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What Might Have Been: the Death of a Legend

January 30th, 2012 at 7:11 AM
By Chuck Chapman


"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,  
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!"
-John Greenleaf Whittier

Tens of thousands Cincinnati Bengals fans braved sub-freezing temperatures and waited in line upwards of an hour to pay their final respects to the legendary Hall of Fame Bengals quarterback Greg Cook, who passed away on Friday at the age of 65. The line of orange and black stretched all the way from Paul Brown Stadium, where Cook's body lie in repose, all the way to Great American Ballpark. 

Cook, who was voted in a 1999 Cincinnati Enquirer poll as the greatest Cincinnati sports figure of all time, was an icon of the NFL dynasty that he constructed, along with the late Paul Brown and Bill Walsh. He, along with Bob Trumpy, Isaac Curtis, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, represent an era when Cincinnati dominated the professional sports scene, winning three Super Bowls and two World Series in a decade. Cook, who rewrote the record books at the University of Cincinnati before being drafted fifth overall by the Bengals in 1969, will be remembered as the one who started it all.

When Cook burst onto the scene in 1969, the Bengals were only a year removed from being an AFL expansion team. The Reds were building with the core of what would become the Big Red Machine, but were almost 30 years removed from their last title. The Royals were struggling in Cincinnati Gardens and would lose Oscar Robertson to Milwaukee and eventually the franchise to Kansas City by 1972. The state of professional sports in the Queen City was hardly associated with success. Cook would change all that.

Cook was the unanimous choice for AFL Rookie of the Year in 1969, leading the team to an 8-6 record his rookie season. That wasn't good enough to qualify for the playoffs, despite having beaten eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City. Cook's star was obviously bright, however. He had a cannon arm with laser precision and an instant connection with his young receivers, Speedy Thomas and tight end Bob Trumpy.

In 1970, Cook and the Bengals broke down the door and won the first of their Super Bowl titles. They finished the season 12-2, one-half game ahead of the Baltimore Colts who had a tie that year. That was enough to secure home field advantage. The Bengals defeated Bob Griese and the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round and then took care of a Baltimore team led by a hobbling Johnny Unitas before heading to Super Bowl V to meet the Dallas Cowboys. Cook had his way with Tom Landry's defense and the Bengals won going away 24-13. Cook threw a touchdown apiece to Thomas and Trumpy while Paul Robinson rushed for the other.

The Bengals made the playoffs again in 1971, but this time Baltimore had their revenge, defeating Cincinnati in the divisional round at Memorial Stadium. The team added Charlie Joiner who would team up with Cook to become the first great QB/WR tandem of the '70s, in 1972. They also began what would become professional sports most heated rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cook and Steelers' quarterback Terry Bradshaw would battle the entire decade for dominance of the AFC North. Neither got the upper hand in head to head matchups, but the winner was the de facto NFL champion. Either the Bengals or the Steelers won seven of the ten Super Bowls played in the decade. The Miami Dolphins would finish 1972 undefeated, their closest call being in the divisional round against Cincinnati when Horst Muhlman's game-tying field goal attempt sailed wide right, ending what would have been another Greg Cook game winning drive.

Cook would not stay down, however, as he took home NFL MVP honors in 1973, leading the team to its second Lombardi Trophy. Young speedster Isaac Curtis joined Trumpy and Joiner and Cook was practically unstoppable. He led the NFL is virtually every passing category en route to a 12-2 season and an AFC North title. The Bengals easily knocked off the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round before hosting a rematch with the defending champion Dolphins at Riverfront Stadium. The Dolphins and Bob Griese were foiled by the cold and the wind (and a little banged up from their game with the Steelers the previous week). Griese's passes fluttered and he was picked off twice by Lemar Parrish and Ken Riley. Cook's rocket spirals seemed to be unaffected, however, as he and Curtis hooked up twice for scores. Boobie Clark added the game winner in the fourth quarter to send Cincinnati to Super Bowl VIII against the Vikings.

The "Purple People Eaters" were no match for the Bengals Bombardier. Cook torched the Vikings for three scores as the Bengals cruised to a 31-14 win.

The Steelers got their first title the next season as they edged out the Bengals for home field advantage through a divisional tie breaker as they split the season series. The Steelers got the better of the Bengals in Three Rivers Stadium in the AFC Championship, 20-16. The "Steel Curtain" defense was able to get to Cook for four sacks and forced two interceptions.

Cook was the epitome of resiliency though, once again responding with an MVP season in 1975 as Cincinnati became the first city to have both NFL and World Series championships in one year. The Bengals and Steelers tied atop the AFC North at 12-2 and once again, the Steelers won the tiebreaker. This time, however, the Bengals were able to take care of the Steelers in Three Rivers, 24-17. Cook outdueled Cincinnati native Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X, 28-17, taking home Super Bowl MVP honors for the second time in his career.

Paul Brown, having won his third Super Bowl title as Bengals head coach to go with his seven titles with the Browns, decided to retire following the season. Naturally, offensive coordinator Bill Walsh, whose down-the-field "Cincinnati offense" featuring Cook, Isaac Curtis, Charlie Joiner and Bob Trumpy, was the envy of the NFL, took over to start his own dynasty. He'd have to wait, however, until after Cook retired.

Walsh and Cook got the Bengals to the playoffs again in 1976, 1977 and 1978. But without Charlie Joiner, who left to go to San Diego, the offense took a step back. Walsh wanted to go with youth and drafted Billy Brooks out of Oklahoma. The Raiders and the Steelers proved too much to overcome in each of those years however.

Cook closed out his 11 year NFL career with a lackluster 8-8 season in 1979. The Bengals missed the playoffs for only the third time in Cook's career and pressure was on him to step aside for Joe Montana whom the Bengals had drafted in 1979 to succeed Cook. Montana, of course, would forge his own legend in Bengal stripes. In Cook's 11 seasons, he was NFL MVP twice, led his team to eight playoff appearances, six AFC championship games and three Super Bowl wins in as many tries. He was enshrined in Canton in 1984, a first ballot Hall of Famer.

It all started with Cook. Montana called Cook "the greatest mentor any young quarterback could want. Even after he retired, he was always around and available. Nobody could pick apart a defense like Greg Cook. I was fortunate to have him there during my career."

Cook's understudy for six seasons, Ken Anderson, also had praise. "Greg Cook made sure I was successful in the NFL. I learned so much as his backup. He was always helpful with me and (third stringers) Virgil (Carter) and Dave (Lewis). Without his guidance, I doubt I'd have been ready when I got my chance in San Francisco." Anderson went on to team up with former Bengal quarterback and 49ers head coach Sam Wyche to win a Super Bowl of his own in 1982.

Bengals owner and close friend Mike Brown summarized Cook's contribution to the team and the city:

"Very early on, Greg Cook shaped the destiny of this franchise. Without Greg's leadership and accomplishments, who knows where things would have gone. The Bengals and the city of Cincinnati will never forget him."

The city of Cincinnati has been privileged to have witnessed many Hall of Fame careers: Bench, Morgan, Perez, Trumpy, Curtis, Riley and Bergey. The greatest of all though was Gregory L. Cook, the Bengal Bombardier. Thanks for the memories, Greg, and rest in peace.


Tags: Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bengals, Football, Greg Cook, NFL

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