For those who aren't familiar with who I am and my background, even though I cover the Cincinnati Bengals for this site and have ardently followed the club ever since I can remember, my coverage is both limited and expanded because of my geographic location. To put it another way, I was born, raised and currently reside in Southern California.
So, when the Bengals' 2015 schedule was released, four games particularly piqued my interest, since I am not privy to travel to Cincinnati on a weekly basis. The Week 1 matchup in Oakland, the late-season treks to Denver and San Francisco, and, of course, the pre-Thanksgiving game in the desert against former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who heads up the Cardinals. The game became particularly interesting as both teams got off to great starts to the year and it got flexed to the Sunday night prime time contest.
My family and I long-talked about heading out there for the game, which was also especially appealing because we had close relatives who live about 15 minutes by car to University of Phoenix Stadium (go Concordia University Irvine!). For a while, it was just hopeful banter that we'd get a group to go out there and make a mini-family reunion while also enjoying a what would be a great football game.
After hemming and hawing for a while, we sprung for the tickets and my gracious aunt and uncle out in Sun City, Arizona, allowed us to crash their peaceful home. My parents, my wife, brother, nephew and I all made the trip up and down I-10 (my wife was the smart one who took Southwest Airlines round-trip), to make it one of the most memorable weekends of my 33 years on this Earth.
Unfortunately, we were missing two other close family members and potential Bengals supporters in my sister, other nieces, sister-in-law and our cousin, which would have made the trip the ultimate experience, but we definitely had them in spirit. Work and other life obligations forced us to only stay in the desert for about 48 hours, but we crammed in quality family time, laughter and an awesome football experience in those two days.
A couple of years ago, I shared some of our experiences we had in San Diego when we traveled a little bit south as the Bengals took on the Chargers in December of 2013. Many of our readers seemed to have enjoyed my relaying of that experience, so I figured I'd share another special weekend with the CJ faithful at the risk of sounding braggadocios. Over the two posts, I'll share my sights, sounds, observations and experiences from my weekend in Arizona with my family.
After what seemed like leaving at the break of dawn, we arrived at my uncle Jim and aunt Cheryl's house in Sun City a little after midday. After checking out their cool neighborhood and awesome abode on Saturday afternoon, we hit up a local sports bar to watch the rest of the college football slate, mostly paying attention to the USC/Oregon matchup, the younger men were getting set to seek out the team for an impromptu meet-and-greet.
After catching word through a variety of means that the team was at a particular hotel in the north part of downtown Phoenix, we ran into a group who lead us elsewhere. The patriarch of the group was related to a trainer of the Bengals, while all were ironically from the Southern California area--either Los Angeles and/or Orange County--where we all hail from.
A couple of years ago, my young nephew, the only son of my brother, was a little too young to travel with us to San Diego. He was seven years old at the time and my family's fixation on football, as well as the Bengals, began to feed his pigskin obsession. Two years of local league-run flag football and trading card collecting began to fuel his desire to join us on the trip. A couple of years ago, it was more about us meeting and interviewing members of the team--this year, it was about little Kellen getting tossed into the orange and black inferno.
Kellen had a taste of what we experienced back in 2013 in the form of brief mobile face-time sessions from defensive end Michael Johnson and then-running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he would get far more up-close-and-personal with the 2015 Bengals this time around.
Immediately after we arrived in the lobby, tight end Tyler Eifert was talking to a few fans, some around the age of my nephew. I stand and 6'2" and my uncle, who stayed at home to catch up with my parents, stands a 6'4", so seeing the 6'6" Eifert offered a bit of a "wow" moment. At any rate, this trip wasn't about anyone meeting members of the Bengals except Kellen. The little guy brought a couple of notebooks full of trading cards and shyly pulled out one of Eifert's. We told him to just go up and ask for an autograph or picture, and the affable future Pro Bowl tight end gladly obliged.
Especially after the year he's had in 2015, Eifert has long-been one of my nephew's favorite players. To see how agreeable and open to conversation Eifert was with a little nine-year-old inspired hope for a writer who has seen and heard it all from more than one generation of athletes. Both my wife and CJ's own Rebecca Toback expressed jealousy that it was my nephew taking a pic with Eifert and not them.
Afterward, we entered the elevator that happened to break down on the players sometime on Friday night or Saturday morning. We didn't know that, of course, but as we entered, linebackers Vontaze Burfict and P.J. Dawson noted they weren't taking that elevator because of that exact reason. It couldn't be because of some obvious Bengals gear being sported, could it? Nah.
We decided to grab a little bite to eat in a lobby bar/restaurant and have a drink (water for the the little guy, of course). Adam Jones, his wife and some friends dined at the table next to us and we noticed he hustled away in the middle of the meal. given how little activity there was, we assumed and were later told they were in an evening meeting.
The little guy, who had been incredibly well-behaved for a youngster who had sat through a six-hour car ride and was staying past his bedtime, began to fade a little. My brother and I still wanted another drink, while also hoping Kellen would meet more of his pre-adolescent heroes, went up to the outdoor rooftop bar a little while later. It might sound crazy for almost anyone who lives anywhere east in the month of November, but anyone who has been to Arizona in the fall knows better. It was still in the high-60s-to-low-70s at 8:30 in the evening, and whether or not we saw anyone else to light up our nephew's eyes, we were enjoying the atmosphere.
Then, we noticed a bulky guy with a couple of friends and wild hair sitting at a high-top table at that rooftop bar. It was starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, another favorite of our nephew. He was initially both shy and tired, but we walked behind him and told him to greet him and ask for an autograph. While Maualuga wasn't the conversationalist with Kellen that Eifert was, he obliged with an autograph on another one of my nephew's cards--a nice gesture, given he was obviously trying to enjoy some non-football time. The polite little guy said "thank you" to the former USC Trojan, and though he didn't seem to have his publicity face on, he nicely said something to the effect of "you're welcome, little man."
After seeing a couple of other Bengals roll by us, quarterback Andy Dalton was out in front of the hotel, hanging out with AJ McCarron. Rejuvenated by a second wind and the urging of his father and I, little Kellen went up to Dalton and asked for an autograph. In truth, we were a little worried he'd get shot down, as we saw No. 14 choose to spend his time with his wife and parents in San Diego, while a myriad of fans, ranging in ages, attempted to approach him in San Diego. This time around, Dalton was much more agreeable, greeted my nephew and signed another one of his cards. The little guy was so excited, he forgot to say hello to McCarron. We shot a neat picture of him walking away ecstatic with the newest signature in his collection. It's a little blurry, but you see his smile--McCarron is the one with the Bengals cap down over his face.
More famous faces greeted him before it got late and we left. The first was the always-conscientious head coach, Marvin Lewis. He was wandering the lobby, likely making sure his players didn't wander too far before their ten o'clock curfew, and the brace nine year-old asked for a photo. Ever the politician and nice guy, Lewis was more than happy to make his night with an embrace and everlasting memory.
Afterward, we really only met up with one other member of the Bengals. It was perhaps the most gracious and ominous experience of the entire weekend. We saw Darqueze Dennard and my cute nephew nervously asked for another picture; Dennard was incredibly accommodating.
It was a weekend of few regrets, but I'm sure Kellen would have liked to have met the guy whose name was on the back of his youth jersey. Two things stuck out to me that evening: the gracious nature of the Bengals employees we met that evening, and just how courteous a nine year-old boy could be while facing some of his heroes.
We went back to my aunt and uncle's house to share the stories with our family. While it was a night my nephew likely won't forget soon, some more huge memories would be branded into his psyche on Sunday.