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Hartman: Bengals anniversary gives team to showcase their forgotten pre-80s history

If like me you were born in the 1980s, you are forgiven for thinking the Bengals team that won the Freezer Bowl could have been an expansion team.

That AFC Championship Game victory over the San Diego Charger occurred in January 1982, but it seems like yesterday because there are multiple NFL Films segments about it.

NFL Network makes reference to the game from time to time, and southwest Ohio native Dan Patrick recalls seeing the Bengals’ linemen warming up in short sleeves before the opening kickoff whenever he has an alumni of the game on his radio show.

RELATED: Bengals announce plans for 50th season celebration

Coach Forrest Gregg’s Bengals, with an assist from Mother Nature, grounded Air Coryell and advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

You don’t have to be a team historian to know they lost that one. It launched the legend of Bill Walsh, the former Bengals assistant who took the “West Coast Offense” he developed as an assistant in Cincinnati and used it to build a dynasty in San Francisco.

Seven years later, the Bengals lost another Super Bowl to the 49ers, and not long after that they fell into the chasm of the 1990s, what’s been appropriately called the lost decade.

And yet the real story of Cincinnati’s NFL franchise begins more than a decade before it made its first Super Bowl.

They came into being in 1968 and two years later made the playoffs – the first expansion team to qualify for the postseason as early as year three.

If you didn’t already know that, again, we can’t blame you. It’s not well publicized.

But maybe that’s going to change.

The team kicked off its 50th year in existence with a press conference Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Owner Mike Brown, who has been there since the beginning working for his father, Paul, wistfully told stories about the franchise’s formative years before giving way to a pair of Bobs from the early days.

After Bob Johnson talked about what it was like to be drafted as a senior at the University of Tennessee – His wife asked, “What’s a Bengal?” after hearing the expansion team had chosen her husband in 1968 – Bob Trumpy talked about surviving cuts every year and squeezing an extra $3,000 dollars out of a contract negotiation.

Watch the Bengals first draft pick compare his salary to Peyton Manning’s

They all spoke happily about the old days, and a dozen or so other former Bengals were there to wave hello and shake hands with season-ticket holders.

It was a great time, to be sure, but one that also left me feeling like it was a shame more people couldn’t see this side of the franchise known better nationally for those disastrous ‘90s and the inability to win a playoff game in the Marvin Lewis era.

Trumpy, who became a national name during a three-decade career as a broadcaster after he retired 1977, agreed more can be done to connect the present and the past.

“It’s never really been hunky-dory,” he said of the relationship between the franchise and its former players – even though he and many others stayed in the area after their playing does. “Hopefully it changes.”

As for why things have been chilly, Trumpy isn’t sure, but he did offer a personal theory.

“This is just my opinion, but it all relates back to Paul’s relationship with Cleveland and what happened to him up there,” Trumpy said, referring to Paul Brown being fired by Browns owner Art Modell in 1963. “We had an awful lot of guys who played for Paul in Cleveland and had been around Paul in Cleveland. (They said) that when Modell took the team away from him, it changed him dramatically. And I don’t think he ever wanted to get as close to us as he did to them because of what it did to him. That’s my opinion. That’s my theory.”

Whatever the reason, perhaps Thursday marked the start of a new era. Maybe the Bengals are about to become a little more image conscious, more willing to brag about a past that is richer than most know.

In a letter to the fans published to the team website, Mike Brown acknowledged the franchise has endured ups and downs over the years.

READ MORE at our Cincinnati Bengals blog

He certainly did not guarantee a return to the winning ways of 2011-15, but he did set a hopeful tone.

“I care deeply about this town,” wrote Brown. “I raised my kids here, and I have an abiding appreciation for the support you have lent us through the years.

“I don’t know what our 50th season will hold for us. We have a good team, yet the NFL is a tough league. Will this be our season? I hope so. If I had my choice, our 50th season would give you a lifetime of memories, much as you have given me a lifetime of memories.”

Doing more to acknowledge those early days is a good way to get year 50 started.

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