Fri, 07 May 2021

Bengals Founder Paul Brown Still Abounds At PBS

Cincinnati Bengals
14 Apr 2021, 21:58 GMT+10

Geoff Hobson

Paul Brown never stepped foot in Paul Brown Stadium, yet his fingerprints are all over the place just like they are in every NFL yard. But when the club throws his signature fedora into the Ring of Honor later this year, his hat is to hang in a place familiar with the man himself.

From the corner office of Bengals president Mike Brown, the man that ran the club with his father during the first 23 seasons of the franchise, all the way down the food chain to the press box, there are people at PBS that knew Paul Brown when he was a man and not a stadium.

Sometime during a practice in his last season as the Bengals president and general manager, Paul Brown approached a lonely scribe in his first year on the Bengals beat in a strange city in a foreign part of the country hunched over a notebook on the sideline.

"Mind if I tell you something?" P.B. asked and the overwhelmed scribe, realizing the man who invented pro football was about to impart some advice, didn't care if it involved criticism.

"Sure, Coach," the scribe said, thinking, "You can tell me anything you want."

"I'm worried about your posture," Paul Brown said of the scribe's corkscrew stance before launching into the dangers of scoliosis and the importance of preventing curvature of the spine with the ease of the high school teacher he was back in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio during the Depression.

As P.B. kept walking down the sidelines on his appointed rounds, the scribe thanked him. A decade later at another practice, the scribe mentioned the moment to the man whom helped Brown write his book.

"Imagine," the scribe said to Jack Clary. "A guy like that taking the time to talk about that to a guy like me."

"How do you think," Clary asked the scribe, "a guy like that became a guy like that?"

That was 1990 when Eric Ball, now the team's director of player relations, played his second season as a back-up running back. He remembers P.B.'s annual talk in the first meeting of training camp as his teammates and coaches sardined into the team room at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio.

"That phrase. I'll never forget it," Ball says. "I remember it to this day.

'Everyone is important, but no one is necessary.'

"I'll never forget that."

Mike Brown has the title now. He gives that training camp speech and has since the year his dad died two weeks into the camp of 1991. He uses his own words, but they roll out of the partnership with his father.

"I respected him the way a son respects a father, but I also had a huge respect for him when it came to how he went about his job," Mike Brown says. "To this day he's the template I have in mind when we do things. I'm aware of how I think he would have done them. I have a tendency to put that forward. It's the basis of my belief as how to run this team. It all stems from him."

They both like to use yellow legal notepads to jot down their ideas. Check in on Mike Brown and he's got a couple of them going at once. He's got memories of his father propped up in bed scribbling away on a pad, as if the office couldn't wait.

MIKE BROWN: "He could get to the core of matters and state what the issue was where others would flounder about in what were really peripheral matters. I think he was far sighted. Look at all the things he did as a coach. I guess the word is monumental and what it brought to football. He really brought the classroom to football. The coaches of today don't know where a lot of the things they do came from. There was a time no one did those things. He initiated so much of that. It's quite remarkable the extent of it."

Ball didn't realize it himself until he was long retired and joined the club in his current role 21 years ago. About a decade ago, part of the NFL rookie symposium took place at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ball learned as much as the Bengals draft class.

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"So many accomplishments," Ball says. "The impact he had on coaching by creating the playbook. The communication from the huddle to the sideline to film to the integration of the game, the face mask. Those things, you really weren't aware of it. You had thought they were just there. It was because of him they're part of the game."

The individual teams now run their own rookie symposiums and there are no more trips to the Hall of Fame. But Ball makes sure he brings Canton to every Bengals rookie class. Every year he shows them the documentary "Paul Brown: A Football Life."

Paul Sparling, the Bengals head certified athletic trainer, had been a rookie just three years after Brown coached his last game. In 1978, Sparling "was a little snot-nosed kid from Wilmington College," that held the title of "laundry boy" at training camp.

"Everybody called him, 'Coach.'" Sparling says. "I've heard the word 'gravitas,' used. He had subtle gravitas. It was there. You knew it. You knew you were around somebody special. There's not much he couldn't talk about. Mike is like that. He wasn't a one-trick pony. He was a great person, not just a great coach."

Sparling eventually became head trainer Marvin Pollins' assistant and enjoyed hearing the stories about Brown from Pollins and equipment manager Tom Gray. Brown rarely came into the training room and if there was business to be done he would talk to Pollins.

"But he knew who I was," Sparling says. "Always the perfect gentleman. A young kid in the midst of a legend, it was pretty damn inspiring."

Sparling grew up in Wilmington, where the towering Brown's annual return with the team for training camp had become a rite of summer. P.J. Combs, the Bengals director of media relations, is Cincinnati all the way as a school boy in Bond Hill, then Norwood, who was seduced by Brown's new breed of Bengals in 1981.

Both weren't disappointed by the man in all the headlines. Combs' parents had a subscription to the afternoon Cincinnati Post, so he used his lawn-mowing money to buy the morning Cincinnati Enquirer out of the rack to follow his club. He was 13 on Christmas Day, 1982, when he opened consecutive presents of a pair of binoculars, a Ken Anderson jersey and four tickets to his first Riverfront Stadium game against Seattle the next day.

COMBS: "I was writing for Bengals Report just as I was getting out of college and the first draft I covered was in 1991. That's when P.B. would come out and talk about the first pick (Colorado pass rusher Alfred Williams). I got there real early. Grabbed a middle seat in the front row. I was mesmerized to see Paul Brown walk in. Living legend. I asked one or two questions. I don't remember what they were. They were probably silly and worded awkwardly, but he treated me with respect and answered them thoughtfully is my recollection. Oh yeah, I was nervous."

If Travis Brammer was nervous delivering that first carton of Orange Crush to Brown's dorm room in the 1988 training camp, he didn't show it. Brammer, just like Combs and Sparling, knew all about Brown growing up. The Bengals director of video did it in West Virginia.

BRAMMER: "I would have been 18 years old going into my freshman year at Marshall. I was a camp intern for a couple of years. My focus was video, but back then you did a little bit of everything. Worked the phone room. After the pre-season games you'd unload the truck and put out the shoulder pads in the locker room. Delivered mail, messages. I remember him driving around in the white golf cart following practice. I would drop off orange pop at his room the first day of camp. He liked that orange soda.

"He was around all the time. He was a kind person. He called me, 'Young man.' He'd ask questions about yourself. He'd want to know a little bit about you. I told him I'm going to Marshall University and that I loved the game of football and this was my way of staying involved. He was a pleasant man who actually cared to ask a little about yourself. Other than just, 'Hey . . . '

SPARLING: "The thing I remember is how Marv and Tom spoke about him. How much they admired him. They were amazed that P.B. would know things going on in the office that people had no idea he knew. 'He knows? Trust me, he knows.'

The scribe knew P.B. knew everything. That's why he so desperately needed him in the middle of the night across the country. It was after a Monday night game in Seattle. Bengals head coach Sam Wyche had just plunged the club into a national, nuclear controversy when he banned a female reporter from the post-game locker room.

The scribe had one break. He was working for The Post and his first deadline wasn't until about 8 a.m. or so. He needed Paul Brown's reaction and what he planned to do. Even a no comment from such a name like Paul Brown would legitimize any story. But he rarely had no comment. The scribe had no story if he didn't get him. But how could he get a message to him? No cell phones. No e-mail. No texts. Only failure. It was well past midnight Cincinnati time and what if he couldn't get him at the office in time?

Nightmare and the scribe was wide awake with the national morning shows beckoning disaster.

To this day the scribe can't remember if and how he got a message to somebody. But at about 4 a.m. Seattle time, 7 a.m. P.B. time, he called the scribe's room at the team hotel. The only thing the scribe remembers from that conversation is Paul Brown apologizing.

"Sorry it's so early, but I knew you needed to talk to me," he told the grateful scribe.

The P.B. stories are still timely. Especially in the family. Elizabeth Blackburn, the Bengals director of strategy and engagement, was born the year after her great grandfather died. But it's like she knew him. Her father, Bengals vice president Troy Blackburn, told her a story once when they landed in California.

"P.B. ascribed to this concept where ever you land, that's the time zone," Elizabeth Blackburn says. "I don't know why, but I immediately adopted that. After college I was in a consulting job where I was traveling all over the place and it made me love traveling even more.

"He was always looking forward. Always looking for better. To me, it translates into ways of finding an edge. That's what it's going to take to make you successful."

Blackburn's mother, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, remembers both the general manager who loved those NFL competition committee meetings and the grandfather who would play gin rummy with her. Katie's younger brother, Bengals vice president Paul Brown, can remember family dinners and training camp visits.

They're really easy for him to remember when he occasionally takes out his grandfather's 1979 Coupe de Ville for a ride. There are about 42,000 miles on it and Paul Brown, now 51, figures he was about nine or 10 when P.B. took his namesake for a ride in it to training camp.

PAUL BROWN: I don't know if it was the day he got it, but he came to our house and he pulled up and I was standing in the front yard. For some reason that's in my mind. He kept messing with me because the antenna would go up and down when he turned on the radio and I thought that was so cool. He must have made that thing go up three or four times. I still think of that every time I turn the radio on in that car. It's just kind of cool to have something that was your grandfather's and you can drive it around."

KATIE BLACKBURN: "I remember going to some league meetings when I was a teenager. I think he took a lot of pride being on the competition committee. The meetings would go long. Past dinner. It meant a lot to him. That certainly makes sense given his interest in making sure football met a certain standard and how it was meant to be played. My grandfather was just one of those people that had that knack of gaining that respect when everyone interacted with him.

"I don't really remember him coaching. More when he was the general manger. How he interacted with my dad. I always thought there was a tremendous amount of respect both ways."

PAUL BROWN: "Every time we sat around the dinner table when we had family dinners, it was all about the football team. The present team. The past teams. The team, before I was around or even before the Bengals were around. He talked about all of them."

KATIE BLACKBURN: "There was always a routine to it. Very organized. When we would go out to California (La Jolla) to visit him, one day would be for Disneyland, another day for Mexico, another day for Sea World. When Troy and I got married and we went out there, I told him, here's the schedule. This is what we do."

When Elizabeth Blackburn announced the Bengals Ring of Honor last week, she did it in a conference room surrounded by her great grandfather's memorabilia that included his autobiography. It remains the Bible of Bengaldom.

BRAMMER: "One time I took his book over to his room and asked him to sign it. He inscribed it to me. Pretty cool. I still have that book up on my book shelf. It's a cool thing to have that up on the shelf."

Now it was a Sunday night game at Riverfront. No time for books. Just sheer deadline. A harried call came from the desk late in the second quarter. It seems a report had surfaced on CBS that Paul Brown had a falling out with Sam Wyche. Under penalty of death, the scribe had to get a reaction from Paul Brown.

Another nightmare. The only way to get him would be at halftime. It would be too late to get him at home after the game. If he was even at the game. Brown had been ailing throughout the season and had missed his first Bengals games ever.

He was there, it turned out, but what exactly was the etiquette for getting into his box to talk to him? And did he feel well enough? The scribe would have to find out. No one was standing in front of the door, so the scribe flung it open and the people inside were too stunned to throw him out.

P.B., clearly under the weather, was in the front row and when he turned to see the scribe in distress, Brown waved him down.

"What do you need?" P.B. asked and he broke into a grin when he heard about the CBS dispatch.

He delighted in debunking the report for a good five minutes as he enthusiastically vowed his allegiance to Wyche and all things Sam. No doubt he filled up what was most likely the notebook lead for the Monday afternoon Post.

"Coach, thank you so much. Sorry to bother you in here," said the scribe. Or something like that.

"Don't worry about it," P.B. said with a glint in his eye and a slap on the scribe's knee. "You did the right thing."

Imagine.

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