EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly column from former sports reporter and editor Mike Bass. Bass will be contributing to The Enquirer by offering advice for sports fans, athletes and youth sports parents and coaches through a weekly Q&A. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @SportsFanCoach1.
CHICAGO – The man is wearing a No. 58 Bengals jersey bearing his last name, just like he did during the 1988 Super Bowl season.
He is talking about how he once dreamed of doing exactly what he is doing right now, right here, today.
“True story,” Joe Kelly says.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, he never tailgated. When he played linebacker at the University of Washington and then for six NFL teams over 11 seasons, he would enjoy the view on the ride to the game, seeing all the tailgaters outside the stadium, imagining the future.
“I’d say I can’t wait until I retire so I can tailgate,” Kelly said. “I retired in ’97, and I’ve been tailgating ever since.”
* * *
I never tailgated, either.
I often walked past tailgaters when I covered games, and I seem to remember an acquaintance or a kind stranger offering a quick snack once or twice. Everyone looked so happy. This is part of the fan experience I missed.
Today, I will sample it.
This is a great way to start my birthday.
It is early Sunday morning, the Bengals are in Chicago to play the Bears in a few hours, and Bengals superfan Jim Foster graciously allowed me to visit his traveling tailgate.
I am looking forward to meeting Bengals fans in person and do not realize some other notable figures will be here. It is a pleasure to see Joe Kelly again, maybe for the first time since I helped cover his 1980s Bengals.
We catch up a bit, as Joe talks proudly about the group homes and other facilities his K.E.L.L.Y. Youth Services established. We reminisce about the 1988 team, and he laments the Bengals playing shorthanded in the Super Bowl ... after nose tackle Tim Krumrie was hurt early in the game ... after fullback Stanley Wilson had suffered a drug relapse the prior night ... after offensive lineman Joe Walter had been injured in the regular-season finale.
“With both Super Bowls,” says Kelly, “there is no way both teams play again and the Bengals lose (to the 49ers).”
He also is referring to the 1982 Super Bowl, when he was just 17, and this shows the extent of his Bengaldom. Like a true Bengals fan, he second-guesses the decision to hand off to Pete Johnson only three times instead of four near the goal line. But hold the phone! Foster jumps in because he has Johnson on a video chat, and Kelly spends a few seconds saying hello.
“That’s my guy,” Kelly tells me.
They did not play together, but they are connected to each other as Bengals. And they are connected to a fan base that continues supporting a perpetually struggling team in hopes that one day soon the Bengals will rise again.
“Bengal Nation is a part of me,” Kelly says. “Bengal Nation is part of why I stayed in Cincinnati. I’m a part of the community. When the Bengals do well, there’s a vibe in the city.”
The vibe here today among the roughly 75-100 Bengals fans seems be about socializing with your community. There might be bigger Bengals tailgates at Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and there certainly will be more Bengals fans at the game than are here, but this is the first road trip of the season and this means something to the people here.
The person standing next to you might be an old friend or your next friend, and maybe someone whose name or number you recognize. You are here to support your team, your Bengals, and each other. You will hit full diehard mode soon, but for now you are eating, drinking, dancing and laughing in a lot you are sharing with Bears fans.
One of YOU, however, used to be one of THEM.
* * *
He is wearing a No. 85 Tee Higgins jersey. She is wearing an 85 Higgins shirt. Both color within the Bengal lines in their personal choices of legwear (black) and shoe-and-lace combinations (orange and white). Their Bengals caps and helmet necklaces match, as does the reason for their devotion to the team and its wide receiver -- their son.
The voice of Camillia “Lady” Stewart, Tee’s mother, might sound familiar at Tee’s games (“Yes, I’m very out of control – sometimes – but it’s all in fun,” she jokes), and her dramatic story of drug-abuse recovery is a staple of profiles of Tee. Eric Higgins, Tee’s father, says he leaves it to Lady to discuss that.
Eric does say he first met her when visiting family near where she lives in Tennessee, they split up a long time ago, they reconnected in recent years, and “I’m going to marry her one day.”
For most of his 52 years, Eric would have felt more at home on the other side of today’s tailgate lot, because he is from Chicago. He loved Walter Payton and the 1985 Bears. He owns a Payton jersey and glove and other Bears memorabilia and had hoped Chicago would draft Tee last year. Instead, he changed his loyalty and his wardrobe. Now, Lady says, Eric’s Bears stuff is kept in another room. Now it is all Tee and Bengals, all the time.
Which means not only does Eric want Tee to play well, but for the Bengals to win.
“Love my Bears,” Eric says, “but it’s Who Dey today.”
* * *
Bears fans clearly outnumber Bengals fans at this site, roughly a mile walk from Soldier Field, but everyone is playing nice with each other.
Some Bears fans wander over and are invited to join a ritual, to drink the “beverage” being poured into the mouths of individual Bengals fans from a plastic gas can. They tilt back their heads. They open wide. The spout positions just above their mouths. And then ... ENJOY!
Bengal Jim will not divulge the actual liquid, but he smiles when I ask.
I will skip this to ensure my next birthday.
There are other drinks and food available, the Bears’ side has beanbag tosses, but everyone is getting out of this what everyone wants to get out of it, and I am enjoying taking in all of this. The sights. The sounds. The scene.
This might not be for everybody, and that is OK. When I think of tailgating, I envision a smaller group of friends or relatives adding more personal touches, bonding with each other and those who set up nearby, savoring their individual experiences amid the masses. That might be something I try in the future. For now, I appreciate today for what today is, not for what it is not.
It is a memorable way to start a birthday, particularly meeting Bengals fans and hearing their stories.
Next week, I will share some of those with you.
Remember to email Bass at [email protected] or reach out to him @SportsFanCoach1 on Twitter if you want to be included next week. His website is MikeBassCoaching.com.