Huge crowd salutes PBS

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Doug Flannery, one of the more than 100,000 people who streamed through Paul Brown Stadium's gates today, has seen the Packers in Green Bay and Milwaukee, the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Steelers in Pittsburgh, was blown away by Tennessee's new stadium when he saw the Titans play the Raiders last year.

Until today, when he drove the 90 minutes from Springfield, Ohio, to Cincinnati for the public's first view of Paul Brown Stadium. Sitting in an end zone in the last row of section 158, under a huge scoreboard flashing various Bengals in action and sharing a plate of nachos with Dave and Brenda Flannery, Doug Flannery observed the place was nicer than what they built in Nashville.

"It's better," Flannery said, "because it's in Cincinnati."

Which is why Bengals President Mike Brown didn't take the deal in Baltimore or hold Cleveland hostage with his NFL team.

Which is why the people proved him right today and kept coming once the gates opened at 4 p.m. and closed six hours later. Cincinnati police put the count at 130,000.

Which is why after the dedication this afternoon of the downtown superstructure that caused so much rancor and division, he said, "It's a fairy tale, the way it ended up the way it did. I pinch myself to believe that it actually happened. There were so many times it could have blown apart. It went on like that for years. But the Bengals belong in Cincinnati. A sports team is different than other businesses. It's a part of the community."

The community didn't wait to see what kind of bang they got for that half-cent hike in the Hamilton County sales tax they passed four years ago. When the speakers ran late, past the 4 p.m. opening, they were semi-drowned out by boos and rhythmic applause and had to cut short their remarks. That included two of the most popular figures in Cincinnati history, mayor Charlie Luken and former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth.

"A big crowd," Brown said. "I knew where they were coming from. They were here to see, not hear. I was getting a little worried because they were getting backed up."

By 6:30 p.m., about 35,000 had already streamed through the stadium, sampling concessions and seats and touring the plush player facilities. The club had expected about 25,000 for the entire six-hour event. There was some griping about footing the bill for a basketball court, but like John Munafo of Warren County said, "If this doesn't give (the players) the attitude, I don't know what will."

Munafo posed his kids, Chris, 10 and Nikki, 7, sitting in a locker draped with Akili Smith's No. 11 jersey, a Bengals helmet and football pants, then clicked his camera.

"The entire layout is just magnificent," John Munafo said. "I live in Warren County, but I would have voted for it. My son got to see only one game in Cinergy Field. This is our first chance to come down here and he's amazed about it. He loves it."

Brown knows there are many people who don't. While crediting Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus as the driving force behind the project, he also extended the olive branch during the dedication and praised the stadium foes for a good fight.

"The stadium doesn't belong to those who just supported the issue," Brown said. "It belongs to all of the people in our area and I would invite those who still have questions to please come down with an open mind and take a look. I'm willing to take my chances about how you'll feel then. Give it a chance and I dare to say you'll be won over."

He appeared to win over plenty today. Ed Stupak, a retired Channel 9 cameraman living in Groesbeck, brought his seasoned eye to the new yard after following the play for 40 years in places like Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium.

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"After doing games at Crosley, and then going to Riverfront, you thought that was the greatest. You thought that was as good as it was going to get for the time," Stupak said. "But I see this. . .If they can continue to build like this, the city is really going to have something. It's not symetrical. You don't feel like you're boxed in. It's airy. There's an open edge. I go to a lot of Michigan games and it reminds me of some college stadiums. With a lot of the seats on the sidelines, it brings you close to the field."

Randy and Carolyn Dyson of Avondale, who usually go see the Bengals when they're playing the Steelers and Browns, also liked the proximity: "The field looks smaller than at Cinergy when you look down on it. The sidelines look much closer," Randy Dyson said.

Kerry Doner, from New Lebanon, Ohio and a season-ticket holder for 10 years, showed up in a No. 7 jersey and observed, "It doesn't look like there's a bad seat in the place." Raymond Chapman, a general contractor who lives in Fort Wright, Ky., had a pretty good seat as he took a rest during his tour in the locker stall of linebacker Adrian Ross.

"Every seat looks to be a good seat," Chapman said. "There's nothing on the field you can miss. At the old stadium, sometimes you'd have to hang over a railing to see. I'm impressed by the way it's laid out. I can't get over the fact they got so much done in that amount of time. They talk about problems and all that. I look at it and they've had no problems. None whatsoever."

Tim Hickman of Amelia, wearing a Corey Dillon jersey, pronounced the rest rooms "spacious," as he went to a concession stand that had virtually no line: "There was always a crowd in the bathroom and to get food. Let's see what happens with a game crowd."

There were a few raised eyebrows at the $4 souvenir cups of soda, but Dave Flannery said, "That's what you pay now when you go to stadiums." Judson Moore of Deer Park took a break with his two kids under the stands as they shared a large order of onion rings and drank some soda.

"The large onion rings are $3 and that's a good price," Moore said. "The overall complex is just wonderful. It's obviously got a top design and it has a great look to it. I think this stadium is going to help with the quality of life in Cincinnati. It was a good idea because it's progress."

But Brown told the crowd there's only one way the Bengals can repay the citizens of Hamilton County: "To put a winning team on the field of this stadium. We need a team that generates the enthusiasm and excitement that this building was built to provide and our commitment is to give you just that."

The Bengals know what the fans want. Like the guy wearing the Peter Warrick jersey who snuck out of line to kneel down and touch the grass before they told him to get back in line.

"I paid for it," the man wearing No. 80 said. "I should be able to walk on it."

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