Mac Engel

The pain of two Super losses 30 years later. Has NBC’s Collinsworth gotten over them?

NBC NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth is one of the few men who played, and lost, two Super Bowls. He was a standout wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s. He admits he never got over the Bengals’ two Super Bowl defeats to the San Francisco 49ers.
NBC NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth is one of the few men who played, and lost, two Super Bowls. He was a standout wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s. He admits he never got over the Bengals’ two Super Bowl defeats to the San Francisco 49ers. Getty Images

After 30 years of waiting, I was finally going to pose the two questions I needed answered by Cris Collinsworth.

This was my chance for confirmation, for validation. I need this, for my life. For my brain. For my sports’ heart.

Long before he became the polarizing figure in NBC’s NFL broadcast booth, Collinsworth was a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals in the ‘80s. He was the tall, white receiver who ran good routes, and caught everything.

Born in Cincinnati, I was raised a Bengals fan. I was a Cris Collinsworth fan.

God put Job through the ringer, but you’ll notice he never asked him to support the Cincinnati Bengals.

We sports media scum too often forget what it was like to love a team, and to care this much. To pour your heart into something that you have zero control, but it controls your emotions.

Super Bowl week is my annual reminder of how loving a team can hurt so much. That the pain of a loss is no different than a breakup, or the death of a pet, etc. There is no reason in it, but it happens.

That when Collinsworth and the Bengals lost two Super Bowls in the ‘80s, he hurt. I cried when they lost.

And while I no longer do, the memory of that pain exists even today. It’s stupid, my brain tells me that. The heart wins.

When Collinsworth was trying out as a sports talk radio host as a fill-in on 700 WLW am radio in Cincinnati in the late ‘80s, I called in for a question or two. There were two others I never had the chance to ask, so when the opportunity to interview Collinsworth arrived two months ago, I finally got my questions in.

My feeling has always been had the Dallas Cowboys defeated the 49ers in the 1981 NFC title game, where Dwight Clark made “The Catch” on a pass from Joe Montana, the Bengals would have won their first Super Bowl, and given owner Paul Brown the one item his trophy case lacked.

Collinsworth paused, took a breath and said, “You know ... we’ll never know,” he said. “I liked that ‘81 team a lot.”

Cris doesn’t know it, or care, but I appreciate his confirmation, even if it’s empty pandering to a middle-aged man who can’t give up the idea that his team was better when it actually was not. That I was simply sad over not being able to boast my team was the best, and that I should have been able to ask my mom and dad to buy me my own Bengals’ Super Bowl merchandise.

After all of these years, and having consumed more sports than any sane person should, when the highlights from these Bengals’ Super Bowl losses are on, the TV is off. I can still feel that sickness in my stomach from caring so much.

LOSING THE SUPER BOWL

Careers are short, and the statistical opportunity to play in a single Super Bowl is bad. Only a select few have played in them, and even fewer have appeared in multiple Super Bowls to never win one.

There are the men of the Minnesota Vikings in the ‘70s, who lost four from 1970 to ‘77. The Buffalo Bills of the ‘90s built a legacy on reaching four straight Super Bowls only to finish 0-4.

Collinsworth and the Bengals lost two Super Bowls, both to the dynasty San Francisco 49ers.

If I never got over these two losses, I had to know if he did. Because if he did, I could.

“Never,” he said. “I’m telling you - never.”

Perversely, this is comforting.

“I don’t care what anyone says, you don’t get over this,” he told me. “Somewhere, in the deep recesses of your brain, it’s there. It’s like when you did something that hurt someone, and you just never forget it. Or you do forget it, and then you think about it and you cringe all over again.

“I see a ring, or a call of those Super Bowls ... and there is always something to remind you of what could have been. It’s why I am always really careful with that when I am around guys who have been there and not won it.”

REMINDER OF PAIN

Of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl titles, only the Bengals gave them a real game. The 49ers won going away by double digits over the Dolphins, Chargers and Broncos; their two Super Bowl games against the Bengals were one-score games.

Who am I kidding? In 1981, the 49ers defeated the Bengals, 21-3, in Cincinnati. The 49ers were 1-point favorites in the ‘81 Super Bowl, and took a 20-0 lead at the half.

The Bengals made a game of it in the third quarter, and reached the 49ers’ 1-yard line. A touchdown would have made the score 20-14. Instead, three straight plays from the 1-yard line netted no points, as running back Pete Johnson was stopped at the goal line in one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history.

Still can’t watch that play. They couldn’t get one yard on three tries.

“We played our worst game of the entire year in the first half of that Super Bowl,” Collinsworth said. “And but not for a great play by Joe Montana and a goal line stand, I still think we would have won that game.”

In the ‘88 Super Bowl, the 49ers were 6-point favorites against the Bengals. I knew they were not better than the 49ers, but ... Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff for a touchdown, Jim Breech kicked a few field goals, and the Bengals led 16-13 late in the fourth quarter.

I know Bengals cornerback Lewis Billups dropped an interception at the goal line in the second half that would have changed the game, but it didn’t matter; my heart was in it. I had braced for a loss, but the win was right there.

And then Montana led the 49ers on a game-winning touchdown drive that ended with 34 seconds remaining.

Still can’t watch that Montana to John Taylor pass.

The Bengals’ last two plays of the game, neither of which had a chance, were passes intended for Collinsworth. That Super Bowl was the last game of his career.

“Whoever won, you won, and you deserve it,” he said. “I’m a big believer in you are what your record is. But for those guys who get there and don’t win, it’s never over.”

It took me about 30 years to ask Cris Collinsworth the two questions I needed answered. It was worth the wait.

My brain needed it. My sports’ heart needed it.

He never got over those Super Bowl losses, so it’s OK if I don’t either.

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
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