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Ted Karras, Joe Burrow, And Who Dey Nation Team For A Hat Tattoo From The Heart

C Ted Karras gets a tattoo of the Cincy hat logo during his St. Tatty's Day event on Sunday, March 17, 2024.
C Ted Karras gets a tattoo of the Cincy hat logo during his St. Tatty's Day event on Sunday, March 17, 2024.

Jason Renie, the guy who brought us to this, Ted Karras' remarkable St. Tatty's Day carnival in the rambling edifice that is the Fowling Warehouse in the Pleasant Ridge section of Cincinnati, summed it up best Sunday with the sagacity of a middle-aged man who lives alone.

"Incredible. Amazing. Crazy," says Renie, brother of Cincy Hat architect Matt Renie and son of Colleen Renie, founder and executive director of the Village of Merici, the Indianapolis program that offers and advocates housing for adults with intellectual disabilities.

All the right words as more than 2,000 people streamed through a day two of the Bengals' biggest locker-room leaders in Karras and Joe Burrow didn't blink in their eyeball-to-eyeball challenge over Thursday night's free-agent dinner at Jeff Ruby's.

"He told me, 'If you get it, I'll donate $25,000 to the Village of Merici.' How can I turn him down?" says Karras, decked out in a St. Patrick's Day green Cincy Hat two days after he turned 31. "If Joey B wants to get involved with the Village, I'm going to probably get it on the underwear line of my right leg."

The most expensive tattoo in Bengals history came with a reprimand from his wife ("I've caught a spanking for this," Karras says), but it's the only way this thing could have ended.

It started to simmer during harmless locker banter in a media session late last season. With Karras nominated as the Bengals' candidate for the NFL's most prestigious honor, the  Walter Payton Man of the Year, he offered to give a free tattoo of the Cincy Hat three-slash logo to anyone who wanted it if he won the league's Charity Challenge Fan Vote.

First lesson? There is no such thing as harmless banter when reporters and athletes gather.

Second lesson? Never underestimate the heart of Bengals' fans, whether they're roaring during a Bengals' fourth-quarter stand or rallying to those backed up against their own end zone.

Karras won that challenge with 2.4 million votes. Before he answered Burrow's challenge, he made sure he upheld his end of a March free-agent deal.

"I begged him. Let's sell tickets to this event. Let's charge a little bit," Matt Renie says.

No way, his old high school friend said. I promised. This is a gift. We won the Nationwide Charity Challenge. We got 2.4 million votes. Are you kidding me? We've got to pay them back.

Renie had to laugh. Yes, it is probably so. Ted was in the red for this one. He laid out the cash Sunday. Donations were suggested and the hats are still 35 bucks. Probably not enough to get Ted out of the red, but that's not what was being counted on this St. Tatty's Day.

The bantam Matt Renie is used to facilitating the luck of the Irish with plain old brains. When he was Karras' best friend at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, he was the leprechaun mascot for the football team. His technical skills have been the backbone of and while he's at the heart of the fund-raising engine that went over $1 million late last year, the only thing he knew about tattoos is his future mother-in-law forbid him to get one when she began hearing about something called St. Tatty's Day.

And Ted certainly didn't know anything about it. He didn't have one, either. So Matt told him, "Your job is tattoo recruitment."

"All of this came together in 45 days," says Colleen Renie, looking around the maze of tattoo tables, games, auctions, and merchandise as a dee jay blared. "We were on a conference call the other day and the lady from the board of health said, 'Matt, I wish you could work for me. I've never seen a tattoo convention so well organized."

Karras recruited 45 tattoo artists for 500 bucks each and gave them each two Bengals' tickets. It was certainly a labor of love for Austin Fields of Black Fern Tattoo Studio in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine.

A Covinvgton, Ky., native who has returned home after working about the country, Fields has put the needle to such celebrities as country and western stars Cody Johnson and Koe Wetzel, as well as Dallas Cowboys Al Harris and Zach Martin. Former Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah is a friend and Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson and his wife are regulars.

"Lost track," says Fields when he's asked how many tattoos he's received since he got his mother's initials on his ankle for his first one.

And he was getting another one Sunday, opting for the Cincy Hat. A total of 450 had signed up online to get the free ones and they were taking walk-ins because they were ahead of schedule.

It was the kind of day where tattoo-covered veterans such as Fields and rookies such as Karras were both going under the needle. Doug Rosfeld, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's chief of staff, also opted to get his first one (inside bicep) with pretty much the reasoning that ruled the moment:

"Great guy. Great cause. Great event."

Karras figures since Cincy Hat has taken off, the Village has been able to house 75 more autistic and Down Syndrome adults. With Bengals all-time passing leader Ken Anderson finishing up signing autographs (wearing a signed Ted Karras Cincy Hat), Karras noted Sunday was the first event that is a combined effort with Anderson's alliance seeking to build similar housing in Cincinnati for intellectually challenged adults.

"The support from the people of Cincinnati," says Colleen Renie, "has been overwhelming."

Colleen Renie, who jokes how Karras would clean her out of pineapples and milk when she hosted the boys' sleepovers, is stunned at how much fruit the Cincy Hat has yielded. She says since 2022, the Village has been able to expand its services by 62%.

"We've been able to hire more staff, more training. We had a waiting list of 100 people who just wanted services, not even housing," she says. "But they just wanted support services for employment, going to the grocery store, paying their bills. Before 2022, we provided services to about 50 people. Now we serve 125 to 130 with proceeds right from the hat."

Jason Renie, tall, quiet, friendly with a slash of gray, tells you he turns 46 in July and where he works part-time for an Indy caterer.

"Ted? I remember when he would come over for the football games and race day. He's a great guy," Jason says.

Colleen Renie knew Karras saw the support Jason needed. He'd tell her even then he'd help if he could. The Renies adopted Jason when he was two. He was her patient. She was an occupational therapist. He needed surgery to correct crossed eyes. He had mild cerebral palsy and his diagnosis was a cold "failure-to-thrive child."

"We got him an apartment, but he needed a lot of support," Renie says. "He was lonely in a regular apartment. He didn't know his neighbors and we wanted something where he could be near his peers and be more independent.

"When he was in his early 30s, we were thinking, 'He's getting older. What's going to happen when we're not around?' That's really where the idea for the apartments came from."

Colleen Renie is looking at her phone. Nearly $30,000 in hat orders have come in just today. So have $1,100 in donations. She looked up and saw the teeming scene of tattoos and T-Shirts.

"It's really unbelievable," she says.

Jason Renie points to his wrist. It's one of the temporary tattoos they were handing out, but it's as real as can be:

"Cincy Hat."