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Growing up in the lost decade: The story of a diehard Bengals fan

Coming up in the 'lost decade' comes with an interesting perspective.

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I often get asked why I think the modern Bengals are so exciting and fun to watch, despite their many playoff and primetime shortcomings. To really answer that, we would have to go all the way back to the beginning. I was born in 1992, which just happens to be the same year that the Bengals traded Boomer Esiason to the Jets in the offseason, fired Sam Wyche, hired David Shula, and drafted David Klingler.

My father, born and raised in Lexington, KY by parents who could have cared less about the NFL, started following the Bengals in 1975. It was a great season for his world champion Cincinnati Reds and Kentucky Wildcats, as well as the Bengals who finished with an 11-3 record and qualified for the franchise's third playoff berth. He became a Bengals season ticket holder in 1994, despite the relatively abysmal state of the team at the time.

I was raised as a diehard Bengals fan, much the opposite of how my dad grew up. Some of my first memories are of watching my dad go nuts over the Bengals doing something stupid and nearly breaking something in the house. My first jersey was a Jeff Blake jersey that my dad bought for me after his stellar 1995 season in which he earned a Pro Bowl berth for his play. I started attending games with him when Esiason returned to the team in 1997 and continued to do so for every home game until we had to give up the tickets in 2006.

As bad as the team was in the 90s, they were my team. I followed them through thick and thin. That said, before 2003, the team was always so consistently bad (save for a short break from 1995-1997), that I just assumed they were destined to be a losing team forever. I wasn't alive to enjoy the Super Bowl teams of the 80s, so the Bengals just seemed like a perpetually bad team to me.

When Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer came to town in 2003, I was optimistic about their chances going forward. But, I also hadn't seen a winning season in my lifetime yet. I didn't think it was possible. That season, the Bengals didn't manage to get over the elusive .500 hump, but they hit 8-8 for only the second time in 13 years. They did so in spectacular fashion, including one particularly notable game against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Third year receiver Chad Johnson guaranteed that the lowly 4-5 Bengals would overcome the undefeated Chiefs at home.

We all wanted to believe that they had it in them, but very few thought that Johnson was doing much more than being loud and hyper-confident, as usual. But, when my dad and I attended the game, we were treated to one of the most memorable victories in franchise history. It was probably the first time that I genuinely started to believe that this team could maybe be something more than a perennial loser.

The team actually started out with a 1-5 record that year, but a 7-4 finish let many of us believe that there was something to look forward to. They followed the season up with another 8-8 record in 2004, their first consecutive non-losing seasons of my life.

Then, 2005 happened. Palmer went off on the season for 3,836 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. The Bengals not only put together their first winning season of my life, but they took it a few steps further to finish 11-5 and with the AFC North division crown, just barely beating out the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on divisional record.

Unfortunately, we all remember how things worked out in the playoffs. Former Bengal turned Steeler Kimo Von Oelhoffen shredded Palmer's knee early in the first quarter and Jon Kitna came in to try, unsuccessfully, to salvage the Bengals' chances of winning. It was the last game that my dad and I would attend with the season tickets before we had to get rid of them all together. What a time to lose them, right? Just as soon as the Bengals start getting good. But, it's really allowed me to appreciate just how lucky the city of Cincinnati is to finally have a team that can actually compete after all these years.

That's why, when people complain about how Dalton missed a pass or Hill fumbled a ball, I like to remind everyone that the Bengals are still very talented and their players are greater assets than hindrances. Do we really want to go back to the days where we draft guys like Ki-Jana Carter or Dan Wilkinson and give up on them after never really giving them a chance? Or hire guys like David Shula, Bruce Coslet, or Dick LeBeau just to scapegoat them when things go wrong, rather than analyzing and addressing areas the team needs to build on?

That's how you end up with a roster and coaching carousel similar. That's how you end up with quarterbacks like Scott Mitchell, Neil O'Donnell, or Akili Smith. That's what the Cleveland Browns do, and they haven't had a winning season in nearly a decade either.

While the Bengals have taken me on a rollercoaster of fandom over the years, it's a fandom I enjoy embracing and a fan base I'm happy to be a part of.

How about you? How did you become a Bengals fan?