He sat in the bar he owns, the one just down the street from Paul Brown Stadium, the one that opened nearly 11 years ago but never has been more perfectly named than now.
The Holy Grail.
Jim Moehring first described the victory that caused him to tear up, then the one that netted his bar a game ball, and finally the triumph that stunk of sweet cigar smoke.
Three weeks. Three wins. One topic.
“Here we are talking about the Bengals in February,” he said. “We haven’t done that in 30 years. Well, that Super Bowl was in January. So we’ve never done that. Ever.”
Yes, the Bengals have outlasted everything from their wanting history to their loaded conference to their unyielding doubters on a title-game run foreseen only by those fans looking with their hearts.
And for 33 years this team has teased and tested, even twisted the hearts of its faithful. Now, a franchise locally famous for splitting apart souls is bringing a city together.
“All the bumps along the way — no, not bumps — major road blocks …” Moehring, 54, said, “all the questioning of ownership and the questioning of desire and the questioning of everything else … everybody’s just galvanized now.”
This is what’s coming to meet the Rams in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium, a region unified by a team that has knocked off the AFC’s top seeds in consecutive weeks and swallowed completely the notion that it’s some sort of underdog.
In L.A., questions persist about where the Rams and Chargers fit in the sports landscape. There are no such issues here in an addicted city with a major Bengals problem.
Cincinnati hasn’t been this far since the 1988 season — Jan. 22, 1989, to be precise — and only twice total, losing both times. The town’s storied baseball franchise has won five World Series titles, true, but none since 1990.
Suddenly, in the span of three January weekends of “Who Dey” hysteria, this city is the happiest place on earth.
“The Bengals aren’t the only ones going to the Super Bowl,” local restaurateur Jeff Ruby said. “The city of Cincinnati and all of northern Kentucky are going too. It’s like they’re on the same plane. It was our team when they were losing. It’s certainly going to be our team when they’re winning.”
He is popular enough around here that recently, as he was receiving his COVID-19 booster, the person administering the shot asked, “Hey, aren’t you ‘Bengal Jim’?”
Jim Foster earned that nickname while growing up because he almost always dressed in Bengals gear, a kid whose imagination was first captured by the team’s colorful uniforms.
Now 51, Foster hasn’t missed a home game in nearly 30 years. He and nine friends — they call themselves “The Bengal Roadies” — have attended every game this season, home and away.
He has a podcast that has counted Cris Collinsworth and Anthony Munoz among its guests, a room in his home he called a “museum” of Bengals artifacts and a bus painted in tiger stripes.
Three of his four sons have Bengals-inspired middle names: Corey Anderson, for Ken; Cameron Curtis, for Isaac; and Aaron Riley, for Ken.
Cincinnati nominated Foster for the NFL’s “Fan of the Year” campaign, a tribute to his relentless optimism, a belief that remained intact even during the desolate David Shula/Bruce Coslet years beginning in the early 1990s.
Foster could be the very face of Cincinnati sports — round and full, with dark-rimmed glasses tucked under a Bengals bucket hat. He is the smiling face these days, Foster redefining jolly in a place that each December stages a SantaCon.
“I love the Reds,” he said. “But there’s nothing that brings this city together like the Bengals. There’s way more passion around this team. Nothing here compares to the Bengals when they’re doing well.”
If Foster’s fandom has a signature, he has written it in the parking lot of the team’s stadium for every home game since 1993. “Before the Roar” is a tailgate party that, before the Bengals played Las Vegas on wild-card weekend, attracted 2,000 people.
In Nashville for the divisional round — yes, “Before the Roar” has gone on the road during the playoffs and will travel to Super Bowl LVI — an estimated 5,000 people showed up.
Along with spreading the orange-and-black gospel, “Bengal Jim” and his tailgates annually raise money for charity. Thanks to Cincinnati’s success this season, he said they could reach $60,000, four times the previous best.
“This city desperately needs a winner,” Foster said. “Well, they got one.”
Joe Burrow will stand tall at SoFi Stadium. That’s not a prediction but a fact. He’ll stand 25 feet tall.
The giant, inflatable likeness arrived in November, custom-made in China, and — much like the Bengals’ young star quarterback — quickly was a sensation. He even has his own Twitter account: @BigBurrow9.
“It has become a beacon,” said Craig Johnson, one of Foster’s cohorts. “We used to get at least 20 questions a week from newbies as to where the tailgate is located. Now, the answer is, ‘It’s underneath Big Burrow!’”
Burrow as a beacon? Works in real life too. His arrival as the No. 1 overall pick in 2020 was the central move in a push bolstered by consecutive years of significant free-agent spending.
He has an ability, confidence and charisma around which this franchise — and city — has rallied. In a strikingly brief amount of time, Burrow has become part of Cincinnati’s core.
If you walk into The Precinct, one of Ruby’s restaurants, you can order the Steak Burrow, a 14-ounce, blackened New York strip that is Cajun-based as a nod to the quarterback’s time at Louisiana State.
The dish is finished with a crawfish and a splash of creole sauce. To understand how much people here are devouring everything Burrow, realize that a man recently ordered his dessert in the same style, Ruby’s staff serving up a crustacean-topped wedge of cheesecake.
“He’s Cincinnati’s answer to Joe Namath,” said Ruby, who has been in the restaurant business for 40-plus years. “If he were any cooler, he’d be illegal in Utah and some other conservative states.”
Burrow joined the Bengals nearly two years ago, but didn’t truly arrive until this playoff run, mixing his on-field substance with an off-field style that has sparkled in the glaring light of social media.
Super Bowl LVI coverage
From his rose-colored Cartier C Décor glasses to his “JB9” chain — the one GQ described as “icy” — Burrow has become as viral-worthy before and after games as he typically is in the time between.
At age 69, Dave Lapham has watched this all unfold with wonder. He was an offensive lineman on the Cincinnati team that made Super Bowl XVI in 1982 and now, as part of the radio crew, has surpassed 45 years with the franchise.
“We captivated the city and the tri-state area back then too, but that was before social media,” Lapham said. “Now, it’s like someone has poured gasoline on the fire.”
Still, for all of Burrow’s flash, he possesses a grit that’s as Cincinnati as all those flying pig statues around town.
That quality never was more on display than during the Bengals’ 19-16 victory over the Titans two weeks ago. In that game, Burrow was sacked nine times and yet his team never trailed.
“There’s this kindred thing within the city about that, about getting knocked down but not out,” said Dan Wright, the chef/owner of Pontiac restaurant in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhine neighborhood. “His swagger has people around here realizing that same sort of confidence in themselves.”
Just around the corner from Paul Brown Stadium stands another version of Burrow: a mannequin dressed in his No. 9 uniform.
The faux Joe greets everyone walking into Koch Sporting Goods, a Cincinnati tradition, as the sign out front reads, “since 1888,” when this place opened as mainly a supplier of theater curtains.
In the back of the store sits 39-year-old Eric Koch, who represents the fifth generation of the family. He‘s unpacking boxes of Super Bowl LVI T-shirts, attempting to keep up with the spiking demand. Koch said January sales were up 300% from a year ago. He estimated the increase from February 2021 could be 600%.
“That just speaks to the civic pride that the citizens of Cincinnati are having right now,” Koch said. “They feel good. They’re puffing their chest out. They’re on the same level as a Los Angeles, at least for two weeks.”
The fact that he is sitting cross-legged on the floor, in an area cordoned off by racks of clothes, is a fitting image. There’s no room in the store’s normal unloading area because of the 1,000 Super Bowl hats that just arrived.
Such a snapshot is telling. And there are others:
• People lining up outside Cincy Shirts in nearby Hyde Park on Monday morning despite being told the store wouldn’t re-open until Tuesday.
• The city of Hillsboro, 55 miles east of Cincinnati, temporarily changing its name to Hillsburrow.
• A local couple deciding a Super Bowl berth would result in a head shaving. So, when the Bengals win the AFC, she goes through with it.
“Cincinnati is such a great sports town,” said Anderson, who quarterbacked the Bengals to that first Super Bowl appearance. “There’s so much pride here in our sports teams. That’s one of the things us old guys lean on.”
There is pride in these Bengals, to be sure, the connection as tight as the laces on a Wilson football. After each postseason victory, the team has handed out game balls to local businesses.
Coach Zac Taylor explained that he wanted the city to share in the team’s success, noting that his players — particularly the younger ones — “might not understand the significance” of what the Bengals have accomplished.
Of course, this is a new tradition, and Cincinnati still is relearning how to celebrate. So, when the 38-year-old Taylor stopped at the Mt. Lookout Tavern to present it with a game ball, he was carded and then briefly denied entry because he didn’t have his driver’s license.
The Holy Grail received its game ball after the Tennessee win. Displaying the ball at the bar, Moehring is more than willing to share it with his patrons, since the idea of sharing is what landed the thing here in the first place.
A few days ago a policeman for the city stopped in after nearby S.W.A.T. training and asked if he could see the ball.
“Here’s this rough, tough guy — a commander, a lieutenant — all of a sudden cradling this football like it’s his six-month-old baby,” Moehring said, smiling. “The response has been unbelievable.”
None of this was supposed to happen, which makes the scene all over town more delightful.
The Bengals won six games combined the last two seasons and, even with Burrow on board and every arrow pointing up, the team was thought to still be a year away, at least.
Now, those arrows are pointing all the way up, into the gray, dreary, winter clouds and beyond.
“They’ve been the underdogs and that’s what this city is,” Moehring said. “It’s a blue-collar city that’s usually the underdog. I think we’re starting to sense that America loves the underdog.”
Perhaps, but not as much as Cincinnati does, this parched city just one win away from tipping back football’s holy grail.
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