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Nostalgia wins opener

 Marv Pollins, the first trainer the Bengals ever had, walked into the training room at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday night and surveyed the hydroptherapy wing that has three mini-pools.

"They don't need a trainer," Pollins said. "They need a lifeguard."

The season-ticket holders didn't get lifeguards. But they did get guardians. The guardians of Cincinnati's pro football lore. They were the old guys, the Bengals alumni who got the first chance to romp on the Paul Brown Stadium greensward in Thursday night's flag football game in front of about 25,000 season-ticket holders warming up the place for Saturday night's first game.

They were the guys that built this place.

Not Bob Bedinghaus or Tom Neyer or Art Modell when he defected from Cleveland to Baltimore five months before Hamilton County taxpayers went to the polls to vote on Paul Brown Stadium.

Oh, those folks all had a a decisive hand in the matter, along with the Hamilton County taxpayers. But when the voters went to the polls in March of 1996, they weren't voting Republican or Democrat or baseball or football. They didn't vote with their pocketbooks. They voted with their scrapbooks.

It's the nostalgia, stupid.

It was a referendum on Ickey and Ike, Anthony and Anderson, Boomer and Breeden and on the old man who came out of the Hall of Fame to begin it all named Paul Eugene Brown. The two biggest cheers of the night belonged to Anthony Munoz, the Bengals only Hall-of-Fame player, and Ickey Woods, the Bengals only cult hero

"They were voting on memories and hoping the old memories could come back and get a fresh start anew," said David Fulcher, the state-of-the-art safety in a state-of-the-art facility. "That's what is special about it. Us, the old players, the guys in here started this franchise, started the winning, so they ought to get the first shot at running on that pretty field."

The way old safety Barney Bussey looks at it is, "The people who grew up watching us back in the late '80s, when it was fever pitch and they really got into football, I guess some of them became taxpayers."

Bob Johnson, known as the First Bengal because he was Paul Brown's first draft pick in 1968, coached the black team to a 24-20 win over the white team coached by Isaac Curtis, the gifted wide receiver Kenny Anderson calls, "Jerry Rice before there was Jerry Rice."

But who was counting? Who cared that Fulcher was big enough to center the ball? Or that Pat McInally's flowing hair was turning white? Or that Jim Breech, the Bengals' all-time leading scorer, threw four touchdown passes but couldn't kick an extra point?

"Let's face it. It's about being with the guys again," said tackle Joe Walter, who protected quarterback Boomer Esiason's back in the Glory Days of the late '80s. "There's only two things I'm looking for. The beer and the oxygen."

The locker room ribbing was there, but this was more like Montgomery Inn ribbing. Five-Star ribbing. Solomon Wilcots, who has gone from the SWAT Team to ESPN, sat in the spacious training room and said, "This is bigger than our whole locker room at Spinney Field. But I like it. Everything evolves. We thought we were making good money just (10 years ago). Now look at it."

Maybe it took Brian Blados, a former first-round pick whose career was hampered by neck problems, to sum it up throughgout the night. He thanked a reporter for reminding him about an old locker room gag and said, "I just wish I could remember all those."

Then, as he signed autographs after the game in the end zone with fans calling his name again, he said, "This never gets old. You know what my hope is? That these kids come into this place, start winning, and get an identity of their own and let us go. I would really love to see them get their own identity."

Which brings it all back to winning. Hydrotheraopy or no hydrotherapy. Curtis stood on the sprawling carpet in the cavernous locker room and looked at the huge wooden lockers where his players dressed and smiled when asked what Paul Brown would say.

"He'd probably say, 'It's too plush. Football is not a plush game,' " Curtis said.

But to a man, the old Bengals said it should help the team. Or as Bussey said, "There should be no excuses now coming out flat."

If anyone wants the new Bengals to win, it's the old Bengals. They're sick and tired of the questions, too.

"People seem excited about the stadium," said cornerback Eric Thomas. "It's too bad it takes the past to get them pumped up. But this should help them attracting players. This is the way to do things now."

Bengals president Mike Brown came out on the field before the game and chatted up Stanford Jennings, the running back who scored the Bengals' only touchdown in Super Bowl XXIII on a kickoff return. Jennings joshed with Brown, "So you signed Corey (Dillon) so you wouldn't have to take a look at us tonight?"

Brown smiled and watched Jennings join his team for the introductions.

"They got it done," said Brown of their contribution to the stadium. "They gave us all great moments."

Breech, finally the MVP in a big game after someone named Joe Montana beat him out in the last 34 seconds a few Super Bowls ago, is still sought as a speaker.

"The things they want to talk about are the two Super Bowls and the Freezer Bowl," said Breech of the 1981 AFC title game played in Cincinnati's minus-59 wind chill. "With the new stadium, it would be great if they can win and put the '90s behind them and have their own identity."

Those were deep thoughts. Mostly it was a light night of reminiscing. After McInally's frist punt nearly got returned for a touchdown, Curtis approached him asked, "Hey Pat, what's wrong with your foot?"

"Bad ball," McInally replied.

Fulcher took a lot of heat for his size because he was playing the line and Munoz, 40-50 pounds lighter than his playing days, didn't have to.

"When I saw the other team had Big Nose, I knew we would win," said Woods, an ice bag the size of the Arctic Circle wrapped around his tragic knee. He was yelling at Thomas, but loud enough for Fulcher to hear,

Breech threw touchdown passes to Jennings, Eric Ball, Lynn James and Jimmy Turner, the old cornerback from UCLA who went deep like Curtis for the final TD.

"We should do this more often to keep a link going," said Turner, the coach at Western Hills High School who already has provided a link in the form of current Bengals nickel back Rodney Heath.

Somebody asked Jennings how it felt to score the first touchdown ever at Paul Brown Stadium.

"That will last a few days until someone does it for real," Jennings said. "I've got my money on Corey scoring the first legitimate touchdown."

See? The old guys are hoping the kids go legit on their own.

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