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How The Child Please Bengals Helped 'Hard Knocks' Grow Up

WR Chad Johnson
WR Chad Johnson

The Bengals helped launch "Hard Knocks," into the pantheon of sports documentaries when the series stood at a crossroads a football generation ago. Now NFL Films is hoping for a bit of instant replay from the stripes at another key juncture in the life of one the league's most recognizable brands.

The first-of-its kind announcement Monday has plans to document four teams instead of one when the series delves into that division of hard knocks known as the AFC North and puts the Bengals at center stage again 15 years after the Child Please Training Camp put the punch back in "Hard Knocks."

"You know you're going to get a division champion. You know you're going to get at least one week in the playoffs," says Keith Cossrow, the NFL Films vice president who is head of content. "And everything that follows. The show will continue until the four AFC North teams are eliminated in 2024 through the Super Bowl."

If Cossrow sounds like an old story editor, he is.

That's what he was in 2009 as a member of the NFL Films team that ventured to Georgetown, Ky., to shoot the Bengals training camp. "Hard Knocks," was in a bit of a malaise and looking for traction, as well as a forever home.

But it emerged from Georgetown with its first Emmy for Outstanding Edited Sports Series or Anthology and the ratings were the highest among the series' five seasons. Up 57% over the 2008 edition of camp with the America's Team Cowboys.

The show hasn't looked back.

"We attribute it to the Bengals' unprecedented access and honesty," said the late, great Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, when he spoke with even before the last episode hit HBO in September of 2009. "Ratings-wise and critical acclaim, the best yet."

Not even Cossrow could script that improbable team would go on to sweep the AFC North. But they knew they had something special in a pop star fresh off a name change in Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, a charismatic head coach in Marvin Lewis, a say-anything-at-all defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer, and a Pro Bowl quarterback on the mend in Carson Palmer.

"That 'Hard Knocks,' with Chad and the gang in 2009 is one of the really special moments early in our careers," Cossrow says. "It felt like we really figured it all out and it didn't hurt to have the greatest television character you could ever come up with, let alone having be a real person in Chad.

"He made the show so fun, and entertaining, but there was so much to it with Marvin, Carson, and everybody else who was there at the time. It was a great team to be around and it was one of the best shows that we ever produced at NFL Films."

The Bengals may not have Chad, or even George Costanza or Perry Mason character, but they do have a quarterback named Joe Burrow.

"You can't take your eyes off him when he's on the field. He's a commanding presence. He's got a cool about him that's reminiscent of Joe Montana and others," says Cossrow. "He plays the game a certain way. It's really appealing."

Cossrow knows if The Ocho was the toast of the nascent social media age, Burrow is the reluctant icon of 2020s cool-to-cool. But hot is hot.

"Our understanding is Joe's somewhat reticent about doing this sort of thing. And that's okay," Cossrow says. "But when he wears a mic in a game, you always learn something and you see the way he connects with his teammates. I think it's a real insight into why he's so successful and why he's so special. He's funny. He's laid back. But he's ultra-competitive. He's serious about the game.

"He's an incredible leader. I think fans are aching to see more of that. Anytime he's wired and you put a clip of it on social media, it goes viral, and it's usually a pretty good signal not only of star power, but that this player means something to people and people really are fascinated by him and want to learn more about him and understand what makes him so special and unique. That's great for kids."

Cossrow has two of those.

Josh was born that first week of September at the end of Camp Chad, just as his dad and the crew were getting ready to organize the last cuts from Georgetown back at the New Jersey home of NFL Films. Honey, Cossrow told his wife, we just need to make it through this weekend.

Two hours later Josh called an audible six weeks early and they were screaming through labor and the middle of Philadelphia to get to Pennsylvania Hospital.

"The baby spent the first week in the NICU," says Cossrow, the site of where some notes were sent. "I came in that Sunday night and at least watched the cut and gave some notes, but I hadn't slept in four days."

The beloved Sabol, who died in 2012, recalled Cossrow hooking up his laptop to the editing room from the neonatal unit. The triumph of Josh Cossrow seemed to be their triumph, too.

"That shows you how into it all of us were," Sabol had said.

That was around the time Sabol attended a cocktail party with league types and more than once he heard The Ocho's motto, "Child Please."

"Not from the commissioner," Sabol had made certain to say. "The commissioner didn't say it, but he's loved the show and wants to make sure we keep doing it."

As that show went on during that '09 camp, more stories emerged. Dhani Jones, the worldly and wise linebacker. Andrew Whitworth, the gregarious first-year left tackle embarking on a Hall-of Fame position switch. The sound men kidding Zimmer about his language, but knowing they were in the right room. (The Bengals' No. 4 ranking in the defensive rankings at the end of the year proved them right.)

But Sabol kept coming back to Reggie Kelly. He was more than the Bengals' ferocious tight end, a veritable third tackle in the AFC North wars. He was their spiritual leader. With that incomparable access, the crew was able to record an indelible, poignant scene of trainer Paul Sparling telling Kelly his season was over with a torn Achilles.'

"Marvin trusted us. Mike Brown and the Brown family trusted us. Katie (Blackburn), everybody," Cossrow says all these years later. "And we've been forever grateful because I think they showed that you can trust NFL Films to do this the right way and be a great thing for your organization. It was an early example of how much the benefit of 'Hard Knocks' could be."

Come December comes a reunion. Steve Trout, who directed his first "Hard Knocks," in '09, plans to be here directing his fourth straight in-season production. He says there'll be several cinematographers and audio personnel who were here 15 years ago. The Ocho teamed up with the crew just last year as a studio host for "Inside the NFL."

"Still the same Chad," Cossrow says. "Always bringing lightness. We need it now more than ever."

Even Zimmer is on the schedule as the defensive coordinator of the Cowboys, set for an early December Monday nighter against the Bengals. He won't have a mic, but apparently you can't have a Bengals' "Hard Knocks," without him.

If you want to see how far the Bengals and Hard Knocks have come, check out an image that got sent that final, hectic weekend in '09. Tiny Josh Cossrow wearing a small Bengals' key chain around his neck.

"I think to a lot of football fans, 'Hard Knocks,' signals the start of football season. The first episode in August in the training camp show and I think the Bengals 2009 season was a huge step in reaching those heights," says Keith Cossrow, now the big boss who'll be overseeing.

Hopefully not from the hospital.

"That's what set the conditions for creating in-season 'Hard Knocks,' and now offseason 'Hard Knocks,' and growing the show into something that can entertain fans and give us insights into the players and coaches and front offices and the people who make NFL so special all-year round."