After Sunday's game, as the jubilant Bengals filed into their locker room, Anderson handed a shovel he had borrowed from stadium groundskeepers to Lewis, who held it aloft as his players roared. Then came an even more emotional moment: Lewis got choked up while telling the team he was awarding the game ball to Bengals owner and president Mike Brown and his family.
For all of Brown's well-documented shortcomings in running the football operations, he deserves credit for two things: giving Lewis the authority to make personnel decisions, power that he wouldn't relinquish to previous Bengals coaches; and having the sense to hire Lewis in the first place. Regarded as a slam-dunk head-coaching hire following the Ravens' Super Bowl triumph, Lewis was interviewed and/or passed over for numerous jobs during the next three winters. All along wary of the lack of opportunities afforded African-Americans in the NFL coaching ranks, Lewis nearly accepted an offer from Cal in late 2001 and strongly considered taking the Michigan State job late last year.
"What he's proving now is that it was all those other teams' loss," Bengals defensive end Duane Clemons says. "It's great for us because we get a guy who's been through some adversity, a guy who had to do it the hard way and knows how to teach a team to fight. That's something those other cats who had things handed to them can't bring to the table."
What Lewis brings is perspective, something his team will sorely need as it fights for the franchise's first playoff berth—and first winning season—since 1990. The Bengals' next three games are on the road, beginning with this Sunday's game in San Diego and concluding with a potential division-deciding showdown with the Ravens, whom the Bengals beat 34-26 on Oct. 19. While trying to ensure that his players don't get too caught up in their success, Lewis can't help but use as motivation this bizarre postgame quote from the All-Pro Holmes, who said, "I still have no respect, really, for the Cincinnati Bengals."
That used to be the word around Cincinnati, but no more. As Lewis and his 13-year-old son, Marcus, arrived at Maxwell's tailgate party, 150 revelers broke into applause. Lewis was handed a vodka-and-cranberry cocktail, and he sipped it while receiving hugs and high fives and signing autographs. "Mr. Lewis, you rock!" said a woman in a blue ski cap. Added a young blonde in an orange-and-black feather boa, "Hey, can I get a hug? My birthday's on Tuesday."
Standing several feet away, Maxwell took a sip of beer and said to no one in particular, "It doesn't get any better than this." Lewis turned and caught her eye, and what he communicated with his expression was unmistakable: Oh, it will get better.