Skip to main content

The First Lady and the Bengals


 Reggie Williams presents First Lady Nancy Reagan with her Bengals jacket.

Paul Brown just said yes. So Reggie Williams just made Nancy Reagan an honorary Bengals coach.

It happened in the '80s, when the Bengals were rolling to two Super Bowls, the Reagans were riding into history, and Williams, Brown's Ivy League Ironman, was showing a future generation just exactly what being involved in the community meant.

"She was always very engaging, very warm,"
Williams recalled Monday. "One time at a White House dinner we engaged in too long a conversation for the reception line."

Williams, who played a slice of his 14 seasons under four presidents at linebacker for the Bengals while on Cincinnati City Council, met Reagan four times while she was first lady during his civic endeavors

 So when he heard she died Sunday at age 94, it brought back some fond memories.

Particularly a 1987 meeting in the Oval Office during a national conference in Washington D.C., which Williams recalls as a centerpiece for a "Just Say No,' convention, her slogan for the Reagan administration's war on drugs.

The Bengals were doing their part in the fight. Wide receiver Mike Martin was the lead voice for a Just Say No song written by another red-hot '80s Cincy star, native Reggie Calloway, whose funk group Midnight Star broke out during the decade. Williams and wide receiver Ira Hillary sang backup.

"We played it at a rally down at Riverfront Coliseum," Martin recalled Monday. "From what I understand, she knew about the song. Reggie was very involved in the Just Say No campaign."

After getting an invite to the conference, Williams got an official Bengals jacket from equipment manager Tom Gray and on one side Williams had the words "Coach Nancy Reagan,' scripted in orange and "Just Say," scripted in white on the other side with "NO" in block letters.

Before Williams took it to the Oval Office, though, he took it to the corner office at Riverfront Stadium and made sure the Bengals owner, Paul Brown, approved.

"You don't just pull something like that out of a shopping bag and give it to the First Lady of the United States," Williams said. "I knew it would get back to him. There had to be proper protocol."

Williams and Brown had always got along well. He thinks it may be because he had some very good games against Paul's old Cleveland Browns. Williams still remembers that smile Brown gave him on the plane ride home from his first trip ever to Cleveland in his rookie year of 1976, when he came off the bench and played so well he never went back.

But they also clicked on other matters. When Brown wrote in his own hand congratulating Williams on his retirement, which, by the way, came in the first year of the fourth president of Williams' career, George H.W. Bush, Brown praised him most for his work in the community.  

"He was supportive about the idea to use your public persona to help make a difference in the lives of kids," said Williams, who also went to the Reagan White House once to be honored by Sports Illustrated as one of the Athletes Who Care.

So the Nancy Reagan Bengals jacket was an easy sell to Paul Brown.

 "He was very proud," Williams said. "He was very supportive of the idea. I got a smile out of it. When I returned, we talked briefly about it and he was happy it all went well."

Now nearly 40 years after they met, Williams gets a kick out of how Nancy Reagan, a bellwether of fashion, loved orange and black.

"She just beamed. She was so tickled and happy she was a coach for an NFL team," Williams said.

That meeting turned out to be their longest conversation, a hearty talk of familiar names.

"I think she knew of Boomer (Esiason) and I gave her the jacket on behalf of our coach at the time, Sam Wyche," Williams. "And Paul Brown was mentioned.

"It was all at a very uplifting time, not only for the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but also for the fortunes of the Cincinnati Bengals."

It was the '80s and it seemed like everybody was trying to pitch in together.

 "She was a compassionate first lady. She was someone all America could adore," Williams said. "And people are showing that adoration by the outpouring of condolences that we've seen across America."

When Reggie Williams retired after 14 seasons and 206 games, Paul Brown put his civic endeavors in perspective.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.