One time I shook the hand of James Brooks, former running back of the Cincinnati Bengals. Okay, I didn't really shake his hand. My son did.

We were leaving the Bengals training camp after watching the team practice, and Mr. Brooks was in his car in the parking lot. We walked right up to him and shook his hand. Okay, we stood in a line that had formed in front of his car, blocking it from leaving while fans filed past his window and thrust pen and paper into his hand.

Brooks was a class guy. Stoically resigned to his fate, he signed every single scrap of paper that was given to him. My son Dan, maybe an impressionable six years old at the time, was prodded with the remark, "Cool!  James Brooks is in that car!" and "It'll be worth the wait to see James Brooks up close!"

The patience of a six year old is nothing to brag about. Still, the memory would do him well, I thought, and insisted.

When it was our turn, I lifted Dan to the window. Mr. Brooks smiled a resigned greeting. I said, "I'm sure you're tired of signing autographs. We're here to give you a break. Dan just wanted to shake hands with you and wish you a good season this year."

Brooks smiled a genuine smile and took Dan's small hand into his own. "Thanks, man," he said, "I appreciate that."

"Have a good year," Dan said.

That particular year, James Brooks fumbled the ball in several crucial situations. He was placed on the bench for much of the game in several crucial contests. His younger "replacement" was getting quite a bit of playing time. Brooks was eventually traded to Cleveland. 

Yet for all that, for an entire week Dan bragged that he had shaken hands with James Brooks, a premier running back for the Cincinnati Bengals.

As the weeks wore on, Dan seemed to forget who James Brooks was. 

Cincinnati seemed to forget who James Brooks was, too. But periodically Dan would ask, "What was the name of the man whose hand I shook?"

For a time during sportscasting highlights of mini-camp the next year, and during the next season, Dan would point at players and ask, "Was it his hand I shook. Oh, no. It was James Brooks." Beyond youthful forgetfulness or, indeed, the disinterest that fathers periodically attempt to control in their children, everytime Dan would bring up the issue of whose hand he'd shaken, I had an opportunity to tell him about James Brooks.

I never told Dan, but Brooks was not the greatest running back who ever played the game. He had talent. And he worked hard for his pay. But I would never miss an opportunity to tell Dan, "You shook the hand of one classy guy. That man was a gentleman. He played in the pros because he had talent, but above and beyond his abilities, he was a gentleman. You shook the hand of James Brooks."

That very same day, years ago, another Bengal, a Hall of Famer, a man with much more talent, walked from the pavilion and brushed past my son and me, and several other people not necessarily even looking for autographs but happy for the opportunity to say hello. His eyes were "angered" and he stared straight in front of him as he brushed past all of us. 

Perhaps all those who watched this defender walk from the clubhouse to his car on the other side of the campus where the team practiced just wanted to wish him well. Or perhaps they just wanted to cheer the team on through him. Or perhaps they wanted a brush with a local hero.

What they received was quite different and too cold for such a warm day. You can bet that the second player, who shall remain anonymous here, was the recipient of my thoughts each time his image came on television, or some fan spoke approvingly of him. I'm sure it matters as little to this person and his fans mattered to him that day.

A third Bengal I had contact with was Boomer Esaison. I was working in a store where he did an autograph signing. I met Boomer at the door when he arrived, escorted and stayed with him in the back room, and hung around the area where he signed autographs. He was a class guy, too. He joked with the employees and was relaxed with the autograph seekers. He exuded genuine warmth and appreciation at the "crowd control," made everyone feel like he either knew them personally or was willing to do so, and was just a decent fellow.

But Dan wasn't with me when Boomer was in the store. (Dan did, however, get an autograph!)  The event just did not, and does not now, have the significance of meeting James Brooks.

Boomer and the Hall of Famer will long live in the memory of Cincinnatians and, indeed, football fans everywhere. James Brooks may not be recalled as often. Yet when my son thinks of his, for quite a long time after, most shining moment, he will think of James Brooks. 

And he will think of his old man endlessly repeating: James Brooks was one class guy.

Yeah, he was trapped in his car. And, yeah, he probably did not like that one bit, wanted to get home to his wife, was tired and hungry. But James Brooks stuck it out in a pleasant enough manner. And James Brooks showed genuine enthusiasm when a fan, a six year old fan, wanted to shake his hand.

Grow up to be like James Brooks.

[Forever after at

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