This day in '81: Clinch of Steel

Ken Anderson

Each week from the bye on, plans to go down the stretch with the 1981 AFC champion Bengals to see what was happening in the newspapers on this date 30 years ago.

DEC. 14: Bengaldom awakes to a souvenir-like edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer that blares on top of its flag in an orange shaded story, "Bengals AFC Central Division Champs," complete with the club's new striped helmet logo.

The front page of the sports section is consumed by the dominant picture from the day before in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, where the Bengals eliminated their big, bad spoilers from the decade before.

Bengals 17, Steelers 10. Linebackers Jim LeClair and Glenn Cameron are hoisting head coach Forrest Gregg on their shoulders going off the field and they were even joking about that in a locker room scene described as wild.

"It was whoever wanted in the picture the worst, I guess," says Cameron of the decision to lift Gregg, the Hall of Fame tackle. "I really only want to do that one more time if things work out. I don't want to get a hernia."

It is the first Bengals playoff team not coached by Paul Brown, and the club's founder, owner and general manager is one of the first to pay his respects to Gregg. He squeezes through the reporters to shake Gregg's hand and is saying something along the lines about clinching the title "here in Steel Curtain Country," but the papers say he stops in mid-sentence and backs away with, "That's all I'm going to say."

Brown knows the day belongs to Gregg and so does left guard Dave Lapham. Lapham shows the analytical skill that will serve him well in the future as the Bengals legendary radio man. He tells about finding Gregg in the locker room saying to him simply, "Thanks a lot."

"It all started with him," Lapham says, "He was what we needed. It's been said a million times. The discipline. The conditioning. He made us get into shape mentally and physically and made us believe we could win games again. Just unbelievable leadership on his part. I've never seen a guy walk into a football situation like that and command as much respect as he does. He has got instantaneous credibility; you look up and he's got Super Bowl rings on his fingers. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he's played under the late Vince Lombardi. No matter what he was anxious to do in training camp, we knew he paid his dues, so how could we say no?"

The Bengals deny one of the last gasps of the Steelers dynasty that won four Super Bowls with a performance that has typified their dominating season. They are now 11-4 and have secured the franchise's first home playoff game ever with a defense that held Pittsburgh to a season-low 207 yards and an offense that gets 215 passing yards form courageous and limping Kenny Anderson.

The Steelers look '70s old and the Bengals are '80s hot. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw can't play with a broken hand. Another future Hall of Famer, linebacker Jack Lambert, is bloodied in the locker room with a cut hand and lip and explaining how he made what the headline says is "the bonehead play" of the game. Rocky Bleier, the old Steelers running back, is now a broadcaster and is one of the first to interview Anderson after the game on the field.

It is an awkward opening as Bleier observes, "Now 1970, it's the first time here as far as winning," and Anderson says, "Well, we won here last year. How short your memory is," and Bleier tells him that, no, he means as far as winning the division and Anderson has to correct him again.

"Oh no, we won that in 1973," Anderson says and now he jokes, "The first thing that goes is your memory. We understand older people."

But the 32-year-old Anderson has been no joke. The headlines say his teammates didn't know until Friday if he would play because of a painful toe injury. Even though rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth saw him gimp all week, when he finally catches a few passes from Anderson on Friday he figures Anderson can go.

"It's tough. It's off his drive foot," marvels Collinsworth after a game he catches eight balls for 90 yards. "But Kenny Anderson is smart. He knew he had a physical problem so he goes back to the short game."

Lapham, Anderson's road roommate, can't even get a straight answer from his roomie and finally on Friday, Anderson tells him, "I'm going, man. It's too important.'"

Anderson finds out how important just a few hours later when the Bengals end up back at the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport at 6:40 p.m. The Enquirer reports that at 5:45 p.m. the customs inspection room of the international facility "was jammed. By six the crowd was bulging at about 2,000 with oversized foam rubber hands,  pennants, pom-poms, knitted berets with 'Go Bengals,' " and several handmade signs.

Anderson is overwhelmed as he speaks into a microphone that can't be heard. "What a great feeling," he says over and over.

The mechanics of the clinch are easy enough. Anderson's touchdown for the winning points is thrown against a blitz to wide receiver Steve Kreider, set up on an interception by linebacker Reggie Williams off a Mark Malone pass.

But the papers are saying that an old Philadelphia Eagles trainer named Moose Detty deserves a Super Bowl share if the Bengals make it. Detty was faced with a turf toe epidemic from the Veterans Stadium Astroturf and he devised a plate to put in the shoe. When he left the Eagles and went into the orthopedic equipment business, he perfected it and an old friend, Bengals trainer Marv Pollins, made sure Anderson gets one of them for the other Pennsylvania turf.

The Bengals are having a long celebration. Lapham says "we almost killed each other … at the beginning of the season I don't think anybody, including half the guys in this room, thought we'd be here."

There is a lot of emotion in the room. Fullback Pete Johnson has just become the second 1,000-yard rusher in Bengals history. Ken Riley, the old man at 34 in his 13th season, is talking about how he's played in three playoff games, hasn't won any, and he thinks if the guys are in the right frame of mind they can change that.

"Now that we've won the championship, I yearn to discern the championship tendencies I believe I perceive we espouse," recites Pat McInally, the punter from Harvard.

In the other locker room, a John Wayne drama is playing out. Lambert, his uniform streaked with blood, puts out his cigarette, stands up in front of his locker, and calls the media. "Let's get this over with all at once," he says and proceeds to explain how he screwed up and committed encroachment on fourth-and-three late in the first half. For one thing, he thought it was fourth and longer than 5.

"We were having difficulty getting our return team on the field so I decided to take the penalty and save a timeout," Lambert says inexplicably, since the Bengals were lining up a 54-yard field goal. "I didn't know the penalty would give them a first down. It was a bonehead play and I'm sorry about it."

It gives the Bengals a first down on the Steelers 32 in a 3-3 game. A handful of plays later Anderson makes it hurt on a TD pass to Isaac Curtis that makes it 10-3 at the half.  

Lambert stays in front of his locker answering the insightful and the ones that incite on a day Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Mel Blount and Joe Greene don't talk to the media.

"If Kenny Anderson can stay healthy," Lambert says, "they could go all the way."

In the visitors locker room, Gregg is being asked much nicer questions. One concerns his ride in from the field.

"I felt like a feather in the wind," he says.

It has become a season lighter than air.

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