Every year, the Cincinnati Bengals host a Taste of the NFL event at Paul Brown Stadium to raise money for the Freestore Foodbank. Besides sampling some of Cincinnati's best food and drink while mingling with nearly every player and coach on the Bengals' roster, there are opportunities to win silent auction prizes and bid on dinners in a live auction. My wife and I won dinner with the special teams unit and recently, sat down at Palomino in Cincinnati with a few friends, as well as Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber, and Special Events Coordinator for the Foodbank, Rachel Hinger.
Palomino was fantastic. We arrived early and sat at the bar for a few drinks (I recommend the Bourbon Sour.) We ordered from a special menu for the event (which the players later autographed) and the food was very good. Of course, the highlight of the evening was having the chance to talk to Mike and Kevin about football, dogs, and more.
I was very impressed that the evening wasn't rushed at all. Mike and Kevin were both class acts and very fun to get to know. I learned quite a bit about both of them from a perspective that I'll never be able to see, personally:
- The players pay attention to the atmosphere in the stadiums. Mike said that they're happy with the crowd noise in Cincinnati (pat yourselves on the backs, fans) and he does notice differences in the pregame amenities for the teams across the NFL. It sounded to me like Paul Brown Stadium has been making strides to get better in that regard.
- While noticing the stadiums, many players will try to ignore fans who are shouting directly at them. Nugent said that he rarely turns around for friends, even, and is solely focused on warming up and concentrating on the game in progress. Huber noted that he stays away from social media as much as possible, considering anyone with an Internet connection can share whatever they want--I know how cruel fans can be and would consider staying away, myself. Despite that, they both told us to yell out "Palomino!!" on the Sunday following the dinner, and Huber was close enough to hear me and gave us a wave. Of course, the code word helped us get a few strange stares from the fans around us.
- Mike was really interested in hearing about the games from our perspective. They both seemed to appreciate how upset the fans were with the events of the playoff game, and the questionable officiating thus far this season. I got the feeling that calls aren't discussed as a team in meetings, but the players themselves are very aware. Both Mike and Kevin like playing on the turf at PBS, but said that standing on grass was more comfortable. They also expressed feelings of guilt during cold weather games; apparently the benches will often get too hot and they'll need to get up. I'll remember that the next time I'm sitting there in a brisk sub-zero wind and I can't feel my toes.
- Coaches scrutinize everything. Everything. If Nugent makes a 52-yarder with room to spare, they'll go over why the kick wasn't dead center. At that point he has to walk through all phases of the kick and explain what happened. It sounds nearly impossible to do for me, but it's nice to hear that every little detail is discussed.
- Dalton had professionals hang Christmas lights on his home one year (contractually there are surely issues with him being on very tall ladders) but Mike and Kevin couldn't believe what that cost. If you've ever gotten a quote, you know what they're talking about. It sounds like they'll be doing it themselves this year!
- Kevin has a Chug: a Chihuahua/Pug mix, and Mike has a Chihuahua. Mike got quite the laugh from my wife when he said, "I can't believe they can survive without oxygen," and then they both proceeded to share stories about how the little dogs will burrow under covers and as close as possible to their humans, seemingly to the point of suffocation. It's not just our Chis, I guess!
- The picture of Vontaze Burfict, shirtless, with his Chihuahua then came up: Kevin had seen it, but Mike had not. I showed Mike and his reaction was priceless. I'm unfortunately the person that showed that embarrassing pic to Mike Nugent for the first time, ever. I'm sorry, Vontaze.