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Forty Years Of Fan Connections Form The Vines Of Bengals' Jungle

Fan cheers outside Paul Brown Stadium before an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
Fan cheers outside Paul Brown Stadium before an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)


Anthony Munoz, the greatest player on the Bengals greatest team that is observing its 40th anniversary, is in the 20th year running his foundation. That means the one thing more powerful than a Munoz set against Bruce Smith, the calendar, has flipped so many times that the parents of the kids nowadays actually saw him play.

So when the kids step up in the Q-and-As and invariably ask if Munoz wishes he had the chance to play in "The Jungle," he launches into a brief, stark history lesson that encompasses the birth of modern Bengaldom.

"In 1981, it became "The Jungle,"' Munoz tells them. "We had wigs and painted faces and we started winning and it took off. When I got here in 1980, it was a red and white city. They had the Big Red Machine and the Bengals were struggling. But that next year, that helped us win the city and "The Jungle," caught fire."

It still burns during an immense offseason push the club has re-fashioned the tradition with an overhauled gameday featuring a "Ruler of the Jungle," theme complete with a concrete throne and foam sculpture tigers.

And, like their Astroturf ancestors of 1981, new uniforms. The fire's glow could be seen in the estimated crowd of 15,000 for Saturday's Back Together training camp practice, a maze of families and kids in all sorts of Bengals wear.

The day was a Who Dey reminder that it was forty years ago this fall that Bengaldom burst into Technicolor. During the previous dozen seasons, the Bengals had been interesting locally with three AFC Central titles and nationally always relevant with the great Paul Brown presiding over his Hall-of-Fame comeback.

But it all seemed to be in black-and-white until 1981. Brown's innovative uniforms flashing orange and black and topped off by the iconic striped helmet appeared the same year as their cutting edge offense run by NFL MVP Ken Anderson and an equally smart defense that produced 12 wins, the franchise's first Super Bowl trip and the fans' legacy.

"The '81 team taught us to be winning football fans," says Tom Justin, one of the faithful who hasn't missed a game in section 250 of Riverfront Stadium or section 126 of Paul Brown Stadium since the Anderson broken hand season of 1978. "It put us on a level with the rest of the NFL with the enthusiasm in learning how to win. It was the stripes, but it was also the team that wore them."

It was a curious team, a no-frills-deadly-efficient outfit that still spawned the signature boisterous Who Dey chant. Like Tom Justin says, they had no one dancing in the end zone like the next Bengals team to go to a Super Bowl or anyone nearly as flashy as the uniforms. And like one of the starters on that team says, it was pretty much the same team that went a nondescript 6-10 the year before.

"The only really new guy was (wide receiver) Cris Collinsworth," says Louis Breeden, the cornerback opposite Ken Riley. "But we got on a roll. Like I say, I hate to use the cliché. But we came together."

And for some reason, so did the town. Dave Lapham, Munoz's left guard that year and the conscience of Bengaldom for the last 36 seasons as the Bengals radio analyst, was a hardened eight-year vet that season. But Ben Schwartzwalder's last captain at Syracuse felt like he was an Orangemen again.

"It was more of a college-type atmosphere and I'd been out of college for a while," Lapham says. "The overall enthusiasm. The excitement. There were signs and sheets in the stadium and drawings and all this art on the sheets supporting the team and it just kind of grew. It just took off. A ground swell."

Lapham had been on Paul Brown's best team in '75, the year of the first Monday Night game in Cincinnati, but the town had never been lit up like this.

"The new uniforms with the stripes and everything. It was just kind of a culmination," Lapham says. "All the ingredients of the recipe were perfect. It was the first. The first one to do so many things. But all that helped it become the first team to do those things. It was a match made in heaven. The team responded to the fans and the fans responded to the team."

The first Bengals team to host a playoff game. When Anderson hit Collinsworth on a 16-yard touchdown pass with 10:39 left to snap a 21-21 tie and the defense picked Buffalo's Joe Ferguson twice, they were the first to win a playoff game. The first AFC title game in Cincinnati came a week later and is still the second coldest game ever played.

"In a lot of ways," Tom Justin says, "we're hoping our kids get to feel what we felt that year."

KENNY ANDERSON: "I think the new uniforms (had a lot to do with it.) The instigation of Nancy Brown getting all the banners up along the field. I think everybody kind of got into the excitement of it. It kind of built as the season went. We had five games in November all against play-off contenders and not one of them was a close game. All of a sudden, we are for real."


Katie Blackburn, the daughter of Nancy Brown, remembers her mother probably doled out the finances for the bedsheets and the paint so Katie and her friend Maggie Schiff could get them ready for game day. Most days they were in Maggie's basement, but they were at the Brown house enough in Indian Hill that Nancy can still see some flecks of orange paint on their basement floor.

'81 lives on in so many ways.

The girls would tenderly roll up the banners in this huge, suddenly quite heavy bag and somehow get them in and out of her father's car for the Sunday morning trip to Riverfront Stadium. After Mike Brown, then the Bengals assistant general manager, drove her to Riverfront, Katie and Maggie would string them together on the blue seats at the field level.

"I was just a 16-year-old enthusiastic fan that was sucked into doing fun things on game day," says Blackburn, the executive vice president who now runs the team every day.

"I was just all in on the football front and trying to get involved the only way I really could. Maggie probably came up with the idea to make a banner for a player. We started making one banner and kept making more and more banners and we felt like every player had to have a banner."

The memories aren't as clear as the signs. She's not sure which player had that first banner. Some of the wives got involved and Blackburn remembers DeDe Munoz and Patty Montoya, wife of Max, teaming up on one for their husbands. The entire offensive line seemed to have one. There was a banner with a drawing of No. 14 throwing. What came first? The wins or the signs?

"The chicken or the egg. It's the age-old question," Blackburn says. "It was such a fun year and all the traditions that came out of it. The first Super Bowl is always the most memorable. We tried a couple of drawings, but I'm sure they were pretty basic. Maybe a tiger once. We just made up fun sayings for different guys. Slogans."

The toughest thing was grabbing the signs after the game. They couldn't savor any wins because the fans would try to take the banners. So there were Nancy and the girls swooping into the crowd to get them back.

"We lost one a week," Blackburn says.

But "The Jungle," never left. It turns out the girl who got orange paint on the basement floor has a daughter who is splashing orange all over PBS 40 years later to revitalize the tradition. Elizabeth Blackburn, the team's 28-year-old director for strategy and engagement, grew up in "The Jungle," and much to her grandmother's delight has succeeded in firing up the fans from a new game day to a Ring of Honor with a blistering social media campaign.

"Elizabeth has done such a wonderful job connecting with the fans," says Nancy Brown, a familiar figure on the PBS tailgate circuit. "It's so important and it creates so many great memories and friendships."

Families from all over Cincinnati were coming together in '81, not just the Browns and Schiffs. Jimmie Foster, now known as BengalJim as one of the biggest fan organizers and podcasters, was ten years old in Westwood retreating to his bedroom and a TV with rabbit ears to watch them while his parents commandeered the big TV after church.

On the other side of town, Tom Justin, the resident Bengals historian for Foster's group, was turning 13 and getting ready to go to Anderson Township's Turpin High School.

TOM JUSTIN: "With all due respect to the world championship baseball teams, nothing gets this town going or the passion stirred like when the Bengals were on the march to the Super Bowl those two years. Nothing has come close. My dad had season tickets. The first game I remember was the '74 opener against the Browns and I was hooked big time after that. Outside of my family, my best memories have come from watching the Bengals."

What six-year-old kid wouldn't be hooked after watching Anderson throw touchdown passes to Isaac Curtis ("We Like Ike") and Bob Trumpy and Lemar Parrish returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown?

"The first game I ever watched was the '81 opener," Foster says. "Down 21-0 at the half, Kenny gets benched, Turk Schonert comes in and they win (27-21.) I guess I thought the games were all going to be like that.

"I remember earlier that year there was a lot of attention about them getting new uniforms. I was thinking, 'They're kind of cool.' So I figured it's something I would watch."

It's been hard to stop watching after that. They swept the big, bad Steelers and the last one in Pittsburgh gave them the AFC Central title. About 2,000 fans greeted them at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport with oversized foam rubber hands, pennants, pom-poms, knitted "Go Bengals" berets and more handmade signs in a scene not seen before or since.

DAVE LAPHAM: "It was weird. It was like the set of a Hollywood movie because you had all the news cameras. That's the only time I saw anything like that."

That's when they gave Anderson a microphone and he kept repeating, "What a great feeling." Forty years later Anderson knows exactly what they were feeling.

"Back then there was a feeling if you were going to win the Super Bowl," Anderson says, "you had to go through Pittsburgh."

No doubt they were barking the Who-Dey chant and that's a college level course in itself. The birth of the Who-Dey legend is exactly that. It depends on who you ask and what you read and when. It seems to have beaten the Saints' Who-Dat by a few seasons and one of the more romantic theories is that it first popped out of the mouths of Riverfront beer vendors and Second Street bartenders pushing Hudepohl back in '81 and it came out "Hudy," or HuDey," according to a Cincinnati Enquirer story of a few years ago.

Foster doesn't buy all that.

"I think it began in a newspaper story that season," Foster says. "Somebody asked Eddie Edwards about the next game and he said something like 'Who dem going to beat us?' or something like that."


Tom Justin traces the bulk of the first wide appearance of Bengals memorabilia to '81. He's got evidence still at his mother's house. Buttons. Pennants. A dog-eared Enquirer front page from the day after the Freezer Bowl.

But there is nothing like the memory of his dad, Jay, leaning over him with a thermometer the night before that first playoff game at home. He fell asleep watching the epic Miami-San Diego playoff game and woke up sick. When he woke up the next morning, Jay was in the same position with the thermometer and he pronounced to his wife that their son was fit to go.

"It was something like 38 degrees and I remember everything," Justin says of the Buffalo win. "I go home, got the flu and couldn't get to school that week."

On the morning of the Freezer Bowl and the howling minus-59 wind chill, his mother, who dressed him up for a game like it was always 60-below, told his father no way. Jay had other ideas.

"He's waited his whole life for this," Jay said.

"So had he," Tom Justin says. "I remember thinking, 'How can they kick the ball?' Then later I thought, it shows you how great Ken Anderson was. The best quarterback on the planet."

Somehow Anderson threw two rocks for touchdowns and didn't turn it over in building a 27-7 lead with almost seven minutes left. That's about when Jay, who would die suddenly of a heart attack five years later, turned to him and said, "We'll get you home. They're good. They've got it."

Like orange paint on a basement floor, the feeling never goes away. Tom Justin goes to the games now with his son, Andrew, and the game day party just got a little larger earlier this month with the birth of a grandson.

"Tell Elizabeth we're looking for another ticket," Tom Justin says. "We've got the smallest Burrow jersey in the pro shop."

Her mother's '81 banners still live. They're just being unfurled on other platforms instead of the blue seats.