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Tough love in The Jungle

10-25-02, 3:45 a.m.

Their captain called, the man Max Montoya calls, "The General," and so they all gathered down by the river they still own after all these years.

Boomer Esiason quarterbacked the Bengals to prominence with a matching set of golden arm and hair, but he did it with an offensive lineman's heart. And that's who heeded the call Thursday night when the Boomer Esiason Show went live from WLW and Applebees.

There were guys the who snapped the ball to him. Dave Rimington flew in from New York and Bruce Kozerski rushed over after coaching practice at Holy Cross High School.

There were guys who protected his blind side. Montoya came from overseeing his sandwich shops in Northern Kentucky and Joe Walter drove in after working the day in Lexington.

There were guys who had his back as Anthony Munoz stepped down from Canton for the night, and guys who talked him up as Dave Lapham took advantage of his bye week calling college games for Fox and stopped by.

For 90 minutes on the Nation's Station, they were back in '90. Back in Esiason's Villa Hills home. The perpetual open house. Swapping jokes, tipping beers, soothing hurts, celebrating wins.

"The thing that amazes me," Walter said, "is no matter how long we go without seeing each other, it's always the same when we get together. We're still giving each other a hard time. Still laughing. It's like yesterday."

And yet they will tell you the reunion was more bitter than sweet. The Super Bowl Bengals have been tough on their struggling descendants during a season they have become one of the NFL's most publicized and spectacular losers. And Thursday was no exception.

They think their practices are soft. They think there are too many quarterbacks. They don't see any fire

on the field. They think the coach has treated his players like pros and been rewarded with amateurism.

"Do you know how many quarterbacks the Bengals have had during Brett Favre's consecutive games streak?" asked Bob Trumpy, the four-time Pro Bowl tight end who started the Bengals' parade to the microphone in Howard Cosell's show-biz '70s.

"Seventeen," kidded Munoz.

But this is tough love.

There is a feeling in some pockets of the current Bengals' locker room that the old players don't want to see the new guys do well. Since so many of the ex-Bengals are in broadcasting, all the current players hear is the criticism that analysts are supposed to give.

But, as always, the old players are taking their cue from the old quarterback who happens to be their most visible and vocal network blazer.

And despite the relentless insults of his CBS studio partners, Esiason plans to continue to pick the Bengals to win until they win. He is already keeping a Bengals' helmet visible at his spot amid Deion Sanders and Dan Marino and if he could, he would add a Ken Anderson bobble head doll. He has already lost a bet with Sanders that put him in a suit fit more for the rubber room than the green room.

Yes, Esiason wants them badly to win and so do his buddies.

"I bleed black and orange, don't you understand?" Esiason asked. "They're going to win sooner or later. I think. I'm going to stay with them. I can make fun of them simply because I played here and have gone through some things, and I want them to win. I like Dick LeBeau. I like them all."

Montoya knows the feeling. He stops into one of his Penn Stations at least once a day and there isn't a day he isn't asked, "What's wrong?"

"I don't have an answer," Montoya said. "I'd like to see them get back to where we were."

Walter is one of the guys whose loyalties have been questioned by the current guys when they have heard his takes on WEBN-FM. He would send the offensive line sandwiches from Izzy's, but he wouldn't hold the candor with everything on it when he went on the air.

"The offensive linemen would tell me, 'You feed us and then you go on the radio and kill us,'" Walter said. "It was my way of getting them pissed and trying to get them going. I understand that some of them would feel that way. But I want the Bengals to do well. That's my ballclub. The San Diego game tore my heart out when I saw those guys drop like flies in the second half."

Esiason is supposed to have answers every Sunday between 12 and 8, but he admits he's stumped on his own team.

"Sooner or later Corey Dillon and Takeo Spikes have to raise the level of everyone else around them," Esiason said. "Why is Ray Lewis able to do that in Baltimore and these guys can't do it here? Every team is built to go 9-7. The Bengals should be competitive. They don't have any fire."

Walter has given up his club seats out of frustration, but he continues to follow them and hope. He would like to see them in better shape and condition, and he would like them to know that his team did it, and so can they if they buckle it up.

But like a classy coach, the ex-Bengals knew when not to run up the score Thursday night. When head coach Dick LeBeau called the show to say they are proud of the ex-es and they want to win to make them proud, the old players saluted him back and they turned the talk to the old days.

How could they not get together and tell stories about Spinney Field, the prehistoric practice site before Paul Brown Stadium?

Remember the industrial air?

"You could taste it," Munoz said. "There would be a flavor of the month."

Remember the chicken wire lockers?

"After a few years," Lapham said, "I moved up to waterfront property. In front of the water cooler."

Remember the nightlife?

Brian Blados called in to set the record straight on a rumble he had with Walter on a dance floor.

Remember the games?

Remember when Walter's heart raced abnormally early in a game against the Eagles and free-agent rookie Kirk Scrafford had to block Reggie White?

"Yeah, Joe had a heart attack," Esiason said. "And Scrafford comes back to the huddle after about two plays and says, 'Boomer, I don't think I can block him.' On the next play, I drop back and all of a sudden I'm on my back and I open my eyes and there's Scrafford lying on top of me and his helmet is right next to mine, except it's turned around the wrong way and Reggie White is lying on both of us."

They were good times. And, believe it or not, these guys would like to live them again through the new guys. And they have their opinions because they care.

They will say this is schilling, but truth be told, it was then assistant general manager Mike Brown who scouted Esiason at Maryland and recommended to coach Sam Wyche that the Bengals take him in the second round in 1984.

But except for a solid 42-game run from Jeff Blake that disappeared as quickly as it emerged, there have been no discoveries since.

Asked about the addition of a fourth quarterback in Joe Germaine, and Esiason doesn't go for the revolving door: "Maybe that's the just-throw-it-up-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks theory, but the problem is bigger than that one position."

Asked about Germaine wearing his No. 7, Esiason could have thrown an easy one-liner in the flat. But he stepped up in the pocket and said, "I hope it inspires him to do well and he can have some success."

He meant it.

Tough love.

But maybe it's the best kind.

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