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I first attended an NFL game in the final week of the 1979 season.  It was a little more than 90 days past my 6th birthday, and my Dad had scored tickets for a heated AFC Central showdown between the 3-12 Cincinnati Bengals & the 9-6 Cleveland Browns.

Clash of the Ohio titans.

Sure, it wasn’t my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, but I worried not. “ A real game of NFL football!”, my Mom excitedly declared as my Dad poured warmth into the plaid thermos that matched our stadium blanket.

Me and my Dad. A guys’ trip to Riverfront.

I’d fallen in love with the NFL via the weekly “Play the Pros” contest in the Indianapolis News. Each week, my Dad and I would meticulously scout each matchup- me using different word associations to memorize each team’s starting QB- all in the quest to win that week’s coveted $200 prize.

I swigged milk each night from Bengals or Bears pint glasses my parents had gotten for a fill up at the local Shell. But, truthfully, both teams represented for me little more than the closest gateway to the game I dreamed to see in person. On that cold December day of 1979, Riverfront it was. Jack Thompson and Pete Johnson overcoming Brian Sipe to a thrilling 16-12 win.

A few weeks later, I intently watched the first Super Bowl I can vividly recall. Steelers- Rams in Pasadena.  My Dad was in the steel business in those days, and the Steelers rivaled the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s team.”. The Colts were toiling their way through Bert Jones injuries to a 5 win season, and, as I entered elementary school, the thought of them escaping to my city at the end of my 5th grade year was not even close to the radar.  So, when it came to picking a team- Cowboys or Steelers it was. For me, it was black & gold.

It would stand to reason Sunday’s Super Bowl would invoke in me a passion and nostalgia of sports and heroes and childhood and my Dad. Isn’t that what sports are? A longing for that high of your first game, your team’s first title, the time you finally saw your Grandpa unleash tears of joy? Or in this case- just a reminder of the days when a meaningless late December game between 2 teams from a neighboring state made a lifetime memory so rich you still have the ticket stub.

The Rams have some meaning to me, too. Sure, they were the opponent in the first championship game that meant life to me, but those helmets. Damn if I didn’t love those helmets.

Their 1979 version had a QB with a cool name (Vince Ferragamo) a Linebacker with a broken leg (Jack Youngblod) and they hailed not far from the magical stadium (The Rose Bowl) where that Super Bowl was being played. Lynn Swann made a catch in that game that cemented a Pittsburgh win and further cultivated my captivation with the NFL

– the Rams secured, to me, as a cool, yet harmless franchise.

They stayed that way until the early 2000s when the Rams kinda became my life. An aspiring sports broadcaster, I eagerly accepted my first full-time on air position as a reporter for Fox Sports Net in St. Louis, covering the relocated Rams and the “greatest show on turf”. Those were fun teams to cover- with Warner and Faulk and Holt and Bruce- but professional objectivity forces one to watch from afar- your fandom doesn’t spill in. Thus, the Rams were again a team I watched, but avoided rooting interests.

I knew of today’s Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who jettisoned his franchise away from the Gateway to the West back to the riches from where it came- and I know, while L.A. was the original home to the Rams, of the discord he left on the banks of the Mississippi. The wound is still raw to so many of the folks in the great city where I got my first break.

None the less, I’ve got a ton of respect for the way in which the Rams have gone about their business. It’s one thing to talk about “all chips in.” It’s another to act it. From trading for Ramsey, Stafford and Miller, to taking a flyer on Beckham, the Rams saw a window and went for it. Gotta respect that.

The Bengals are different. Their fortunes changed with the selection of Joe Burrow, but let’s not pretend that having a #1 pedigree QB guarantees fortune- the haunt of Carsons Palmer’s knee still looms over the banks of the Ohio. The Bengals have skillfully added young talent around Burrow, while adding to an established work horse complimentary back.

It’s a fascinating matchup of two franchises finding success with the same formula- riding a big armed QB and a Defense that can harass the other team’s signal caller. One team may need to win now before the price they paid to get here catches up with them. The other may need to win now before their roster realizes they’re not supposed to be here.

So who do I think will win? Well- in this case I’m gonna think with my heart over my head. Not having the obligation of a professional objectivity affords me that from time to time.

I think about the video from a local market newspaper of all those fans watching their team make it to the Super bowl. I think about how that’s what sports are-  the chance to recapture your youth. To chase that high. To relive the first time you saw your team win, or your Grandpas cry tears of joy over a victory they never thought they’d see.

Or in my case- rekindling a memory of a jubilant Mom seeing her son packing a stadium blanket and hot chocolate thermos on a quest to see his first NFL game. A guys’ trip to Riverfront. A trip to see the team he’d pull for in a Super Bowl nearly a half century later.

Who Dey?! Go Bengals. Bring it home.

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