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There is a baseline kindness to Mike Brown. This will come as a shock to longtime Bengals fans. He’s decent in an old-fashioned way that’s in short supply now. I’ve met a world of people in 34 years here. They’ve been mostly wonderful. I’ve known Mike as long as any of them. He’s way up on the list. If we hadn’t been adversaries, we might have been friends.
Massive bags of black oil sunflower seeds occupy a corner of Mike Brown’s many-windowed office at Paul Brown Stadium. They’re for the birds that loiter on the ledge. Not the bird brains. Mike has been called that. Not the boo-birds. Mike has heard them. The birds. Most specifically this time of year, mourning doves.
Brown, who is 86, gets to his office every day between 6 a.m. and 6:30 six days a week (on Sundays he’s there by 8:30) and the first thing he does is feed the birds. “I only feed the birds breakfast. They get a scoop a day. That’s it. I’m not going to spend the rest of my day feeding birds.’’
Substitute the words “guards’’ or “safeties’’ or “Andrew Whitworth’’ for “birds’’ and maybe it all becomes clear to you.
“I only feed Jessie Bates breakfast. He gets a scoop a day. . .’’
We’re not here to discuss that. Not today. Many times I’ve entered Mike’s bright and sunny inner sanctum over the past 22 years, to rummage through his bright and intimidating mind for answers to why he ran the Bengals the way he did.
We’d skirmish, I’d lose. Of all the folks I’ve written about, only Mike Brown has intimidated me. It was his mind. I knew the lawyer in him had answers for every question I had, even before I asked one. I’m thinking it was like debating a Supreme Court justice.
Not on this day. That’s past us now. The Bengals are winning; I’m exiting. The verbal fencing is done. I want to know about the birds.
“The thrill is when one of the Cooper’s hawks shows up,’’ Mike said. “You’ll get a bunch of feathers down on the’’ ground. Woe to the hungry mourning dove.
For years, Mike fed the birds in the backyard of his Indian Hill home. He stopped after the raccoons started ransacking the feeders. Mike fed the deer, too – “right from my hands,’’ he said – until the neighbors made it known that deer were not welcome in their gardens. Now, Mike settles for watching the squirrels plunder his apple trees.
“Doc, so what? Fans don’t care. We just want him to win football games.’’
This is the truth and it is unquestioned. But three-plus decades of skirmishing with Mike, and what I recall most is. . . is. . .
How much I like the guy. How grateful I am for our relationship. How interesting he is. How decent. How normal.
In the summer of 1988, I interviewed Mike for the first time, in the dorm at Wilmington College where he stayed, along with the players, for training camp. It was 90 degrees at least, and a little hotter outside. Mike sat in a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts. A fan blew worthless hot air around his 12-by-12 room.
The players were moving in. Every few minutes, one of them lugged a window air conditioner past Mike’s door. (All except Reggie Williams. I don’t even know if Reggie had a fan.) I asked Brown when his window unit would be arriving.
“I don’t like air conditioning,’’ he told me.
He didn’t have it growing up, he explained. He didn’t have it in his first Cincinnati home, in Glendale. When the family moved to Indian Hill, his father Paul urged his son to join the 20th century. Mike had central air installed. Then he opened the windows of his bedroom and shut the door. His wife, Nancy, fled to another room that was so air-cooled, she slept under blanket mounds.
I like that about Mike.
He still drives what I’ve termed in print a “sensible, mid-sized, American-made sedan.’’ He explained, “It gets me where I want to go. I just go from here to home and back.’’
OK, but I don’t think Elon Musk drives a Corolla to the office.
Nevertheless, I like that about Mike.
He reads books. He’s rarely without one. Nonfiction, mostly. He’s reading one now on the lives of historians. Why? Why not?
He doesn’t like to socialize, at least not in large groups. “I’ve never liked cocktail parties. They are painful. I can’t get comfortable,’’ says Brown.
I really like that about Mike. My next-door neighbor for 25 years once said to me, “I have one friend. That’s one too many.’’ We got along famously.
But mostly, Mike is a good human being. His kindness is understated, in an almost elegant way. He spent years trying to help Greg Cook, a brilliant quarterback who became a tortured man.
He has maintained a relationship with the family of Chris Henry, since the day Henry died. He urged Boomer Esiason to take the analyst job in the "Monday Night Football" booth, even as Esiason, in his second incarnation as a Bengal, had just concluded a remarkable, five-game run as Jeff Blake’s replacement in 1997. That didn’t help Mike sell tickets. It did launch Boomer’s successful media career.
Mike was kind to countless others who will remain nameless because Mike wants it that way. “I’m not a philanthropist. We give away money. I give away some minor amounts of my own. I’d rather help some individual than donate to a charity. I can see the impact,’’ he explained.
For Christmas one year, after a contentious summer of losing and criticism, current Reds owner Bob Castellini presented me with a bouquet of black roses and a bottle of Jameson. Marge Schott tried to ban me from Riverfront Stadium in 1990 and did ban me from the press dining room. Carl H. Lindner Jr. invited me to his office, schooled me on baseball economics and dismissed me with a box of notecards with his favorite sayings, most of them said by him.
Mike sent me handwritten notes. On the birth of my daughter Jillian, born with Down syndrome. On the publication of my memoir about raising Jillian. (Mike read it as soon as it came out.) And most recently, a congratulatory note on my retirement.
He writes to people, by hand. I like that about him.
I ask him if he has close friends. He said, “Not many.
“I have some that I’ve lost. I’m 86 years old, soon to be 87. It’s the nature of life. You lose your friends when you’re this age.’’
I mentioned our relationship, 35 years in its forming. If circumstances had been different …
“I think we would hit it off,’’ Mike says. “We have a lot of the same outlook on life. We don’t always agree, but so what?’’
If we hadn’t been adversaries, we might have been friends. Maybe now, we will be.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown on friends, life and reading