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Ahead of the Super Bowl, Cincinnati native bares all about the Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals fans cheer during a Fan Rally ahead of Super Bowl LVI in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The crowd cheers during a Cincinnati Bengals fan rally held Monday at Paul Brown Stadium ahead of Super Bowl LVI.
(Emilee Chinn / Getty Images)
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One of the most fun moments in my life took place in Cincinnati.

My brother Skyler, 35, who still lives in the city, told me he was going to a party with a friend in somebody’s backyard to watch a Bengals game. There would be food, “Natty Light” or some other cheap beer and, of course, cornhole.

I hesitated about being stuck for hours, surrounded by strangers. I no longer lived in Ohio, and I thought I might no longer relate to residents of my modest hometown.

I swallowed my reservations and decided to go. When my brother, his friend and I arrived, I recognized nobody and truly stuck out. But people didn’t really notice me.

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That’s because they had set up a slip-and-slide on a hill that, at this point, held as much mud as water. The long sheet of neon yellow had become splotched with sludge from party guests who,⁠ just like me, hadn’t come with a bathing suit. But rather than skipping the event, they decided to strip to their boxers (or, in one case, go commando) and make their grand descent in front of the cheering onlookers.

My brother looked at his friend and said he would decline the slip-and-slide. His friend agreed. They both looked at me, and my first thought was, “What kind of underwear am I wearing?”

It turns out I was wearing tight, black briefs with a pattern made of yellow mini-tacos. Everyone at the party would learn that fact because after three of the Natty Lites, I found myself nearly nude, filthy, and intoxicated in front of an animated crowd, barreling head-first down the hill.

I’m not the sports-loving type, but I can personally attest to the Bengals’ ability to bring people together and draw from them unbridled enthusiasm.

Over my 32 years, I have been roped into dozens of impromptu parties to watch the team’s games. I have been stunned by the amount of times strangers have let me into their homes, offering me their finest cupboard delicacies of Doritos and Goldfish.

Angelenos soon will get to experience this opportunistic debauchery for themselves when thousands of Cincinnati fans descend on Southern California. On Sunday, the Bengals will take on the Rams right here in L.A. (well, technically Inglewood), my adopted hometown since 2019.

The Bengals have had some struggles throughout the years, but scores of Cincinnati residents are ecstatic over the team finally returning to the Super Bowl, their first appearance since the 1988-89 season, when they lost to the 49ers.

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In an interview this week, Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval told me that he was in Kansas City, Mo., rooting on the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium when they earned their spot in the big game.

The team has “really galvanized and unified the city like I’d never seen before, and we’re so optimistic,” Pureval says. Locals are hoping the team’s Super Bowl appearance will bring respect to the city.

“Cincinnati is the future of this country. We are reflective of this Cincinnati Bengals team. We’ve got confidence, we’ve got Cincinnati swagger,” Pureval says. “I’m so proud that people are starting to recognize the extraordinary talents of Cincinnati because, just like our Bengals, we are going to be around for a while.”

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Pureval’s claims are certainly bold. But I do agree that the city has a beauty of its own.

When you get to downtown Cincinnati, the first landmark you notice isn’t land; it’s the sparkling, ridiculously beautiful view of the Ohio River that separates Cincy’s downtown and Covington, located in northern Kentucky. The two areas share the region; in fact, Cincinnati’s airport is in Kentucky.

You must navigate an intricate lattice of roads in order to get into the downtown region. Once there, you can visit museums like the Contemporary Arts Center and the Taft Museum of Art.

There is also the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, one of the new group of so-called “museums of conscience” meant to make visitors reflect and remember atrocities of the past. Its location near the Ohio River is meant to honor the Underground Railroad. The body of water used to delineate Southern slave states from free territories in the North; consequently, thousands of enslaved people passed through it in pursuit of liberty.

At the heart of downtown you will find Fountain Square. Not too far away you’ll find the Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as headquarters for Kroger, Procter & Gamble, and Fifth Third Bank. Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park, the stadiums where the Cincinnati Bengals and Cincinnati Reds, respectively, play are a six-minute walk apart. Paul Brown, a veteran coach who is regarded as an innovator in football, helped found the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Cincinnati has produced some other big names: Ted Turner, founder of Turner Broadcasting System; William F. Nast, whose son Condé Montrose Nast founded Conde Nast (which publishes Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Vogue); Steven freaking Spielberg; music greats like Bootsy Collins and L.A. Reid; and other names in music like Nick Lachey.

Vine Street serves as the main thoroughfare, separating the east and west sides of the city. It also leads to a neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine, which has a past that previously made headlines for the city — but not the welcome kind.

In 2001, Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Police Officer Stephen Roach after a chase in the district. Roach later claimed that during the pursuit, Thomas turned and appeared to reach for a weapon. Roach fired on the Black 19-year-old, striking him in the chest. No weapon was found on Thomas.

The shooting touched off four days of riots in downtown Cincinnati that resulted in hundreds of arrests and millions of dollars worth of damage. Roach, who was charged with negligent homicide and obstructing official business (both misdemeanors), was acquitted the same year of the killing.

The incident heightened Black residents’ mistrust of local police and government — problems still being grappled with today.

I can only recall one other time the city received national attention since then, for a much more absurd reason: Harambe. News outlets breathlessly covered the story of the slaying of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. He was killed in in May 2016 after a toddler slipped into the animal’s enclosure. What followed was an internet “memageddon” that makes me balk at even mentioning the fiasco.

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Aside from those events, my hometown doesn’t get a lot of shine. But that will all change Super Bowl Sunday.

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All over the city, fans are screaming the team’s catchphrase: “Who Dey?”

On social media, many have been starting GoFundMe pages in a bid to raise funds for tickets. The family of an 86-year-old grandfather successfully raised over $42,000 to get him to the Super Bowl. He first gained attention due to a Facebook video of his emotional reaction to the Bengals’ AFC championship win against the Kansas City Chiefs. Since then, the patriarch has been dubbed “Cincinnati’s grandpa” by local media and the Fairfield Township Police Department.

Cincinnati Public Schools told me in a statement that in honor of the team’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1989, the district will not have classes the day after the game: “Staff and students will have the day off to celebrate what we believe will be our city’s first-ever Super Bowl victory!”

One of the city’s most beloved figures — a hippo named Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo — knocked over a block with the Bengals symbol, an act that supposedly indicates whom she favors to win. The other was smaller and farther away, but whatever, I’m sure she’s truly a fan. Do they make jerseys for hippos?

The Cincinnati Enquirer, the city’s biggest paper, will be sending multiple reporters and photographers to the big event. A video of fan reactions by the paper has more than 2.5 million views on Twitter.

The game also sparked a dispute in the city about a possible viewing party at Paul Brown Stadium.

“The NFL declined the request for permission to broadcast the Super Bowl” at the venue, the stadium’s managing director wrote in a letter to Hamilton County. “The legal and logistical barriers to holding a ‘Watch’ Party for Super Bowl LVI are too significant.”

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“I think it’s an unfortunate situation, a missed opportunity,” Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece told me. She says she wants to revisit questions about the NFL’s say over what events can and cannot be held in the taxpayer-funded stadium.

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The idea of the Bengals — and by proxy, the Midwest — entering the cultural zeitgeist is thrilling to me. It would be foolish to believe people are suddenly going to pack up and move in droves to the area, but I do hope it raises awareness of a region that has so much to offer.

First, there is its affordability. In downtown Cincinnati, I bought dinner for four at a restaurant and spent about $80. Napa Valley’s French Laundry charges a $150 corkage fee just for the privilege of bringing in your own wine into the eatery. (I know that it is one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, but you get my point.)

Tied to the affordability is housing. Every Angeleno knows how sky-high rents have created a bevy of problems in the city. To be fair, Cincinnati’s weather undoubtedly has a prohibitive effect on homelessness. However, it is unquestionably easier and cheaper to find housing. And you get a lot more room for your buck.

But more than anything, there’s the culture. Both Cincinnati and Los Angeles residents are very kind people who, unlike in other regions in America, are affable and open to strangers. But the thing that gives Cincy an edge is its lack of pretentiousness.

You may not like what I’m about to say, SoCal. But you know it’s true.

Yes, your mountains, bodies of water and deserts are masterpieces, but you can’t truly enjoy these natural wonders when you’re staring at them through the lens of your phone. You can’t enjoy the company of your closest friends when you’re busy wondering what photographed moments will look like on a digital platform.

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Here’s one example. I recently held a small brunch at my place in Hollywood. A friend of mine took a photo of the meal and all the guests who attended and put it on Instagram. Soon after, another friend of mine screamed: “You put that photo on your main gram? I mean, you do you.” Apparently my carnitas tacos and French toast were only worth the temporary feed on profiles known as “Stories.”

I love Los Angeles and all of her opportunities, diversity and culture. But I will never forget the thought I had while careening down the hill covered in mud: This is gross, potentially embarrassing, and a moment I will cherish until the day I die.

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Some fans cannot believe the 33-year wait is over. Karen Clemons is still coming to terms with the news.

She and her father, R.D. Clemons, have had Bengals season tickets for 25 years. They have seen their beloved team through ups and downs. But, this year they soared to the top. She still can’t believe it.

“Every time a Super Bowl commercial comes on, I always look up and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s us,’” she tells me.

The pair are coming to Inglewood to see their team take on the Rams. But first, they have to make a big decision: What to wear? Karen had to don multiple jackets and pants for previous games they attended against the Titans and the Raiders.

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But it shouldn’t be too hard for Karen to find something to wear. She says she has enough Bengals clothing “to wear something different for two months straight.”

R.D. Clemons and daughter Karen Clemons
R.D. Clemons and daughter Karen Clemons are longtime diehard Bengals fans who are coming to Inglewood for the Super Bowl.
(Karen Clemons)

Although there will not be a viewing party at Paul Brown Stadium on game day, the city is still celebrating the team’s achievement. A pep rally was held Monday in the arena; fans had grabbed all 30,000 free tickets that were given out.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, the city is hosting jamborees that include a light show, an ice skating get-together and a party downtown. But for many, the fact that the team has made it this far already has significance.

“It’s amazing just to see them at this point and how hard they’ve worked,” says Karen Clemons. “I think the biggest thing is, people doubted us. They didn’t really think that we would get this far.”

I’m still grappling with the news myself. However, it will feel very real Sunday when I’m in the stadium covering the event for the Los Angeles Times. And I’ll admit: I might post a selfie on Instagram.

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