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Record gone, but Ross lives on


Dan Ross

The night Demaryius Thomas broke her husband's record, Joanie Ross tossed and turned through all the catches and all the memories and all the might-have-beens and ended up not getting much sleep at all.

"It was almost like that was the last part of him we still had," she says a few days later, a little more refreshed. "My daughter started to cry. She said, 'Mom, I just thought if Blake would have been old enough I could have said, Your papa had this record.' It didn't happen that way. My son felt badly, too. I told them, 'Guys, it's OK. Dad did a lot of great things in his life.' "

Blake, born in April to Jillian, is one the reasons everything keeps going when everyone wants to stop. He is Dan and Joanie Ross's grandson. The big, healthy, beautiful boy Danny never got to hold like one of those 11 catches. It seems unthinkable even now, but Dan Ross, the Bengals tight end who was so instrumental in the development of the modern passing game, has been gone longer than his six seasons in Cincinnati.

"The Tuesday after Mother's Day of '06," is how Artie Ross remembers it. "It's been almost eight years and it's still a shock."

One second in his New Hampshire home, Ross was talking to his son, Danny Jr. The next instant he was gone at age 49, collapsing after a jog.

"The record meant so much more after he passed away to everyone in my family, especially Joanie, because he's not around anymore," Artie Ross says. "When he was alive, he was out there, his name was out there. Now that he's gone, the only thing that that keeps his name out there was that record. It really was tough to see it broken."

It has been 32 years since Ross bobbed and weaved and juked and shimmied to 11 catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl XVI. His three-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Ken Anderson with 16 seconds left cut the 49ers lead to 26-21, but the Bengals couldn't get any closer.

Until Thomas caught 13 balls while his Broncos got blown out by Seattle last Sunday night, Ross held the Super Bowl record for most catches. Every few years, someone would join him and there would always seem to be a catch. Jerry Rice tied Ross when he wrecked the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Then Deion Branch and Wes Welker went into the record books, both from Ross's hometown team in New England.

"He'd be bummed out," says Artie, who still catches himself at times talking about his brother in the present tense. "But it's a small part of his life. It only would have been a small part of his life. A grandson now. There's so much going on in your life. You wouldn't want that record to be broken, but you see Dan Marino's record broken. He wouldn't be mad. That's not him. It's just not in his makeup."

Which is why everyone loved Danny Ross.

It's why Joanie's phone blew up in the hours leading up to the game. "We're rooting for Dan," one of the texts said.

It's why former teammate Dave Lapham gave him a call one day.

"I talked to him on the phone before he left to go down to the Super Bowl that Branch ended up tying it," Lapham said once. "I told him, 'You're safe. No one is going to catch a dozen this Sunday,' and he just laughed. He was so humble. It was almost like the record embarrassed him."

It's why Artie still hosts a Super Bowl party every year in his home just north of Boston, not far from where Danny starred in high school at Everett, Mass., before he went down the road to the city at Northeastern University. Mostly family and if you want to know how big and tight the Ross family is, just know that Artie says it was a small get-together this year with about 30-35.

He and Danny married sisters. Also over the house were his other brother and all his sisters.

"We've got a tradition. We put the (Cincinnati's) first Super Bowl in the VCR before we watch this Super Bowl," Artie Ross says. "He'd watch some of it. He didn't even really watch the Super Bowl. He'd watch some of it, and then go do something else. He really wasn't into it like the rest of us.

"We've still done it. We're always going to do it. It's a good way to get family together."

There have been so many close calls down through the years. Artie remembers when his mother was still alive she'd call during the game, "Hey, No. 88 already has six catches."

But this one? There was not a party mood.

"You could tell it was going to get broken," Artie says. "Thomas had nine catches in the middle of the third quarter and you knew they were going to throw every play. We were having a conversation that two offensive records got broken by a team that almost got shut out because (Peyton) Manning broke the record for completions."

Just like death, there are so many ways to make it feel better. They had another conversation about how long the record stood. How it had survived the assault of three decades of Hall of Fame quarterbacks and wide receivers. Not to mention tight ends.

"The game has changed," Artie Ross says. "It's pass first, then run second. It's geared to the offense. You would have thought it would have been broken 10 to 12 years ago.

"We're Patriots fans here, too, and with the (Tom) Brady-Manning thing going on, that's what some people were talking about. Another reason to hate Manning."

Joanie Ross is usually at the party, but last Sunday she was with the baby, of course, and they were at her daughter's in-laws. Her son, Danny Jr., was where he is usually and that's over at Artie's house. She moved back from New Hampshire a few years ago to be closer to her family in suburban Boston, maybe three miles from Blake, and she sees him five times a week.

"People can say they're not mad when records are broken, but I don't believe it," Joanie Ross says. "I guess it just brought back all the memories. He's not here. All the great people we met in Cincinnati. So many memories."

Joanie still visits Patty and Max Montoya in Northern Kentucky and they plan to go to Boston this year. She gets "Who Dey" texts from Louis Breeden's wife and she occasionally talks to Lynn Lapham. When the Ross family visited Paul Brown Stadium for the Patriots game a year after Dan's death, they never could get out of the club lounge to get their seats because they kept running into people like Isaac Curtis and Jim Breech.

"We were so close. Everyone on that team was so close," Joanie says. "We kept talking and ended up going out that night."

Pretty much all the nieces and nephews who gather never remember their uncle playing in the NFL. But they get a kick out of watching that old Super Bowl and keeping an eye out for No. 89 and listening to John Madden analyze the action.

"They just remember him from the video games," Artie says.

Danny Jr. wasn't born that day his dad caught everything in Detroit. Jillian was, except she was just a baby and too young to make the trip. One of the Ross sisters, Dolores, stayed home to babysit and Danny told the kid they nicknamed 'Dokey,' "If I score a touchdown, I'll say hi." The tape doesn't lie. After Ross scored his first touchdown on a four-yarder from Anderson, the camera caught him on the sidelines saying, "Hi Doke," before it cut away. 

"A promise kept," Artie says.

It always comes back to the babies, right? Jillian has been known to Facebook Blake in a Bengals T-shirt or next to a Bengals helmet. Artie Ross plans to take his son Tommy to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire this weekend for an annual ice fishing tournament, one of the biggest in the country. He has ever since Danny died.

"For one reason only," Artie says. "My brother instilled that in him. He loves to fish and I never fish. But Danny was a fanatic about it and he always took my son starting when he was a baby. Now my son's a fanatic. I want to keep it going. He was a great uncle to all my nieces and nephews. I just think about what a great granddad he would have been. My son loves it. He asked me, 'Dad, you're going, right?' He's 21 and you'd figure he'd want to go by himself. But that's the thing my brother instilled in us; how important family is."

When Thomas broke the record, Artie's phone blew up with texts.

"Still the record-holder in our heart."

"Most of them were about how nice a person he was, to be honest," Artie says. "Whatever you use to get through that day, that week, that month, that year, you use it."

Susan, Artie's wife, looked at her husband after the game and had a theory.

"She said he probably made a deal with God," Artie Ross says. "'You can have my record. Just make sure I have a healthy grandchild.' And he's here. He has a nice, happy, healthy grandson."

The kid will be there at the next Super Bowl party.

"Now," Artie Ross says, "we'll have to make sure no tight end gets it."

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