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Steelers

Bengals fever growing in Cincinnati

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005

CINCINNATI -- For Kevin Click, growing up a Cincinnati Bengals fan has meant annual disappointments and even embarrassment about a team he often heard called "the Bungles."

Now, for the first time in his life, the 14-year-old from nearby Fairfield can mention Bengals and Super Bowl in the same sentence, and it's not part of a joke.

"They're pretty good this year," he said. "It's awesome."

Paul Gruenbacher, 15, says Monday mornings at St. Xavier High School now find the Bengals and their latest game the hot topic of conversation and for the first time he's ever known, students even plan Bengals parties to watch games on television.

"A lot of people are excited about them," he said. "It's pretty fun to be a Bengals fan now."

With the Bengals, who last had a winning season in 1990, in first place and preparing to play host to the rival Steelers today, Bengals mania is getting stoked this week. Fans are snapping up jerseys and T-shirts that in past Octobers would have been sold only for Halloween costumes to be worn with a paper bag with eyeholes. Brokers who have had to dump Bengals tickets at cut-rate prices in past seasons are getting hundreds of dollars over face value.

Around town, there's an abundance of Bengals' orange and smiling faces.

"People are walking around with their heads up," said Ray Buse, spokesman for the Cincinnati regional chamber of commerce. "Image aside, it's really been great for the city's mood."

Even late-night television host Jay Leno joined in, Buse noted, by recently calling a young professionals' group here to jokingly say he helped inspire the Bengals turnaround with his years of teasing.

Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan said media credential requests for this game are the most in memory.

The team's turnaround under coach Marvin Lewis and with young stars such as quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson has become a national story. And while it was difficult to remember which was the home team in some past Steelers games here, Bengals fans long ago made this game a sellout.

"We're beginning to see the change," Lewis said this week. "I'm excited to see it on Sunday, for it to be our home field advantage and to be back the way it ought to be when we play at Paul Brown Stadium, no matter who we play. ... It's an exciting week for the city."

The eBay online auction site Wednesday showed tickets for sale for as much as $300 each, while local brokers Riverfront Choice Tickets were asking $180 for upper level seats that start at $49 face value.

Travis Jackson, marketing director for Riverfront Choice, said calls have soared in pursuit of any of the 65,000-plus seats at Paul Brown -- "probably 300,000 people would like to be there," he said.

Chris Koch, with Bengals' regalia rolling out of his family's downtown sporting goods store, said sales are up as much as 500 percent over past years, even 10 times more than last year, when the team won six of its last nine games to finish 8-8.

He's also noticed that fans are proudly buying orange shirts, when in the past more shoppers went with less-obvious black or gray colors.

Doug Duwel, 27, of suburban Norwood, said he and some fellow firefighters will be at today's game wearing orange-and-black fire helmets.

"My dad used to take me when I was a kid," he said grinning broadly. "We went through a long drought. It's about time!"

Matt Wetenkamp, 25, of Cincinnati, bought Bengals' T-shirts for his younger sister this week.

"It's pretty cool, after years of getting dogged everywhere I went about the Bengals," he said. He recounted that he and friends boldly wore Bengals' shirts into Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' barbecue restaurant during a recent trip to Baltimore.

They drew shouts such as "Go back to Cincinnati," he said, then added the best part: No one laughed at them.

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