Long line instead of punch line

11-19-03, 6:45 a.m.

There were more people than the 200 tickets to get Chad Johnson's autograph Tuesday, but it was guaranteed.

Everyone who showed up at the Bengals Pro Shop at Paul Brown Stadium was going to get one because Johnson just can't say no.

And Bengaldom can't say no to the Marvin Lewis revival that has put their team in first place in the AFC North with six games to go. From four-year-old Allie Robbins who waited three hours in line to tell Johnson, "Bengals rock, baby," to the greatest receiver in franchise history, no one can get enough of the good times rolling.

"I think I pulled a hamstring jumping up and cheering at the game Sunday," said Isaac Curtis, who gained 7,101 yards wearing Johnson's No. 85 back in the day. "I don't think I've ever had so much fun watching a game. Man, that was great."

Sir Isaac, who defied gravity a few centuries after Newton proved it, might as well be speaking for a town that is officially walking on air locked arm in arm with the Bengals.

(Memo to Jay Leno: Monday's joke about the Chiefs getting beat by the Bengals is staler than your Monica Lewinsky stuff.)

While Johnson signed off a record 400 times in an hour, the pro shop sold three more times the merchandise they have been selling on a Tuesday. Before Johnson walked in the door to cheers at 12:07 p.m., the pro shop had already taken 103 clicks over the internet, the first day they have broken 100 orders.

After coming off the biggest attendance in Cincinnati sports history at Sunday's win over the Chiefs, the season finale against the Browns next month is virtually sold out and the Dec. 14 game against the 49ers is well on its way.

Father and son Steve and John Lee are here from London. And not from Ohio or Kentucky. England. They planned the trip before the season, so imagine it. John has been a Bengal fan since watching Cincinnati play Denver on TV 17 years ago. Steve is, of course, a Chiefs fan. They are headed to Kansas City for this week's Oakland game, but can you imagine what Sunday was like for them?

"I'm disappointed, but I'm so thrilled for him," Steve said. "The Bengals were on the telly back in London for the first time since the Super Bowl and we were here."

The town feels as free and easy about the Bengals as Johnson did when he signed the word, "Guaranteed," on last week's "Sports Illustrated," cover bannering the undefeated Chiefs.

"The town is going crazy. You can feel it," Johnson said. "It's great for people who have been waiting for 10, 12 years. When something like this happens, it's like enjoying a newborn baby."

Allie was born four years ago, but that didn't stop her from getting up early in Lebanon, Ohio, with parents Kevin and Kim, a couple that has been going to games since the mid-80s.

"We've suffered a little bit, but no more than the players," said Kevin, who has had the view from Section 112 on the Bengals' side. "We're on the way up."

They're on the way up with guys like Johnson, the AFC's reception yardage leader the last two weeks running and arguably the most popular Bengal since Boomer Esiason because. . .well, let Julie Meade of Wilmington, Ohio explain it. The teenager was up at the crack of dawn to make the hour drive with her father and sister so they could show up at 7:10 a.m. for a five-hour wait.

"He's amazing," Julie said. "He's just a really good player and he seems really friendly. Once when (cornerback) Reggie Myles got hurt, he ran out there to see if he was all right."

Curtis couldn't have said it better himself.

"Oh gosh, I really like watching Chad play," Curtis said. "He's a tremendous receiver. Good size. Tremendous speed. He catches the ball anywhere it's thrown. And he just plays with an energy and enthusiasm that is so refreshing to see in a young guy. He's got such a tremendous personality and that's something this team needed."

No one is enjoying Lewistown more than the ex-players. On Sunday, Curtis sat with former cornerback Louis Breeden and he's not sure if they ever sat down.

"I can go into work Monday morning with my head held up high," said Curtis, an executive at Winegardner & Hammons Inc.

Monday mornings are suddenly better everywhere at every job for everybody. Good enough that on Tuesday morning, Cecil Meade, Julie's Dad, didn't go to his job as a plant manager in Cincinnati. But he was still up early to get in the car to see the current No. 85.

"Didn't want to be No. 201," Meade said of the tickets. "I watch him and he's open five, six yards every time. I think he's got a chance to be a Hall-of-Famer."

And Curtis really is a Hall-of-Famer. But he played on a small-market team for a team that didn't win the Super Bowl back in an era when they didn't throw the ball.

The voters don't know what they're missing. He never caught more than 47 balls in a season, but he still scored 53 touchdowns. How about 1974, when 10 of his 30 catches went for touchdowns and he averaged 21 yards per catch? His 17.1 career yards per catch is better than his two Canton contemporaries from the Steelers: John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.

Curtis did it with that world-class speed and out-of-the-world hands. He smiles at the similarities with this No. 85.

"He's got very explosive speed. Tremendous," Curtis said. "Eddie Brown and Tim McGee were guys like that. But I don't think they were as fast as Chad. I don't think (Carl) Pickens or Darnay (Scott) were as fast, but Darnay was very fast."

So that leaves a very big question in Bengal annals. Johnson is the most explosive receiver since Curtis. Who was faster, more explosive?

"All I know," Curtis said, "is that this guy can take it from end zone to end zone at any point in the game. So what does it matter?"

Curtis has noticed more discipline in his routes and his development as a more well-rounded receiver. But he always comes back to his speed and hands.

"He's really got great concentration," Curtis said. "He goes up and gets it and never takes his eyes off the ball."

At his current pace, Johnson is going to pass those 7,101 yards somewhere in the last few games of the 2006 season for the team record. After last week's five-year contract extension netted him $26 million through 2009, that looks about as solid as the guarantee victory Johnson gave last week before they beat the Chiefs.

"That didn't bother me all that much," Curtis said. "Yeah, maybe you wouldn't have liked to have seen it, but there is something to be said for confidence and it's refreshing to see them playing like that. I think Marvin has done a great job bringing in some different coaches and turning around the whole attitude. It's fun again. It's fun to go down there and see a team prepared to play."

Sir Isaac isn't a record guy or a bitter. He's a fan and he applauded the contract.

"I think it's a great move to keep the core of this team together. That really showed a commitment at keeping it going," Curtis said. "I hope he stays healthy enough to break (his record). As long as they're still winning. Records are made to be broken."

Johnson already has the season record for autographs.

"I love you," said one young woman.

"You've got a great smile. I'm not going to leave until I see it," said her friend.

Johnson smiled, and when executive vice president Katie Blackburn pointed to the empty rack of No. 85 jerseys, he smiled again.

"It's been our most popular item and they're on order," said Steve Wolf, the pro shop manager.

"This is fun, isn't it?" Johnson said.

He was talking for everyone. From the four-year-old to Sir Isaac.

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