Dan Hoard (left) and Dave Lapham (right) chat with John Crabtree during a recent Bengals practice.
Nick Wilson giving his life for his country is the last thing John Crabtree ever saw.
"Lincoln's birthday, 2006. Western Iraq. Anbar Province. It was a Sunday morning," Crabtree says with the precision of an amateur military historian, which he is, with the recall of a Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, which he was.
Crabtree is under the tent at Bengals training camp because his good friend, Joe Messerly, began to realize that even though he was blinded by a hoax, a box taped with wires and hate laying on top of the real killer bomb buried in the ground, Crabtree can still see some very real things.
Like Nick Wilson talking about Linda, the love of his life, by a night fire.
And football. Always football since Crabtree can remember. He was hooked from his first football play call, which came when he was six or seven and consisted of his mother urging a certain Ohio State running back to "Go, Archie Go," while she watched from their home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, on the outskirts of Columbus. "I wanted to let them know how important it is for me to hear what they call out," Crabtree says. "On TV games (the announcers) are taking for granted that people know what they're seeing on the screen, so they don't have to describe everything. The radio announcers know they have to put more description into it."
Messerly e-mailed Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard with the hope they could meet him and partner Dave Lapham. For Hoard and Lapham, it was a double A gap blitz of humility and honor.
"The reason I'm asking to come and meet with you and Dave is simple. John has
always wanted to thank you for what you do. I want to too," Messerly wrote. "The game does
come alive, and John can see it all with your help. I know it sounds corny
but he doesn't miss anything when he is listening to the two of you. We can
talk about the highlights of the game like we were there."
SET UP MAN
So Hoard, one of the best set-up men in the on-air business, set it up under the tent. Six VIP passes for practice. Four for Messerly with wife Jennifer and sons Charlie and Simon. Two for the Crabtrees, John and wife Marshell, also retired Navy. They met on an aircraft carrier 15 years ago and have survived the biggest of waves.
"Are you kidding me?" Lapham asks, still shaking his head after talking to Crabtree. "He gave his eyesight for his country and he wants to thank me? That says more than I could ever imagine. Talk about service and sacrifice."
Lapham is in his 30th year analyzing the Bengals and there is no one better. At 63, he is Mr. Bengal, the right guard on Paul Brown's last team, the left guard on the first Super Bowl team, and always the guardian of the fans with unvarnished opinions and enthusiasm.
"Dan reins him in. Usually the play-by-play guy never played and isn't as emotional," Crabtree says. "Dave is even more optimistic about the Bengals than Joe. You can tell his heart is broken at times when things don't go the Bengals' way."
Lapham teams for a fifth season with Hoard, the multi-tasking play-by-play man who can instantly smooth out chaos with sharp description and silos of stats. But even he is stumbling for the right words. It seems Chief Petty Officer John Crabtree, retired, told him he feels like he has watched the game because of the detailed description.
"You can't get a better a compliment,' says Hoard, who now remembers something legendary Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall once told him.
"The most meaningful letters he got were from people who couldn't get to the park or couldn't afford the TV package. The only way they could get the games was on the radio...I mean, this man is a hero. It's quite humbling."
Crabtree is far from a shut-in, thanks to Marshell and friends like Joe Messerly. After he was wounded, he returned to his hometown because he knew his way around and bought a house that he remembered. A man who made his living detonating bombs, diving under water, and handling a vast array of computers gets frustrated when people try to take away his independence.
Crabtree gave Hoard "the cheesecake line," when Hoard thanked him for his service. "Thank you, but it's like thanking me for eating cheesecake. I want to do it."
When he's walking alone along a country road and people stop to ask if he needs help, he gets annoyed. You can hand him a beer, but you can't crack it open for him.
"He doesn't have a guide dog because he just doesn't want to be dependent on anybody," Messerly says. "He's a tough guy who did a lot of tough things."
Messerly should know. They met about five years ago during a mutual friend's birthday party at Shades, a bar-restaurant in Canal Winchester. It turns out they had plenty in common.
Age. John, 47, is two years older and counts his birthdays by Ohio State football numbers. Two years ago it was Archie. Last year it was Pete Johnson.
"This year should have been A.J. Hawk. But I guess he's wearing 50," John says of the Bengals' new linebacker.
Military history. Mostly Civil War. When they started talking about General William Tecumseh Sherman from Messerly's hometown of nearby Lancaster, Ohio, it was easy to sit next to each other.
"The first guy who fought like an atom bomb is the way I see it," Joe says. "He knew what he had to do to win the war."
Football. Messerly, a Realtor, grew up in Lancaster and the schools played each other, so they knew a lot of the same names. Joe remembers the highly regarded Canal coach wearing a cape and kidding John about it.
"I was a nose guard. We ran the T-formation and played straight ahead football and we were dedicated to what we did," Crabtree says. "I ended up being chosen as a captain my senior year, one of the things that made me really proud. Taking that teamwork and football concept that I loved and enjoyed playing football is how and why I got into the Navy EOD. Close-knit community. Esprit de corps. Small units. High speed. Low drag. Tough stuff. Jumping. Blowing up stuff. Diving."
Crabtree and Nick Wilson were of the same smart, rugged stock, veterans of the varied technical schools that produced the Navy Bomb Squad.
"Everywhere. In the air, under water, on ships," Crabtree says. "If you write something, can you put in Nick Wilson's name?"
They were on patrol that Sunday morning in a farming area that was well irrigated. They were checking out an artillery round and when their robot determined it was empty, they began doing a security check and Crabtree was covering Petty Officer Wilson as he dealt with guy wires leading to a box crammed with electric components.
"Nick was coming up to clear that. It appeared to be an attempt to overcome our electronic warfare that will jam devices to prevent detonating," Crabtree says.
He was 10 feet away from Wilson when the improvised explosive device that was buried beneath the box blew up.
"If you've ever played football and you've ever been in a situation where there was a fumble and everything seems to be in slow motion, that's what it was like," Crabtree says. "I dare say his body shielded me . . . The last thing I saw was that hero."
Crabtree convinced Messerly to go with him on a bike ride for Wounded Warriors. Then about three years ago, Messerly convinced Crabtree to come over to his house to watch his beloved Bengals. It turned into a weekly deal. If the TV station didn't air it ("The Browns would have two wins, the Bengals eight and they show the Browns," Joe fumes) they would go to Shades with Crabtree having the radio plug in his ears and Messerly, watching the TV, trying not to cheer and beat the radio delay.
"I grew up a Cowboys fan but I dropped them when they fired Tom Landry," Crabtree says. "When the Bengals played in the Super Bowl, I wanted them to win because I was an Ohioan. They've had some tough luck. I followed the NFC more than the AFC because of following the Cowboys all those years. I guess Joe made me a Bengals fan."
"And Dave and Dan," Messerly says.
DELAY OF GAME
When they're in Messerly's basement, there aren't any problems with the radio delay lagging behind the TV picture. Messerly just has to subdue his reaction so he doesn't foil Crabtree trying to follow along.
But when they're at Shades, it gets complicated. The TV announcers are blaring, the crowd is roaring, the patrons are hollering.
"I like to hear it first," Crabtree admits.
Once, Crabtree had the last laugh. They were watching/listening to Navy-Ohio State in Shades when the power went off for about two minutes and the place fell cemetery silent as he repeated Buckeyes play-by-play man Paul Keels' radio call.
And there are times when Messerly has to launch into his own play-by-play for Crabtree so he can get it in real time. Messerly can still break down one of those slow-motion fumbles, cornerback Terence Newman's fourth-quarter 58-yard return for a TD to beat Green Bay in 2013.
"(Reggie) Nelson picked it up and he dropped it and then Newman picked it up and Vontaze (Burfict) had him by the jersey helping him along," Messerly says. "The Hail Mary in Baltimore (to A.J. Green), I remember Dave saying (Andy Dalton) was throwing into the wind and I knew he was going to catch it. I yelled, "Touchdown," and John said, 'How?' and we went back over it."
But usually it's smoother than that. Smooth enough they just had to say thank you.
"What Lap and I do is not a noble profession," Hoard says. "We're not running into burning buildings saving lives. We aren't putting our lives on the line for our country. We work in the candy shop. But hearing from somebody that it is meaningful to them was special."
Crabtree's favorite call came in pregame last year in Houston, when former president George H.W. Bush and the military were honored on the field. As usual, Hoard had done his homework and explained that the 41st president had enlisted as a teen-ager despite his wealthy upbringing. And Lapham talked about how lucky we were to do what we did because of the sacrifice of others.
"When I listen to a game and the National Anthem comes on, I don't care, I'm at attention with my hand over my heart," Crabtree says. "After that was over, and Dave was describing it, Dave got choked up and I could hear him get choked up. That's when I really knew I liked Dave. He's a patriot. I was impressed by that, the way he expressed himself."
There were a lot of thank yous under the Bengals training camp tent as Lapham pointed some of the linemen in Crabtree's direction and guys like Dalton and AJ McCarron stopped by, giving Alabama-native Marshell a big thrill and picture.
Leave it to Joe Messerly, who started it all with an e-mail, to end it with a text the day after the visit:
"Let Dan and Dave know that what they do gives back a little of what John had taken from him. That means the most to our family."