CINCINNATI -- A couple of years ago, Kevin Walker was in the middle of a conversation at an airport restaurant in Baltimore when a stranger interrupted him.
The former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker knew what was coming next. It was the same variation of “Hey, aren’t you the guy that tackled Bo Jackson and ended his football career?” that Walker has heard for the past three decades.
The stranger was correct. For most of that span, Walker’s tackle in the 1991 AFC divisional playoff game against the Los Angeles Raiders was considered an unfortunate incident. But in the past six years, it shifted to something more ominous -- a suggestion that the injury cast a hex on Cincinnati.
Since that tackle 31 years ago, the Bengals have failed to win a playoff game. The Bengals have a chance to break the infamous “Curse of Bo Jackson” when they host the Raiders, now based in Las Vegas, in an AFC wild-card game Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
It might be hard to define the curse exactly. But after seven postseason appearances without a win, it is certainly part of city folklore.
“People are always looking for explanations,” said Cincinnati native Mo Egger, who hosts the afternoon radio show on the only sports station in town. “It’s never enough in sports to say, ‘Well that happened and this city is unlucky,’ or ‘this team is unlucky.’
“In an effort to find something to blame, they have reached back to Kevin Walker tackling Bo Jackson.”
At the time, it all seemed fairly inconsequential. Walker chased Jackson from across the field, dragged him down from behind after a 34-yard carry. When Walker crossed paths with Jackson after the Raiders’ 20-10 victory that day, Walker recalled Jackson saying the hip was sore, but he didn’t feel like it was a major injury. Little did anyone know that one of America’s biggest pop culture icons was done playing football at 28 years old.
For some in Cincinnati, the presence of a curse might be the easiest way to describe a string of calamities.
A few examples:
No playoff appearances for the next 15 seasons
1995 No. 1 overall draft pick running back Ki-Jana Carter tearing an ACL before his rookie season
Quarterback Carson Palmer’s knee injury in the 2005 wild-card loss to the Steelers
The chaotic, penalty-filled ending to the wild-card loss to the Steelers in January 2016.
That loss to the Steelers, which featured the Bengals committing four turnovers and eight penalties for 79 yards, was Cincinnati’s most recent postseason appearance and the point when the “Curse of Bo Jackson” started to gain traction around the city.
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Walker, who has taken the whole ordeal in stride, is most surprised at the youth of some who have attributed the curse to him.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you weren’t even alive,’” Walker told ESPN. “How do you talk so candidly about it? It just blows me away.”
In fact, just three players on the Bengals’ active roster -- cornerback Michael Thomas, punter Kevin Huber and long-snapper Clark Harris -- were alive at the time of Cincinnati’s last playoff victory. Bengals coach Zac Taylor was 7 years old, and he wasn’t aware any kind of curse hovered over the team when asked about it last week.
But the coach and his players are aware of the team’s lackluster playoff history.
“I grew up in Ohio,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “I knew exactly everything that everybody says about the Bengals. [I] had a bunch of friends that are Bengals fans growing up, and I knew they hadn’t won a playoff game in a long time.”
The real reason the Bengals have been unsuccessful might be a little easier to explain. Since founder Paul Brown died in August 1991, seven months after the loss to the Raiders, the Bengals haven’t been good enough, or in the case of their last playoff game -- disciplined enough.
Fans have argued Cincinnati also hasn’t been aggressive enough in trying to field a winner. That has changed in the past three years.
Since the team hired Taylor before the 2019 season, the Bengals have undergone a significant overhaul. They released or traded players at the core of the team’s five straight playoff runs from 2011 to 2015, uncharacteristically spent money on external free agents in the 2020 offseason and drafted Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.
The three-year rebuild produced an AFC North title and the team’s first 10-win season since 2015. Taylor, who does not believe in curses, said this year’s group doesn’t carry the baggage of previous failures.
“We’re just way more focused on 2021, the present and going forward,” Taylor said. “So it’s OK to be aware of what’s gone on previously, but that’s not anything that takes up our time or our focus.”
The Bengals might be in their best position to end any "curse." Cincinnati beat the Raiders earlier this season and ended the regular season by winning three straight games before resting starters – and losing – in the regular-season finale. Cincinnati opened the week as 6.5-point favorites over Las Vegas.
Egger, who has lived and worked in Cincinnati his whole life, said with Burrow leading the Bengals, there’s a belief around the city that the curse will be lifted soon.
“The most frustrating [thing] with that franchise,” Egger said, “has been we focus so much on winning one stupid playoff game that I wish they would just do that so we can actually talk about winning titles the way they do in other cities.”
Some have called into Egger’s radio show and suggested Jackson, who couldn’t be reached for comment and never publicly spoke on the alleged curse, come to Cincinnati to break the spell. Walker, 56, has heard similar sentiments.
Walker settled in Cincinnati after an injury ended his playing career in 1992 and tucked away most of his previous life. As a computer reseller, he said he’ll work with clients for years before they learn of his NFL experience. His three children had similar experiences growing up. When one of his twin sons was in elementary school, he was stunned to first discover Walker was a former Bengal and then find the mementos stashed in their basement.
Walker is planning to find a place to watch Saturday’s game. The idea of a curse stemming from his tackle of Bo Jackson 31 years ago has never bothered him.
But he knows those around Cincinnati are tired of hearing about it.
“They want to get a win,” Walker said. “They certainly do want to put that curse to bed.”