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The November To Remember 40 Years Later And A Bengals Bond For Life 

Back in the day, Isaac Curtis running away.
Back in the day, Isaac Curtis running away.

Louis Breeden, whose 102-yard interception return is the centerpiece of the Bengals' glorious "November to Remember," made another cross-country return 40 Novembers later to watch his old team and meet his best of friends in Las Vegas.

Up high enough in the Allegiant Stadium rafters where he swore he saw a cloud, he huddled again with his "brother from another mother." Isaac Curtis, the regal wide receiver who was so good they had to change the rules of the game, made up a law on the spot last Sunday as the current Bengals kept their own playoff hopes alive the weekend before Thanksgiving with a win over the Raiders.

"We were so high up that we had to watch a lot of it on the big screen," Breeden says. "But Isaac said, 'You know what? I'm here to hang out with you and the family. The game is great, but that's why I'm here."

A side benefit was checking out their striped descendants. Curtis watched Ja'Marr Chase close to within one of his Bengals rookie record nine touchdown catches in his tenth game. A few months ago Curtis joked he'd only recognize it if Chase passed him in the 14 games he had in 1973.

"Does he already have it?" asks Curtis, who had an inch or two on the 6-0 Chase. "I like him. He's got a lot of talent. He's so explosive. Quick feet. He'll only get better. I wouldn't say he's small, but guys with his build, you know what? They can be harder to cover than those big receivers. He's quick as a cat with those releases and getting in and out of his routes. Hopefully that connection with him and (Joe) Burrow can be around for a long time."

Breeden, who deked a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback 40 years and two weeks ago to make the play of the year, had fun watching another quarterback. He can't get enough of Burrow.

"I don't remember a rookie that was more impressive in terms of just that kind of accuracy and his confidence in the pocket and making good decisions," Breeden says. "I don't have the words some times when I see him move in the pocket. The dexterity that he has. Moving left, right. Climbing the pocket. I'm overwhelmed at times and hopefully they can keep him healthy enough and upright to keep throwing to Chase and everyone else because I want to see them win a playoff game."

Their buddyship shows you just how close the Bengals' first Super Bowl team was and still is. They kid about how close their birthdays are, even though they're three years apart, Curtis on Oct. 20, 1950 and Breeden on Oct. 26, 1953.

"We talk two, three times a week," Breeden says. "I can't let you read our text messages. We eventually became close around my second year. We're both a little quiet and, you know, wide receivers and DBs battle every day at practice."

Curtis, a first-rounder from big schools on the West Coast and an Olympic caliber sprinter before he became the prototype of the 21st century wide receiver. Breeden, a seventh-rounder from the south's tiny North Carolina Central who blossomed into one of the NFL's top cornerbacks. They're family.

"Forty years later," Breeden says, "I can catch him now in a sprint. Back then, Isaac Curtis was one of the Bengals' untouchables. That's how great he was."

Breeden came from Cincinnati and brought his daughter and son and Curtis was reminiscing how he first saw them as babies. Curtis came from California and brought his wife Mildred.

"But she didn't go to the game," Curtis says. "She said, 'I know you're going to be hanging out with your boys. Have a good time.' We did."

They also visited with another old Bengal, John Simmons, and through the weekend bumped into familiar faces from Cincinnati. And they know plenty of them because for 19 years they teamed up for one of the biggest shows in town, the Curtis-Breeden Golf Classic (Breeden-Curtis?) that is still helping minority students and disadvantaged youth.

How big? They had to use two different courses in the morning and afternoon before the banquet at night. How popular? The last one was a dozen or so years ago, when the major sponsor, Biggs, got sold, and they've still got enough money to annually dole out scholarships and help around town.

They began giving all the proceeds to the United Negro College Fund and supporting Cincinnati high school kids through their four years at any number of historically black colleges.

"But then we decided to keep the money in Cincinnati and help out in the schools and other programs around the city," Breeden says.

One of them is an annual $25,000 scholarship to the University of Cincinnati engineering school in a bridge program that helps minority students make the transition from high school to the rigors of a college program.

"We'll be giving out money for years to come," Curtis says. "Our foundation did well with the tournament and with investments it's still growing."

And they began this summit of business networking and community activism after their playing careers, which shows you just how esteemed those 1981 Bengals are in the eyes of the city.

The November to Remember of 1981, that 5-0 month they outscored foes by an average of 35-18 and vaulted them from 5-3 to 10-3, had a lot to do with that. That month got them to that first Super Bowl. That's when the most all-around Bengals team ever (second in the NFL in offense, 12th in defense) hit its stride. They didn't exactly go through the basement. They beat the 4-4 Oilers, the 6-3 Chargers, the 5-5 Rams, the 8-3 Broncos and finished it off against 5-7 Cleveland.

That's the month they won home field advantage for the playoffs, setting up Riverfront Stadium's iconic Freezer Bowl where the Bengals froze the Chargers, 27-7, in the AFC championship staged during the second coldest game of all-time.

But the teams were there because on Nov. 8, 1981 the Bengals wilted the Chargers in their own greenhouse in San Diego, 40-17.

"They can talk about the cold all they want," Breeden says. "But what about that game? Was it too hot?"

The Bengals broke fast that day. At age 31, in the biggest game of the year, the wily Curtis showed the kids why he was one of the greats. With the Chargers putting a lot of attention on Cris Collinsworth in the middle of his 1,000-yard rookie season and third-year tight end Dan Ross on his way to a team-record 71 catches, Curtis killed them one-on-one with 147 yards in offensive coordinator Lindy Infante's cutting edge offense built around option routes. His four-yard touchdown catch from Ken Anderson began the onslaught.

"They mixed up their defenses," Curtis says. "They double covered Cris some. They played zone. When they double covered me, Kenny would find the open guy. It was a good game plan and Kenny was on. He made the reads and we made the adjustments."

Still, even when it was 24-7 with 49 seconds left in the first half, there was unease when Chargers prolific quarterback Dan Fouts drove his Air Coryell offense to the Bengals 4. A score here and the Bengals kicking off to start the second half and ….

But there was Fouts throwing the ball to Breeden standing in front of Chargers wide receiver Wes Chandler two yards deep in the end zone. There was old Bengal receiver and future Hall-of-Famer Charlie Joiner hanging on Breeden. There was Bengals nose tackle Wilson Whitley knocking Joiner back into the '70s and Breeden was gone.

"That's about 270 pounds against 190 pounds. You know who's going to win that one," Breeden says. "Cover Two. We disguised it as much as possible to make it look like man. So I kind of lined up inside to make Dan Fouts think it was man coverage. We were in a zone and I was in an area he didn't expect me to be. He threw it at my chest. I did very little but disguise it."

Breeden is being more than modest. Here's a guy that has 33 career interceptions, the second most in Bengals annals next to Ken Riley's Hall of Fame 65. Riley was a mentor to both Breeden and Curtis and may have been the catalyst for their bond.

The friendship probably began to bloom about the time Breeden was backing up Riley in that second season and after one route in practice, Curtis jogged back to the huddle telling the defensive coaches they had their two best cornerbacks on the same side. A few weeks later Breeden was starting opposite Riley and the Bengals had their Super Bowl corners.

"Yeah, it was kind of like the movies. It was kind of like Seabiscuit," says Breeden of how that 102 return reminded him of the last scene of the film about a heroic race horse.

"All you see is the finish line. And then it begins to fade out. That's one of the best scenes ever. For me, it was kind of like that. How the end zone and was there and there was nothing else there. He threw it to the far sideline and there was nobody over there."

Breeden talks good naturedly about how Artrell Hawkins tied his club record 21 years later in Houston and how he thought it was going to be broken four years ago in Denver.

"My man Dre Kirkpatrick fell down. He had it," says Breeden of that 101-yard return in the Mile High air. "You guys have to go back and check. I think I was three yards deep in the end zone so I can get the record."

But seriously, Breeden remembers the first guy to reach him was a defensive lineman. End Ross Browner.

"Ross could run," Breeden says. "We had a really good front four and front seven. You need that on both sides of the ball. We had so much confidence in our offensive line, but it was also the defensive line. It doesn't matter how good your corners are if you can't get pressure on the quarterback."

Before November, the Bengals knew they were good. By Dec. 1, everybody else did, too.

"There might have been some apprehension from the public and rightfully so after what happened the year (6-10) before," Breeden says. "But we were winning games we would have found a way to lose. When you're on a roll, you find a way to win. You know Kenny Anderson is going to find a way to get Pete Johnson in the end zone. You know on defense we're going to get an interception or tackle for loss."

Curtis says he saw what he knew in that November.

"I just thought we had the best team that year. But you know the best team doesn't always win," says Curtis, still thinking of the four turnovers in Super Bowl XVI in the loss to the 49ers. "We buried ourselves in that first half.

"We were obviously the best team in the AFC and, really, the best in the league."

But the bonds are sweeter than all that. Breeden is back in Cincy now, down from the rafters, and Curtis is back in California and they will be texting soon. Breeden is remembering the first time he ever swung a golf club. Curtis, introduced to the game by his father, took him to the driving range at Avon Fields and put him in the stall behind him.

"Isaac knew about golf from his dad, but didn't play that much until then. I was shanking. I almost hit him a few times," Breeden says. "Finally Isaac says, 'I'm going to stop this.' And he put me in front of him."

And they're still using their clubs to give back to Cincinnati. With a little help from a November to Remember.

"We're making it a point," says Breeden this November, "to get to more games on the road together."