Die-hards in a deadly season

12-21-02, 9:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bill Castellini, Fan, has been there since the beginning.

Before the Super Bowls and the painted faces, and from Paul Robinson to Corey Dillon, and he remembers Bengals Nation trucking to Fountain Square after they couldn't kill the clock for the last six seconds against the Niners and burning anything with stripes.

"I think that was mainly because of the strike, but people were mad the way it ended up," Castellini said of that bleak day in 1987 the week before the shutdown.

As he prepared to take his seat in the front row of the southeast end zone for the last time in 2002 Sunday, Castellini tried to remember, but couldn't.

"I don't think," he said, "it's ever been this bad. It's really getting ugly with the things being yelled and the things that get thrown."

And to think in a galaxy, galaxy far away, a Bengals' game was once a biweekly orange-and-black Riverfest where the joint was always sold out and the home team almost always won more than they lost on the river in one of the NFL's more colorful home-field advantages.

Like a framed picture of FDR in the '30s, JFK in the '60s, or Reagan in the '80s, maybe the most popular item in the den of a Cincinnati sports fan was the Jim Borgman cartoon from the 1988 season of the huge tiger stretched across the entire Riverfront Stadium turf asking, "Next?"

"It would get so loud," said David Fulcher, the Pro Bowl strong safety when they never lost at home that year, "that I couldn't hear myself walk. I couldn't hear my feet just walking across the turf."

Joe Walter, Fulcher's teammate who protected Boomer Esiason's blindside at right tackle that season, gave up his four club seats after the Tampa Bay game at the end of September. But he can still hear the noise from the other Sundays.

"It got to the point," Walter said, "that you knew the other offensive line wasn't enjoying life right now. That's why we had the home-field advantage. The noise and the crowd."

Now the Saints are 60 minutes from sentencing the Bengals to their first winless home season before what

could be the lowest PBS attendance for the third straight game. The only 12th man is called for a penalty.

But all three have an investment in this team, whether it be financial or emotional, and they all hold on to hope in a different way. Yes, there are people giving up their tickets like never before, but there isn't a core of fans harder in the NFL than here. They cope with the punch lines and national abuse by remembering it was so good once, it has to be again at some point.

"I don't know if there were 25,000 people in there last week," Castellini said. "But you keep hoping. You just want to see a win, and maybe that's what gets it going and turns it around for next year."

If it sounds like the 60-year Castellini is a die hard, it's because he is. ESPN confirmed it a few weeks ago when they selected him as part of a group of fans who follow losers and flew him to Boston in the land of "The Curse of the Bambino," to shoot a segment.

Castellini, who should have his 35-foot full-size school bus converted to a Bengals Bus by training camp, still eagerly gets up on home Sundays. Maybe this is the week, the turning point, he figures.

Castellini is going in on the Bus with his son Nick and Miami Township neighbor Buck Buchanan, another season-ticket holder from the autumn of Apollo 8, Humphrey, Nixon, P.B., and the '68 Bengals.

The best moment for him? Probably the '88 AFC championship game against Buffalo. That summed it up. The crowd and the players knew they were going to win somehow, some way.

"I thinks that's right," Castellini said. "We did feed off each other."

Almost all the seats on the bus have been re-done and room has been cleared out for tables which will bear the tiger head. There is a kitchen and refrigerator and a plan.

"We want to take it down to Georgetown," said Castellini of training camp, "and see if we can get some players in there and get them to sign a board and get something like that started."

Castellini is waiting to hear when the segment is to appear, but its too bad ESPN missed the bus. Castellini knows he could have done anything else. A cabin in the woods. Vacations. Family outings.

"But you always keep looking ahead," Castellini said. "Before you know it, it's the draft. Then not too long after that, it's Georgetown and training camp. Then it's the season again."

Walter doesn't have a bus and he only listens to the game so he can keep up with his radio gig he does in town. He got enraged watching the opener against San Diego, sensing the team was out of shape in the second quarter and wondering how that could happen in the first half hour of the season, and the 4,000 bucks just wasn't worth it.

But he wants to see this team do well, too.

He knows there's a belief among the current players that the old guys don't want to see them win, and he thinks that's ludicrous.

Walter is one of many that believes there has to be a house-cleaning all through the organization in order to flush out the bad karma. But he also thinks the house could use a better foundation. One of his ideas is to get a band of 20 or 30 so former players sitting in different parts of the stadium every week working the crowd.

Fulcher has to go as an NFL employee who checks the Bengals' uniforms before the games and then sits in what he calls embarrassment in the press box. But it's a job he likes because it still keeps him in touch with the game and his team.

"I sit in the row behind the visiting media and when they say things and joke, I've been tempted to say something," Fulcher said. "It's embarrassing. I remember what it was like. You know what a great feeling it is to be able to wave your arms and get 60,000 people to stand up and yell? It's as close as you can get to being an entertainer."

Fulcher is also on the radio and every Sunday morning on WLW-AM 700 before the game he knows how the criticism sounds. But he, too, wants it to get better, and he's looking for the passion from the players.

"When you waved your hands and got those people to stand up, you wanted to do something for them by making a play," Fulcher said. "There was a connection there.

"I think you've got to look at the A-1 sauce," Fulcher said. "I love Dick LeBeau. He was the guy that got me fired up to play. He was my defensive coordinator. Sam Wyche was a good head coach, but he didn't get me jacked up to play. That's not the job of the head coach. That was the job of the assistant coaches. If the meat is the same, maybe you have to change the sauce."

Fulcher, Walter, and Castellini all hear the calls for a general manager and a general bloodletting, and they all are anxiously waiting for the day after the season.

They all have ideas. Castellini is looking for coaching changes at the sorest spots. Fulcher wonders why not try something different. Anything. If a general manager doesn't work, fire him. If it does, enjoy it. Anything.

Castellini just got a few Christmas cards from fans that used to sit around him for years. They wrote him that they're giving up their tickets.

"That's sad," he said. "It becomes a part of you. It becomes a part of your life and what you do. But I guess that's why I'll keep going. It's a big part of my life and it's become a part of me."

Besides, Castellini figures it's only about 120 days.

"Draft Day party," he said. "We'll be there."

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