Photo of an outfit only the fanatical would consider placing their child in.
by Keith Aksel
There’s no obvious reason for me to support the Cincinnati Bengals. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, I was conveniently located between Cincinnati and Cleveland, ultimately giving me the option to pick either the Browns or Bengals to follow. My mother and her family lived in the Marion, Ohio area (about 50 miles north of Columbus) for generations before I came along. They all grew up rooting for the Cleveland Browns and Indians, and it makes sense that I would have followed in their footsteps. But, I didn’t. I had no personal connections to Cincinnati- no family members or friends were from there- yet I dove in headlong as a Bengals fan, following my father who years before I was born made a choice to follow the Black and Orange.
My dad and had no ties to Ohio sports, or any American sports for that matter. He emigrated from Turkey to the US in the late 1970s by himself, bringing only a love for soccer with him (which he also passed on to his sons). As the story goes, when he first met my mother’s family in Marion, her four brothers inquired about his favorite American football team. Having little knowledge of the game beyond the major teams in the area, he wisely asked my uncles first which team they supported. “Cleveland,” they emphatically replied. My father’s response to this would prove enormous for not only his sports future in this country, but that of his next generation. “You like Cleveland? OK, I guess I like Cincinnati.” And so it began. A small contrarian moment led to a now decades-long quiet feud between the Cincinnati-loving Aksels and the Cleveland-loyal, and appropriately-named, Brown family.
As a kid, I formed my sports interest directly alongside Dad. I always wanted Bengals clothes and hung Bengals memorabilia on my wall. Even in the darkest days of the mid-90s, I pulled for Cincinnati like nothing else mattered in life. When Doug Pelfrey hit a game winning field goal in 1995 over the Vikings to give Cincinnati a subpar 7-9 record, I saved the next day’s Columbus Dispatch cover for posterity. It was that serious.
There’s a point we all pass in life where the teams we root for become unshakeable parts of us. If you root for a team long enough, you can’t go back even if they sicken and disappoint you every year. That moment long passed for me. Like a Labrador who instinctively retrieves even when you know he doesn’t want to, I pull for Cincinnati as if I have no choice. Ugly performances on big stages year after year can’t change that. And it is all because of Dad.
I hate the Bengals and I love them, a relationship more or less mirrored by my father’s relationship to the team. Every fall, the story repeats itself. Dad and I gripe about the impending collapses we know are coming every year under the Mike Brown regime. I am jealous that he got to witness the Bengals’ two Super Bowl visits even though they lost, simply because he remembers when the franchise was something more than a sad punchline and easy money for Vegas bettors.
On a larger scale, fathers hold enormous weight regarding who we hang our hats on as fans. It isn’t just me- most of my friends root for teams their fathers also loved, and our interactions with our dads are often based off of conversations about those teams. For me, that conversation is now going on three decades long, hard to believe for a guy who at a few points swore off the Bengals as a punishment fit for only his worst enemies.
Dads shape us in the usual ways. They teach us life lessons and skills, and serve as role models for us. But, they also show us the ropes in sports fandom. They dress us up in their favorite sports team onesies as babies, and watch us continue to wear those same colors into adulthood- what satisfaction they must feel! Although not as important as teaching us how to navigate the real world issues we face in life, is there any easier evidence of fathers’ effects on us than who they teach us to root for?
Dads are like instructors in the ways of fandom. More than any history book or media write-up, fathers instruct many of us in the traditions and histories of our teams. They are the first to explain the heartaches and jubilations that defined the team’s past as they indoctrinate us into what it means to be a fan. For instance, I know ex-Bengals quarterback Kenny Anderson should be in the Hall of Fame not because of my own research, but because Dad told me so when I was eight.
In this way, fathers are the first and most direct channels we have to our favorite team’s past. We understand our teams first through the eyes of our fathers before we learn to form our own impressions of them, but those old impressions never fully go away. I still vicariously remember Tim Krumrie’s injury in Super Bowl XXIII simply because I’ve heard the story a million times from the old man. Similar sentiments were no doubt shared by a generation of young Cleveland Cavaliers fans this past Father’s Day, when they witnessed the Cavs secure an NBA Championship. Those fans may have been too young to remember life before LeBron, but their fathers would have been sure to teach them about long suffering that defined the experience of being a Cleveland fan.
My father, for better or for worse, taught me to root for the bungling Cincinnati Bengals, a choice that has followed me from my childhood in Ohio, and subsequent moves to New York and Colorado. The same process will undoubtedly be repeated with my own children one day (I’ve already brainwashed my very girly wife into believing that the Bengals matter in our house). But when those kids grow up, they will be taught that their allegiance to a perpetually-sinking Bengals ship doesn’t come from me; their grandpa is to blame.
In a way, this website is a testament to our fathers. If our interests in sports are sparked by their guidance, then we have them to thank for our work on this platform. To all dads who have, or plan to, turn their kids into the next generation of their favorite team’s supporters, we thank you from the bottom of our brainwashed fanatical hearts.