Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis visits with military police (MP's) at Kaiserslautern Air Base in Germany during a USO tour stop. This is the first overseas USO tour for Lewis, who is joined by three other top NFL coaches touring bases in Germany and the Persian Gulf region. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)
Updated: 4 p.m.
The Bengals have had an exotic offseason to say the least.
Dhani Jones climbed to near the peak of Mount Everest. Chad Ochocinco danced into Hollywood. Mike Zimmer scaled the banquet circuit claiming everyone's NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award.
But the boss or, as he called himself via phone, "Sergeant Lewis," topped them all Friday when his NFL-USO excursion landed smack in the middle of a war at Bagram Airbase, about 30 miles north of Kabul in Afghanistan.
How hot is it over there?
Besides Friday's 102 degrees?
Asked if he could tell he was now in a war zone after coming back from a gym to greet some soldiers, Lewis assured that he did.
"Everybody's got a rifle and side arm," Lewis said. "It's hard to get used to seeing people in gym clothes carrying a rifle."
Lewis and his fellow NFL coaches on the tour, Andy Reid of the Eagles, John Fox of the Panthers, and Brad Childress of the Vikings, got a taste even as their C-17 landed at Bagram in Parvan Province.
"The planes don't come in the same way twice," Lewis said. "And then as we're driving from the airport, you pass a huge minefield. Nervous doesn't help you. You just know it's the real deal."
They were reminded when Childress was reunited with his Marine son Andrew during this trip.
"The hardest part of this war is we can't tell who we're fighting most of the time," Lewis said. "It was interesting to hear Brad's son tell us about his own experiences."
Lewis has had his own varying experiences with the military. Just last month he leaped out of a plane with a member of the U.S. Army Golden Knights. Even before he coached a game for the Bengals in 2003, he took Matt O'Dwyer and Jeff Burris to visit soldiers injured in the first month of the war in Iraq at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.
What amazed Lewis then amazes him now.
"They're so proud to serve their country and their proud of what they do and how good they are at it," Lewis said. "Here we are thanking them and they're thanking us for coming to see them."
But he's never amazed at the number of Bengals fans in the military, no matter how many approach him at any installation. When Lewis went into a prison to watch how the soldiers deal with another culture, he met personnel from Cincinnati's Colerain Township and Mount Healthy.
"There are fans of every team," he said. "There are a lot of Dallas fans and we don't have anybody from there with us. They always seem to find us no matter where they are. Just today we were talking to a tank battalion."
Who Dey Nation has raised the flag and Lewis has saluted as he answers the questions and talks football.
"They ask about Ocho, Shipley, Ced and Carson," he said. "You're just always amazed at how they tell you how much they look forward to Sundays over here. Of course, for them it's in the middle of the night, but they're up and at it Monday morning back at work. They can't wait."
Running back Cedric Benson was an object of interest even before he was charged with misdemeanor assault in a Texas bar this past week. Asked what Lewis tells them when the troops ask, he says simply, "We're expecting another big year from Ced." Lewis didn't comment on the case, saying only, "Ced understands what he has to deal with."
Asked if he's comparing notes with Carolina's Fox on not having a contract beyond 2010, Lewis said, "No." Apparently, Fox was too tired to talk about anything Thursday night.
"He got to fly in the cockpit on one of the trips, but Foxy was dragging pretty good," Lewis said. "None of us can really remember what day it is. We have to ask. With the time difference, you lose days not hours."
Lewis loves the efficiency and commitment of the armed forces and is always looking for ways to translate it to the game he coaches and the players that play for him. He has seen it this week when they started their journey at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
"It's like a city in itself," he said. "I've got to find out how many people are there because it's incredible how they operate it even though it so big. There have to be thousands of people."
Try 75,000 personnel. But the troops that really made an impression on him were those in the Contingency Response Group that controls the arrivals and departures of the planes. The group's motto matches Lewis' idea of what makes a football team good: Light. Lean. Lethal. He likes the flexibility. To be cool enough and smart enough to literally adjust under fire. Known to come up with mottos himself, particularly for the start of every training camp, Lewis was asked if the USO Tour had given him any new ideas.
"Light. Lean. Lethal," Lewis said.