The watering hole door opened a couple minutes after midnight. Technically Monday morning in Cincinnati.
Zac Taylor, still dressed in a suit (no tie), engaged the cheers and immediately began dispersing high fives with his right hand. His left hand? Well, that held his precious gift, the symbol of the Cincinnati Bengals’ extraordinary rise and the hottest new tradition in sports.
A playoff victory game ball.
Taylor first delivered an honorary ball to a Cincinnati sports bar a year ago when the Bengals beat the Raiders. For every playoff win, Taylor proclaimed, he and his players would distribute more. Great idea, Zac! But what happens if you never win another one?
Taylor did indeed deliver more game balls: two more last January, two more this January. In the past eight seasons of the NFL, only four franchises have recorded more playoff wins than the Bengals. The Queen City is crazy town.
At the Rhinehaus following the Bengals’ 27-10 win over Buffalo, Taylor climbed up on a bar stool, joined a “Who Dey” chant and expressed gratitude to the patrons.
“Hey, whatever you’re wearing right now,” Taylor said, “same bar next Sunday. … Appreciate you all.”
Three years after a 2-14 season, the Bengals are so good that bar owners are having the time of their lives, anxiously awaiting when the head coach might walk through the door.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” a Rhinehaus owner told a Cincinnati radio host, Lance McAlister. “He’s in Buffalo all game, coaching, comes back, lands on the plane, gets in his car and goes straight to a bar instead of relaxing. He’s really just turned this spirit around in this city.”
As one fan joked on Twitter, “I’m gonna open a bar just so Zac Taylor will bring a game ball to it.”
Why does Taylor do it? We’ll come back to that. First, let’s make a brief stop on Highway 92.
When I think of Osceola, Nebraska — 14 miles west of my hometown — I remember little league baseball games and the nine-hole golf course. I remember my grandma backing out of an ice cream shop parking lot as her vanilla cone dripped on her hand.
“Give me the hankies!”
“What’s a hanky,” I asked.
“The whole box!”
When I think of Osceola (population 863), I do not think of Nebraska football. Not even close. In the entire history of the Huskers, Osceola has produced five letter winners, the latest being Dave Bryan in 1986.
And yet … Thursday morning, just before 7 a.m., Husker football assistant Ed Foley rolled into Osceola on Highway 92. The high school coach arrived extra early to meet him.
“I made sure we had the doors unlocked,” said Luke Ericson, an Osceola native. “I didn’t want the coach from the Huskers waiting out in the cold.”
Foley has visited dozens of high schools across the state this month. But he made a special point of seeing Osceola, even rescheduling after last week’s snowstorm. Why?
Well, Maverick Noonan’s mom is from Osceola and alerted the staff to Kale Gustafson, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior. When he isn’t participating in FFA, Gustafson plays quarterback for the eight-man Bulldogs, who went 8-2 in 2022. But he projects as a tight end or linebacker in college.
During his visit, Foley asked about Gustafson’s 40-time and broad jump. He asked to see film of Kale in basketball.
“They are diving deep,” Ericson said. “If you look at the guys they’ve recruited, that seems to be the pattern. Get some real athletic guys, then they’re coach ‘em up.”
It’s the first time in decades that a Husker coach has visited Osceola, or probably anywhere in Polk County. (Shoutout Curt Tomasevicz).
“Almost every staff says that we’re going to recruit the state hard and we’re not going to let kids leave,” Ericson said. “But they’re definitely putting their words to action. That speaks a little bit louder.”
Before Foley headed off to Columbus and Schuyler and North Bend and Fremont and Wahoo, he left a souvenir sticker on the Osceola office door.
A red “N”.
Why do we gravitate to this stuff? Why do we devour it like cheese balls at Bob’s Bar & Grill in Martinsburg, Nebraska, another Foley stop.
Seriously, the state is spending millions on tourism ads. Why not just send a camera crew with Ed Foley?
I suppose it’s part of our celebrity fascinations. The same reason some watch Harry and Meghan documentaries. But it’s something else. The more social media exposes us to everyone and everything, the more distant we feel from actual people on a screen.
When I spoke this week to a Cincinnati bartender, Josh O’Neill, he used a clever word to describe the Bengals’ game-ball visits. It “humanizes” them, said O’Neill, who works at Zip’s Cafe. “It’s cool to see them in real life just acting like normal people.”
Normal people. That’s the sense we’ve lost, right? That’s the thing that binds us emotionally and stirs us to root for these people. Because we once shook their hand. Pretty simple.
Maybe we wouldn’t roast at our political enemies if we actually shared a burger at Glur’s Tavern in Columbus.
I laugh at (some) NFL analysts who focus all evaluation on a head coach’s play-calling, or a fourth-down decision in the second quarter. Sure, it's important, but it totally discounts the value of a head coach the other 165 hours of the week.
Zac Taylor’s real strength, I believe, is his authenticity. His genuine integrity, humility and ability to connect with people. That’s how you get a team that sticks together after a devastating Super Bowl defeat and an 0-2 start. That’s how you get a team that makes so few mistakes in a Buffalo blizzard.
When you do it right, fans gravitate to good leadership the same way that players do.
In Cincinnati, Bengals fans are heading out to bars after playoff wins on the off chance that Zac Taylor might stop by. In small-town Nebraska, high school coaches are checking their phones to see if Ed Foley might call.
Sure, it's public relations. It's part of recruiting. But it's genuine, too. They remember what it feels like to be a fan. They know how long their cheering sections have waited for a winner. They recognize that football is not just a competitive crucible, it’s a community endeavor.
And when you give people a stake in the success story, shoot, they'll do anything for you.
You can tell people you care. But man, when you really want to deliver the message, show up at their door.
Doesn't matter what time of day.
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