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Still tough to take

Posted Feb 7, 2014

Another Super Bowl is in the books and the '88 Bengals watched. But 25 years later, it is still tough to take.

The Super Bowl has been over for nearly a week now and Seattle has had its parade and the Seahawks defense has had its Sports Illustrated cover and New York City has gone back to looking like the glacier that blitzed the Titanic.

But there are just some things that won’t go away for the Denver Broncos. Just ask the Cincinnati Bengals of 1988, observing the 25th anniversary of living with one of the toughest losses in Super Bowl history. Since the Bengals had the misfortune to lose one of the best Super Bowls of all-time, the clips keep reappearing annually, kind of like George Bailey every Christmastime.

Better yet, ask the kids of the kids from that Super Bowl team.

Ask John Breech, the son of kicker Jim Breech who covered this Super Bowl for CBSSports.com.

Breech, then 7, and his three older siblings cried for a half-hour after Joe Montana’s 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds left snuck the 49ers past the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII on that steamy surreal night in Miami. John Breech almost broke into tears again 25 years later in the frosty air of New Jersey when Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith was named the game’s MVP.

“It’s still rare that a defensive player wins it and the fifth thing I thought about was if a linebacker can win it, then a kicker can win it,” Breech says. “A kicker almost did win it. A kicker should have won it. It almost brought a tear to my eye.”

Jim Breech was halfway to the Magic Kingdom when his third field goal of the game, a 40-yarder with 3:20 left, gave the Bengals a 16-13 lead. Then Montana pointed at John Candy from 92 yards away and made like Candy’s Del Griffith in Planes, Trains and Automobiles to steer the 49ers through an assortment of calamities in that final drive that included a conversion on third-and-18.

“It still stays with you; it stings,” says Stanford Jennings. “The fact that we were 34 seconds away from winning that game, you can’t help but think what should have been. Could have been. How it had the impact of the fans and the city of Cincinnati.”

Breech and Jennings, the MVP candidates of that Super Bowl, watched Seattle and Denver because they always watch. So do Boomer Esiason, the quarterback that now broadcasts it, and Tim McGee, the wide receiver that now markets the trappings around the NFL and other sports.

“I think it gets worse with time,” McGee says of the pain. “When you’re retired, you don’t get another opportunity. The celebrations (after the Super Bowl) are really hard to watch. You take it kind of personal. We never got to experience that. I never got to experience that.”

NO EYES ONLY

McGee, in fact, won’t ever watch the game. He never has. Neither has Jennings. Oh, maybe he’s seen his 93-yard kick return late in the third quarter that gave the Bengals a 13-6 lead along with some other highlights.

But that’s it.

“I’ll never watch it,” McGee says. “It’s not like you have to go into a team meeting and one of the requirements is to watch the game. I can’t help but watch the John Taylor catch. They always show it. We can’t help but (relive it). It happens every year because they show it.”

McGee is a businessman who dabbles. He’s an NFL agent who has a luxury car dealership and still lives in Cincinnati, as do many of his teammates.

“I don’t mean to be selfish,” McGee says, “but that was the high tide of sports in Cincinnati. The Reds won the World Series in (1990) and the town hasn’t been the same. Everywhere we went, we were treated like rock stars. That’s the only term you can use. Even today I go out and get recognized. My kids don’t get it.”

If you want to know how big these guys are still in town, you just have to look at Jim Breech, now an insurance man in Liberty Township just north of the city and one of the more relentless civic givers who is as giving and as in demand as when he was in the process of becoming the Bengals all-time leading scorer as the franchise’s only 1,000-point man.

For many years Breech and several Bengals alumni have attended a fundraising effort for the locally-based Cancer Free Kids. Super Bowl XXIII is replayed during the event and after he puts the Bengals ahead with 200 seconds left, he asks them to turn it off.

“It’s a disappointment. It doesn’t get any easier the older you get,” Jim Breech says. “It’s frustrating we weren’t able to finish it off. It never gets better. It’s always there. It’s not like you dwell on it. But this time of year, it’s going to come up.”

Yes, Breech watched Sunday night. The first thing he thought of when he was saw Denver's Demaryius Thomas make his 12th catch was a feeling of sadness that the record held by his friend and former teammate Dan Ross had been broken.

But count Breech as one of those guys that won’t watch the celebration. Once when he was analyzing a Super Bowl for a local TV station with former Bills special-teamer Mark Pike, a Northern Kentucky product, they were asked how it felt to be in the winner’s locker room.

“Mark and I looked at each other,” Jim Breech says. “He didn’t win in four with the Bills and we didn’t win our two, so we said, 'I don’t know.' "

BITTER AND SWEET

Jennings has always had a lot more to celebrate than his return. Like the birth of his first child the night before in Cincinnati. He had prayed on the sidelines, “Let me do something special,” and he responded with the second kickoff return in Super Bowl history in honor of Kelsey Amanda Jennings.

Because these Bengals always watch this time of year, Jennings watched Seattle speedster Percy Harvin take the second half kickoff to the house.

“I was thinking that he was almost as fast as me,” deadpans the always humble Jennings, never known as a burner. “I am very much joking. But he’ll have that feeling for the rest of his life.”

Since this is the 25th anniversary, that, naturally, makes, Kelsey 25. Now a sales coordinator for Spanx, an Atlanta-based apparel company, she is the sweet in the bittersweet emotions. How long has it been? Harvin, born in May 1988, is nearly the same age as the baby born the night before the 93-yarder. There may be sweet, but there will always be bitter.

“Thanks for making me feel old,” says Jennings, an executive in the sports apparel industry. “I watch and I see the way New England has lost some and I say, ‘Been there, done that.’ There’s been some heartbreaking losses since ours in the last 25 years. I just tell these guys that it will stick with you for a long time. There’s no guarantee you’ll make it back.”

As predicted even back then, Esiason is all over the tube and radio dial. He’s dovetailed his CBS TV studio work and prime-time NFL radio analysis for Westwood One with classic New York 100-proof talk radio on the WFAN with Craig Carton.

But the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

“There’s so much to remember. From the Stanley Wilson thing to Tim Krumrie’s broken leg, to the weather to the bad field to Joe Montana and John Candy,” Esiason says. “Plus, my partner in New York won’t let me forget about it. On the day that was the 25th anniversary, he brought in a cake that said, ‘Happy Anniversary on losing the Super Bowl.’ ”

Esiason left out the riots ringing Miami that week in Overtown. McGee is still amazed at the number of obstacles the Bengals faced and almost managed to pull it out, starting with fullback Stanley Wilson knocking himself out of the NFL with a cocaine binge the night before the game and Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie breaking his leg early on a quagmire of a field that prevented the NFL-leading Bengals ground game to dig in.

“No team in the Super Bowl has or ever will go through all the crap,” McGee says. “At the first security meeting they told us, ‘Don’t turn left out of the hotel.’ That’s where the riots were.”

WHAT IF?

How different would it all have been? If the three DBS hadn’t collided on the third-and-18 to 49ers receiver Jerry Rice? If cornerback Lewis Billups had held on to a late end-zone pick? If the field had been taken care of properly? If Cincinnati's best defensive player hadn’t been hurt?

Would the team have stayed together longer instead of getting broken up after the 3-13 season in 1991 after a locker-room celebration?

“I think things would have played out pretty similarly,” Breech says. “In ’89 (when the Bengals went 8-8) we were the only team in the division not to go to the playoffs even though we scored a lot of points and didn’t give up many. Then we won the division in ’90, but we had injuries and age caught up to us.”

McGee agrees. The team wasn’t long for staying together. But there would have been other benefits.

“Pre-salary cap? That’s an interesting question,” McGee says. “It wouldn’t have stayed together. If we won the Super Bowl, everyone would have gone for the money. But there would have been a lot more marketing possibilities for guys, especially in Cincinnati.”

John Breech contends that since people in this town can still name half the roster, “They would have been legends" if the Bengals won.

But Norman Julius Esiason thinks he still would have been Norman Julius Esiason, Jim Breech still thinks he would have been Jim Breech and Stanford Jennings thinks he still would have been Stanford Jennings. Lombardi or no Lombardi.

“I had to go into broadcasting,” Esiason jokes. “But Joe Montana just walks around being Joe Montana.”

One night Jim Breech was watching “Dancing with the Stars” and saw Rice cavorting with a necklace.

“It was his Super Bowl ring and he said, ‘This is the one where I was MVP.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Hey, that’s our ring,’ ” Jim Breech says.

Hey, that was Breech’s MVP.

“Nah,” says the diminutive Breech. “I don’t think I’d be out there dancing.”

But John Breech wonders what might have been.

“If a kicker had been MVP," he says, “I think it might have made things easier for them down the road. They’re important obviously, but I think it may have opened up the door for other kickers to be named MVP in a Super Bowl, or even get into the Hall of Fame.”

For years, he has also harbored another vision that goes back to when he was at Cincinnati’s Turpin High School.

“I was seven, so I imagined him giving up his MVP car after about eight years,” says John Breech, now 32. “And me driving it to school.”

It has been 25 years and they have watched another Super Bowl go into the books. The what-ifs will be there as long as the game.

“I figure if I don’t watch it,” Jim Breech says, “there’ll be a different ending."

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