Tonight, the biggest American sports story so far in 2020 will take place a few miles up the highway in The Plains when the Cincinnati Bengals pick Joe Burrow with the first overall selection in the NFL Draft. Burrow reportedly will be at his folks’ home watching as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking remotely from his home in New York, reads out Burrow’s name.
(Don’t worry. I promptly knocked on wood after writing that lead to avoid jinxing the evening for Mr. Burrow… and the Bengals… and all those lucky enough to find someone to take their bet on Burrow getting picked first.)
This also will be the biggest American sports story since, yep, Joe Burrow led the LSU Tigers to a triumphant college championship victory over Clemson on Jan. 13.
Granted, the bar isn’t quite as high for the biggest sports stories so far this year, considering hardly any actual games of consequence have been played. The NFL Draft will still go on remotely despite the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s hard to think of another off-the-field story as compelling as Burrow’s rise to the top of college football and likely coronation as the first overall draft pick in America’s most popular professional sports league. (Kobe Bryant’s tragic death is the only other story I can think of that comes close, aside from the very fact that the sports world went dark in March. OK, you win; maybe that's the biggest sports story.)
Burrow’s pick by the Bengals also will mark an important milestone for yours truly. I have all but decided if the Bengals pick Burrow, I will shift my longstanding NFL allegiance from the Cleveland Browns to Cincinnati. I’ll still root for the Browns if they start playing better, but my main focus will be on Burrow and the Bengals.
In a way, this will be a return to my childhood roots… well, part of my youth anyway. In a persistent quest to stand out in a family with six boys, I always tried to be different. One way of being excessively, almost neurotically different in the Akron suburb where I grew up was to abandon the Browns and root for the Bengals. So, in junior high (50 years ago) I did exactly that for a few years till I got tired of being different and went back to pulling for the Browns (and what a mistake that was!).
I remember the names of some Bengals at the time – running backs (or fullbacks) Jess Phillips, Essex Johnson and Paul Robinson, quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Sam Wyche, tight-end Bob Trumpy, wide receiver Speedy Thomas, super-kicker Horst Muhlmann, and, and, well, that’s about it. My memory’s not that good.
Switching from Browns to Bengals will be easier now that the Columbus TV network affiliates will have a strong incentive to choose Cincinnati games over Cleveland games to broadcast Sunday afternoons. And the Burrow-led Bengals likely will get slotted into Primetime broadcasts more than in recent years.
Joe Burrow’s Bengals may struggle as Peyton Manning suggested to Burrow in a recent conversation, reminiscing about his own disappointing first year with the Indianapolis Colts. Yet, the Colts went from a 3-13 season in Manning’s debut year of 1998 to 13-3 the following season, propelling Manning to a legendary career in the NFL.
But the hell with that 3 and 13 stuff. My hope is that Burrow takes the Bengals to the playoffs in his first year. I’m not getting any younger, having wasted so many years – decades upon decades damn it – rooting for the hapless Browns. This football fan doesn’t have many more losing seasons left in him (last season I avoided that bummer by not paying attention at all, which really wasn't as bad as it sounds).
Yet, I wouldn’t be a Browns fan for so many years without letting some of their dogged curse rub off on me. Wouldn’t it be a fitting send-off if Brownie the Leprechaun (or whatever he is) manipulated the gods of sport tonight and instead of the Bengals, somehow through a miraculous series of events sent Joe Burrow to the Baltimore Ravens, or heaven help us, the Pittsburgh Steelers?
If that happens, I’ll just have one plea… Please say it ain’t so, Joe!