Welcomed to the jungle

The ’88 freakin Bengals. Man… 25 years ago they were the first team I learned to love and the first to break my heart.

I wouldn’t learn until later the brilliance of the zone blitz, the beauty of a play fake or the genius of Guns n’ Roses, but that was a season that marked me forever as a sports fan.

I’d been going to football games since literally before I can remember, but that’s the year ideas began to congeal. I didn’t know everything that was happening on the field, but I knew Ickey Woods and James Brooks were a killer running back tandem and Boomer Esiason was the MVP of the league. No idea what a zone blitz was, but I remember David Fulcher was a bad man.

The Browns were the bad guys, the Steelers weren’t that relevant and the Oilers played in the House of Pain.

I jumped off the living room floor when Stanford Jennings sprinted up the middle of the field with that kickoff for the first touchdown of the game, and I cried when John Taylor caught that pass from Joe Montana.

I’ve seen that clip hundreds of times, usually set to the 49ers radio call, and I don’t think I’ll ever get that inflection out of my head. The triumph in his voice and Taylor extending his arms as he goes into the stands… A hole still grows in my stomach for a minute or two every time I think about it. Boomer telling NFL Films he was practicing for the “I’m going to Disney World” commercial as the final drive occurred just adds salt to the wound.

So close to history, but so much a footnote outside the Tri-State instead.

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to trust a fourth quarter lead since. My perception was forever altered. “Oh so that’s how this is supposed to end?” I was forced to conclude.

Of course it’s fascinating to learn just what significance that team had from a schematic standpoint now that I’ve grown up to be a football strategy nerd.

And like the 1990 Reds – the first team to fulfill my dreams – the ’88 Bengals became a lesson in how fleeting success can be.

Not only did they fall just a minute or so short of winning it all, they never went back. They’ve won one playoff game since, and the decade that followed was such a disaster it took another decade of being decent to even begin to dig out.

The team that beat them won it again the following year then again not long after that. The 49ers not only won but got to keep winning. That hardly seems fair, does it?

But I guess it was better to learn that back then, and it’s OK I didn’t grow up to expect my teams to win all the time. It’s made me who I am, and I wouldn’t change that.

The pain of that defeat still resonates today, but the first joys of a sports fan learning about the ride bubble to the surface as well.

A few years later I learned one of the lines to the song that became that teams theme is, “We’re gonna make you bleed…” True enough both now and then, but who would have it any other way?

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