Sam and Ickey: Reflections of the Bengals

by Gary Shelton on August 11, 2017 · 0 comments

in general

Friday, 4 a.m.

It was two weeks before Super Bowl XXIII, and I needed help.

I was in Cincinnati, on my way to Spinney Field, a parking lot at a facility that was so bad the Spartans used to refuse to train there. The grass was patchy, and the air smelled funny. But the Cincinnati Bengals were hot enough to bring an out of town writer there, and so I crunched across the ice-covered field.

Hey, I liked the Bengals at a time when you had to make a choice about them. Sam Wyche was running his sugar huddle, an up-tempo attack that had opponents, such as Seattle, faking injuries to slow them down. I still remember chatting to the great Edwin Pope, a mentor of mine who died last year. I convinced Edwin that the offense should indeed dictate tempo. The Bengals weren't cheating; the floppers were.

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The Bengals used to play "Welcome to the Jungle." They had Tim Krumrie and Reggie Williams.

That was a great team, with Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz and shuffling Ickey Woods. James Brooks and Joe Cribbs and Chris Collinsworth and Stanley Wilson, who stuffed his career up his nose, were great players. I'm still in contact with Solomon Wilcots, one of my all-time favorites.

So, anyway, I was in Spinney to do some prep work and a feature on Miami receiver Eddie Brown. Now, you have to understand the tenor of the times. An out-of-town writer went into a foreign city, and he asked for a clip package (former articles written by the local newspaper), stats and media guides for the office. I had called the Bengals p.r. guy to request them earlier in the week.

I show up, and Al Heim, the p.r. man, grabbed me by the arm and led me outside. It was like Spy vs. Spy. Al looked around and handed me a manila envelope, as if it was government secrets. “Don't tell anyone I gave you this,” he said.

I looked inside, and there was a single sheet of paper with the team's statistics. That's it. You could print that out at any time you wanted. But Al wanted to me to know what a favor he was doing for me. No clips, no media guides. But, hey, you had team stats. You could see Ickey Woods' average right there.

Still, I liked the Bengals. I got to know Sam, which would both help and hurt me in the years to come. We crossed swords a lot, because I think Sam was more willing to tear things up in the middle of the season than any coach in the history of history.

The Bengals lost that Super Bowl to Joe Montana, who led a furious comeback in a great game. But my time around the Bengals had just begun. I was there when Sam came out of the showers wearing only a towel to protest women in the locker room (a knuckleheaded move. There is plenty of space in a locker room for a modest player not to be seen.)

Years later, after I came to work for the St. Petersburg Times, I was in Cincinnati on a summer camp swing. I was with my old buddy Tim Smith, who was working in Cincinnati at the time. He would later work in New York and is now a boxing publicist. Tim, who is African-American, had his two young daughters at camp that day.

A few minutes after we arrive, someone came up to Tim and told him it was time for him to go to work. A trade had been made. So Tim leaves his daughters with me, and immediately, they began to howl. Players are walking past and looking into the room where this white guy was with two screaming black children. All I could do was hold my hands up to show I wasn't harming them.

A few minutes later, someone comes up to me. Time for me to go to work, too. The Bengals' trade had been of a guy named Jim Skow to the Bucs for cornerback Rod “Toast” Jones.

I don't know what memories you have of Wyche, but that day featured Wyche at his best. He took me into his office, and he showed me film of Jones. He thought Jones could help his team (he couldn't.) He thought Skow would be terrific for the Bucs. (He wasn't). It was the easiest story I ever wrote. And the kicker? The next morning, Skow was sitting next to me on the plane back to Tampa. It was a good get.

Oh, after that, the Bengals fell into a dark hole. Wyche lost his flavor and was replaced by David Shula. Boomer got old and was replaced by David Klingler. It happened with the Bucs' too. You can't replace excellence with mediocrity and life.

The Bengals once had a receiver named Carl Pickens. The story on Pickens was that a p.r. assistant once went up to him and said “Carl, I hate to bother you. But we have a kid from the make-a-wish foundation who has cancer. It doesn't look good. All he wants is a signed cap from you.”

Pickens, legend has it, turned around and said “if the kid has cancer, he don't need no hat.”

Jerks live everywhere, don't they?

Lately, however, the Bengals are the anti-Bucs. They have reached the playoffs (and fizzled) in six of their last eight seasons. The Tiger print helmets are back in vogue.

In some ways, though, the Bengals are still at Spinney, and Wyche is still calling plays for that sugar huddle, and Ickey is shuffling that silly dance of his. Boomer is still opinionated. Collins worth is still entertaining.

Who knows?

This time, if the team gets back to the playoffs, maybe they can keep Montana out of the end zone.

Cincinnati Bengals

Best player: Anthony Munoz.

Best coach: Paul Brown.

Worst coach: David Shula.

Best quarterback: Boomer Esiason.

Underrated: Cris Collinsworth.

Biggest mistake: Letting assistant coach Bill Walsh go to the 49ers.

Funniest line: "We went out to see Mississippi Burning, and we came back to see Miami burning." Solomon Wilcots.

Worst guy: Stanley Wilson.

Worst player: Akili Smith.

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