Mike Brown and the letter that changed the course of human—well, Bengals—history

As way of introduction, my name is Sridhar Pappu—the third member (along with Bill and Ben) of this online endeavor, one underlain by perpetual angst and longing, by heartbreak and disgust coming from that awful requited love for the Cincinnati Bengals, a team, to paraphrase a line in that Jimmy Fallon movie about the Red Sox, that will never love you back. Of course in the movie, both a lovely girl and the Sox did return his character’s amours. At present, I am single, without prospects and root for what may very well be the worst franchise in professional football.
It wasn’t always this way of course. And who could have known that it would get this bad for this long. I certainly did not when I received the letter. It hangs in a corner of my home in Brooklyn along with others of either personal or vaguely historical significance. Dated January 20, 1993, it’s a personal, thoughtful dispatch, a letter of sympathy and encouraging words sent to a then-lost boy by a good natured man on Cincinnati Bengals stationery. It’s author? Mike Brown.
Yes, that Mike Brown. He had responded to a letter I myself had written to him during my senior year of high school in which I had, in earnest, sought out his counsel about what I should do with the rest of my life. I explained to him that I’d been accepted into an architecture program (in spite of the fact I couldn’t then nor now draw straight lines) but thought it would be better to pursue law instead, as my grandfather once did. If I did the latter, I asked, would it pave the way to my ultimate goal: to become a general manager in the NFL. Ah, youth.
Of course I was fishing. In truth, I’d hoped for a “Welcome aboard son” letter from the Bengals’ management, one that invited me to training camp where I’d fetch coffee and help file, all while becoming a trusted member of the family’s limited inner circle. I’d go off to law school, only to come back, the prodigal son who the Brown family would tap as their representative at the NFL draft. I’d send word to the commissioner of the team’s next pick, the one that might have made a difference in the bungled fourth-and-goal against the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI or against the same team seven years later when Joe Montana swiped away another Lombardi Trophy with 34 seconds left to play.
Instead, I received the letter I still have, now framed—one that speaks to both Mike Brown’s humanity, while making me cringe at the atmosphere of apathy and disillusionment for which he must be held responsible. “You are at an important juncture in your life,” Brown wrote to me, “What you do in college will directly affect all of your adult life, so I sympathize with the soul-searching you are experiencing.”

He writes that architecture is “a challenging profession, requiring talent and technical mastery, but not one with which I have much experience.” A law degree, he tells me, “is always useful in our litigious society, but, since it is a post-graduate field of study, you do not have to commit to it yet.”

As for the dream, the real dream, of becoming the general manager of a professional team—something the Bengals have famously done without—he writes, “I wish I could be more encouraging but that is a chancy career goal at best. …With so few positions available, it seems that each general manager came into the position in his own way. There is no specific course of study or career steps which can guarantee an opportunity at the top spot.”

In conclusion he says that my letter, “reflects a questioning intelligence, and I am confident that you will find the way to use that intelligence, as well as your other talents, as suits you best. All of us at the Bengals wish you well.”

In some ways, I use the letter to explain why, throughout the years, and they have been bad, bad, bad years, I have some modicum of faith—however fleeting—in Mike Brown. When I read it now, I see it as a dispatch from a man seeking to emerge from his late father’s shadow, offering up guidance to a young man very much lost. Perhaps he saw some of himself in my pangs, perhaps he wrote it out of pity. Whatever the reason, he wrote it and I kept it and I still love the Bengals.

In the 18 years since, very little and very much has happened. The early missteps and blips in Brown’s tenure turned out to be long-term trends, with the team posting just two non-losing seasons. Pickens and Big Daddy, The Ocho and Carson, Ki-Jana and Shake ‘N Blake all hinted they had the means to get us out of this perpetual quagmire, but in the end did not. Brown now stands as one of the most vilified owners in professional sports. Needless to say, I didn’t become an architect or lawyer and never fulfilled my destiny as the architect of championship Bengals teams.

Instead, I’ve joined the angry, fury-filled masses, left despondent while mocked by most of the free world. As for the letter, it will remain just this: a reminder of a time in life when someone took the time to be nice to me, when faced with the terrible, trying fears of the future, which we all have when we are young.

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