Sunday, December 7, 2003

Winners get the spoils

Success has the team enjoying fabulous prizes

When you're 6-feet-2, 310 pounds with a redwood neck and arms the size of truck tires, it's hard to be mistaken for, say, a grocery clerk. It's not as if Oliver Gibson could walk around town saying, "Hi, my name is Oliver. I'm a dancer."

For his first four years here, during which the Bengals won 16 games and lost 48, being a football player could be a very bad deal. Strangers would approach him and offer coaching advice or tell him he made too much money.

"Everybody had a criticism, everybody had something negative to say about the Brown family," Gibson says. "They'd say, 'What happened? Are you ever going to win?' " Because Gibson off the field isn't the same as Gibson on it, he declined to separate their heads from their necks.

"Did you ever tell them you didn't play football?" I ask.

"Nope, but I kept it short. You're in the grocery store and somebody's got that do-you-play-football look on them. They ask you something, you say, 'Uh-huh,' get your groceries and go," Gibson says.

It was a lonely, tortured existence. And yeah, OK, wealthy. But when your whole identity is wrapped around your profession - when you've been told you're great your whole life and suddenly the formerly adoring public looks at you like a day-old perch - well, friends, there ain't enough money in the world to cure the psychic hurt in that.

And then you start to win.

"How does this year compare to the other four?" I ask.

"Heh-heh," Gibson says.

Life gets no better than it gets for an athlete on top. Merchants give him free stuff. Overnight, restaurateurs grow very long arms. They start calling him "Mister." As in, "Let us take care of that, Mister Gibson."

That lease you have on that Chevy Yukon? Let's just call it a loaner from now on, OK, big guy? And could you cut a TV spot for us?

There are other advantages. Fans stop coaching you. You don't have to live at the Wendy's drive-thru. Callers to talk radio stop questioning your ancestry. But mainly, it's the free stuff.

Nobody wins in the Free Stuff Department like jocks who win. Earlier this year, Peter Warrick did a two-minute interview with a local radio guy in the Bengals' dressing room after practice. Warrick answered no question more difficult than, What's your favorite color?

It probably took the Bengals wideout longer to dress than to do the interview. For that, Warrick got a portable DVD player, gratis.

After the Bengals upset Kansas City, Gibson advised some of his mates to cash in. "If you're going to do anything in this city - buy a car, go out to a restaurant, whatever - do it this week. A lot of these guys haven't seen the advantages" of winning, Gibson says. Having played four years in Pittsburgh, one year for a Super Bowl team, Gibson knows what he knows.

For stoking the city, nothing in the last 15 years has topped the Bengals' Super Bowl run in 1988. Not even the Reds' 1990 World Series title. If the Bengals beat the Ravens today, in their biggest game in 13 years, the town would begin assuming the same glow it wore in 1988.

Gibson says he keeps it in perspective. "My best friend is a warehouse manager at a dusty parts factory, making 12 bucks an hour, working 50 hours a week," Gibson says. Anthony Thompson lives in Chicago. "We talk every day. He snaps me back to reality."

Reality is a strange bedfellow when so much losing is followed so quickly by winning. Gibson will keep his perspective. And his wallet in his back pocket. Losing builds character. Winning builds equity.

Apocryphal story: About a decade ago, the Bengals had a cornerback named Mike Brim, whose license plate read MR BRIM. Mr. Brim thought he was special. At least until he played here.

One night, Mr. Brim tried to get into a Northern Kentucky club without paying the cover. He told the doorman he played for the Bengals, under the mistaken assumption that would carry some weight. He didn't get in for free. Rumor has it, when the money-taker heard Brim was a Bengal, he threatened to charge him double.

Come back, Mr. Brim. Things have definitely changed.



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