Mike Brown, the man who convinced his father to bring the Bengals here 55 years ago, kept them here 25 years ago and chaired their trip to the Super Bowl five months ago, began the NFL season in Cincinnati Tuesday afternoon the only way he knows how.
He talked to his team. Just like his father did. Bengals founder Paul Brown.
It's the only day of the season he talks to them as a group and for a guy who attends every practice, every draft meeting, every game home and away, keeps a Bengals depth chart always updated and folded in his shirt pocket and greets every new Bengal in his office overlooking the riverfront, it might as well be a holiday.
"I always find this a big occasion," says Brown as he looks forward to Wednesday's first practice of training camp. "It's "Gentlemen, start your motors,' if you will. I find it very exciting."
Check out the Bengals practice during Day 2 of training camp on Thursday, July 25, 2022.
Brown turns 87 in two weeks and he still sounds as pumped as the kid who played hearts with his Cleveland Browns heroes in the 1940s training camps. He still sounds like the 32-year-old assistant general manager who threw passes with the expansion Bengals' only player while trading good-natured barbs with quarterback John Stofa. He's still fan-boy enough that last month he happily called two of his more coveted players from the past, Isaac Curtis and Willie Anderson, and shared their jubilation when he told them they were in the Bengals Ring of Honor.
"It's what I do," Brown says. "My life focuses on the business, my family. I don't travel unless I can help it. A vacation for me would be out of place. I have everything I want to do here. I'm living in the garden spot of the universe. I'm just happiest in Hamilton County."
Brown can tell stories not many can. Such as sleeping in a chair in the league office during a break in the marathon overnight meeting that gave birth to the NFL-AFL merger nearly 60 years ago and, consequently, the Bengals. But he's also current enough to step to the lectern on Tuesday and give gratitude while mapping out his 2022 hopes to a team that came 39 seconds away from winning the last Super Bowl.
"I never thought about how long I would do what I do," Brown says. "I'm still up and running and making sure people understand the longer I go the less I do and the people around here carry the ball these days. I mainly just sit and cheer."
He does more than that as the person who still has the final call on the big issues. And there are plenty of those as the Bengals take their Super Bowl core into a future teeming with economic challenges as they build an indoor facility, negotiate stadium improvements with Hamilton County and prepare for quarterback Joe Burrow's salary cap-changing contract extension next year.
Most mornings he's at his office by 6 a.m., when director of football operations Jeff Brickner makes sure there's a Cincinnati Enquirer, a Wall Street Journal and a USA Today on his desk. He gets updated a few hours later by executive vice president Katie Blackburn, his daughter who runs the day-to-day operations. During the season, a group that, among others, has Brown, Blackburn and director of player personnel Duke Tobin meets pretty much daily with Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.
"Everyone here is involved with what we're doing," Brown says. "We meet on it. We talk about it. We make our calls on what we're going to do. It's going to be a time of challenge for us. We'll have cap challenges. That's an administrative thing. We'll have on-the-field challenges. We have tough teams to play. It's the way the NFL is."
In season and offseason, he tries to get in a daily jog. "Only I would call it a jog now," he says. Last week as the stadium transformed into the Cincinnati Music Festival, he did his running across the street on the practice fields.
When the stadium is open, he'll lap the field for a half-hour or so and that's symbolic of a man born in the Great Depression who keeps moving into the 21st century. The building, even one named after his father, is about to have a new title as he continues to wage the small-market financial battle in the name of naming rights.
Paul and Mike waged that battle together before Paul died a few days before Mike's 56th birthday in 1991, so he thinks Paul would understand.
"His belief was the team is first and this will help service the team and give us a better chance," Mike Brown says. "That would have overrode any other thought he might have had.
"It's hard in the National Football League. About 30 teams sell the naming rights to their stadiums and the others that don't sell them sell aspects of the building. They have revenue streams that we haven't had and the way the cap is looking for the future we're going to need to keep up to do better in that area so we can compete."
It had to be far from an easy call. Paul Brown, his son remembers, never took money to sell a product.
"He never did. He never wished he'd be seen as an endorser," Mike Brown says. "He didn't think it was genuine. He thought it was something that didn't always characterize you as you should be. He thought a coach had a responsibility that was to the team and the community and not to his own pocket book."
Now there are quarterbacks making more than $40 million per year and wide receivers making more than $25 million per year. But the more things change, do they really?
Elizabeth Blackburn, Mike Brown's granddaughter and director of strategy and engagement, literally took a page out of one of Paul Brown's manuscripts he used to speak to the team before one of his training camps. In the A1 conference room that honors her great grandfather, she made sure the back wall had the quote "the only thing that counts will be the dedication you give."
That was a Paul Brown quote, not a Mike Brown line. But Mike had a powerful message to give Tuesday, too, and he thanked his other granddaughter, senior manager of digital strategy Caroline Blackburn.
He told the team that she instructed the 2021 highlight film be put on their iPads. Think of that. The man who invented the playbook has a great granddaughter uploading video to the modern version and another great granddaughter putting his training camp words on the wall.
Mike Brown said he didn't care if they watched the film, but he was glad they simply had the chance to if they wanted. Whether it was right after the meeting or five or ten years from now. He was just glad they had it.
"The point I wanted to make," Brown says, "is be proud of what you did last year. Don't let anybody tell you that you didn't carve out a really successful season. Then put it behind you and let's get ready for the next one."
Another training camp meeting was in the books and there might have been time for a run in the stadium moving with him.
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