Lil’ Marvin, as I referred to myself in those years, was born at a hopeful time in Bengals history—during the Thanksgiving Break of 2003 at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Oxford. Even when they went winless in the first three games of the Lewis era, something seemed different from the team the Bengals fielded even the year before. They had beaten the Seahawks at home and stopped Kansas City from taking their 9-0 record any further. That afternoon when Jon Kitna hit Matt Schobel for the game-winning touchdown with13 seconds left to play, the world suddenly seemed open in a way it hadn’t in more than a decade.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like Marvin Lewis?” a young man asked in the jubilant celebration that followed in the bar.
In truth I looked very little like Lewis—at least not yet—but it was the nicest thing anyone could have said. Lewis wasn’t yet the tenured coach whose teams consistently underperformed while he and his staff seemed unwilling or unable to control the players’ off-field antics. At the time, Lewis seemed like this team’s savior, the man without ties to past Bengals’ misfortunes. On the other hand, I was going though my own rough time in life, during which each day seemed more grim than the last. But what the hell, some guy said I looked like Marvin Lewis.
Given this blessing, I inexplicably ran with it. One moment I was buying a tiny headset from a cell phone store on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, the next I was opening a UPS package that contained a life-like coach’s headset produced for an aborted video game from EA Sports. One day I was razor-thin, the next—thanks to a doctor who prescribed me sleeping medication without warning me of its weight-gaining side effects—I was 40 pounds heavier, my cheeks puffy, fully gutted, and wearing a Bengals sweater vest.
In short order I became the coach. Or simply Coach. Or Marvin. The lines blurred over time. By 2007, my Sunday fall afternoons were spent pacing the lengths of The Bottom Line, with a menu/play sheet tucked in the back of my pants. Fully immersed in my role, I’d call for a Grilled Cheese Sandwich on fourth-and-one and stage fights with a much taller guy who dressed like a ref and would throw a yellow flag at me, then carry me over his left shoulder. When I showed up to the first game of 2009 against the Steelers without my headset, the bar ordered me back home to retrieve it so I could lead them to victory—which I, er, Lewis, proceeded to do.
I had another life, a real life, outside that bar, but whatever wacky persona I created never seemed far from me. I cannot count the number of times I was approached in a restaurant or on the street in Washington by someone yelling out “Marvin!” More than once on a first date, someone I wouldn’t know would come up to the girl I was with and grab me saying, “Coach, how is this year going to look?”
Fake coaching a pro football team can stop being fun in an instant. During the game against San Diego following Chris Henry’s death, I was holding the headset—the center of the whole getup—when it simply snapped. When I showed up for the playoff game against the Jets, I was not only unshaven, but wearing glasses—with the broken accessory at my side. While others nudged for “the Coach” to come back, I resisted, then said I’d try to reassemble the outfit if the Bengals were down at halftime. When the Jets went ahead, I ran across the street to the drugstore, shaved in the bathroom, and tried to put together the headset with duct tape. Standing on top of a table near the beginning of the second half, I yelled, holding the bandaged headset in my hand, “Tonight, we are all Marvin Lewis!”
Which means we all lost. During the next year—arguably the worst in the Lewis tenure—I stopped going to the bar and toward the end stopped watching the team altogether. I lost the weight. I made plans to, and then actually did, move back to New York. With Lewis set to begin his ninth season as head coach, I constantly restrict myself from retracing the steps, from second-guessing plays and games, from trying to figure out where it all went wrong. All I can say is that for a better part of nine years, I enjoyed dressing like Marvin because I believed in the real Marvin, but those years seem like a long time ago.