We have called it "The Curse of Bo." But it looks like it may be on the verge of being broken with the help of a son of Bo in Sunday's 1:05 p.m. wild card game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Chargers.
The Bengals streak of five straight playoff losses began on Jan. 13, 1991 in the Los Angeles Coliseum when the Raiders won a harbinger of an AFC North battle, 20-10 in the game to go to the AFC title game in Buffalo. But that game is best remembered for Raiders running back Bo Jackson's last appearance on a football field. The 6-1, 227-pound Jackson, then 28 and in the prime of one of America's greatest athletic careers that included Pro Bowls and All-Star Games, went down on an innocuous sideline tackle by Bengals inside linebacker Kevin Walker. He never played again because of a hip subluxation that is a rare and devastating dislocation of the ball and joint.
"It was a non-eventful play. Neither guy thought they got hurt and suddenly they were around Jackson and that was the end," says Sam Wyche, the Bengals head coach that day standing about eight yards away. "He was one of the most dangerous backs ever because he could run away from you and he wasn't a scat back. He was a big man. (Walker) had an angle on him as he was going up the sideline. He had clear sailing. The tackle was at the waistline and he just kind of snapped. All injuries are freak and unexpected and that one certainly was."
It was Jackson's 515th NFL carry in his 38th game in a career he averaged 5.4 yards per carry and had runs of 92, 91 and 88 yards. Walker did well to keep this one to 34, of all things, matching Jackson's uniform number.
"Bo is like the father I never had. That's how much I respect him and love him," says Onterio McCalebb, the Bengals cornerback who has spent his rookie year on the practice squad. "He knew how I grew up and I knew how he grew up in Alabama and he's always been there for me when I need somebody to talk to, I'd call him. Anytime he'd come to town, we always hung out. And he doesn't talk to me about just football, but life."
Maybe the Bengals needed three Auburn backs in the stadium to break the spell. Before the Bengals switched McCalebb to corner, he finished his career as Auburn's ninth-leading rusher of all time. The man he finished behind, Ronnie Brown, plays for the Chargers.
James Brooks, a four-time Pro Bowler for the Bengals, held the record until Cadillac Williams and Vincent "Bo" Jackson came along. Before his trade to Cincinnati in 1984, Brooks played in the 1981 AFC title game at Riverfront Stadium as a San Diego rookie and is going to be the only Charger honored when the Freezer Bowl alums are recognized before Sunday's game.
"He was always trying to get me to watch his tapes, but I saw the highlights," says McCalebb, who was one year old when Jackson got hurt. "He was so big and strong and fast. He's right there, but they don't ever catch him."
The 5-10, 170-pound McCalebb is here because he can run. No one drafted him, but the Bengals loved that speed (he ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.34 seconds) and his desire. He bounced from home to home while growing up in Florida before becoming just the second man in the history of the SEC to gain 2,000 yards rushing, 1,000 kick-return yards and 500 receiving yards despite his size.
The thing is, that's the kind of speed Jackson had as such a big man. But McCalebb says they never discussed if one could beat the other.
"I'll have to ask him," McCalebb says. "He'd probably say he could beat me. You know how he is. Great competitor."
But to McCalebb, Jackson isn't No. 34, an '80s icon. When the hottest watchword in popular culture for a time was "Bo Knows." For McCalebb, Jackson is a soothing voice and a comforting figure.
"He's like a father. He shoots it straight," McCalebb says. "Before my games at Auburn, he would come into the locker room and talk to me and give me pointers. About holding the ball, wearing gloves. Thigh pads. Every time he sees me he has something to tell me."
The last time McCalebb saw Jackson was this past season when he went to Auburn for a game when the Bengals weren't practicing.
"He actually got mad at me because I didn't tell him I ended up with the Bengals," McCalebb says. "He told me he'll call and check on me. He just told me to give it my all like I did in college. When you have an opportunity, you've got to take it and run with it. You never know when you get another opportunity."
The Bengals do, too, after knocking on the door of opportunity since his last January.
Three Auburn backs and an adopted son may be just what day ordered.