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TDBH: Bengals prep for court as Bergey bolts for WFL
April 17, 2018 04:00 AM | Geoff Hobson

The transition of sleepy, clubby pro sports to Wall Street business with flowing money, byzantine lawsuits, high stakes and even higher-faluting debates of loyalty officially hits Cincinnati today. All-Pro middle linebacker Bill Bergey, one of the Bengals' franchise players, appears at a press conference in Norfolk, Va., to announce he's signed a three-year deal with something called the Washington Admirals of the new World Football League that takes hold in 1976 and is said to be worth the unfathomable price of $250,000. But Bengals founder and head coach Paul Brown, fearing a raid of his six-year-old expansion team that is already coming off its second division title, is furious and has already beaten Bergey to the punch. The team announces Bergey's intention two days earlier. "It impairs the integrity of any player's performance when he is under contract to one club and paid by another," Brown says. "There was nothing we could do. He was already committed before he talked to us. It's a definite blow to the Bengals and their players' hopes for a championship season." Bergey breaks his silence today in Virginia. "The big thing is financial security for my wife and family," says Bergey, making about $40,000. "I'm obligated for two more years, but I don't know how I'll be used ... The No. 1 goal right now is to say I'm a winner and to be part of bringing another division championship to Cincinnati and hopefully a shot at the Super Bowl."

But even as Bergey admits, "The people are hot back in Cincinnati," the Bengals are planning to block his move in court. In two days the club gets a temporary restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge David S. Porter issued against Bergey, the WFL and 24 other teams and individuals. The Bengals argue the WFL is "maliciously inducing and attempting to induce (Bengals players) to breach their existing contracts." Paul Brown calls the next two years "awkward," if Bergey sticks around and it already is when The Cincinnati Enquirer tries to reach Bergey for comment on the lawsuit and is told he's looking at land in nearby Clermont County.

The flurry of events pits the new age vs. the old days. Everyone has an opinion. Enquirer sports columnist Tom Callahan takes aim at the loyalists: "It is natural and admirable that a man try to improve his state. And $250,000 is quite an improvement over $50,000, wouldn't you say?" Marty Williams, 31, who has covered the Bengals since their birth for The Dayton Daily News, is one of that new breed of sports writers that must now be schooled in both games and economics. The other sections of the newspaper are beginning to notice sports is now serious business. Later this spring Williams wins the General Writing Excellence award in the first writing contest conducted by the Ohio Associated Press Sports Writers Association and a few days after the restraining order is issued he figures to get the latest when Bergey makes good on his commitment to speak to Dayton's downtown rotary club. Williams estimates Bergey, 29, a fan favorite during five bone-rattling seasons in the Bengals middle, averages five speaking engagements a week during the offseason. But with wife Mickey and son Jason shopping close by at Rike's, Bergey allows he can't allow much. "I can't say anything about anything," he says. "My lawyer is mad for me even coming up here. He wanted me to cancel all my speaking engagements and take my phone off the hook and not talk to anybody. But I can't do that."

Bengals fans also can't deny what he means to the franchise after Brown trades him to Philadelphia three months later. A good four decades later they vote Bergey one of the top 50 players in the first 50 years of the team even though he plays more seasons for the Eagles. In the end, they help each other out. Mike Brown, then the Bengals assistant general manager, offers to trade Bergey to an NFL team. That extracts him from the WFL quagmire while the Bengals also get something out of it more than court costs after Bergey beats the lawsuit. Bergey's WFL franchise has already moved twice since he signed, so he gives back his $40,000 bonus and the Bengals deal him to Philly for a first-rounder in 1977 and 1978 and a second-rounder in 1978. Two of those picks, Ross Browner and Wilson Whitley, start a Super Bowl for the Bengals and the other pick, Ray Griffin, is a regular on that team.

During the 50th celebration Bergey and Mike Brown echo each with a "Time marches on." "All the stuff that was acrimonious, that was contentious, you put it in perspective, you forget about it," says Mike Brown, who remembers his name used as a verb when it is said he "Bergeyized," Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw with a hit. "I'm fond of him. My memories are good ones." Bergey recalls, "I really enjoyed my five years in Cincinnati. I played (seven) years with the Eagles and I really remember more about my Bengals days. I had just got married. I had my first kid. Had my first paycheck ... The team was close. We were young and hungry." He's on a fishing trip when he hears Paul Brown dies. "I was absolutely devastated," he says. "If I had been back in the states, I would have gone to his funeral. That's how much he meant to me." Sports, it seems, is not always business.

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