Ken Avery (left) and Al Beauchamp are still best friends after a six-year run with the Bengals.
It starts out as a story about black and white roommates. But in the end it's simply a story about teammates in stripes.
Al Beauchamp and Ken Avery, who still say, "Love you," when they hang up the phone, plan to attend the weekend festivities of the Bengals 50th anniversary season as well as Sunday's opener at Paul Brown Stadium just like they spent six seasons with the club at the dawn of the franchise.
"It was always, 'When you see Beauchamp, you see Avery. When you see Avery, you see Beauchamp,'" cackles Beauchamp from Atlanta.
Not long ago Beauchamp needed to retrieve a password to one of his devices. He was asked, "Who is the person closest to you?" He said, "Ken Avery,' and when that didn't match he remembered it was his mother's maiden name.
"They would joke around with us," booms Avery from Nashville. "They'd call us 'Salt and Pepper.' Or they'd say we were like that show with Bill Cosby and the white guy … Each one held their own on the TV shows. Ironically, we were doing the same thing."
When they were playing with the Bengals, Avery lived near Miami and Beauchamp stayed one offseason.
"He came down and hung around the house and got to be friends with my neighbors. They loved him," Avery says. "I'd hear he'd be back in town the next year or something and he'd be staying with one of my neighbors. That's how much they loved him."
The teammates were both born during the D-Day spring of 1944, Avery arriving first in New York City as the son of one of the world famous Rockettes and Beauchamp coming 31 days later in Baton Rouge, La., to the mother with the maiden name he would lose when he was ten.
"I was in elementary school," Beauchamp says. "Until then I thought death was where you went away for a while but you came back."
They've been together since that night before a game at Nippert Stadium in the earth-shaking fall of 1969 of the Vietnam Moratorium, the Amazing Mets, Pete Conrad wisecracking while walking on the moon, and both of them learning linebacking under Paul Brown in the second year of his expansion Baby Bengals. Cosby's iconic TV series co-starring Robert Culp, "I Spy," had been off the air for a year but fresh in the mind of an uneasy nation always, it seems, grappling with race.
But not Beauchamp and Avery. Or Avery and Beauchamp. Not this night as the Bengals checked in at the Hilton Netherland in downtown Cincinnati. There appeared to be a snafu with the rooms. Beauchamp approached the front desk and said there was no problem, he didn't care who his roommate was, and he had a guy and …. He didn't know it, but the same guy was right behind him coming up to say the same thing.
Al Beauchamp: a "beautiful athlete," who commanded the playbook in 83 straight starts for Paul Brown.
"It was Avery. That's how we went through the next seven years." Beauchamp says.
Avery isn't as clear when it happened or when. It just happened naturally and, fresh, to the team, it was a chance to spend more time learning the playbook with a starter steeped in the scheme.
"I had Horst Muhlmann," Avery says of the eccentric kicker. "I probably requested out of there."
It turns out their impromptu meeting at the front desk made a spot of news. It seems they were the first integrated roommates in the very brief history of the Bengals.
"It was a bigger deal that was made than it was to us. It was not a big deal for us," Avery says. "Nobody said anything to us about it."
It made only news in the news. No one else gave a damn. From Bengals founder Paul Brown, who integrated the pro game 20 years before, to Bob Johnson, their first ever draft pick who came from the all-white SEC. Avery, who came from the NFL's Giants, wonders if because they were an expansion the youthful Bengals looked at everything not bound by tradition.
"That's the last time we ever talked about race," Beauchamp says. "We never mentioned it again. No one ever said anything to us."
Johnson, the second-year center who would locker between Beauchamp and another black college star when Lemar Parrish arrived a year later in 1970, can attest to that.
"You get drilled by a black guy on one play and you get drilled by a white guy on the next play, there's a commonality there," Johnson says. "It's pretty easy to sit down to lunch with a guy after that because you've already had some intimate contact. Sports is the great leveler. By the time we got to Cincinnati, that stuff was all old news."
Still, it was 1969 …
Martin Luther King had been dead barely a year. The inner cities still had fresh and visible scars from rioting. The school busing issue had raised temperatures in the north to southern climes. The bantam governor who had declared "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," won five states and got 13.5 percent of the vote for president the previous November.
And the first time Tennessee's Johnson lined up with a black player had been a week before he got to Cincinnati at the College All-Star Game. Avery, who moved to Florida in his teens, never played with a black guy or tackled one until the Giants drafted him out of Southern Mississippi in 1966. LSU gave only hand-me-downs to the black players down the road at Southern University in Baton Rouge, not scholarships. A coach told Beauchamp if LSU took black players he'd be there.
The strong and relentless Ken Avery brought his two seasons with the Giants to the Baby Bengals.
So until the Bengals called in the fifth round in 1968, Beauchamp never had a white teammate and never played against one. He's not sure he even had a white friend until he sat down at the Bengals training table.
How right is Johnson about sports? These guys didn't blink and together they helped Brown build the greatest expansion team in pro sports of their time.
"When they wrote about us sometimes they got it wrong," Beauchamp says. "They'd say Avery was from Southern and I was from Southern Mississippi. I'd tell him, 'Hey, Avery. You're the first white guy to ever play at Southern.'"
Avery wouldn't have minded. He was up for new things. He admits he's what they called a free-thinker back then. His parents were dancers and he didn't mind telling the newspapers that he used some elements of ballet to train, a rather Avant-garde approach in the late '60s, although he wanted to make it clear he didn't wear the tights or tutus.
"I had grown up around all kinds of people in New York," Avery says. "The schools were segregated, but after school we played in the streets and never had a problem. When we moved to Florida it was a shock to the system."
Avery grew up in the Manhattan of the '50s, at 124th Street and Amsterdam, a block from Harlem. He played stickball with blacks, Hispanics, you name it. The only difference was seemingly their favorite players. Avery stood for Pee Wee Reese and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle until he was about 12 or 13 and had such a bad experience with Mantle he vowed he would always sign an autograph if he ever became good enough to get asked.
It came in handy since he broke into the NFL with the 1967-68 New York Football Giants. When they let him go early in 1969 and Brown picked him up, Avery gravitated to the high-pitched chatter of Beauchamp, his fellow linebacker who could make you laugh while playing a deadly serious brand of athletic linebacker.
"Everybody loved him. Great guy. Upbeat. Laughing. A big laugh," Avery says. "He's a funny dude."
But Avery found out that Beauchamp also knew his stuff He figures that's the main reason they ended up not only rooming together the night before games, but also for the eight weeks of training camp in Wilmington College's Pickett Hall. In that '69 season when he came over from the Giants, Avery was learning on the run and Beauchamp tutored him in the system.
"He's quick-witted and smart. I appreciated that," Avery says. "He really knew the game. It didn't look like he would be up on the game, but he was. He played well. I don't why he never made All-Pro. He was certainly an All-Pro caliber linebacker. Especially on passing plays."
Al Beauchamp's 15 interceptions are still the second best by a Bengals linebacker.
Bob Johnson is just one of a few teammates who refer to the 6-2, 237-pound Beauchamp as "a beautiful athlete." An outside linebacker, he could run all day, and get there as fast as anyone starting 83 straight games on three division winners. "When we had a basketball team during the winters he was the best player," Johnson says. His last game for Cincinnati before they traded him to St. Louis was Paul Brown's last in the 1975 playoffs and his 15 career interceptions are still the second most by Bengals linebacker next to the 16 of Reggie Williams. He always felt a connection to Brown. it was Beauchamp that helped carry Brown off the Riverfront turf when they won that first division title.
The funny thing about it is, Johnson says, the 6-0, 227-pound Avery was a completely different player than Beauchamp. Avery was an inside type, a shorter, stubby guy and strong who buttered his bread in the running game and teamed with Beauchamp and middle linebacker Bill Bergey to form the backbone of a defense that helped forge that first AFC Central title the year after he arrived in 1970. By the time they moved on to Jim LeClair and Ron Pritchard after the '74 season, Avery had started 42 of his 83 Bengals games.
"Avery was a reliable guy. He was always there for you. And he'd hit you," Beauchamp says.
They were so different and so similar.
"We had the same goals, the same values, the same upbringing. We were looking to accomplish the same things," Avery says. "His dad whipped his ass for the same things my dad whipped my ass for."
Avery's mother re-married when he was in high school, about the time Beauchamp was learning no one comes back home after they die. In the Scotlandville neighborhood of Baton Rouge he watched his father raise eight of them in a three-bedroom house working two jobs, at Standard Oil and a juvenile detention center.
"He was the only adult in the life of eight kids and he took care of us, fed us, clothed us. He did everything he needed to do for the family," Beauchamp says. "We loved one another. We had to … The one thing we did was sit down and eat dinner together as a family. Everyone at the table at six o'clock. Not 6:05. When the streetlights came on, we had to be in the house."
Beauchamp's coaches had connections at LSU and he worked in the weight room, where a coach gave him a thick book of colleges and told him, "You pick it out and I'll recommend you. If we had you guys on our team, you'd be at LSU." One day his father looked at him and said, "Al, Southern is two miles down the road. That's where you need to go to school."
So now it's only four years later and it's Beauchamp and Avery and Avery and Beauchamp.
Paul Brown: Beauchamp helped carry him off the field when they won their first AFC Central title.
"I didn't know Avery that well," Beauchamp says. "I never looked at people as a color … My thing was how could I hate someone I didn't know. We're all human beings, that's how I looked at it.
"Avery and I just got along. We'd go over the plays and talk football."
But they didn't just room together. Beauchamp remembers a night in Cincinnati when they went to what was basically an all-black nightclub. Which wasn't exactly new for them.
"That happened a few times," Avery says with a laugh.
Except this time an angry woman confronted Beauchamp and asked why he had brought his buddy.
"I told her, 'I'm going to bring him over here and I'm going to have him talk to you and then I'm going to come back and you tell me what you think," Beauchamp says. "When I came back I asked her, 'What did you think?' and she said, 'I like him.'"
When the legends gather this weekend, they'll have some catching up to do. But not Beauchamp and Avery. Not Avery and Beauchamp. It didn't just end after leaving a room key in Cincinnati or Houston or Wilmington.
After a year with the Cardinals, Beauchamp retired and stayed in Cincy so his kids could get through school and ran a trucking facility before he was transferred to Atlanta in the mid-80s. After Avery played 14 games with the '75 Chiefs, he went back to Florida and got into the transportation business. He did a lot of work with the PGA and one of his stops for 20 years was the Atlanta Golf Classic and that usually meant a reunion.
When Hurricane Andrew forced Avery to look elsewhere for business in the early 1990s, he moved to his wife's neck of the woods and settled on a farm in Nashville where he's a contractor. Beauchamp has found his way there a few times and just like their relationship, it's not exactly how you draw it up.
"I said to my wife, 'Let's go somewhere.' She said, "Where?" says Beauchamp about a day 13 years ago. "I said, 'I don't know. We're going to get in the (truck) and drive.' When I got (on the road), the first thing that hit me was,' Hey. Avery. Go to Nashville. Because every time we've been to Nashville we always have a great time."
Beauchamp had been to the farm once or twice before but it's not exactly on the highway and he had a tough time trying to recall exactly where it is. They stopped a few times and asked some people so they wouldn't spoil the surprise. After they drove through a field Beauchamp thought looked familiar and crossed what he calls 'a little lake," he pulled up in the yard
It turns out they were both surprised. He and his wife had driven into the middle of Avery's 60th birthday party.
"They just started singing 'Happy Birthday.' I jumped out of the truck and ran around while they were signing it," Beauchamp says. "He didn't know what to do. We just hugged, man; we just hugged and squeezed one another. It just happened that way. We didn't plan it and they didn't plan it."
Just like that night back at The Hilton.
Avery swore his wife planned the Beauchamps' perfect arrival.
"He came around the corner of my barn hollering," Avery says. "I couldn't believe it."
This upcoming weekend is a bit more planned. They had set it up back in June. They would come in for the opener, excited to see the two Kennys and Isaac and all the rest.
"We had the same principles. Nothing about hate or anything involved looking down your nose or being disrespectful to any human being," Avery says. "Treat people like you wanted to be treated by yourself."
"Beauchamp and Avery," Beauchamp says. "Avery and Beauchamp."