LONDON - Paul Hirons began it by fighting sleep and air waves to hear Phil Samp and Dave Lapham on Armed Forces Radio. He has crowned it by improbably orchestrating the internet to do good and form one of the great pockets of Bengaldom in the United Kingdom. He surveys Friday night's scene like a kid, well, let Hirons tell you.
"The night before Christmas," says Hirons, after watching Ken Anderson replace him in the guest chair on the Bengals Pep Rally radio show above a milling, boisterous crowd of fans of Who Dey.
We are squeezed into The Admiralty , a pub straight out of central casting in central London just down the street from Buckingham Palace in the run-up to Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Wembley Stadium. But he believes it has nothing on his adopted hometown, where he has been known to wander OTR in pursuit of punk rock and anything guitar while randomly ducking off the street to introduce himself to shop owners and restaurateurs.
"The word Cincinnati as well," says Hirons of one of the reasons the Bengals snared his heart so long ago. "If you put together a load of letters into a bag and shook them up and threw them out however many times out, you wouldn't get the word 'Cincinnati.'"
If Hirons sounds like he has a bit of the poet in him it's because he does. He's a free-lance journalist who grew up in Leamington Spa about six miles from William Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of England. He lives in north London now and right now he's living the dream because he's thinking about the Bengals fans on their way from Glasgow, Sheffield and Manchester arriving on the public mega buses after working Friday.
"Usually we're watching so many Bengals games by ourselves, when we have a meet-up it's like, 'Wow, we're together watching the Bengals.'"
Right now they're watching and calling and cheering Anderson's still golden right arm throwing Bengals' paraphernalia into the crowd from a balcony with help from Lapham and Dan Hoard, the air to Samp, in between chants of "Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame."
Anderson's Canton career was spent behind the iron curtain that existed before cable, e-mail, cyberspace and podcasts. Hirons fell in love the year Anderson retired, 1986, and he was 13, just falling in with a new set of friends when he went to high school. That was the year after the London tabloids made William "Refrigerator," Perry a cult figure as the NFL began to make underground inroads into British culture, pushed by Terrestrial Television beaming over weekly highlights from the age of Marino and Montana and Hirons' new chums were into the Dolphins, Niners, Raiders.
"They were a bit clean cut for me. I wanted a team," Hirons says. "There was this blond left-handed quarterback throwing the ball all over the place. I didn't know what play-action was at that stage and he did this play-action game and it was the most beautiful thing. In fact, it even confused the cameras.
"The tiger stripes. The helmet. The uniforms. The word Cincinnati as well," Hirons says. "I said, 'This team could be for me. They look exciting to watch. Really fun to watch. I was proven entirely correct when they went to the Super Bowl three years later."
He wasn't the only one. Boomer Esiason's own golden arm, head coach Sam Wyche's innovations and Ickey Woods' touchdown dance helped the Bengals become a United Kingdom favorite. When Chad Johnson came along and began celebrating touchdown catches from Carson Palmer, 15-year-old Nathaniel Palmer was hooked.
"It was Carson Palmer's (no relation) rookie year. (Jon) Kitna was the quarterback. I had never seen American football before. They were playing Baltimore. I said 'What's this?'" Palmer says. "Chad and Carson were fantastic as a duo. And T.J. Houshmandzadeh as well. The uniforms, the helmet, the tiger stripes. Who doesn't like tigers? They were exciting and a pretty good team."
Pretty soon, Palmer, a Londoner from Essex, had a video of Johnson's celebrations and sent them to his friends. 'Watch this guy. Look how much fun." Two years later when he watched Palmer tear his ACL on the second snap of the 2005 Wild Card Game as Big Ben neared midnight, he went to bed in tears and had to wipe them away as he went to school.
"Oh my God," Palmer says. "A school night."
Hirons and Palmer combine generations with the Bengals UK podcast and are finding out a third generation born of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton is living and dying in stripes now, too. The podcast is probably the most visible product of the Bengals UK fan group Hirons helped mid-wife about five years ago to unite the Who Dey flag flying from Edinburgh to Essex. It coincided, more or less, with that 12-4 run in 2015.
"After The Game That Shall Not Be Named," says Hirons of the '15 Wild Card, "we were up into the morning (on social media)."
Hirons has such pull in Bengaldom that he has recently received comfort from and comforted Bengals head coaches past and present from 5,000 miles away.
Hirons' father died rather died rather suddenly of cancer a few weeks ago, about the time Hirons was reaching out to Wyche for a podcast. Wyche, a melanoma survivor, spent some time encouraging Hirons and ended the call demanding he keep in touch to know how he was doing.
That was about the time of the game in Baltimore, and Hirons was drawn to how visibly hard head coach Zac Taylor took the loss in his post-game presser. It left an impression on Hirons. He couldn't believe when Taylor accepted his invite to do a podcast before the season and is rooting hard for the gracious young coach.
"I sent him an e-mail after that Baltimore game. You could tell how fired up he was," Hirons says. "I told him they have a phrase over here. 'Keep calm and carry on.' He sent me back an e-mail Saturday thanking me."
Taylor even gave the podcast a shout out during Friday's news conference at Allainz Park, down the road from Wembley, when he was told NFL head coaches don't usually show up on fan sites.
"Man, great interview. They got me fired up," Taylor said. "You can just tell the passion that they had. They just recently sent me an e-mail. I like talking anytime to anybody who is passionate about the Bengals. They're knowledgeable about what they're talking about. They work hard. They bring attention to us over here and recruit new fans. I enjoyed the podcast. I'd love to do it again in the offseason. I think it's good to connect with fans across the world."
Naturally, Hirons missed it. He got his chance to ask linebacker Preston Brown about the run defense when he was working the room getting interviews with players.
"I'm going to watch it later," says Hirons of what just may be the defining off-field moment of Who Dey in the UK.
This was his team in the '80s and moments like that make it his team. No matter where you go, sports is the same. When he was lucky enough to get a Bengals game cutting through the night instead of a Russian opera or a Swedish book club, that meant as much as the final score.
Well, a win is always nice. This isn't the first Bengals-L.A. Rams game he remembers. He goes back to Oct. 7, 1990 and Cincinnati's 34-31 overtime victory in Los Angeles. "A tit for tat game," is the way he remembers it. His younger brother is a Rams fan and when they would score, he'd go into Paul's room to celebrate. When the lefty quarterback converted one of his 490 yards into a Bengals score, it was Paul's turn. He got in the last walk and a lasting moment with his team.
"I'm one of these guys you get an emotional connection with a city. What you want to know more is the people of Cincinnati itself," Hirons says. "Those ties got deeper and deeper. Any sports fan will tell you sports is cyclical, right? You have your good days and bad days. I just carry on. Patience. And I felt like I was vindicated a little bit the past decade when Marvin (Lewis) had a great run in the city."
Friday night the orange and black swirled underneath him and the old roommates, Lap and Kenny, were on the air, and some of the coaches were stopping by and mingling and you could tell by the gleam in his eye he was having another moment with his team.
And somebody else, too. It was the day after Ray Hirons would have turned 80. Somewhere in there, the son raised a glass to the father, because like fans everywhere know, it's always about more than sports. There's more moments than milestones.
"You develop ties and they stick with you," is how the British ambassador to The Court of St. Who Dey put it.