Former Cincinnati sports reporter Bill Hemmer witnessed the glory years of the Bengals firsthand. He covered and traveled with the team from 1988 to 1992, which included two playoff berths and a trip to the Super Bowl.
HemmerHemmer eventually left his hometown and today is a well-renowned news anchor for the Fox News Channel in New York. The Bengals will host the New York Jets in Saturday’s playoff game at 4:30 p.m.
The AFC North blog caught up with Hemmer to reflect on the Bengals and look ahead.
You covered the Bengals during their last great run. What are your memories from that experience?
Bill Hemmer: That was a great time in my life. You don’t realize it when you’re in the moment. But when you look back on it, I know how wonderful an experience that can be. I was a young man. I was 24 years old, and I had an opportunity in Cincinnati to go to the games and travel with the team and report on what they were doing. As a sports fan, born and raised in Cincinnati, I bleed orange and black for crying out loud. To be able to have that experience with the team you‘ve grown up to love, it was outstanding. I look back at those times with very fond memories. It took me to every stadium in the country and it put me up close with some guys, to this day, that I still respect. People like Boomer Esiason, Chris Collinsworth, Anthony Munoz and Sam Wyche. These guys are legends of the game. It’s amazing how many broadcasters that team produced. As a reporter covering that team back then, they were great for interviews.
The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since you covered them. What do you think happened to this organization?
BH: I have a nephew. He’s 19. He’s going to the game on Saturday, because I got him some tickets. He’s a huge fan and since he’s been alive this is the second winning season he’s ever seen. Where would we be without suffering, I think Bruce Springsteen once said. What’s gone wrong? Everything. They’ve had management issues. They’ve had coaching issues. They’ve had personnel issues. In recent years they’ve had horrific injuries. Things like David Pollack. You draft a kid out of Georgia, he’s so promising, and he breaks his neck the third game of his career. And Odell Thurman, those two guys in my mind could have battled for rookie defensive player of the year. After only a couple games I thought they were that good. But Thurman had his off-field problems and he’s done. If you think about the events they’ve gone through this past year with Mike Zimmer’s wife dying and Chris Henry dies. You wonder if the team is cursed. Well, here is what I think the strategy is, because I’ve studied this team and watched how management makes decisions. This is my opinion, but if you look at their Super Bowl appearance of ‘81-‘82, they tried to blast off and they finally did. Then they go back in a lull. Maybe it’s to save money or turn the payroll. I’m not sure. Then they build up again and they explode in ‘88-‘89. They tried to do it again in the ‘90s but they failed at it. And here they are almost 20 years later and they got a shot.
You now live and work in New York. How confident are Jets fans after last week’s 37-0 drubbing?
BH: I have got to tell you, I work in a building with thousands of employees. I think everyone in the building knows I’m a Cincinnati fan, and they have let me have it all week long. I tell them, ‘Good luck, and here’s to a great game this weekend.’ In Bengal Nation we are raised to be humble.
What are your thoughts on the Chris Henry story and how sports sometimes converges with hard news?
BH: I’m a big believer that sports sometimes is a reflection of our society, be it good or bad. I’m one of the guys in the newsroom who will always argues to have highlights on the National Championship Game thrown into the newscast. I lose more of those arguments than I win. But there is a reason why 80,000 people are jammed into a stadium. There is a reason why you can get eight million people to watch a football game on a Sunday night. There is a reason why 50 million people watch the Super Bowl on television in this country alone. There is a fan base for that, and for that reason I’m convinced that the audience is there. But we work in a news business. So I lose a lot of those arguments. But I think you can make the case that many things that happen, especially on the professional level, are a reflection of society.
What’s your prediction for the Jets and Bengals?
BH: I can’t go there. But I will predict a very well-played football game. I think it will be solid on both sides of the football. I think fans and viewers across the country are in for a treat. I think what happened Sunday night was an aberration. I’m praying that I’m right with that calculation. But if anything it was a wake-up call to make sure those guys are focused. I believe the Bengals, when they’ve been forced to concentrate and forced to focus, have played extraordinarily well. I hope that’s the case Saturday.