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CINCINNATI – A few years ago, Kevin Walker was in the middle of a conversation at an airport restaurant in Baltimore when a stranger interrupted him.
The former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker knew what was going to happen. It was the same variant of “Hey, aren’t you the guy who tackled Bo Jackson and ended his football career?” as Walker has heard for the past three decades.
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The stranger was right. For most of that time, Walker’s tackle in the 1991 AFC Division playoff game against the Los Angeles Raiders was considered an unfortunate incident. But over the past six years, it has turned into something more ominous – a suggestion that the injury put a witch on Cincinnati.
Since that tackle 31 years ago, the Bengals have failed to win a playoff match. The Bengals have a chance to break the infamous “Curse of Bo Jackson” when they host the Raiders, now based in Las Vegas, in an AFC wild-card game on Saturday (16:30 ET, NBC).
It can be difficult to define the curse accurately. But after seven postseason appearances without a win, it’s definitely part of the city’s folklore.
“People are always looking for explanations,” said Cincinnati native Mo Egger, who hosts afternoon radio at the only sports station in town. “It’s never enough in sports to say, ‘Well it happened and this city is unlucky’ or ‘this team is unlucky’.
“In an attempt to find something to blame, they have reached back to Kevin Walker, who tackles Bo Jackson.”
At the time, it all seemed pretty indifferent. Walker chased Jackson from the other side of the field, pulling him down from behind for a 34-yard carry. As Walker crossed paths with Jackson after the Raiders’ 20-10 victory that day, Walker remembered Jackson saying his hip was sore, but he did not feel it was a major injury. Little did anyone know that one of America’s greatest pop culture icons had finished playing football as a 28-year-old.
For some in Cincinnati, the presence of a curse may be the easiest way to describe a series of disasters.
A few examples:
No playoff appearances in the next 15 seasons
1995 No. 1 overall draft pick, runs Ki-Jana Carter, who tears an ACL before her rookie season
Quarterback Carson Palmer’s knee injury in the 2005 wildcard loss to the Steelers
The chaotic, penalized end to the wildcard loss to the Steelers in January 2016.
The loss to the Steelers, which meant the Bengals made four turnovers and eight penalties for 79 yards, was Cincinnati’s most recent appearance after the season and the point at which the “Curse of Bo Jackson” began to gain traction around the city.
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Walker, who has taken the whole ordeal in the bud, is most surprised at the youth of some who have attributed to him the curse.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you were not even alive,’ Walker told ESPN. How do you talk about it so honestly? It’s just blowing me away.”
In fact, only three players on the Bengals’ active roster – cornerback Michael Thomas, pointer Kevin Huber and long-snapper Clark Harris – were alive at the time of Cincinnati’s final playoff victory. Bengals coach Zac Taylor was 7 years old and he did not realize that any kind of curse was hovering over the team when he was asked about it last week.
But the coach and his players are aware of the team’s sparse playoff history.
“I grew up in Ohio,” said Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. “I knew exactly what everyone was saying about the Bengals. [I] had a bunch of friends who are Bengals fans when I was growing up and I knew they had not won a playoff game in a long time. “
The real reason why the Bengals have failed may be a little easier to explain. Since founder Paul Brown died in August 1991, seven months after the loss to the Raiders, the Bengals have not been good enough, or in the case of their last playoff game – disciplined enough.
Fans have argued that Cincinnati has also not been aggressive enough in trying to field a winner. That has changed over the past three years.
Since the team hired Taylor before the 2019 season, the Bengals have undergone a significant overhaul. They released or swapped players at the core of the team’s five straight playoff runs from 2011 to 2015, spent uncharacteristically money on outside free agents in the 2020 offseason, and drafted Burrow with the overall No. 1 in the 2020 draft.
The three-year rebuild produced an AFC North title and the team’s first season with 10 wins since 2015. Taylor, who does not believe in curses, said this year’s group does not carry the baggage of past failures.
“We’re just a lot more focused on 2021, the present and the future,” Taylor said. “So it’s OK to be aware of what’s happened in the past, but it’s not something that occupies our time or our focus.”
The Bengals may be in their best position to end any “curse”. Cincinnati beat the Raiders earlier this season, ending the regular season by winning three games in a row before resting starters – and losing – in the regular season finals. Cincinnati opened the week as 6.5-point favorites over Las Vegas.
Egger, who has lived and worked in Cincinnati all his life, said with Burrow at the helm of the Bengals that there is a belief around the city that the curse will soon be lifted.
“The most frustrating [thing] With that franchise, “Egger said,” we’ve focused so much on winning a stupid playoff game that I wish they would just do it so we can actually talk about winning titles the way they do. in other cities. “
Some have called into Egger’s radio program and suggested to Jackson, who could not be reached for comment and never spoke publicly about the alleged curse, to come to Cincinnati to break the spell. Walker, 56, you’ve heard similar feelings.
Walker settled in Cincinnati after an injury ended his career in 1992 and hid most of his past life away. As a computer retailer, he said he will work with customers for years before gaining knowledge of his NFL experience. His three children had similar experiences growing up. When one of his twin sons went to primary school, he was surprised to first discover that Walker was a former Bengal, and then found the memories hidden in their basement.
Walker plans to find a place to watch Saturday’s game. The thought of a curse stemming from his tackle on Bo Jackson 31 years ago has never bothered him.
But he knows those around Cincinnati are tired of hearing about it.
“They want to win,” Walker said. “They will certainly put that curse to bed.”