Spinney Memories

BY JACK BRENNAN

Spinney Field, the Bengals have left the building. Almost.

This is moving weekend for the Bengals, as the team is scheduled to take occupancy of its Paul Brown Stadium offices on Monday. The club's entire operation will now be based at PBS, with practices on outdoor fields adjacent to the stadium.

After 32 seasons of playing host to Bengals practices, the Spinney complex will be a ghost town until it is converted by the city of Cincinnati to a different use.

To many Bengals fans, Spinney Field has always been a name but never seemed like a real place. Fans knew the team practiced somewhere not too far from downtown. But not many had a clear idea of where it was, and even fewer had ever been there.

Located in an obscure corner of industrial Lower Price Hill, hard by the Mill Creek, Spinney was a strange-looking venue for an NFL team headquarters. But two Super Bowl teams worked there, and team insiders have no shortage of memories about the place.

Following are the biggest moments in Spinney history as recalled by this writer, who has been around the place since 1983, including 10 years as a sports writer and seven as a club employee.

Most of the memories aren't all that happy. Maybe that's because when things are going well, the normal doings at an everyday workplace tend to be routine. Try as I might, I can't recall a significant incident at Spinney during the 1988 Super Bowl season. But from other, less successful years, here goes:

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Boomer and the bus (October, 1987). This is probably the Spinney incident most known about by the general public. During the 1987 NFL players strike, a militant young Boomer Esiason led several teammates in sitting in the path of a bus which was bringing replacement players in for practice. The street was eventually cleared without incident, but this was a defining moment in Esiason's emergence as a fiery team leader who sometimes would clash with management.

The news on Ki-Jana (August, 1995). On a hot Sunday afternoon in August, with the entire Spinney neighborhood virtually deserted, Mike Brown and the coaching staff were holed up in a dark and chilly video room, reviewing tapes of the previous night's preseason game at Detroit. Midway through the session, trainer Paul Sparling interrupted to inform the group that top draft pick Ki-Jana Carter's knee injury in the Detroit game would shelve him for the season. Head coach Dave Shula slumped noticeably in his chair. After only a brief moment of awkward silence, Brown stoically acknowledged it was a terrible blow, then directed that the lights be dimmed so the tape review could continue.

Boomer walks the plank (November, 1992). On a dreary Monday morning following a dreary Sunday loss to Detroit, several sportswriters camped out on early duty in the Spinney parking lot, awaiting the arrival of Boomer Esiason. It was the day, everyone knew, when Esiason would be demoted as starting quarterback in place of rookie David Klingler. Esiason drove in, talked briefly with the writers, and assured them he'd be fine. And in the end, he would be just fine. But on that morning, remembering all Esiason's past Bengals glory, it was sad to see him walk in that door. One realized that by the time he walked back out, a great chapter in Cincinnati football would be coming to a close.

Sam Wyche and the EPA (Multiple seasons). The air at Spinney often didn't smell good, to put it mildly. It was worse in the '80s and early '90s than it is now, due to the nature of neighboring industrial firms, and the stench drove coach Sam Wyche to distraction on occasion. More than once during his tenure, Wyche arranged for the air to be tested for toxins, with plenty of accompanying media publicity. These weren't the warmest moments in Wyche's relationship with the Brown family. And in the end, the air quality was never deemed to be dangerous. Just smelly.

The news about Magic (November, 1991). Never have the bulk of Bengals players been more visibly affected by a non-football news event than on the day when NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. The news began spreading through the building after practice on a Wednesday afternoon, and soon players were everywhere in small groups, talking quietly and asking questions. This clearly was an event that shook the image of indestructibility for a group of young athletes.

This one really hurts (October, 1991). A playoff team the year before, the Bengals were sporting a gruesome 0-6 record. It was Saturday morning at Spinney, and the team was preparing for a Monday night game at Buffalo in which its struggles would be up for national review. Things were tense, to say the least. And then came the moment when starting cornerback Lewis Billups, never one of Coach Sam Wyche's personal favorites, showed up late with a broken finger from a Friday night fight in a convenience store parking lot. Billups would miss the Buffalo game, forcing Wyche to start a rookie cornerback. Yours truly was still a sportswriter then, and was not an eyewitness to these doings because Spinney was off-limits to the press on Saturdays. But those who were there say that in all his volatile Bengals career, Wyche was never more angry and upset than on this morning.

Warrick starstruck (April, 2000). For closers, a happy day at Spinney. We speak of last April 15 -- Draft Day -- when top choice Peter Warrick was flown in by the Bengals just hours after his selection. It was a festive evening with one of the largest media crowds ever to visit Spinney. And after years of being maligned as ugly and non-fragrant, Spinney received by far the biggest celebrity endorsement in its history. Standing on the practice field, looking out at the tree-covered hills of Cincinnati's West Side, Warrick smiled and said, "It sort of looks like Hollywood around here."

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