There are a lot of beliefs and concepts in our world today that not everyone can relate to – it’s the sad truth about the society we live in. Heck, we can’t even all agree that world peace is a good thing. However, I would argue there’s one concept that each of us can get behind, no matter who you are, even if it’s subtle. That would be what I call “hometown pride”. Yes, not everyone had the happiest of upbringings, not all of us thinks the city we grew up in is the best city in the world, and not everyone will call their hometown city, “home”, for the rest of their lives… and I’m living proof of this. Everybody has their own level of hometown pride. Even if it’s the slightest ounce of this feeling, we each can think back to where we grew up and have a sense of “this is where it all started” or “I have memories here that I will never forget”. For many of us, these feelings are even stronger. There are those of us who will live and die defending the city we grew up in, with passion, dedication, and pride. In my hometown of St. Louis, the famous line is “I’m from the Lou and I’m proud”. For someone like myself living in Chicago after graduating from college, I can still proudly echo that statement.
So let’s focus on St. Louis for a minute, shall we? I’m not going to sit here and defend the city of St. Louis, because that’s not what this story is about. St. Louis is about as average of a city as you can get in terms of population, attractions, food, weather, etc. It’s a classic midwestern city that has just about everything someone may need, but it’s not New York, it’s not Chicago, and it’s certainly not L.A. (okay, maybe a bit of a foreshadow). We all know this. But just like any big city, St. Louis has extremely passionate sports fans. The Cardinals fans consistently show up to “Baseball Heaven”, or as it’s more widely known, Busch Stadium. The fanbase has finished top-8 in average attendance every single year since 2000, with the majority in the top-5. The Blues fans are consistently filling 95% of the arena on average year after year, including a fanbase who stuck with the team even when they were in last place in the NHL on January 3, 2019, before leading them all the way to the Stanley Cup that same year. And let’s not forget about the St. Louis Battlehawks, a forefather of the first XFL season. They led the league in attendance, had nearly 30,000 people at their first home game, and had to open up the upper deck of their stadium for future games due to such high ticket demand. Yes, St. Louis cares about football.
So, St. Louis and football? That’s where our conversations around my hometown start to get heated, and where my story begins. I was born in 1993, so I’d be lying to you if I said I remember every small detail about the “Greatest Show on Turf” era of the St. Louis Rams, but there were absolutely memories that I’ll never forget. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt are unforgettable players that changed the way St. Louis professional football was perceived in the blink of an eye. I owned a Warner and Bruce jersey growing up and they were my favorite articles of clothing to wear. I never played organized football, but these gridiron legends were role models that any aspiring youth in the St. Louis area could look up to, no matter your background. They were stand-up guys who played the game hard, were committed to the St. Louis Rams franchise, and took part in the St. Louis community. The oldest memory I have is the Rams playing the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999. Not only did my two favorite players (Warner and Bruce) connect on a 73-yard touchdown pass at the end of the game to break the tie, but the game came with one of the greatest endings in Super Bowl history, “The Tackle”. As history goes, the Rams made a crucial stop inside the 1-yard with no time left to win one of the most memorable games in NFL history. I hope everyone gets to eventually feel that moment of exuberance in front of their TV as they run around the house. This was my debut as a Rams and true football fan. I’ll admit that I now realize the magnitude of a Super Bowl win much more than I did back then, but a moment like that makes a 5-year-old kid instantly hooked to a team with promise and excitement. I flaunted Super Bowl XXXIV gear for a long time after that win. From there, the Rams had their ups and downs, but my friends and I remained die-hard fans. We supported the Marc Bulger’s and Sam Bradford’s of the world. Steven Jackson was a household favorite that we would always draft on our fantasy teams as we started playing fantasy football religiously. My friends and I would frequently ditch Sunday School early to make it downtown or to a friend’s house in time for the game. We always sat in the nosebleeds, but as a kid, all I wanted was to be there in-person to support the team. I’ll never forget the time I got to go on the field and tour the facilities through a connection we had.
But yes, there were struggles. From 2002 to 2005, the team started struggling and it was clear they were going downhill. It frustrated me, it irked me, but I was invested. I was so engrossed that I wrote a letter to Mike Martz (the head coach through 2005) giving my advice on the team, while asking some questions and still praising his leadership. He was still a role model even when the Rams weren’t playing to the fanbase and team’s standards. Although I doubt he took my advice, he did send me an autographed photo back, which I proudly showed off at school.
After 2005, it started to get even worse – no playoff appearances, and some brutal losing seasons where we had 15 wins total from 2007-2011, the worst five year stretch in NFL history. I was used to consistent success from the Cardinals, Blues, and Rams, that it taught me how to deal with abysmal favorite teams (something I’ll soon use as experience for future teams…). It was tough. Understandably, there were friends of mine that had a hard time watching week after week. Personally, I maintained my hope for the organization, especially with playmakers like Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley joining the team, and the Rams playing around .500 football from 2012-2015. You have some tough seasons, you draft some future talent, and you work your way back to being a winning football team. This is exactly how a rebuild works, right? They will come with some early .500 seasons, but then will come the winning seasons us Rams fans were holding out hope for since the two super bowl appearances in 1999 and 2001.
There was one person who didn’t have that same hope for success in St. Louis, and whether he knew it or not, he was starting to make moves that would crush young kids’, and definitely some adults’, dreams in the St. Louis area. His name is none other than Stanley Kroenke, the owner of the Rams organization.
When you’re a fan of a sports team growing up, you know who the owner is, but you don’t know much about them. Well, St. Louis Rams fans got to know his name very quickly when rumors starting swirling in 2014-2015 that he was trying to move the team away from St. Louis. Any St. Louisan who was dedicated to football, the city of St. Louis, and their beloved team playing there was immediately devastated.
Fun fact about Stan Kroenke – he’s from the state of Missouri. He was born in Columbia, MO and attended the University of Missouri for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. So yes, someone who was already the owner of the Arsenal Football Club, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Crush, Colorado Mammoth, and Colorado Rapids, was able to fully own a team in his home state starting in 2010, and then proceed to ditch that state shortly thereafter in 2015. It all happened so quickly, that I didn’t even have much time to truly let it hit me – I was just in utter shock, I didn’t believe something like this could actually happen. Kroenke bought a stadium in Los Angeles in 2015, the NFL approved the relocation in January 2016, and by the time the 2016 season started, our St. Louis Rams were gone. I turned 21 in December 2015, so I may or may not have started drinking away my sorrows at the bar (another activity I was going to have to learn for my new team…). The City of St. Louis filed multiple lawsuits, residents had picket signs on the streets, and emotional distress spread throughout the entire Greater St. Louis area. I was even seen holding a “Kroenke Sucks” picket sign during the Blues championship parade in 2019. It was a terrible feeling. I felt like he ripped out a piece of my soul, a piece of my childhood, a piece of my future. You always think about how sports, and your hometown teams, are something that will be there for you for the rest of your life. This couldn’t be the case anymore, at least for me.
This is where decisions got tough for St. Louisans. Do you stick with the team you’ve been cheering on for years, even though they left St. Louis for Los Angeles? Or do you refuse to support a team and owner who abandoned our city? Many will argue it wasn’t “the team’s” decision – the players are still the same, the jersey colors are still the same, and the mascot is still the same and even some of my friends agreed.
“Growing up in St. Louis and watching the Rams win a Super Bowl, your loyalty is cemented early. And to be fair, I left St. Louis myself,” my good friend Alex Pinder says.
“What Kroenke did is messed up, but St. Louis Rams fans weren’t great over the last decade. There was always more out-of-town support,” Zoe Wolkowitz says.
For a young adult, who bought in at such a young age, this was a huge decision to make. Whichever direction I went was going to change how football Sunday looked for the rest of my life. I think it nationally goes unnoticed how big of a deal this was, and I would be fascinated to understand the true statistics of how many St. Louis football fans stuck with the Rams, how many fans chose a new team (and which one), and how many fans decided to just give up on the NFL.
As I’ve hinted throughout my story, there was no way I could stick with the Rams. My hometown pride was too strong. I couldn’t support an owner and an organization who simply felt that St. Louis wasn’t good enough for their football team. This was my city that I was proud of. It almost felt like I was being cheated on. I had seen firsthand what St. Louis fans were capable of inspiring with our other professional teams. If the organization could just put a good product on the field, the fans would fill up the stands again, at a time when the team was certainly improving from their all-time inferior stretch. Any city would struggle with attendance when the team had this poor of a record. Stan Kroenke gave up on the fanbase and the city, and for that reason I had to move on, and I know many others shared this sentiment.
In September 2016, I moved to Chicago, just before the football season started. When I publicly decided to leave the Rams, I got a lot of pressure to join the Chiefs or Bears.
“The Chiefs are still your hometown state!” everyone would say. In addition, my Chicago-based friends wanted me to jump onto the Bears. But, I didn’t want to jump on any bandwagon or team without putting in any real thought or reasoning. Therefore, for the 2016-2017 season, my plan was to focus on fantasy football, an activity which I’m passionate about and let a rooting interest “come to me”. For context, I’m in 3-4 fantasy leagues per year, and I’m also the co-host of the Throwin’ Darts Podcast, a weekly podcast that gives fantasy football, DraftKings DFS, and sports betting advice. I’m a fantasy football junkie, and love talking about it. I’d continue to watch NFL RedZone and enjoy watching my favorite sport week after week.
Winter came along, and I went to a business networking event for my national fraternity. I went with my friend Jordan, in hopes to meet some new friends in Chicago, and maybe even find some good business opportunities. Well, it may not have been quite a “business opportunity”, but it was the start to some of the strongest friendships and fandom I’ve ever had.
Jordan introduced me to his friend A.J., his best friend growing up in Cincinnati, and the rest was history. A.J. brought us back to his apartment after the networking event, and we talked about a variety of topics, but one thing we bonded over was sports, and how we’ve been let down. I’ll be honest, A.J.’s horrific teams made my St. Louis Rams sadness feel a little foolish. A.J. is a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Cincinnati Bengals. In his lifetime, he hadn’t seen any of his teams advance even slightly in the playoffs – none of his teams even advancing past the first round in any given playoff series. At least I had seen two Cardinals World Series titles and some Blues playoff victories. Despite A.J.’s teams’ struggles, his Cincinnati hometown pride was evident. I was intrigued by AJ’s stories about the Bengals. A team that has had so much promise, yet cannot seem to win a playoff game – 7 straight playoff losses from 2005-2015, the exact same stretch of time that the St. Louis Rams had their playoff drought. I’d always admired some of the electric players the Bengals had, the likes of Chad Ochocinco, TJ Houshmandzadeh, A.J. Green, etc. However, some of the dirtiness and attitude issues with guys like Pacman Jones, Vontaze Burfict, and Jerome Simpson made the team unlikeable, not to mention the fact that they’ve had no recent playoff success.
Through these stories, I found out that A.J. and Jordan go to a Bengals bar in Chicago every Sunday for the game, and they asked that I tag along with them for a game. A Bengals bar in Chicago? Who would’ve thought something like this existed, and even if it did, why would this offer be enticing to me? But, I agreed to give it a try, mainly for the newfound friends, but also to see what the hype was about.
Kincades Bar & Grill in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago is best known as a college bar, with great wings. The front area is about as classic of a Chicago dive bar as it gets, with a couple different bars and several high-top tables throughout. The key difference? The back room. It’s no ordinary down the hall, on your left, back room – it’s a humongous, hidden treasure, nearly the size of the “front bar” itself. I stepped anxiously into that room for the first time with Jordan and A.J. – it was a Bengals kingdom. A full-on Skyline Chili buffet, Bengals flags everywhere, every seat in the room taken, every open area packed with Bengals fans, “Bengals bombs” being poured everywhere, and so much more. I kept thinking to myself – where did all of these Cincinnati Bengals fans come from?
The in-game experience was just as electric. The “Who Dey” chants were non-stop. There was a super-addicting and catchy touchdown song called “Hear Them Bengals Growlin’”. There were confetti cannons that fans would shoot off every touchdown after the song. Fans were making friends with other fans, hugging each other during the good times. The Bengals even started off okay that year, going 3-4-1 in their first 8 games before the bye week. There was some decent talent on the team that made them easy to root for. The Andy Dalton to A.J. Green connection was awesome. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard were an exciting RB duo. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins led the defense with pride.
Everyone at Kincades was extremely friendly, everyone was inclusive, and everyone bonded over the common interest, the Bengals finally getting a playoff win at some point soon. There was excitement, even when they were losing. It felt different than the Bears fans I’d met who had been slightly obnoxious in my encounters. And Kansas City? Let’s just say the complete opposite side of the state doesn’t feel quite like home anyway. Something about this Cincinnati Bengals experience in Chicago, and fanbase, felt like it was the right time to jump in. To add some actual personal connection to the whole thing (I was going to have to have some sort of explanation other than a bar, right?), I lived in Cincinnati for four months recently in the summer of 2015, and really got to know the city well as an intern at Procter & Gamble. Hey, I was true resident – I paid taxes in Ohio. In addition, my dad spent some of his childhood in Cincinnati and would frequently go to Bengals’ training camps as a kid. All of this was enough, my decision had been made – I was going to be a Cincinnati Bengals fan.
This news did not come easy to many of my friends. I’ve never gotten more puzzling reactions or questions in my life than I did about my decision. The line I got most often was: “You had the opportunity to choose any team you wanted, and you chose the Bengals?” Yes, I chose the Bengals!
I bought my A.J. Green jersey and I was ready to go, but let me tell you, year one was not the easiest start. Even to Jordan, I was the Bengals fan “pledge” for the year. It was a running joke that I had to earn my way to being a Bengals fan. I mean let’s be honest, these guys have suffered through misery their whole life rooting for this team. This included me being called “a fake Bengals fan”, having to be the first one at the bar to reserve the table every week, and constantly being asked to name players at starting positions… and their backups. It was all in good fun, but it didn’t help that the team also continued to stink. The Bengals lost their first three games in a row to start my first full year of official fandom, and they ended up a mediocre 7-9. Dalton had one game over 300 passing yards. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only games I missed with my new Bengals friends, which happened to also be the only two games in the season the Bengals had a 100-yard rusher. Still, I was committed. A team that was previously unlikeable, suddenly became likeable. I always showed up to the bar, no matter how bad we were. I was one of the loudest, if not the loudest, cheerleader week after week. I was known to constantly bang on the barstools and lead the touchdown song every time the Bengals scored, and I never turned down a Bengals bomb. I was having a blast, I made new friends, and I became hooked to being a Bengals fan. During Week 17, on December 31, 2017, the Bengals had an incredible last-minute win against the Ravens to knock them out of the playoffs. There was no better way to start fueling my hatred towards divisional rivals. My pledgeship finally ended on that New Year’s Eve 2017, and I made it clear – I was here, and I was here to stay.
The years went on, and the fun continued, but the team struggles didn’t stop. It bothered me, but my Bengals friends made sure to constantly remind me that this is expected of the Bengals. So, I’m just supposed to anticipate losing seasons year after year and never expect greatness? Pretty much. Year two started with hope, starting off 4-1, but then finished 6-10. It only got worse from there: 2-14 in 2019, and then 4-11-1 in 2020. I experienced brutal injuries (Dalton for the season in 2018, Burrow for the season in 2020), boneheaded penalties, etc. This is what Cincinnati football is though, is what I kept being told.
I can’t quite understand it, but even through all the losses, my adventures as a fan still felt exhilarating. I would go home for the holidays, but I was famous for making sure I left St. Louis at 5am on Sunday morning of every single holiday weekend to make sure I was back to Chicago in time to make it to Kincades. Half of it was to prove I was a bigger fan than all my Cincinnati-based friends, but the other half was because I truly fell in love with watching the Bengals. I wanted to be chanting “Who Dey” with everyone at the bar, buying food and drinks from my favorite waitress, Katie, and then ultimately feel heartbroken again. It was weirdly addicting.
I was always the guy who went and grabbed the confetti cannons to shoot off after every touchdown. In late-season 2017, I unknowingly pointed the cannon down to the floor instead of the ceiling, the confetti hit the floor immediately, and A.J. and I fell to our knees on the ground, both hands above our heads. This is now a famous slow-motion video that has circulated the entire Bengals fanbase of Chicago with the caption: “Bengals season wrapped up in 1 snap”. It was embarrassing, but hilarious at the same time. We bond over that video all the time.
My co-host of the Throwin’ Darts Podcast, Hardy Ngwa, and I famously would rap battle at the end of every game about how bad the Bengals were. “I can’t watch the TV every time we run it, Bengals 4th down all we do is punt it”. Hardy liked to spit that one out a lot. It was sad, but these people at the Bengals bar were my family. I stayed with them through thick and thin. But trust me, I was noticing that both the Chiefs and the Rams were killing it. It was tough to watch, but it didn’t matter, the Bengals would always be my team.
2020 was tough for everyone in the world. A global pandemic, and unprecedented times that may never be comparable to any upcoming years in our lifetime. COVID-19 has had an impact on people and businesses alike. My Bengals community and I were sad to see that even our beloved bar, Kincades, had to shut down. Ultimately, it opened back up after some time, but with completely new management and employees, and it was sadly never the same. The only promising thing about 2020 might have been the Bengals drafting, National Championship Quarterback and Heisman Trophy Winner, Joe Burrow. For the first time in my Bengals fan years, I actually saw some hope in the eyes of Bengals fans around Chicago. As we all unfortunately remember, Joe Burrow lost his rookie season to a brutal ACL injury (classic Bengals, as I know now), and the Bengals had no chance the rest of the year. But there was hope that this young talent was going to be the real deal and future of the Bengals franchise, for years to come. So, of course, I bought his jersey.
The start of the 2021 season just felt different. Burrow was healthy and ready to go. We drafted his start wideout and go-to-guy at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase. Another thing I learned as a new Bengals fan – we don’t sign free agents, who knew? Well, in the 2021 season, we finally signed some marquee guys in Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, and others. Our Bengals community in Chicago even got a new Bengals bar – Woodie’s Flat in the Old Town area, right across the street from my apartment, as fate would have it. Life as a Bengals fan just felt better, and hope was growing. Nobody was expecting anything crazy, but would this be the year the Cincinnati Bengals made it back to the playoffs?
The feeling around the team was right! The Burrow to Chase connection became one of the most dynamic Bengals QB to WR connections we’ve ever seen, mind you, in their first year. Joe Mixon was the third leading rusher in the NFL. Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and C.J. Uzomah had great years as the supporting pass catchers. And in a completely shocking turnaround, the defense stepped up. The locker room chemistry was even different. Here we go – let’s make a run.
In addition, Woodie’s Flat became an absolutely electric bar for the Bengals faithful in Chicago, right from the very start. We filled the bar every Sunday and even had all the same traditions as Kincades, and more. The bar nominated a Fan of the Week. There was a Bengals mascot walking around during each game. Ickey Woods came in-person for Week 2 to hang with the Chicago Bengals fans and teach them the famous “Ickey Shuffle”. The manager, Shawn, invested in our fandom and decked out the bar in signed jerseys, memorabilia, and more. He even replaced a previous Baker Mayfield fathead with a Joe Burrow fathead before the season started. Every single week was rocking. It was a positive and hopeful attitude in there, every single week. We expected them to win, no more negativity. Woodie’s was the new Chicago home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The season went on and we made it to the playoffs, which I’ll admit, I’m still taking for granted. We all know what it took to get there – some huge divisional wins, a big win late against the Chiefs, and some magic from Joey Franchise pretty much every single week. This was a crazy feeling for me – my first Bengals playoff run. I knew that all my years of rooting for this horrific team would pay off when I got to this moment. I chose this team with no doubt in my mind that if I stayed committed, I would get to feel something special.
When I realized that the Bengals’ first potential playoff win in 31 years could be happening in the wild card round, I knew it was the perfect time to go to my first Bengals game. I went with nine of my friends, many of which I met at Kincades and Woodie’s, and it was one of the most insane experiences of my life. Going back to Cincinnati for the first time since my internship in 2015 was truly a special moment for me. St. Louis will always be my hometown, but for this weekend, Cincinnati felt like my new hometown. Walking into Paul Brown Stadium for the first time that Saturday, there was no doubt in my mind that Joey B and the boys were getting it done.
We all know how the story goes. The Bengals finished the game with an interception in the end zone, the exact end zone we were sitting right behind, and I realized I was part of one of the most magical moments in Cincinnati sports history. I looked around – the look on people’s faces was something I’ll never forget. My friends A.J. and Alec, 29-year-olds who have never seen a Bengals playoff victory in their lifetimes, were jumping for joy. I was obviously happy for myself, but I was so happy for them. On the walk out of the stadium, I saw a random older man walking, clearly just on the verge of tears. We made eye contact, I ran over to him, gave him the biggest hug I’ve ever given anyone, and he started sobbing. That’s what sports and being a sports fan is all about. We’re a family – maybe from different places, but we’re still one Bengals family. That party after the win in Cincinnati was something I’ll never forget, and of course I made my return to Skyline Chili late-night for the first time since my 21-year-old self would flock there back in the day.
Would I have been satisfied if that was the only playoff win this year? My brain said no, but my heart said yes. This accomplishment and magical run would’ve been so memorable, win or lose the rest of the way. Well, the Bengals weren’t done. I watched the next two playoff wins at Woodie’s, which were the two best bar atmospheres I’ve ever seen for any sports game in my life. I was standing on tables, throwing beer everywhere, jumping in the DJ booth. You name it, I was doing it. Remember, I am one of Cincinnati Bengals’ biggest fans now (half joking). It was definitely a sweet feeling to knock off the Chiefs for the second time in a month, the team everyone said I should have picked as my new team.
And here we are. The Bengals played in the freaking Super Bowl. But the story would be too boring if there wasn’t one more added twist. The Bengals took on none other than the Los Angeles Rams. Yes, Stan Kroenke’s Los Angeles Rams. Are you kidding me? The Bengals get all the way here, and out of all the teams in the NFL, we played my old team? Look, I would love to see the Rams constantly fail. I can’t support happiness for an owner who abandoned my city. I’m from the Lou, and I’m proud. But wow, talk about a Cinderella story for me, talk about coming full circle. Stan Kroenke may not know who I am, but I’ve been out for ultimate revenge. I knew it could be 20, 30, maybe 40 years before I was able to witness the Bengals play in the Super Bowl. I also knew the Rams were on a mission to win a Super Bowl after their move to Los Angeles. Did I think these two would clash in the ultimate matchup, five years into my fandom? Absolutely not, and what an insane moment it was to see it.
I was in the Queen City, in the Banks, for the game. If the Bengals could have held on, there’d been no better party than the streets of the Banks. I’ve learned something big from this experience though: hold on to what you believe in. It wasn’t easy to watch some of my favorite players on the Rams play on a team that I could no longer root for. But I believed in my hometown pride, my love for St. Louis, and my hatred for someone who didn’t believe my city was good enough. I then was drawn to a team that had historic years of failure, because I believed in the people, the atmosphere, and the camaraderie. Now, look where I am, sitting here just a few days after the Cincinnati Bengals Super Bowl played for the Super Bowl, against the team I moved on from to get here. What a ride. Trust me, we’ll be back.