Ihave been a Cincinnati Bengals fan since around the time Dave Lapham first joined the team as an offensive lineman in the mid-1970s, but I’ve never laid eyes on the man himself. So when I meet “Mr. Bengal” at last, it’s in a way that is almost too perfect—he’s in a men’s room wiping a Skyline stain from his white polo shirt. A man of the people, indeed.
I’ve come to talk to Lapham at the venerable Maketewah Country Club, where he’s cohosting (alongside his Bengals roommate for nearly a decade, Ken Anderson) a charity golf tournament staged by the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati. The chili is doled out in heaping portions, and the “coolers of cheer” are filled to overflowing. DSAGC is an organization Lapham has worked with closely for many years. “As a teenager I worked at Camp Wakanda with many kids with handicaps and challenges and really enjoyed it,” he says. “I always responded to them, and they responded to me.”
“Dave is totally committed, and he goes to every meeting and lines up the sponsors,” says DSAGC Executive Director Jim Hudson. “The kids have grown up with him, love him, know he isn’t just a face but a friend.” Moments later, Robert Hunt, who has Down syndrome, walks up and reminds Lapham that the two of them once appeared on a billboard together. “I’ve known you since you were 6, right?” Lapham says with a tone of wonder to Hunt, now 24. As Hunt walks away, Lapham relates that through connections made at previous charity golf outings Hunt now works at Huntington Bank.
It’s an overcast day in June, the longest day of the year, and Lapham will be out here well into darkness, shaking hands, chatting up friends, playing the host, and generally doing what he does best—making everyone feel comfortable and welcome. The course is crowded with philanthropic golfers, though Lapham isn’t playing due to a recent shoulder injury he sustained while working out. Instead, he grabs a cart and follows his son, David, a slightly smaller, bespectacled version of his dad. Lapham Jr. played football at Moeller High and Miami University, and his athletic grace is easily discernible as he golfs with three colleagues from the finance company where he works.
Occasionally, Mr. Bengal hops out of the cart and pulls a putter from a bag adorned with a Lapham-esque pair of knitted club covers—one a Bengal tiger, the other Fred Flintstone. He’s fluent in guy talk, asking if one player has tired shoulders from carrying his foursome in the scramble that morning. “Want to learn off of me, guys?” he booms as he hobbles out to try to knock one in from 25 feet away. His giant ham hock calves support his frame as he curls over the ball like a question mark. He lets it fly. “Slow down, baby,” Lapham yells. “Hit something! Hit a house!” Alas, the putt goes hurtling past the hole.
“Tough one,” he mutters as he heaves his bulk back into the cart.
Dave Lapham’s football acumen, good cheer, and boundless enthusiasm for Cincinnati’s NFL franchise have endeared him to Bengals fans like few others. He’s been employed by the team as a player and a broadcaster for nearly four decades—the striped equivalent of Joe Nuxhall, the former Reds pitcher turned longtime color commentator. Lapham shares Nuxy’s approachability and common touch. At the golf outing, he’s constantly greeted with a familiar Hey Lap! and a fist bump or back slap.
It’s pretty certain Lap would get a similar familiar welcome outside the walls of Maketewah in Bond Hill or in the dorms of nearby Xavier University, at a Northern Kentucky backyard BBQ, at a gas station in Joe Burrow’s old stomping grounds of Athens, at a pilot’s fly-in in Dayton, or anywhere the Bengals radio network can be heard. “I can’t express how highly I think of Dave,” says Bengals owner Mike Brown in a telephone interview. “I just think the world of him.”
My first memory of Lapham is from 1988, when the Bengals secured a playoff bye with an overtime strip sack of then-Washington quarterback Doug Williams. “He lost the ball!! Bengals ball!!! Bengals ball!!!!” Lap yelled over and over. I recorded that NFL Films highlight on the trusty VCR in our home and played it over and over. As a Bengals fan growing up in suburban New York City, long before internet message boards and social media tribalism, Lapham was pretty much the only one who understood me. His naked passion was reminiscent of a local Big Apple legend, longtime Yankees player-turned-broadcaster Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, only Lap didn’t seem to be talking about cannoli all the time.
A more recent favorite Lap moment came in September 2013, courtesy of another fumble. The Bengals defeated Green Bay thanks in large part to a fourth down stop and fumble returned for a score by cornerback Terence Newman. For Lap-Philes, it’s become a classic of the form:
Dan Hoard: Rodgers has it, gives to Franklin, he dives, I don’t…
Lapham: No!! No!!
Hoard: …think he got it…
Lapham: Ball’s out!!! Ball’s out!!!
Hoard: The ball is out!
Lapham: Ball’s out!!!! Ball’s out!!!!
Hoard: The Bengals have scooped it up! Terence Newman’s running it back…
Lapham: Yeah!!!!! Yeah!!!!! Yeah!!!!!
Hoard: …to the 30, the 20…
Lapham: Yeah!!!!!! Yeah!!!!!! Yeah!!!!!!
Hoard: …the 10, the 5…
Lapham: Oh baby!!!!!!!
Lapham: Woooooooohhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! Oh baby!!!!!!!! Woooooooohhhhhh!!!!!!!!
Which was pretty much what all of us fans were yelling, too.
“That’s Mr. Bengal,” says the man Lap yells over on a regular basis, Hoard, the team’s play-by-play voice since 2011. “He’s endlessly enthusiastic, sure, but also incredibly knowledgeable. His love of the Bengals sometimes overshadows how good his analysis is.”
Hoard has a cubicle at Paul Brown Stadium next to Lapham’s, and the two are basically joined at the hip during the season and peak offseason times. So he’s seen Lapham’s relationship with Bengals Nation up close. “He’s just great with people,” Hoard says. “They approach him with no hesitation at a grocery store or gas station, and he never gives a one-word answer. I’ve seen that play out dozens and dozens of times. I think beloved is just the right word to express the relationship Lap has with Bengals fans.”
“We’re not broadcasting on NPR, we’re doing it for the team and the die-hard fans,” says former Bengals broadcast partner Ken Broo. “Dave is animated, and so are the fans.”
Nationally, Lapham is at times cynically regarded as the ultimate homer in the booth, even by local radio standards. But as Ken Broo, who did play-by-play with Lapham in the woebegone Lost Era of the 1990s, points out, Lap also did plenty of college football broadcasts for Fox Sports, mainly Big 12 games, during which he shelved the slanted calls. “You have to remember that the people who actually listen to games on the radio are big fans of the Bengals,” says Broo. “We’re not broadcasting on NPR, we’re doing it for the team and the die-hard fans. He’s animated, and so are the fans.”
Lapham has knocked heads with a few players over the years, perhaps most memorably in 2014, when tight end Jermaine Gresham interrupted a live interview Lapham was conducting with head coach Marvin Lewis to angrily confront Lap over some choice pregame comments. Gresham, who missed the game that day with an injury, thought Lapham said he’d quit on the team, which Lapham heatedly denied, telling him they’d “Run the tape!” later. It mostly made news because few could remember the affable Lap ever getting that angry, certainly not while on the air.
An earlier mishap almost ended his career prematurely. Back in the (almost) Dream Season of 1988, Lap’s third as radio analyst, he watched from the broadcast booth while the Steelers (as usual) took multiple cheap shots at Bengals players, notably his pal Anthony Muñoz, who was getting hit late by a Pittsburgh defensive end. “I called him a ‘turd’ on the air,” says Lapham. “Phil Samp, the play-by-play man, asked me with a straight face, ‘How do you spell that?’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if it’s T-U-R-D or T-E-R-D, all I know is that guy sure is one.’ Samp waited a beat, then said, ‘Well, it was nice working with you.’ ”
Lapham managed to keep his gig. He hasn’t used that epithet, by either spelling, on the air since.
Lapham shuffles along with a limp, favoring his left leg, remnants of damage sustained playing in a dozen NFL seasons. It’s a couple of days before his 69th birthday, and you can sense the impact he absorbed when watching him move around. But he points out that he avoided the true horror of football’s ultraviolence, the brain damage and other afflictions that have ruined the lives of so many from his era. “Other guys my age tell me they feel the same way I do, and they never played football,” he says.
Lapham has certainly come a long way since his days as a prep athlete in Massachusetts, where he starred in basketball and track in addition to football. He grew up in Wakefi eld in suburban Boston, one of four kids born to a sports-loving mother and a father who wasn’t as keen. “My dad was a technical illustrator and sketch artist,” Lapham says. “He had this incredible handwriting. He could write the Gettysburg Address on the head of a pin.” While athleticism wasn’t handed down, the penmanship apparently was. “He takes meticulous notes in this amazingly tiny handwriting hieroglyphics,” Hoard tells me.
Football captivated Lapham as a kid, as did the former players calling the games. “In those days the Giants, not the Patriots, were mostly on in our area,” Lapham says. “That meant Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier calling the games on CBS, who were greats.”
“We were watching football on TV one Sunday, and he pointed at the screen and said, I’m going to do that one day,” recalls Lapham’s youngest brother, Roger. “I asked if he meant playing or broadcasting, and he said, Both. I mean, he might as well have said, I’m going to walk on the moon. But he did it. His focus and drive are really admirable.”
Lapham studied other announcers, citing Curt Gowdy and legendary Celtics radio man Johnny Most as his favorites. When I mention Most was also known for his enthusiastic lack of neutrality when calling games, Lap nods. “I never really thought about that, but I get that connection.” Like many aspiring broadcasters, Lapham would pretend to call games while watching them on TV. “He would also interview me,” Roger tells me from his home in Nashua, New Hampshire. “He was always excitable. Look at that! he’d shout, even when we were watching casually. He would watch the line play even then and know all about the personnel and the formations and what they meant, while I was just watching the quarterback.”
The hero worship remains apparent in Roger’s voice, even with both brothers in their 60s. “I could get away with murder around the neighborhood because of who my big brother was,” he says with a laugh. While slow to anger, there was at least one sure way for a pesky little brother to arouse Dave. “He had a paper route,” Roger remembers, “delivering The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Boston Record American. I knew he kept his tip money in his top drawer, all the quarters and dimes and nickels very neatly stacked. The way to get him mad was to sneak in and shake up his change. You could never admit to it, of course, because of his size.”
Lapham was no meathead, though; he was a good enough student to be accepted into Harvard, Yale, and other Ivies. “I was interested in law,” he says. “I was going to be Perry Mason.” Instead, he chose the school he felt gave him the best chance to become a pro football player, Syracuse University, a decision that was noticed by Bengals ownership. “That impressed me,” says Brown. “It’s typical of him. He’s not impressed by reputation or standing or influence.”
Syracuse was coached at the time by the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder, a World War II veteran and no-nonsense disciplinarian. An older player named Joe Ehrmann had a huge impact on the wide-eyed freshman. “Joe was an All-American defensive tackle who went on to be drafted by the Colts,” says Lapham. “I was on the freshman team, he was on the varsity, and we went head-to-head in scrimmages. He took the time to show me what you need to do to be successful. That was really big for me.” Lapham became Schwartzwalder’s last team captain at Syracuse and willed himself to become an NFL prospect.
When he wasn’t on the football field, Lapham took a wide range of classes at the Newhouse School, Syracuse’s communications department, which has produced its fair share of broadcast legends, including Marv Albert, Bob Costas, Dick Stockton, and Dan Hoard. (Full disclosure: I’m a Syracuse/Newhouse alum, too.) “I took a broadbased approach,” he says of his curriculum. “Newspapers, marketing, public speaking. I wanted to be covered in case football didn’t work out.”
It did work out, though being drafted in 1974 was a bit different than today’s wall-to-wall TV coverage and red carpet treatment. Lapham had to hang out next to his college dormitory pay phone, shooing away fellow students in order to keep the line clear for NFL teams to call. He waited only until the third round, when “Tiger” Bill Johnson, Bengals line coach (and future head coach) rang to let Lap know he was coming to Cincinnati. “He said, Congratulations, you made it. Enjoy it. There’s no other job like it in the world.”
“HE SAID, I’M GOING TO DO THAT ONE DAY,” SAYS DAVE’S BROTHER, ROGER. “I ASKED IF HE MEANT PLAYING OR BROADCASTING, AND HE SAID, BOTH.”
“The first time I saw Lap was at the Blue-Gray college all-star game in Alabama,” Brown remembers. “He was sitting on a training table in the locker room, and I thought, Jeez, he sure looks the part.” Nevertheless, Cincinnati also drafted another guard in the fourth round, an All-American from Nebraska named Daryl White. “We battled to the end,” Lapham says. “If you made the team you had a chair in the meeting room with your name taped to it. I couldn’t find mine. I thought Oh shit, I’m cut. Then Stan Walters, a tackle and fellow Syracuse alum, came over to me with a big smile. Hey, you dumbass rookie, you made it! he said. He’d hidden my chair in the closet.”
Wearing number 62, Lapham established himself as a key member of the line that protected Anderson on the way to Super Bowl XVI, mostly alongside the great Muñoz at left guard, though Lap played all five line positions in his career. He was a Sunday fixture, missing just a dozen games in 10 years.
Lapham has spent just two years outside of Cincinnati in the near half-century he’s been associated with the Bengals. Those came in 1984 and 1985, when he took Donald Trump’s money to jump to the New Jersey Generals of the nascent USFL. “They guaranteed my contract,” Lapham says. “I missed the guys, but they understood that business was business.” He says the former president was “a heck of an owner in terms of treating his players well.” The demands of playing back-to-back NFL/USFL seasons hastened Lap’s exit from pro football, which happened after the 1985 season, just before Trump destroyed the spring league by pushing an ill-fated lawsuit against the NFL.
Lapham always held an offseason job—as a substitute teacher and in the marketing department of a savings and loan company—and he took a full-time gig with the Texo Corporation, an adhesives company run by former Bengals center Bob Johnson. Brown called him out of the blue, wondering if he’d be interested in spending his Sundays in the team’s radio booth. “He was well-spoken as a player, intelligent, and knew how to explain the game,” recalls Brown when asked what he saw in Lap. “He knows what makes a player tick and what’s fun about the game, and he conveys it so well.”
Brown was surprised at first when Lap would yell excitedly over a good play or groan at failure, but he insists he’s never talked to his longtime employee about the on-air product. Lapham confirms that to be true. “I’m not gonna say the sky is green when it’s blue,” he says. “Mike agrees with that approach. He’s told me that, so long as the homework supports your take, then it’s fine.”
Not that the two don’t chat. They eat breakfast together at 7 a.m. on the morning of most road games, along with Hoard (UC broadcast commitments permitting), Brown’s daughter and son-in-law Katie and Troy Blackburn, and Brown’s close friend, Jack Schiff. “It’s the Lap and Brown story hour,” Hoard says. “They trade stories about team history. Mike has an infectious, whole-body laugh, and Dave gets him going more than anyone.”
According to Brown, one of their favorites is about the “hat drill” instituted by Coach Johnson. “Tiger would put a ball cap seven yards deep, and the linemen would go one on one, with the defender trying to get to the cap,” Brown says. “We had a great defensive tackle, Mike Reid, who was wonderful, so quick and strong. But he didn’t like to practice. And a very young Lapham was taking it to him in the hat drill. Reid complained, and Dave, a first-year player, answered that he was just ‘trying to keep my job.’ Reid responded with some unprintable words about the ‘stupid rookie’ and proceeded to embarrass him in the drill.”
Even into a life as blessed as Lapham’s a little rain must fall, and the golf tournament is interrupted by an epic thunderstorm. “It looks like there was one cell that stalled over us for a while,” Lap says, apologizing to the cigar-smoking crowd gathered for shelter under the country club’s lodge courtyard. The rain stops eventually, and while the course dries we talk a bit about the team he covers. His former position group has dominated all conversation this offseason, of course, with the protection of quarterback Joe Burrow, the franchise’s top player, at the forefront of discussions.
Lapham benefitted as a player from excellent teaching; he cites head coach Forrest Gregg (a Hall of Fame offensive tackle) and line coach Jim McNally as a “really powerful combo” who helped him immensely. He speaks highly of current offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who did a good job in Cincinnati in 2018 and has returned to lead a potentially demoralized and nationally criticized group. “Frank is talented, he teaches good techniques, he’s adaptable, and he has credibility with the guys because he played in the league,” Lapham says.
All eyes will be on Pollack as he works with second-round pick Jackson Carman, a former Clemson tackle who’s transitioning inside to guard. “Most guys would say it’s easier to move inside,” says Lap, “but the action can be quicker inside. Outside at tackle you know for the most part who you’re blocking—the edge rusher. Inside it can be any number of defenders. So to me it’s an adjustment. Carman needs to be a knee-bender. If he gets his shoulders going forward, that’s bad news.”
Lapham describes Carman, who played at Fairfield High, in familiar terms. “He’s very intelligent. He’s a pretty good cook, a well-read guy, so it’s not just about football with him. He can absorb a lot, and good football intelligence usually goes along with that.”
Lapham, like everyone else, has nothing but good things to say about Burrow. Remarkably, though, when we talked in June Mr. Bengal had yet to actually meet Burrow in person due to COVID-19. Let’s hope by now the two are the tight buddies you’d expect. Nevertheless, Lap has had no problem gauging the quarterback’s abilities even in the interpersonal domain. “His leadership is second to none, and his people skills are unbelievable. He has that ‘it’ factor. He’s like [former Bengals QB] Boomer Esiason—he makes everyone feel important and that he or she is critical to the total group effort.”
“DAVE KNOWS WHAT MAKES A PLAYER TICK AND WHAT’S FUN ABOUT THE GAME, AND HE CONVEYS IT SO WELL,” SAYS BENGALS OWNER MIKE Brown of Lap’s style.
Lapham recently signed on to call Bengals games for the next three seasons. “I look at it as three one-year deals,” he says as we relax in a golf cart. “I think back to my first broadcast partner, Phil Samp, who said he knew he’d lost something in his on-air delivery but wanted to leave before it was obvious. It can fall off a cliff and be unforgiving when it does. You lose the ability to see things, and I’m approaching that time. Years ago I could look at a roster and know everyone instantly—the numbers, the colleges, everything—and digest it quickly. Now?” Lap trails off, gazing down the fairway of his future. For the first time in a very long time, it’s tinged with uncertainty.
“I don’t want him to wind down,” Brown says. “He sends a message we want out there, that we’ve got good people doing their best and patience is appreciated. It’s not easy to win in this league, and there’s no need to be harsh. Dave puts all that in perspective while never being bitter or sharp. Just fun.”