A quarter-century of heartbreak culminated in an unimaginably painful wild-card loss to the Steelers. For one man in love with the stripes, it was the final straw
By Jeff Boccuzzi
The first reaction I get when I tell people I am a lifelong Cincinnati Bengals fan who grew up and lives in the New York City area is the same: “How did that happen?” The answer is innocent enough: I saw a Bengals game when I was a young child in the late ’80s and fell in love with the stripes. Couple that with a fiercely loyal personality and you get one isolated Bengals fan.
The timing was unfortunate, as the ’90s were not kind. My seasons usually ended in September, but I stood by the Bengals. To compound it, I grew up in a house with Steelers fans, my brother just as dedicated to his team as I was to mine. As the years passed and the losses accumulated, I dug in further, knowing that these losses would only make the eventual winning even better.
For a while in 2005, it looked as if the time had finally come. We (yes “we,” a sign of the problem) finally won the division were ready to climb the mountain, only to have Carson Palmer’s torn ACL in the first playoff game—at the hands of the Steelers—derail the dream. Still, the story changed with that ’05 season. No longer were we subject to the almost lovable losing of the Jeff Blake/Akili Smith era, when there was no pressure and expectations amounted to “Let’s win six games and spoil someone’s season.” Now the expectations were for a Super Bowl win.
Some things will change this off-season, as they always do, but one thing won’t: the feeling that there is no accountability in Cincinnati.
Fast forward 10 years and six additional playoff losses—each more emotionally draining and burdensome than the last and culminating in last Saturday’s nightmare ending—and I find myself at the end of my rope as a fan. As I sat after that loss to the Steelers (again the Steelers) and tried to digest what just happened, a million thoughts ran through my head. The joy of Vontaze Burfict’s interception, the horror at Jeremy Hill’s fumble and Big Ben coming back onto the field—and, of course, the two decisive personal foul penalties on an incomplete pass to Antonio Brown with 22 seconds left. (Burfict and Adam Jones have rightly taken a beating in the media, but someone will need to explain to me someday how Joey Porter—he of the cowardly assault of a Bengals player in Las Vegas a few years back—gets a pass by instigating the second penalty.)
As I sat feeling emotions that can only be described as shock and profound sadness, and as I discarded my trusted Akili Smith jersey, I realized I needed to ask: “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I letting these strangers playing a game dictate so much of my life?” Twenty-five years on, I still don’t have a good answer for those questions, though the moment had been so close on Saturday night.
Do I continue to welcome pain and heartache in search of that moment that may never come? Do I keep letting sports be something that I need to overcome in my life?
Some things will change this off-season, as they always do, but one thing won’t: the feeling that there is no accountability in Cincinnati. I remember the ’90s so I appreciate the regular-season success, but the mental breakdowns that still haunt this team point to certain people in leadership needing to step away, and we all know it won’t happen.
Today, I sit here with a series of choices. Do I keep taking time away from my amazing (and overly understanding) wife and our beautiful baby boy and give that time to a helmet, to strangers who are completely ignorant of my existence? Do I keep giving more and more of my emotions as the disappointments mount with each loss? Do I keep letting sports be something other than the fun and leisure it should be? Do I continue to welcome pain and heartache in search of that moment that may never come? Do I keep letting sports be something that I need to overcome in my life?
I had a long talk with my wife as I tried to digest this loss. She tried to tell me that when the Bengals finally do win, it will be amazing, like it was when she saw the Red Sox break the curse, up close, as a college student in Boston in 2004. (She is right—I felt profound joy when Burfict intercepted Landry Jones with less than two minutes left, a play that should have sealed the win.) She said I would feel different in the fall (also probably right, as she tends to be). She said all the right things to support me and make me feel better.
But the fact that we had to have the conversation in the first place answered all of the questions I’d asked myself earlier. The Bengals simply aren’t worth it. No team is. The pain I carry after that game, the same pain I saw in the faces of fans around me, the pain of the poor people in the rain in Cincinnati, is simply not worth it. I don’t know how I walk away, but I need to, and I will.
Other fans can call me disloyal, and I laugh at that. You couldn’t possibly be more loyal than me. Others can tell me to hang on, that the Bengals will win soon, and that sports are just sports.
To some they are, and I’m jealous of those fans, because it’s a feeling I don’t think I will ever know. Had I been lucky enough to root for most any other franchise, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, and I would probably enjoy the seasons to varying degrees. But I wasn’t so lucky.
To that little boy who saw those stripes ’80s: I’m sorry, but I have to say goodbye to that helmet you loved so much.
Jeff Boccuzzi, 33, lives in Stamford, Conn.
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