Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Tearful Goodbye to an Old Friend

Losing someone close to you – someone you care about, someone you admire – is a terrible thing to go through. The pain is horrendous and the inability to understand why things had to change haunts your every waking thought. The sheen of all the good times is still fresh in your mind, making the present and the future that much more difficult to bear. And no matter how well you think you prepared yourself to suffer such a loss, it always hits you like a huge sack of nickels. No matter how ready you think you are, it still hurts all the same.

On the afternoon of Monday, March 2, 2009, T.J. Houshmandzadeh signed a 5-year, $40-million contract with the Seattle Seahawks, subsequently ending his career with the Cincinnati Bengals. T.J. was carried away by the winds of free agency, the shimmer of a big contract, and the hope that his new life would be better than the old one. He was third all-time on the Bengals receptions list, and first on the all-time “bad-ass ponytail” list. He is survived by his former coaches and teammates, and the many, many fans that cheered him on for years. He will most certainly be missed. T.J. Houshmandzadeh was with the Bengals for eight seasons.

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As you can see, losing T.J. has been very rough on me, as I am sure it has been on many other Bengals fans around the country. Over the past eight years, we have grown to love T.J. here in Cincinnati, for many reasons. We watched him mature into a star receiver, right before our eyes. We witnessed his transformation from oft-injured, butter-fingered young athlete into the toughest, most reliable set of hands this franchise has seen in years. We saw a player that encompassed everything our franchise needed, and characterized the opposite of everything it did not. Unfortunately, he no longer needs us.

Housh’s departure hurts the Cincinnati Bengals in numerous ways, the most obvious being his on-field production. Over the past three NFL seasons, no other player in the league has had more receptions than T.J. He has developed into one of the leagues top wide receivers, but not before years of hard work and determination. After being drafted in the 7th round of ’01, T.J. played in only 30 games over his first three years, due largely to his numerous injuries. However, he was only slightly more productive when he actually got on the field. The lone memories that Bengals fans have of T.J. during his first few seasons were of him fumbling punts and standing on the sidelines in sweatpants. We could hardly stomach him back then. I was almost positive that he was Marvin Lewis’s nephew or had naked pictures of owner Mike Brown; it was the only way to explain why they kept him on the team all those years. But apparently the organization knew something the rest of us did not.

T.J. quickly became an integral part of the Bengals offense. He and Carson Palmer developed a strong relationship, on and off the field, which bred great results on the gridiron. He was Palmer’s go-to guy, his “get out of jail free card.” He ran the tough routes across the middle and got the tough yards after the catch. He made first-down receptions as easily as Ashton Kutcher makes crappy movies. Housh was an absolute stud on the playing field.

But all the same, what may have been even more important than T.J.’s on-field stats was the fact that he was the complete contradiction to everything his friend, fellow wideout and team-cancer Chad Johnson had become. For instance, when “Ocho Cinco” feels like he isn’t getting enough passes or the team isn’t doing enough for him, he whines and pouts and essentially gives up. When T.J. felt like the team was struggling, he would do whatever it took to turn things around – he would get angry. He could care less about his own individual stats and success. He threw blocks, ran routes to get other guys open, and got in the referee’s face whenever he felt the urge. I always had this twisted hope that T.J. would throw a ref to the ground and drag him off the field by the top of his head, like how Robert De Niro did to Sharon Stone in Casino. It never happened, but his effort and desire were still noted.

Chad was always running his mouth to the media, complaining like a 3rd grade girl about this thing and that thing, until he finally alienated his entire fan base. Housh was the quiet guy. He kept to himself and let his effort on the field speak for itself. Chad has the overbearing agent, Drew Rosenhouse (AKA: Lucifer), who is intent on making Chad as rich and annoying as possible. T.J.’s agent is…well, no one has any idea who T.J.’s agent is, which is exactly the way it should be. We here in Cincy are fed up with Chad; we could do without him. Housh is the good guy, the guy we hoped would hang around. We wanted him to stay. But as an ancient and creepy British dude often says, “You can’t always get what you want.” Too true, Mick. Too true.

Now, this is where I would usually bash Bengals owner and GM Mike Brown for being too cheap and too stupid to pay T.J. enough to keep him in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, I do not think this would be fair to do in this particular situation. All sources indicate that the organization offered T.J. a very reasonable contract and made a strong push to sign him, fueled in part by Carson Palmer’s efforts. It appears as if the Bengals did try to bring him back, which is why it would be wrong to chastise Brown in this situation. I would still enjoy it, but it would be wrong.

The fact is that this time, it might not have been about the contract. For T.J., maybe money had nothing to do with it. Housh is a self-proclaimed “west coast guy.” His family lives in California and he went to college at Oregon State. Maybe he picked Seattle because he wants to be there, and not because they gave him the most money. Maybe he likes the rain. Maybe he wanted to wear plaid shirts, drink Starbucks, watch Grey’s Anatomy and ponder why Kurt Cobain had to die so young. And maybe most of all, he just wanted to get out of Cincinnati. The bright spots for the Bengals are few and far between, and it looks as if Housh finally needed a change of scenery. I can’t hate him for that, because none of it is unreasonable. Satan could offer me all the money in the world, and it would never be enough to keep me in Hell. Sadly, T.J. may have been in the same situation – the exact same situation. You know what I mean?

Houshmandzadeh’s exodus is more evidence that an adjustment is critical for Cincinnati. Maybe things can change without him. Hopefully things can change without him. Either way, it looks like we are about to find out.

Thanks for the memories, T.J., and enjoy life on the other side. Perhaps in time, we will be able to join you. If not, then I sure hope we can stand the heat.



Thanks for reading

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