I can count on one finger the amount of times in my life where I cried both tears of joy and tears of complete sadness in a three minute span.
On January 22, 1989, I was clinging to my 14th row seat at Joe Robbie Stadium (now Landshark Stadium) in Miami hoping against all hope that my Cincinnati Bengals, who had been 4-11 one year prior, could shock the football world and beat the seven-point favorite San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.
Only nine days earlier, I had celebrated what almost became the worst birthday ever when my parents told me I wouldn’t be going to the game. And in case you’re wondering, it wasn’t a ticket issue they based their decision on, it was an age issue.
They told me that seven years old was too young for the Super Bowl. I told them that I would cry from the moment they left until the second they got home if they didn’t include me in the itinerary.
After an hour of heated discussion between my parents came to a compromise: if I could name every mascot in the NFL, I could go to the Super Bowl. Well, not to brag, but I was a 7-year-old encyclopedia, which meant I named all the mascots and I was heading to Miami for football heaven: the Super Bowl!
With me in tow, my brother, my two older sisters and my mom headed down to South Beach on Wednesday of Super Bowl week. My dad had gone down a couple days earlier for work.
The funny thing about my parents saying that the Super Bowl is no place for a seven-year-old is that they couldn’t have been more right. In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXIII my mom and dad were covering more things up then Richard Nixon’s press secretary.
Thanks to riots in Miami, the Bengals hotel (where my family was staying) was locked down like a state prison. The team had escorts everywhere they went to ensure safety. I’m not a parent yet, but I don’t know how exactly I’ll explain race riots to my seven-year-old if he ever asks.
My parents decided to take the safe route; they said nothing about the riots. They only told me that there were parts of the city that weren’t safe for children. Now that I look back on it, that probably qualified for the understatement of 1989.
However, it was a crisis averted for my parents, I accepted their explanation about the riots and I never asked why there was smoke only blocks from our hotel (The 49ers had moved hotels to somewhere further away from the city, the Bengals chose not to move, instead keeping their place which was just down the street from the heart of the riots).
My parents probably thought that after they had somewhat explained the riots to me that they would be done teaching life lessons for the week. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The night before the game, Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson was found in his hotel room by running backs coach Jim Anderson. Wilson was doped up on an absurd amount of cocaine.
I was a pretty astute seven-year-old, so when I found out Wilson wasn’t playing, I had to know why. I had the privilege of going to the Bengals walk-through on the Saturday before the game and he had been there. Anyone who has a seven-year-old child knows that they won’t stop asking questions until they get a reasonable answer and even then, they might not stop talking.
My parents probably endlessly debated what to tell me, in the end, they let someone else do it.
My 14-year-old brother broke the news to me, “Stanley Wilson was caught peeing on a sidewalk, so they can’t let him play.”
When I think about this statement now, I smile. I mean there’s no way on God’s green earth that anyone was going to tell me that the guy had a hardcore drug addiction and that he had relapsed 18 hours before kickoff. I was seven for heaven’s sake. My parents probably had my brother tell me the cover-up story about Wilson because I had a penchant for believing anything and everything that came out of his mouth.
The funny thing is that I believed the Wilson sidewalk story with every bone in my body until the advent of the internet. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school in 1996 that I found out the truth. For nine years, I thought Stanley Wilson peed on a sidewalk.
After it was announced that Wilson wouldn’t be playing in the game, the Bengals only had hours to rework their gameplan, an impossible task for any coach. Wilson’s key blocks from the fullback position had played a pivotal role in the emergence of rookie sensation Ickey Woods during the 1988 season.
Without Wilson in the Super Bowl lineup, the Bengals, who had averaged a league-leading 378-yards a game on the season, were held to a paltry 223-yards. Even worse, the league’s number one ranked ground attack was shut down, only netting 106-yards, a far cry below their 169-yard average.
I’ll skip most of the game details; most football fans probably remember Super Bowl XXIII pretty well. NFL.com ranked it the best Super Bowl of all-time in 2006.
If you’re a Bengals fan and you’re going to read any further, you might want to get a box of Kleenex.
The heart and soul of the Bengals defense, nose tackle Tim Krumrie, broke his leg early on in the game. If you’ve ever seen a replay, you know it’s not for the faint of heart. Krumrie’s leg does a complete 360, something legs are not designed to do.
The teams traded field goals in the first two quarters and the game was knotted at 3 going into the half.
The second half provided me and everyone in attendance with the fireworks that the halftime show lacked. It also gave me the two most exhilarating moments in my life as a sports fan. Although it’s disappointing that they both happened when I was seven, they did cement my Bengals fandom forever.
Late in the third quarter, after a Mike Cofer field goal tied the game at six, you could feel the nervous tension coming from the 75,129 fans in attendance.
On the ensuing kickoff, the most miraculous thing in the world happened. Bengals kick returner Stanford Jennings fielded the football at the seven-yard line. 30-yards later, he was up the middle and out in the open. The crowd stood and hoped.
Jennings would race 93-yards and outrun San Francisco’s Harry Sydney for the first touchdown of the game. Bengals fans were beside themselves; handing out hugs and high fives to anyone in stripes.
Jennings’ return represented the first touchdown of the day for either team. For Bengals fans, there was no reason to think the game wasn’t in the bag. The 49er offense had settled for field goal attempts the whole day.
Things calmed down on the Bengals side of the stadium early in the fourth quarter after Jerry Rice caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana to tie things up. One play earlier, Bengals defensive back Lewis Billups had dropped a gift interception from ‘Joe Cool.’ Bengals fans are still haunted by the drop.
With the game tied at 13, fans began to wonder if Super Bowl XXIII was headed for overtime.
Midway through the fourth quarter, San Francisco had a chance to take the lead, but Cofer missed his second field goal of the day which allowed the Bengals to take over on their own 32-yard line.
After 10-plays and 45-yards, the Bengals drive stalled. Fourth down.
With 3:24 left in the game, my dad, Bengals kicker Jim Breech, came out to attempt a 40-yard field goal. If you’ve ever been nervous watching a play in your life, multiply that feeling by infinity.
My mom, who didn’t attend the Bengals first Super Bowl because I was being born, looked like she might faint. My siblings and I were holding hands, willing our dad to “please make it, please make it, please make it.” Our priest, who thank god, we invited to the game, was praying for him to knock it through.
My dad had already hit from 34 and 43-yards on the day, but this wasn’t the same thing. This was to put the Cincinnati Bengals ahead in the final minutes of SUPER BOWL XXIII. Almost 100 million people were watching the game worldwide, some of them cheering for my dad to make it, some hoping he would shank it.
If I were in my dad’s shoes, I would have thrown up just thinking about the magnitude of the kick.
Before 1989, Super Bowls that went down to the wire were almost non-existent, which means the chance to try a clutch field goal had really never presented itself. Jim O’Brien nailed a game-winner for the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, but that had been 18 years before. Now it was going to happen again.
The inspired underdog from Cincinnati was one snap away from stealing a Super Bowl from mighty San Francisco.
As the snap headed into the hands of holder Lee Johnson, I closed my eyes. I had never closed my eyes for a play before and I haven’t done it since, but I couldn’t bear to watch. My seven-year-old heart was about to beat out of my chest. The grip of my sister’s hand on my hand became so tight, fingers on both our hands were turning blue.
Then the cheering happened and it wasn’t from the 49er side of the stadium. It was all around me, I was engulfed by jubilation. Not only had the field goal gone in, it had split the uprights. My dad was being mobbed by teammates. The Bengals were up 16-13 with only 3:20 to play.
At that moment, Who-Dey nation was filled with a sense of joy that very few Bengals fans have ever had the chance to experience. If you saw the game that day and you’re a Bengals fan, you know the happiness and elation I’m talking about. It’s a feeling that has now been noticeably absent for the better part of 20 years.
Unfortunately, the game didn’t end there. With 3:10 left and starting from his own 8-yard line, Joe Montana did what Joe Montana does, which is break hearts.
In this instance, Montana didn’t just break hearts, he shattered dreams. Montana-to-Taylor. Montana-to-Taylor. It’s unbelievable that three words can mean something so different to so many people. My dad, who was the sure-fire MVP if the Bengals had won, still can’t watch this Super Bowl.
As Bengals fans filed out of the stadium, they were a bag of mixed emotions: some cried, some were still in shock, but everyone seemed to understand that they had just witnessed a game that history will never forget.
The loss in Super Bowl XXIII capped the 1988 Bengals season, a season that sealed my fate as a fan. For better or worse, I’m handcuffed to this franchise for life.