Say “English” and what do you think of? If you’re American then you probably think of high tea, wizards with glasses, bad teeth, Love, Actually, and, for reasons you can’t quite explain, Madonna. If you’re English yourself then you’ll more likely think of traffic jams on a summer’s day, Henry V, an unstoppable sense of guilt whenever you watch the History Channel, beans on toast, and a deep-seated hatred of all things French. Either group is unlikely to call to mind the Cincinnati Bengals.
Three years ago I would have concurred. Just off the boat as a graduate student in New York City, my new friends thought it best to initiate me into American culture at an “Irish” pub watching Super Bowl XLI – the Chicago Bears vs. the Indianapolis Colts. ‘The Blarneystone’ on Eighth Avenue was the chosen venue, and while the waiters’ accents were noticeably more New Jersey than Donegal, the screens were large and the pitchers of Bud Lite plentiful. As the 60-minute game stretched on past the four-hour mark, shown by a network intent on disrupting the odd vague moment of actual sporting action with Doritos commercials, I found myself praying for some sort of major internal organ failure.
Fast-forward to January 2010: When a crippled and grieving Bengals team finally succumbed to the New York Jets in the playoffs, I threw my glass of tequila against the wall, cried for two hours, and then refused to speak to my girlfriend or her family for the rest of the night. Clearly, much had changed.
So how did a boy raised in Sheffield, England, on the sort of football that actually requires interaction of ball and foot fall so hopelessly in love with the NFL, and more specifically, the Bengals?
It begins, as all good things should, with a woman. In this case a beautiful woman from Cincinnati who had no idea of the monster she was creating when she offered to buy the cheeseburgers and beer should I accompany her to watch a Bengals game at a bar and grill in Gramercy. Yes, they were horrible – the Bengals, that is; both the beer and cheeseburger were excellent. (We’d stepped it up a little from the Blarneystone.) But watching the game on the bar’s enormous flat-screen, what endeared the Bengals to me was that 65,000 people would turn up at Paul Brown Stadium to support a bunch of players as seemingly ill-acquainted with the game as I. It was both touching and exhilarating.
Sure, there were attractions: Hot wings with blue cheese dressing are a treat both exquisite and unknown to the English palette. And the battle-plans drawn up by the coaches to defeat the other team draw you in; if there’s one thing the English love more than cheap flights and enormous breakfasts it is combining sport with war. (The more observant amongst you during the England-Germany World Cup game back in June may well have heard the English supporters chanting the stratospherically xenophobic, “Two World Wars and One World Cup, doo-dah, doo-dah.” Quite how this would play in Cincinnati I cannot say.)
But back then, to me a T.O. TD was a Star Wars character, Frostee Rucker some sort of promising new beverage, and the NFL something I thought would simply never capture my soul. There are questions, too, for the alien fan: Does a man built like an industrial-strength cleaning facility truly need protecting from “unnecessary roughness”? How is Washington, D.C., allowed to have a team called “The Redskins”? And why does Tom Brady always have that look on his face?
I should explain that my upbringing as a fan of Sheffield United Football Club prepared me fully for just about anything the Bengals could throw my way. Sheffield is a large industrial town in the north of England, notably absent from traditional tourist agendas. Built on steel – I know, this connection with Pittsburgh still troubles me – it is a city of predominantly working-class people known for their stoicism, strength, and mistrust of “soft” Londoners with a superior attitude. The Blades, as my “soccer” team are known, are masters in serving their loyal supporters delicious hope-filled beverages laced with an ultimate hit of disaster—losing vital games to more-vaunted and much-hated rivals, killer injuries, trading our two best players on the same day, and, in one memorable case, almost accidentally selling the team to a transsexual Iraqi con artist. (Don’t believe me? Google “Sam Hashimi.”)
It wasn’t simply the heady mix of hope and hopelessness (ah, if Jane Austen were a Ben-Gal!) that caused me to fall in love with the Bengals. It was that the USA, and Cincinnati, has a genuine love of sports in such numbers and with such exuberant theatre. Even at my first live American football game (the University of Cincinnati versus Syracuse at Nippert Stadium) there were 35,000 fans—a colossal number well in excess of many professional soccer teams in England. Playing soccer at university in England, our audience consisted of half a dozen girlfriends, a confused exchange student, and a local farmer walking his dog. I can further attest that had a marching band attempted to cross the field before a soccer match in England, a full-on brawl would probably have ensued.
Such pageantry was intensified when I attended my first live game at Paul Brown Stadium last Thanksgiving. Thanks to the sheer excitement of that matchup (the Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns 16-7), since that weekend my newly Bengal-ized best friend—a six-foot-seven, ginger-haired Welshman who came along for the visit—sleeps at night in his number 9 jersey dreaming of pumpkin pie and Ben-Gals. While our sign (“Cincinnati British Bengals Supporters”) didn’t get us on TV (seriously, CBS?), it alerted nearby fans to our nationality and it was charming and wonderful to have the traditional, sardonic New York greeting of “Cup of tea?” replaced with “Who Dey!” and a smile.
Bengaldom is welcoming in a way that, I suspect, a bigger market team never could be. In the sweltering heat of training camp this summer in Georgetown, Kentucky, crowds desperate for a player’s autograph parted immediately at the sound of my accent, allowing me to chat with defensive tackle Domata Peko about England’s abject World Cup performance. After listening to me converse with the delightful, incomparable offensive guard Bobbie Williams (“Well, I didn’t even know we had English fans,” Bobbie told me. “Thank you for the support. You’re our brothers. We love you. Who dey!”), a quick-witted teenager asked, “Could you use your Englishness to get T.O. over?”
The demographic of the crowds is fascinating: Stadia awash with children, old people, rich, poor, male and female. Whilst it expands continually, English soccer is still a game watched live predominantly by working-class males. When my girlfriend came to a match in Sheffield (I stopped using the word “match” for “game” in American sports after she—brilliantly—scolded me, “It’s not Quidditch!” You can’t beat a good Harry Potter slap-down.) the fans treated her presence with a combination of respect, shock, and sympathy; either she must have wandered in by accident, or worse, bless her, she’s supposed to be here. Sheffield United fans simply aren’t used to perfect American smiles, and her requests for directions to the ladies’ bathroom were greeted with an apologetic stadium-wide discussion as to whether, in fact, such a thing existed.
Despite such chivalry, the base state for a European soccer fan is, essentially, anger. After Luis Figo left Barcelona to join rival Real Madrid, upon his return to his former club he was greeted – mid-game, mind you – with a hail of boos, pens, coins, bottles, and a pig’s head with the word “traitor” stapled to it. Red Sox fans think they’re walking on the wild side by shouting “Jeter sucks.” Nevertheless, that the Bengals team lost its first eight games in 2008 mattered little to me, partly because I have literally never seen a team I follow win anything, ever, and partly because the Bengals were so sincerely, fabulously entertaining.
Back when Chad Johnson was busy turning into the Hispanically grammatically erratic Ocho Cinco, I watched every single minute. I was intoxicatingly clueless: Bemused as to why the commentator insisted on referring to our linebackers as Sam and Mike when I was certain at least one of them was elegantly named Dhani; utterly out of my depth when an opposing fan asked if we played 3-4 or 4-3 and I humiliatingly responded, “I don’t know, I think we just try to win any way we can.” But I was desperate to learn, and perhaps more importantly, despite the wealth of statistics stacked against me and in the face of laughter from my friends, I genuinely believed we were good.
Indeed, after the thrills of 2009 it seems strange to look back on a team whose non-existent offensive line meant that Carson Palmer continually had the look of an 18-year-old whose friends, on his birthday, have pushed him through the doors of a dungeon-themed strip club and then run away; his face trying to remain cool but his eyes screaming, “Why? Why me? Oh, help me please, why me?”
Schopenhauer claimed that “life without pain has no meaning.” But for a true sports fan, it isn’t the lows that provide the exquisite agony but the promise of highs. Hope is a powerful, paradoxical tool in American life. In my time here it has been strong enough to elect a president and it is, perhaps, what is so captivating about American sports. Even to my untrained eye, the Bengals appeared full of hope and promise; Carson’s fizzing arm, Chad’s balletic grace, athletic corners and a coach steadfast amongst the madness. Add to that the wonderful draft system—in England the best young players go to the best teams, here the worst team gets rewarded with the best new player: Brilliant!—and a despondent end to the season for any team is negated by the excitement of what may be yet to come. In the soccer world, if a team continues to lose enough games it will eventually lose its professional status. Now you may understand the whole pig’s head shenanigans a little better.
I must confess that training camp this year made me nervous. We looked too good. That hopeless hopefulness has been replaced by…what? Expectation? A wiser Bengals fan than I once compared the team to an addict: You want to believe in them but just as you start to relax, that’s when they’ll fall off the wagon. And I don’t know if this season could possibly measure up to the last one. The pleasure of watching this team of so-called mis-fits, has-beens, and never-was’s sweep the division was all the more intense because of the vitriol with which my own support was received by opposing fans. “What? You’re English and you support The Bungles?! Why not support a real team?” (The sight of my girlfriend be-decked in Bengals gear usually shed some light on the matter.)
The dismissive nature of analysts and acquaintances alike heightened every victory and pulled the team together through multiple tragedies. When Andre Caldwell took the game-winning catch against the Steelers, he bore a facial expression rarely seen since Danny Glover discovered the toilet he was sitting on was rigged with a bomb in Lethal Weapon 2. However, I only know this after watching replays, because at the time I was too overwhelmed with maniacal delirium and too busy sprinting screaming around the bar, falling over and kissing strangers, to take it all in. This year the experts announced before the opening kick off that they expect us to beat Pittsburgh. An unusual and, for us fans, vaguely terrifying proposition, particularly following the horrors of our first half against New England. But I believe in them.
And how could I not? At the Bengals’ training camp this summer, Ocho Cinco, ever with a keen eye on a new market, said to me: “I love you. I love all of England. But especially you.”
Sadly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, hilariously, hopefully, hopelessly, and improbably, I love you too, Bengals. I love you, too.