with each other if they didn’t know each other.”
For Munoz, that ’88 camp proves something he always believed.
“Football, unlike any other neighborhood or business, football brings together people of different color, race, socio-economic backgrounds and you put all that aside and you work for one common goal,” Munoz says. “And that’s to win games. That’s the way it should be in society. It’s gotten so polarized, it’s crazy.”
Maybe Wyche and his players are ahead of our time. One thing is for certain. They were right on time 30 years ago.
“I think he had an idea of what he wanted it to do,” Thomas says, “but he had no idea it was going to do exactly what it did.”