The Cincinnati Bengals spent 1968 and 1969 in the old American Football League prior to moving to the new Riverfront Stadium in the merged National Football League in 1970. Those two AFL seasons were spent in the cozy confines of Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus where a total sellout approached only about 30,000.
As an incoming sophomore in high school, I was elated when my dad said he’d ordered Bengals season tickets for 1969. The team was coached by its founder, the legendary Paul Brown of Cleveland Browns lore. They went 3-11-0 in that inaugural campaign and had significant additions for year two.
The top draft choice was quarterback Greg Cook from the University of Cincinnati who would be mentored by emerging offensive genius Bill Walsh, best known for later coaching the 49ers. The second round choice was middle linebacker Bill Bergey of Arkansas State. West German soccer-kicker Horst Muhlmann arrived to shore up the place kicking. All were immediate starters and major contributors as other positions also saw upgrades.
This was a very different economic era of pro football compared to the next half-century. Many years later I met Bergey and he recalled his first contract of three years for a total of $50,000. Appropriately, my visit with Bergey in his Philadelphia sports bar came in front of a sideline photo of Bill conversing with Paul Brown. Our tickets also reveal the economics of that era. Our face value was $6 each.
I fell in love with Nippert at first sight, a cozy place amid a large metropolitan university. I was initially concerned when I discovered that our seats were about 15 rows up in the end zone. However, my “50 yard line mentality” was incorrect. This was a great place to study and enjoy the game of football.
The AFL was known for its great passing combinations including Joe Namath to Don Maynard with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Jets. In Kansas City it was Len Dawson to Otis Taylor. KC would go on to win the next Super Bowl. The Oakland Raiders featured Daryle Lamonica to Fred Biletnikoff. Making regular connections with the San Diego Chargers were John Hadl and Lance Alworth.
All appeared in Cincinnati in 1969 and only the Jets went home with a win. These were great games to attend and enjoy. Rookie QB Cook was a real difference maker headed for greatness until a throwing shoulder injury often hampered or sidelined the Chillicothe native. The season’s greatest win actually featured Cook after that injury.
Sunday Nov. 2, 1969 was a cool clear day on the UC campus. The opponent was the Oakland Raiders of flamboyant owner Al Davis and first year head coach John Madden. The defense was known as “11 angry men.” Their kicker was ancient part-time QB George Blanda who had been a teammate of Sidney’s Dick Flanagan on the 1949 Chicago Bears. The Raiders were undefeated but would leave town with their only regular season loss of 1969. This is my favorite pro game I’ve ever attended.
The contest began with an Oakland possession and punt. Ten members of the Bengals offense went on to the field without a leader. Would Greg Cook be able to play? He and backup Sam Wyche were both in warmup jackets standing with Paul Brown awaiting his choice. Off came Cook’s coat and he headed to the field as the sellout crowd erupted.
He marched the home team to a quick touchdown, then another in the second quarter for a 14-0 lead, followed by a shocker when Brown ordered an onside kick that was recovered and led to a short Muhlmann field goal. 17-0 Bengals, soon to become 24-0 by halftime. This was beyond belief in an incredible environment. How well were things going? Fullback Jess Phillips ran for a first down on a “third and 30” delayed draw play. Everything was clicking.
The misleading final score was 31-17 as the visitors scored two late TD’s to make it somewhat close. Cook threw a pair of scoring strikes to wideout Chip Myers. The home team had five interceptions. What a day.
This was to be the last win in a 4-9-1 campaign, and the final home showing of an effective Greg Cook who could not overcome his injury. Essentially his career ended in the year it began. I still think about what might have been had he stayed healthy. Greg Cook was special.
Next week: Sidney football 1902. No coach, no problem.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross is a Sidney native and local media fixture since 1975.