MSJ alumna Sasha Feldmann provides a heartwarming reflection on why she became a Bengals fan this season.

msj alumna sasha feldmann seated next to family at lunch.

I’m going to be completely honest. For 23 years, I could not have cared less about football. I did not understand it, and I didn’t understand why anyone would want to understand it. Throughout all of high school and college, I never attended a single game, and I was proud of it. I didn’t see the appeal of sitting out in the cold while people scream so loud you can’t hear yourself think, watching people I barely know fight over a ball I can barely see. 

I’m sure there was an element of stereotyping to it, as well. The “popular” kids play football, or are football fans. That’s what is instilled in us through movies and TV, with some element of truth. And without having too big of a pity party, I was definitely not popular with the vast majority of my peers. I wanted to be accepted, I resented that I wasn’t, and therefore, I resented football.

I knew of the Bengals, but, obviously, wasn’t interested, not even from a hometown pride perspective. There are some fun attractions, sure, but really, what had this city ever done for me? Why should I have been proud of a city that I primarily disagreed with politically, anyway?

Now, I work for a local news station. It’s my job to write up and post stories online about all of the awful things that happen here. To be fair, I write up some heartwarming things, as well. But it’s easier to dwell on the negatives, and there’s no shortage of them.

Since it’s a local station, there’s also absolutely no shortage of Bengals news coverage. Whether it’s stories about the games, stories about people reacting to the games, tailgating before games, tickets to games, celebrating after games — any angle you can imagine, they’ve done it. I found it annoying for quite some time, if only because of the sheer volume.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed. Maybe it’s because I had to get more directly involved in editing those stories this season. I was absorbing knowledge about the team whether I wanted to or not. I knew whose jerseys were sold out, where Joe Burrow went to high school, and the names of Zac Taylor’s wife and children. And something about everyone’s growing excitement as they continued to win games was irresistibly infectious.

But it still started mainly as a joke, something I would do ironically. I live with a couple of roommates at the moment. One of them had essentially the same history I did with football, and she is still going strong. The other isn’t a Cincinnati native, but was also starting to be intrigued by the excitement surrounding the Bengals. So, it became a funny bit, where he and I would talk giddily about some of the details of the games and players this season around our other roommate, much to her annoyance. Somewhere along the line though, he and I agreed the enthusiasm was starting to become real.

The joke kept going during a trip the three of us took to a cabin in Michigan for a friend’s wedding. Spirits were high, and our roommate’s reactions were still hilarious. It was the perfect environment to nurture our actual anticipation for the AFC Championship game, and the possibility of finally being in the Super Bowl.

Then, the morning before the ceremony, I got some news that brought all of it to a grinding halt.

I found out that while I was away, my uncle had died. Worse, I found out through a Facebook post and had to call my dad to confirm. The post was made by my grandpa, and it said something to the effect of, “You never know true pain until you have lost a child.”

I called my mom first (it was her brother), but she didn’t answer. My dad told me it was true, he had died the previous night. I asked what happened. My uncle was only 45. It turns out, we don’t really know. He just collapsed. His son had tried to perform CPR, but it was too late. My dad, a paramedic, speculated he likely had an undetected blood clot of some kind. I wasn’t really listening. My personal loss aside, I was dwelling on my cousins having lost their father, my grandparents having lost their son, and mainly, my mom having lost her baby brother.

But I couldn’t leave the cabin. I was the officiant for the wedding, and I was also in charge of doing everyone’s makeup (it was a small ceremony). Furthermore, I wasn’t going to ruin the bride’s day. So I caught my breath, took a shower to give the redness in my face a chance to fade, and went downstairs for breakfast with a smile on my face. It worked. No one knew. I told my roommate covertly just so I didn’t have to keep it bottled up. She didn’t quite know what to say, but I’m still glad I said something.

The ceremony went according to plan. Everyone was still having a good time, including me as I managed to briefly get my mind off of what happened. But I was still worried about my mom. I texted her to call me, and she said she would, but still hadn’t done it. Yet I managed not to let on to the others that anything was wrong. Even during the last night at the cabin, when everyone got into a very candid, emotional conversation about loved ones who died, I still kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want anyone, especially not the bride, to feel guilty that we’d had a celebration while I was coping with a recent loss. There’s no reason they should feel that way, but they would have. That’s the kind of people they are.

On the six-hour-long drive up there, I made four or five stops for snacks, bathroom breaks, etc. On the drive back, I made none. It was too late Saturday night by the time I returned to visit anyone, but I planned on it as soon as I woke up on Sunday.

So, I went to my grandparents’ house, where I saw a host of cars in and around the driveway. We’d had plenty of deaths in the family before, of course, but I had never been able to visit anyone in the time between the death and the funeral. I guess part of me expected a solemn gathering, filled with weeping and bowed heads. Evidently, I don’t know my family well enough.

The first thing I saw when I walked in was a group of people bent forward in their seats, fixated on the TV. That was normal enough, I guess, but it was somewhat surprising under the circumstances. Then, it hit me: it was football Sunday.

I hugged my mom, grandparents, and cousins. When I got to my uncle (my mom’s youngest brother), he asked how I was doing. “You know, trying to hang in there, I guess,” I said.

“I know…I know,” he said earnestly.

I ate some of the food everyone brought and sat down facing the screen, like everyone else. But for once, I thought, Why not pay attention?

And I looked up to see Kansas City had a 21-3 head start. Not good, but I didn’t think much of it yet. Surely, there were more important things to worry about. It was one of many Bengals watch parties my family had gathered here for, but obviously, someone was missing this time — someone that would’ve been right in the midst of it all in a bright orange and black jersey. I shook off the thought.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I still don’t really understand all the rules — I mean, I spent most of my life willfully resisting any attempts to teach me — but I wanted to be part of the zeal. I watched and followed suit when people cheered, and through some family commentary, started to pick up on what was happening, and what needed to happen to turn the tide of the game around.

During commercials, we talked. It was mainly about the game, at first. I was proud of where I could interject with the knowledge I gained from work. But as the scores slowly started turning in our favor, the room slowly started to open up.

My grandpa was scrolling through Facebook and mentioned that someone had posted a slideshow of photos of my uncle set to emotional music. “Nope,” a few people said. “That’s why I don’t go in Facebook,” someone added. And they shook their heads to say, I’m not going to think about that and risk breaking down. Not right here. Not right now.

Then, back to the game.

The next commercial break, my other uncle said when he heard the news, he went home from work and sat in silence in front of the TV for hours and hours, not sleeping and not eating, almost in a catatonic state. His girlfriend nodded and confirmed it, patting him on the arm.

Then, back to the game.

And as it drew closer to the end, we were more hyper-fixated on it than ever. As soon as McPherson put us in the lead with a field goal, Butker followed suit. We got sent into overtime, and lost the coin toss. I’m not going to lie, it was exhilarating. The tension in the room rose, and as I looked around at everyone’s wide eyes and closed fists,

Please win this, I couldn’t help but think. Please win this for him.

And no one said it, but I’m pretty certain everyone in the room was thinking the same thing. I considered that maybe the prayer was a little selfish. I’m sure plenty of Chiefs fans had meaningful connections to the game, too. But I couldn’t suppress it, and as it turned out, I didn’t need to.

McPherson made that final, legendary kick heard around the Tri-State. Needless to say, the room erupted in raucous cries. We hugged, we cheered, we even let ourselves tear up a little. Though, a few days later, we all agreed that had my uncle been there, he would’ve been cheering louder than all of us.

The funeral was Saturday, right before the Super Bowl. It’s both a little odd, and really fitting. On Sunday, the family was watching just as intently, and shouting just as much as they always do. I joined in, too. This time, emotions flooded the room throughout the entire game. It could’ve all been par for the course for a game of this magnitude, but I think things were still a little raw from the day before. And by the end, it was more than easy to be disappointed, frustrated, and crushed.

So, instead of dwelling on that part of the evening, I’m going to try and pick another. Every Super Bowl party for us also doubles as a birthday party for my grandpa. After the halftime show, we all crowded around to get the cake ready, and to sing “Happy Birthday.” After finishing, we burst into an impromptu performance of the Stevie Wonder version of the song, off-key and complete with plenty of choreography. 

It was all smiles and laughter. My grandpa loved it. And after watching him say goodbye to his son, it was really nice to see him smile again. We still got the chance to celebrate something, and I’m choosing to feel contented, hopeful, and loved.

It’s a cliché, but it is what he would’ve wanted.

Regardless of the fact that we lost the Super Bowl, I’ll be back to cheer on the team next season with my family. And now that I finally have a Bengals T-shirt, I can do it right.

sasha and uncle
Photo: Sasha Feldman with her uncle, Edward Labrone Neal, Jr.


Sasha Feldmann graduated from the Mount in 2020 with a degree in Liberal Arts and minors in English and creative writing. She was a Dateline writer and editor. She now works as a digital content producer for Local 12 News.

Cover Photo: Sasha and uncle seated next to her family.