"My dad misses that now because Jake has his own contingent," says center Ted Karras, talking about his current quarterback Jake Browning. "He's the big man now."
The old roommates are both suddenly Bengals' Men of the Year in this most marvelous of Decembers during this wildest of Wild Card runs. Karras for his work with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Village of Merici in his hometown of Indianapolis. Browning for rescuing the Bengals from the abyss of Joe Burrow's season-ending injury in historic fashion and leading them to the doorstep of a third straight playoff berth heading to Saturday's old-fashioned-black-and-white-footage-play-in game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Pittsburgh.
Karras is talking about the old days, too. Like last month, when Browning was the backup quarterback and he was a staple at the open-invite after every Paycor Stadium game to Karras' rambling house filled with teammates, as well as family and friends making the two-hour trek from Indy. Browning, the unassuming football junkie surviving on the fringes of the game who has bunked in Karras' house the last two training camps, fit right in.
After a few hours of food and fellowship, Teddy Karras and Ted Karras Sr., would carry on their lifelong tradition and turn on the game from that day to analyze how Teddy and everybody else played.
"Some people leave after the game and go back to Indy," says Karras Senior, the head coach at Indy's NAIA Marian University, where he has won a national title. "Not me. I'm always staying because Ted and I know we are watching the game. It's always fun to watch winning film at the end of a Sunday for sure.
"It's always good to watch it fresh. Get some food and turn it on. And we watch it late. From midnight to two sometimes. There are some linemen staying to watch. Cordell (Volson). Max Scharping. Jake was always one of the stalwarts. I always like hearing his perspective from the quarterback. He's a down-to-earth guy. Very cerebral. Easy to hang out with. He gives people a certain sense of ease around him and he's shown to be a confident leader the last few weeks. He truly loves the game. He's a student of the game. He loves football and everything about it and that's one of the things I love about him. I miss him."
Of course, Browning hasn't gone anywhere. But now that he's playing, he has his own cadre of family and friends to host postgame. His girlfriend. His sister. A few buddies from California. College. He's eating a postgame Steak Burrow at Jeff Ruby's, but he remains Jake Everyman, the kid next door who stayed with it and got a shot. He has gone big-time but hasn't big-timed.
Well, maybe not an Everyman. The man made more California records than the Beach Boys as a schoolboy and he did become the Pac-12's winningest quarterback. But after four of some of the greatest first starts in NFL history, there is still a little bit of wonder to it all after five years of waiting for a chance. Refreshingly real.
The only way Coach Karras got to see him after last Saturday's classic overtime win over the Vikings was they bumped into each other on the field after the game. Teddy was hosting about 25 "Villagers," and Browing was showing his group the place.
"That was the first time I even had the option to take my family down on the field," Browning says. "When you're the backup, they don't really let you do that as much. So I kind of took advantage of that."
These days, Browning just flat out tells a crowded interview room that he's stunned people want his opinion on anything and that he's exhausted talking about himself. This week someone asked him if it was "happenstance," he led the Bengals on three straight touchdown drives after starting the second half with an interception.
"I'm not sure what happenstance means," Browning said.
Happenstance is just bumping into the Karras group. But not really. Back in May, when Teddy held a Monte Carlo Night at the Village, Browning was one of the guys Karras brought along. There were Bengals guards Cordell Volson, Alexa Cappa, Max Scharping, and Chiefs guard Joe Thuney, another Ted roommate, this one from their days with the Patriots. And Browning, the smart, easygoing practice squad quarterback.
Still. Saturday was a bit wild all the way around.
"It wasn't like a well-coordinated thing," Browning said. "I guess I could have lied and just said 'Big charity guy.'"
But the folks who live at the Village of Merici could have cared less if it was happenstance or planned like a rocket launch.
Marty has been watching Teddy Karras play since he was in high school and works at the same Kroger Ted did when he was growing up. "Marty is a sports encyclopedia," says Matt Renie, the mastermind of CincyHat.com, the fundraising engine to get more independent living facilities for intellectually and developmentally challenged adults.
"You ever talk ball with Marty?" Ted Karras The Center asks. "You should talk ball with Marty."
Browning talked ball with Marty after the game down there on the field. "Probably the biggest celebrity Marty ever met. He loved it," Renie says. "Marty knew all about the history Jake has been doing, winning two overtimes in his first four starts," Teddy says. Browning spent about 15 minutes signing autographs, chatting, thanking them for coming.
"What a great capper to the day," Teddy Karras says of The Villagers' field trip that began in the Kettering Health Suite watching the game. "The Bengals and Kettering did it up beautifully. We set a record up there for food and Diet Cokes. Steve kept asking my sister to get him a Margarita. And then after the game to have the hero of the game, the quarterback they just saw out there, come over and take pictures with them and talk to them, it helped make their whole day. Jake didn't have to do that. He had other things going on. He had people there, too. But it didn't surprise me. I never doubted he would do something like that."
Matt Renie had already seen him do it at the Monte Carlo night.
"They were all star-struck as hell. Not a Ted Factor where he knows everybody, but he remembered some of them." Renie says. "Still a low-key guy. Chill. He seems to be able to jump into a conversation with any group. He doesn't need anyone to lead him around and introduce him to everybody.
"It's awesome to sit and watch Jake Browning become Jake Browning. To see him surpass every expectation anybody had for him."
Coach Karras is enjoying it, too. They're still watching the games late into the night, but now Browning is breaking it down for the media. Like he summed up Saturday's impending ebb and flow of an AFC North rock fest better than anybody.
"It is a tough, bloody fight, really. It doesn't really matter what momentum is either way," Browning said this week. "I have seen that happen multiple times. Even with other teams when we are not involved. One team goes on a hot run and they go play at some team that maybe is not on a hot run and it is a 14-17 loss for the team that was hot. The momentum does not matter in these games we've played so many times. Our scheme versus their scheme, episode 20 of those teams going at it."
That's what Ted Karras Sr. misses. He says Browning has a long career ahead of him. And after, that, too.
"He'd be a heck of a coach. He's definitely on my short-list," he says of potential assistants. "I miss him. I hope he comes over after the Cleveland game."