CINCINNATI — Longtime Cincinnati Bengals fan Jeff Wagner’s final message to the organization this season stood out in an empty Paul Brown Stadium long after the paltry announced crowd of 44,568 had filed out on Sunday.
Painted on a plain white banner in section 340 of the east side of the stadium were the words: “I like pizza!!” The banner remained on the wall as the lights clicked off, signaling the end of another home season.
If anyone were to go looking for meaning in those words, they wouldn’t find one. And that’s exactly the point Wagner meant to make about the game that day.
It didn’t matter.
A win against the 3-11 Oakland Raiders meant little after the Bengals were officially eliminated from the playoffs later that night. Although the Bengals snapped a five-game losing streak, the fans who actually showed up that day could barely find it within themselves to care.
“The team is an heirloom to me. People don’t understand my loyalty,” he said. “I’ve probably missed four or five games since I was 6 years old. I went with my grandpa and my dad and now I take (my son) Mitchell.”
Wagner has been making the banners since a miserable 3-13 season in 1998. They are usually positive and sometimes they’re bittersweet, such as “Carpe Deyem for 85,” a nod to tight end Tyler Eifert, who had been injured the week before.
Lately, they’ve taken on the weary tone that many fans have adopted after three non-winning seasons. Wagner said making the banners gave him something to look forward to even when the Bengals were losing.
“I’ve always done them because, in short, they help me have fun when it’s hard to have fun,” he said.
But lately, even that’s become a chore.
“I’m glad the home season is over,” Wagner said. “It was more an obligation than a recreation this year.”
That’s where “I like pizza” came in. Wagner wanted to make the last home game of the season fun, so he suggested a friend’s kid help make the banner that week. Wagner ordered pizza and seven kids in the neighborhood came over to paint.
Someone had suggested the pizza theme a few days before, and he polled his friends, who agreed that was better than his original idea of: “Bengals fever: catch it!”
The banner was intended to be an expression of apathy similar to the one he hung against the Cleveland Browns the game before. That white banner simply said nothing.
Wagner said he found himself depressed that week when he realized he wasn’t even looking forward to a Bengals game for the first time since he was a kid. So he didn’t even paint the banner and hung the blank one because he simply had nothing left to say.
“I would never do anything to hurt them too badly,” Wagner said. “Although I do feel like I echo the sentiments of the fans.”
The Bengals have been mostly accommodating toward the banners, but they have never hesitated to order some of the more snarky messages to be taken down. There’s never any animosity to the process, but there sometimes is some back and forth when Wagner explains his side.
Wagner will either get a text from Bob Bedinghaus, the Bengals director of business development, asking politely to take the sign down, or security will come over and ask Wagner and his son to remove it.
The Bengals were initially convinced the blank banner was a cover-up for a snarky message behind it, but Wagner explained that sometimes silence said more than words. Even they had to admit it was clever.
Three banners were taken down last season, all variations of the theme that nothing would ever change in Cincinnati. The banners read: “Hope is not a plan,” “Change is good” and “Same as it ever was.” All were removed and some didn’t even make it to kickoff.
A statement by the Bengals at the time said that they weren’t going to allow the coaches and players to be subject to ridicule or hurt feelings.
In response, Wagner painted a banner that said “What about OUR feelings?” for the last home game of the season that year.
Message sent. The banner stayed up.
Wagner loves the Bengals and the Brown family. He considers them wonderful and accessible people, but he doesn’t always agree with their approach to running a football team. And he has no problem telling them.
In addition to the Banners, Wagner has written Bengals owner Mike Brown more than 40 letters over the years, ranging from the sentimental to the pointed. Sometimes he copies the media on his letters, and sometimes he sends more personal and positive handwritten notes to Brown’s house.
One letter in particular talked about how much it meant to Wagner to go to games with his grandfather as a child. It touched Brown, who wrote back:
“Dear Jeff, what a wonderful letter … I have never received a better letter from a Bengals fan. Your experience with your father and grandfather makes what we do worthwhile. I have friends who have told me similar stories and I have always enjoyed hearing those tales, but nobody has put it as well as you did. Thanks, and a Merry Christmas. Sincerely, Mike Brown.”
It struck a far different tone than the response Brown sent just two months prior after receiving a negative letter.
“Dr. Mr Wagner, I read your letter, all 10 pages of it. While you wouldn’t be surprised to find out I disagree with a good deal you write, you would be surprised to discover I agree with much you have to say. Some of what I disagree with is tone. Points can be made without being caustic. Usually they can be more effective when not being pejorative. We have this in common, we both care for the Bengals. Sincerely, Mike Brown.”
Wagner would be quick to point out that few NFL owners would ever write back once, much less 20 times. It’s a small part of the reason he stays so loyal, even as he watched his section empty of even the most diehard fans. Total attendance at Paul Brown Stadium this season was its lowest since 2011, with many fans citing the re-signing of coach Marvin Lewis as a reason.
Wagner said he once told Brown that he and Wagner might be the only ones left in the stadium by the end if things keep continuing as they are.
“You don’t have to worry about me leaving,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen is I did this my whole life and the blind squirrel finds an acorn, right? I still have fun with my banners, and I still have a lot of fun with my kid. The biggest reason I go is my kid, and again, the heirloom and the tradition of it. But the most the most loyal fans around me have either left, or said they’re leaving if Marvin comes back.”
And even if Wagner’s words end up true, expect to see him in section 340, putting his message out and cheering on the team.
“I’m a rarity. I’m a rare species. This is an heirloom to me. I’ll still have fun. I’ll still do it,” he said. “But am I absolutely discouraged and frustrated and exasperated and at wits end with the way this culture is? This culture that is absolutely Bengal-dom? There’s no place like it. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle. Yes. Absolutely. Like everybody else.”