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A Tip Of The Hat To Ted Karras, In The Middle Of All Things Bengals

Ted Karras and the Cincy hat.
Ted Karras and the Cincy hat.

Matt Renie, the software startup guru who was his high school football team's leprechaun mascot, used his magic touch to get the website up and going this week in his spare time.

And it wasn't all that different than about a half a lifetime ago when he met Teddy Karras on East 56th in Indianapolis at St. Matthew School.

Back then, Teddy was looking for friends, too, because his family had just moved to town. This time the veteran NFL offensive lineman with two Super Bowl rings was looking to make friends on his new team and just like back in eighth grade the big, outgoing kid had no problems.

"It's been so cool to see him go from team to team and to see him get the same reaction. How he gets embraced," Renie says. "It's something special how he makes people feel. People realize that pretty quickly."

They also realized pretty quickly that Karras had more than an ice-breaker on his hands with these "Cincy," ball caps he had made and handed out to his new teammates on the AFC champion Bengals.

They were actually game-breakers. Once they started showing up in his locker room interviews in what has become mandatory video viewing for Bengals fans, the requests started pouring in.

Matt Renie's mother, who has been a Teddy Karras fan since they were the same height and he would ask for five bananas at breakfast instead of pancakes during grade-school sleepovers, always watches his interviews. He knocked her down in the A gap not long ago when she heard him say he was going to sell the hats and give all the proceeds to the Village of Merici.

Colleen Renie just happens to be the executive director of The Village, the organization she co-founded that helps adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities focused on independent living. With the group expanding and opening two more facilities next year on the outskirts of Indy, she was all ears.

"Did I just hear him say that?" she wondered.

But it didn't surprise her. Even when Teddy and Matt left Cathedral High School and went to Illinois and Indiana, respectively, he was always supportive and empathetic. Matt's older brother Jason has a cognitive disability and Karras' younger cousin Joe has autism.

"People who have autism and Down syndrome are very joyful. They have good spirits," Ted Karras says. "To be able to help make things good for them is really special to me. When we got into the league, you could see what the Renies were doing. It was a no-brainer to do some good."

Doing this good began this spring in the backyard of Karras' Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home in the wake of his agreement with the Bengals in the first hours of free agency. A deal universally hailed as smart for a veteran, versatile interior lineman paid off as recently as last Sunday's win in Pittsburgh in which Karras called the play of the revamped offensive line "elite."

To say he has been the line's most consistent player gets a lot of agreement around Paycor Stadium.

Naturally, Karras was in the middle of it all Sunday as the center and that's where he was in this conversation with neighbor Sydney Maitland, a customer sales rep for Imperial Headwear, a company servicing golf and country clubs. Karras thought a hat would be a nice gift for the guys and asked Maitland if she could design one.

"Ted started talking about Who-Dey and how they call Cincinnati 'Cincy," and how the Bengals are cats and I let my mind wander," Maitland says.

It crashed into success. The word "Cincy," written in script with three short cat claw marks slashed underneath the "Y." Understated yet universal.

"I began to see it on posts and on-line," says Maitland of her design that went from pool side to mainstream. "It became a thing."

It became such a thing that the hat is now going for 35 bucks a pop at with all the proceeds and the possibilities going to the Village of Merici. Colleen Renie is hoping that the demand is enough that it could translate into jobs for either some of the 22 residents or those people they help who live off site.

Maybe packing hats into boxes to send out. COVID claimed a lot of jobs in the developmentally disabled community

Colleen adopted Jason 43 years ago when he was 22 months old and she was a young director of occupational therapy at an Indianapolis hospital. He could barely lift his head at half that age, but love and a home changed all that. About 15 years ago, she and her husband started wondering what happens when they're gone.

"What they found is a lot of people in that situation either go homeless or they end up having to go live in their brother's or sister's basement," Matt Renie says. "We realized there's a big need for supporting adults who are in that situation. Who aren't as independent but absolutely have the capacity to live independently."

Like Jason.

"Jason can, has and does live alone," Matt says. "It's just he does better with community and coaching and support."

Matt Renie sees it in his brother's interaction with Merici's services. It's helped him become a little more mature and he's getting a better handle on how to manage his finances. He's always working, mostly for restaurants and event centers.

Ted Karras and friends.
Ted Karras and friends.

"He's always got something going," Matt says.

But many don't. Like Colleen Renie says, "When a lot of these folks leave high school, they lose their friends. They don't drive. Their parents work. Having a good quality of life with friends and people to do things with, that's what independent living is all about."

Karras loves one story about a couple, Ashley and Conan. They lived in the facility, met there and got married. It's the only program of its kind in Indiana and there's no question that, like the Bengals locker room, he is one of its more popular figures.

They all know him and he texts with some of them. Mary, a big Ted fan who has tried on one of his Super Bowl rings, always introduces him when he speaks there.

"She texted me before she went on live TV for the Village and then sent me the link," Karras says. "She did amazing."

Before COVID, Karras hosted a casino night that raised some funds. He hopes to have a banquet of some sort soon. He'll wear "Village Merici," on his shoes when they play the My Cause, My Cleats," game.

But the biggest thing he does is just show up when he's in town. One day he came in and taught them how to play blackjack and poker.

"He's so patient and inclusive," Colleen Renie says. "If there's a problem with communication, he just rolls with it. They love him."

Then there's Marty, about 60, who loves his football. He follows Purdue, the NFL and especially Teddy Karras. He's had a Karras jersey from all three of his NFL teams.

"Marty's the biggest Ted fan in the history of the world," Matt Renie says. "He's followed him since he was at Illinois. I got him a Ted Karras Bengals jersey earlier this year and it was the best thing that ever happened in his life. He knows more about this Sunday's game than I do, I'm sure."

On one of his visits to Merici, Marty wasn't there and he was crushed he had missed Teddy. Karras heard "my guy," was devastated and surprised him while he was working.

"The same Kroger that I worked at in high school," Karras says.

You have to tip your hat to a friend.

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