The 16th annual Cincinnati Taste of the NFL was on Wednesday night, and I had the pleasure of attending.
The Bengals hosted 44 local chefs, players, coaches, and hundreds of fans for a night of socializing and feasting. All proceeds from tickets and auctioned merchandise went directly to Freestore Foodbank to help provide meals for needy families and children in the community. This year, the fans helped to raise roughly $130,000, which is enough to supply 405,000 meals to families in the community.
Not only was the cause noble, but the food was amazing and the players were friendly. I described each part of the evening here, but I want to spend this one retelling some of the fun conversations I had with some of the players.
Leading up to the event, I studied pictures of the players so that I would not be embarrassed by not recognizing anyone. This did not work as I planned, however, as I saw several players I did not initially recognize.
It was obvious by their size who the players were. Joe Mixon, who is only 6’1”, appeared enormous compared to the average fan. Tyler Eifert’s mullet stood above the crowd. Carlos Dunlap’s fedora only exaggerated his massive frame.
So when I saw a group of three grizzly bear-sized humans, I new that they were probably players.
Unfortunately, my studies did not play out as well as I had hoped. I had to ask the first player for his name. He told me he was Cedric, and I realized I was talking to Cedric Ogbuehi.
Thankfully, I recognized the man to his right as Clint Boling. I introduced myself and extended my hand for a shake as he extended his fist for a bump. Then we both corrected; I pulled in my hand to make a fist while he stretched out his fist for a handshake. It was perfectly awkward, but I found it funny that even professional athletes struggle with the intricacies of human interaction like I do.
I did not recognize the third man, who told me he was Cordy Glenn. I confessed that I wasn’t familiar with his play since I did not follow the Bills, but I told him I’d heard great things about him and he appeared to enjoy that. He seems to really enjoy Cincinnati and the group of guys he gets to play with now. He also said that he liked playing for new offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
Someone else came over and started talking to Glenn, so I decided to continue mingling. As I walked away, Boling looked back at me and told me to have a good evening. Boling was among the nicest people I have ever met and even though my interaction with him only lasted about thirty seconds, he tried to remember my name and acted like we might meet up again.
The next couple players I talked to are ones I recognized. Michael Johnson and Andrew Billings were standing together as I came over to chat. Johnson, who is very well regarded off-the-field, was incredibly social. I asked if they enjoyed playing for new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and Johnson took the conversation and ran.
The first thing he said was that the defense would make Geno Atkins better. He then told me that I had to get Atkins’ autograph because he is a future hall of fame inductee. The monologue eventually ended with him saying that the reason he returned to Cincinnati was because of Atkins (Johnson was drafted by the Bengals, but signed with the Buccaneers in free agency in 2014; he was re-singed by the Bengals in 2015). The conversation then turned to Billings, and I asked him what he would have to do to get more snaps in 2018.
“Geno has to get old,” he said jokingly.
The defensive linemen were then called into autograph duty, so I said goodbye to Johnson and Billings.
Let the record state that Michael Johnson is very, very tall. He might even be taller than his listed height of 6’7”. Anyways...
I found another player that I didn’t immediately recognize, so I humbly asked for his name.
“Darqueze [Dennard],” he told me. “You probably don’t know me.”
“Well, I’m an Ohio State fan,” I told him. “I knew about you before you were in the NFL.”
He laughed and responded, “That’s unfortunate.”
Dennard had a very successful Big Ten Championship game in 2013 with Michigan State, much to the chagrin of my Buckeyes.
“This is your third or fourth time at this event?” I asked.
“Fifth,” he corrected. “Time flies by.”
It sure is hard to believe that he’s been in Cincinnati for that long. Just as Dennard’s career has flown by, so had the evening.
I kept seeing a large man walking around that looked familiar, and I eventually realized it was Chris Baker. The new defensive tackle had a serious look on his face the whole evening, but I told him that I enjoyed him on Hard Knocks last year (as a member of the Buccaneers) and he started laughing.
I also ran into Carlos Dunlap, who was one of the most popular players at the event. My conversation with him was very brief, but I told him that I hoped his contract situation would be resolved.
“It will work itself out,” he told me.
Marvin Lewis was also popular at the event, even though he doesn’t seem popular on the internet. I almost laughed out loud at his collared shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, since my dad wears the exact same outfit.
The final conversation I had with a player ended up being my favorite. I tracked down Geno Atkins and asked for a picture. My timing was pretty bad, though, as he had just stuffed a sandwich in his mouth. I took the picture and introduced myself. He repeated my name as if he was trying to commit it to memory. We then had a good conversation about the new defense.
“The defense is going to open up,” he told me. He also mentioned that the team wanted to force more turnovers, which has been the message ever since Austin arrived in town.
I then asked him how many sacks he was getting this year. He couldn’t come up with a number off the top of his head. I asked him if 50 was reasonable and he laughed and said, “definitely double digits.”
I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Atkins, since he dropped everything he was doing to talk with me. As I left, he said, “Nice to meet you, Nick.”
The fact that he remembered my name, even though it was only for a minute or two, really impressed me. He probably heard hundreds of names that night but was at least able to keep track of mine.
For the most part, the players were all friendly than I expected. Before going to the event, I imagined the front office telling these guys to be nice for three hours out of the year and just get through it. If they had just “clocked in,” no one would have blamed them. But players like Boling, Johnson, and Atkins not only put up with the fans, they seemed to enjoy getting to know them. This was the difference between a fun evening and an experience that I will remember for a long time.
Every fan should try to make it to Taste of the NFL at least once. The cost of admission is totally worth every cent. Each ticket helps the community, which is a reward within itself. But eating the food and meeting the players is icing on the cake.