The team clusters together in the visiting locker room after an impressive December road victory, the Cincinnati Bengals dismantling the Cleveland Browns by a score of 30–0 to stay atop the AFC North division and on the path toward a 2014 playoff berth. Head coach Marvin Lewis stands in the center of the makeshift huddle, applauding his players on an emotional victory. “Listen, we had a tough week all the way around with some guys with some personal stuff,” says Lewis, referring to kicker Mike Nugent and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson losing their fathers a few days prior. Assistant coaches and team leaders hover nearby—quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green, offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, cornerback Adam Jones—along with the man everyone simply calls “JB.” Short, stocky, rocking 1970s-style teardrop glasses, a Bengals hat over his slowly receding hairline, and a thick Bengals coat, he looks like any other coach, blending right in.
Nugent and Jackson both fight back tears as they accept game balls to thunderous applause and heartfelt embraces. “You guys did a hell of a job of coming together and putting your arms around each other,” says Lewis. “We handled our business. Great job today, great grind.”
Then Lewis hoists a hand in the air. “C’mon JB, here we go.” As the team draws closer, the room erupts with celebratory cheers and hoots of “JB!” The man who blends right in doesn’t miss a beat, joining Lewis in the center, arm raised, quickly obscured by the towers of men surrounding him as he bellows loud and clear, the rest joining in unison: “Who Dey! Who Dey! Who Dey think gonna beat them Bengals…”
The origin story of James “JB” Brown and his relationship with the Bengals is a bit fuzzy. “It’s hard to say the first time I met him, because the first time is like the last time,” says Sam Wyche, the former Bengals player (1968–1970) and head coach (1984–1991). “He was always right there.”
This is not inaccurate. As JB himself tells it, during the franchise’s inaugural 1968 season he started going to the airport to simply greet the team when it returned from road trips. For many players and coaches, their first encounter was some permutation of JB standing at the terminal gate as they walked through the airport to the team bus, no matter how late or insignificant the game had been. “Win, lose, or draw, if it was snowing, raining, sleeting, when that plane landed, there was JB,” says longtime running backs coach Jim Anderson. The organization—including founder and head coach Paul Brown (no relation)—took notice.
When the team moved from Nippert Stadium to Riverfront Stadium in 1970, JB started hanging around the locker room entrance as well, including one fine fall day in October 1972, shortly after the team had traded running backs Paul Robinson and Fred Willis to the Houston Oilers for wideout Charlie Joiner and linebacker Ron Pritchard.
“I was standing by the door while the team was coming into the stadium,” says JB, plucking the moment from his memory like an old book off a shelf. We’re sitting out on the patio of Combs BBQ Central in Middletown, just a few miles from his home on South Main Street. JB is in his standard uniform—Bengals hat, Bengals polo, slacks—as he tucks into his pulled pork sandwich. Even 43 years later, the story is clear in his mind, right down to the names and positions of the swapped players. With his youthful energy and scarcity of gray flecking his close-cropped hair and mustache, you’d never peg him for 73. “Paul Brown said hello to me and stepped into the locker room, then he stopped and came back. He said, ‘I didn’t ask you, JB—what did you think about the trade?’”
“He’s always been here. He loves the Bengals and we love him back.” —Mike Brown, Bengals Owner
JB leans forward in his seat, dropping his voice to amp up the drama. “I told him, ‘Coach, anytime you can gain two players who really fit your needs, I think you made a great deal.’ Coach said, ‘That’s what I figured,’ and he went on back in the locker room.” JB bursts into laughter, slapping his hands together. “That let me know that something special was brewing,” says JB. “He took the time with me.”
The relationship grew from there. Players and coaches started pulling him into the locker room, making clear to the security guard He’s with us. Before long, he was hanging around the sideline for home games and any of the away contests within driving distance, lending a hand in whatever way he could. He’d carry around the headset cords for coaches Bill Johnson and Homer Rice, cool players off with a cold towel, and retrieve the kicking tee after kickoffs. In 1975, Paul Brown let him travel to one away game—plane, hotel, meals, everything with the team—a custom the franchise still honors. Everyone has that friend who charms his or her way into good fortune, whose life is a series of green lights. For the Bengals, that friend is JB.
“What I remember best about James is that he’s always been here, and everyone has liked him,” says Mike Brown, Bengals owner, son of Paul Brown, and one of the few within the organization who has been around just as long. “He loves the Bengals and we love him back.”
Diehard fans know JB as the guy who runs the team out on the field before home games, a tradition that started after Forrest Gregg was hired as head coach in 1980. Wyche and Lewis were never shy about involving him, either; having him lead the Who Dey cheer after victories was a tradition revived under Lewis’s tenure. Over time, JB has simply become a part of the team. There wasn’t and isn’t a member of the organization who doesn’t know, like, and trust him. “He was allowed to do anything he wanted when I was coaching,” says Wyche.
Yet to this day, he’s never been an official employee. Never been on the payroll, never given an official title, never had a specific work schedule. The team’s taken care of him in countless ways, sure, but it’s never been a job—he worked at the Miami Packaging paper mill in Middletown for 34 years before retiring in 2002. He comes and goes as he pleases, helps out when and where he can, but has no obligations whatsoever. He’s just a fan. Well, not just. He is the ultimate, original Bengals fan. Their ur-fan.
“I don’t do this for money. You’re in a different category when you get paid—you can get fired too,” says JB, beaming as he sits back and extends his arms, basking in the summer sun. “I can’t be fired.”
There’s a scene in the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray walks through the local diner with Andie MacDowell, relaying the personal secrets and anecdotes he’s learned about each customer as a result of reliving the same day over and over. “Maybe [God’s] not omnipotent,” Murray deadpans. “He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
That quote could very well apply to JB. It’s part of the reason he’s garnered so much reverence in the locker room, why his history with the club is passed down from player to player as something approaching legend: He’s always been there.
Fact: JB has been leading the team out onto the field since before every current Bengals player was born.
“I’ll be watching old team highlights, and the camera pans to the sideline and you see freaking JB standing there!” says defensive lineman Domata Peko. “Mustache going strong and everything.”
Just as he has no formal title, there’s also no formal introduction process. The team doesn’t sit the rookies down on their first day and make him stand at the front of the room—This is your coordinator, this is your position coach, this is JB. Nothing like that. Players, coaches, executives, they all come to know him in an organic way.
NFL facilities are bustling, hectic places. Aside from staff in the front office, ticket sales, marketing, and facility management, the locker room is a metropolis of 60-plus players and dozens of coaches, assistants, trainers, equipment managers, PR reps, and media members. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, become just another semi-recognizable face. But JB stands out.
“I didn’t know if he was someone’s dad or someone who worked here. I wasn’t sure,” says offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who first joined the franchise in 2004. “But I remember asking T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] and Chad [Johnson] and them telling me, ‘No, that’s JB. He is the Cincinnati Bengals.’”
He’s rarely asked and never expected to do anything when around the team, but he’s always making himself useful, one way or another. He’ll run tickets up to the Will Call office, help the equipment crew in the locker room, bring water to players on the practice field, and keep the sidelines clean and tidy. At the end of every game, Coach Lewis hands him his hat and the day’s game sheet. “He holds on to that and guards it with his life,” says Lewis. Any odd job that needs done, JB is on it, one of the qualities that has endeared him to just about every person who has come through the organization over his many, many years.
The NFL is a notoriously tight-lipped league. Media interaction is restricted. Coaches and players are prone to vague, generalized quotes. Injury updates are guarded like nuclear launch codes. The vast majority of team and league finances are kept private. Yet it’s all somewhat understandable. It’s just a game, yes, but one that has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. Every divulged secret results in a slight disadvantage in the eyes of a team’s brain trust. All of which makes JB’s autonomy that much more remarkable: A superfan with no explicit responsibilities, given unlimited access over the course of four-plus decades and nine different head coaching regimes to the inner workings of an NFL franchise.
It all goes back to Paul Brown, a man who valued loyalty above all else. It was a quality he recognized in JB after countless hours spent hanging around airport gates and locker room doors, a sentiment passed down through the Brown family’s ownership. As Lewis puts it, “You’re vetted over time,” and JB has put in more than just about anyone.
That longevity is also the reason why everyone has a favorite JB story, from Forrest Gregg having him dress up as Santa Claus one Christmas to Marvin Lewis teasing him for how slow he drives. “When we were in Georgetown, Kentucky, for training camp and he was driving down from Middletown, it would take him three days to get there,” quips Lewis. Mike Brown remembers a time when he was mistaken for running back and Ohio State standout Archie Griffin, though the particulars of the situation are long forgotten. Former offensive lineman and longtime Bengals radio color commentator Dave Lapham still reminisces about the team returning home from a 5–0 loss (yes, really) to the Buffalo Bills in October 1978 “disgusted and disturbed.” But there was JB! Waiting at the airport, encouraging as always. Once, back when Paul Brown was still coaching, JB missed the team flight to Houston for a game, booked a ticket of his own, somehow managed to beat the team to the hotel, and was waiting in the lobby when they arrived. When Coach Brown spotted him, he simply said, “Hey, you made it.”
“After Super Bowl XXIII—that was a heart-breaking loss,” says Wyche, his voice trailing off for a moment as he relives Joe Montana’s game-winning touchdown pass for the San Francisco 49ers with 34 seconds left. “JB was one of the first guys to put his hand on my back. I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember the feeling he conveyed. He gave me a booster shot before I went back into that locker room.”
He’s been there for nearly every significant moment and plenty of others, the Where’s Waldo of Bengals lore. But the thing brought up most often, without question, is his famous saying: Got to have it!
“That’s my slogan,” he says. Ask any Bengal, past or present, about JB and more often than not their instinctive reaction is a wide smile and enthusiastic “Got to have it!” Peko even had T-shirts made up a few years ago featuring a picture of JB and his signature mantra. He put one in every player’s locker, and sent JB home with a box of them for his family and friends. “He’s always smiling,” says Peko. “I kept telling the guys we needed to get that face on a shirt.”
Don’t be fooled, though. The appreciation JB has earned is for more than menial locker room tasks, funny memories, his longevity, or even his photogenic face. He’s not a mascot or a charity case or a hanger-on the team kindly indulges. He is, in fact, the living spirit of the team, triteness and platitudes be damned.
“There’s more depth to JB than people realize,” says Jim Anderson. “He’s a special guy. When you say he’s your friend, it means something to you.”
JB is wired different than most. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, unwaveringly positive and upbeat, which says a lot when you’re talking about 47 years of Bengals fandom. He’s loyal. He’s selfless. He has no presumption or expectation or hidden agenda, all things that further allow him to blend right in to that locker room. “His personality is so infectious, and you know right away he’s legit,” says Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz. “We know which guys want to be your buddy, with one hand around your shoulder and the other in your pocket. Not JB. I can’t stress enough how much he just loves the team.”
It may sound trivial, but to a man, every Bengals player and coach will tell you there’s value in having someone like JB around the team, a constant jolt of support. Every season has peaks and valleys; coaches and players are under a lot of pressure, and fans are fickle. That consistent encouragement, regardless of the situation, means something. It can have a tangible effect. Wyche recalls how, whether he won or lost, JB’s faith was constant. “There were a lot of days when my dog and JB were the only two still wagging their tails, so to speak,” he says.
This is why so many early memories of JB are of him waiting at the airport, late at night after bad losses. Why the players hoot and holler at him when they huddle together for the Who Dey chant. Why people can’t help but smile and yell, “Got to have it!” when you mention his name. “Some guys over the years, they might think, Eh, that’s cornball,” says Lapham. “But then they come around. JB always wins everybody over.”
There is plenty to criticize about sports in today’s culture: Everything is ruled by money. League executives answer to advertisers. Owners build billion-dollar stadiums with taxpayer money, then charge you $9.50 for a Bud Light. Athletes are paid millions of dollars and deified for playing a game, while cases of physical assault and DUI charges among their ranks seem to only multiply. The NCAA has made a sham of collegiate sports and so-called “student-athletes.” Youth sports are infested with tyrannical helicopter parents. The longer you dwell on it, the more rotten and corrupt subplots you’ll dig up.
But then there’s someone like JB, who loves the game and supports his team with a sincerity and innocence that’s been lost or forgotten by most, who drives at a snail’s pace from Middletown to Paul Brown Stadium to offer you a slap on the back and a fresh towel, whose motivations are as pure as they come, and whose time and efforts are offered solely in hopes that the team will be successful. “It ain’t nothing but fun,” says JB. “You’re just hoping you can do a little something that helps along the way.”
“What is his role? What does he do?” asks Hue Jackson. “He’s everything. He does it all. But more than that, he’s got your back the whole way, and that matters.”
It’s only fitting that JB’s modest house on South Main Street—with a plastic Bengal tiger head festooning the front porch—sits directly in front of Barnitz Stadium, home of the Middletown High School Middies. We’re taking a walk around back, making the short trip to the field from JB’s yard, which nearly bleeds into the west end zone. JB and Catherine, his wife of 53 years, have lived here since 1969, settling in a few years after moving up from the South.
JB was born on June 6, 1942—though watching him run alongside a team of NFL players on game day will make you question that date. He grew up in the small town of Andalusia, Alabama, about 90 miles south of Montgomery and 30 miles north of the Florida panhandle, home to the annual World Championship Domino Tournament and little else. His mother Annie Mae worked in laundry, and his father Henry was a turpentine dipper. A damn fine one, too, to hear JB tell it. Back then, an average dipper could fill two barrels a day. But if you could fill four, you were considered a roller. “My daddy was a roller,” says JB. “And I learned to do it the way my daddy taught me. Together, we could dip eight barrels in one day and leave the sun running.”
Looking for more stable work, JB and Catherine moved to the Cincinnati area in 1965 with sons Charles and James. Charles and Curtis, the oldest and youngest of their three boys, still live in Middletown. James passed away in 2008 after complications from a hernia surgery, a detail that gives extra weight to comments like this one, from Muñoz: “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen JB without a smile. I’m sure he goes through some rough times, but you never see it. He’s always upbeat.”
Young James followed in his father’s footsteps, in a sense, serving as the Middletown athletics equipment manager for 23 years. Once, when he was only 3 years old, Catherine found him out marching in the middle of the field with the high school band. The school dedicated a hallway to him after his passing. “He was Mr. Middie,” says JB, still smiling somehow, as we finish up our impromptu tour of the stadium.
For all the glowing things people have to say about JB, he pays it back in spades, maintaining special adoration for those who have been part of his Bengals family. When asked to name a favorite player, coach, or experience with the team, his answer is always the same: “All of them.” His passion for football may have started with his love of Joe Namath and the Alabama Crimson Tide growing up, but it was solidified by a fortuitous conversation with Paul Brown outside the locker room. “Just getting to meet him was the whole thing for me,” says JB. “He treated me like a son. I’ll never forget him.”
During our lunch, he pulls out a briefcase full of old notes from Paul Brown and Sam Wyche, along with yellowing newspaper clips featuring game photos he unknowingly photobombed. He rarely brings up specific wins or losses or performances, though he could. (He can reliably recite the year and outcome of almost any Bengals game you throw at him.) Instead, he talks about moments, most of which have nothing to do with what happened on the field. From the beginning, through the good times (a few) and the trying ones (plenty), he has never wavered. The man bleeds black and orange.
“I never thought about being anything other than a Bengals fan,” he says. We’re sitting on the concrete steps of his front porch now, seeking shade from the late-June sun. “Every year, I always feel like we can win it. We went to the Super Bowl twice and we didn’t do it, but the next time we go, we’ll get it done.”
“Oh yeah!” he says, almost offended by the question. “We can get there. If we can just keep the core healthy, we can be in the Super Bowl. I’m just telling you like it is. I ain’t just saying it because I want it to happen. I really believe it.”
It’s probably a little bit of both. Either way, if the Bengals do get there—if the planets align and the skies open up and the Football Gods smile down upon them—you know who will be there, too.