John Stofa, the school teacher-quarterback Paul Brown entrusted with his Baby Bengals and engineered the first victory in franchise history, died this past weekend at 79.
Known as “The Original Bengal,” Stofa played only in that inaugural 1968 season with the club, but he supplied some memorable firsts before settling in Cincinnati for most of his life.
“He was more than that to a lot of us. Just a really good guy we’ve known for a long time,” said Bengals president Mike Brown, a friend since the days Stofa was the only player on the roster. “He had a lot of values we cherish. We admired the way he lived his life.”
Stofa, who recently battled Parkinson’s, displayed a “1ST BNGL,” Ohio license plate and carried the title of First Bengal with a quiet pride and grace that defined his up-from-the-bootstraps climb from a cold weather small school to NFL quarterback.
“It was a real highlight just being selected as the first player Paul Brown wanted,” Stofa said in a 2017 Hobson’s Choice Podcast on Bengals.com celebrating the team’s 50th anniversary.
Asked if he felt pressure as the first player for an expansion team, Stofa recalled that relationship with Brown, the Bengals founder returning to the game after a Hall-of-Fame run in Cleveland.
“Just the opposite. It was a real deep feeling of a belief in yourself and you know you can do it if you wanted to do it,” Stofa said. “We talked not only football but personal, too. He was a good guy … People don’t understand. They’d see that tough looking image out there and (say) this guy doesn’t care about anything. It’s not true. He does care about the players and how they were doing personally.”
Stofa, then 25, spent more time with Brown than most of his players because he was his only player for about a month after Brown swung that day-after-Christmas trade with the Dolphins in 1967. After scouting Stofa at a Miami practice late in the season, Brown decided to send the Dolphins his expansion team’s bonus picks at the end of the first and second rounds.
“I don’t intend to make a practice of giving up early draft choices,” said Paul Brown after dealing the 27th and 54th picks, “but we really wanted a player of Stofa’s caliber.”
Stofa was the quintessential Paul Brown player. Brown, the former Massillon High School health instructor, became attracted to Stofa’s brains and his offseason job as an elementary school teacher in Daytona Beach, Fla., while playing in the minor leagues.
It was that stint with the Thunderbirds that gave Stofa a shot with the Dolphins late in the 1966 season, giving him the distinction of throwing touchdown passes for two different expansion teams. After coming out of the University of Buffalo throwing “four to five times a game,” Stofa said the Thunderbirds threw it 40 and 50 and taught him the art of reading defenses. He sparkled for the Dolphins, throwing four touchdown passes in six quarters and won the job in the 1967 training camp before breaking his ankle four minutes into the preseason.
When Stofa came back late in the year, everyone knew Paul Brown and his personnel man Al LoCasale were in Miami looking for a quarterback.
“(Everyone) thought they were looking at Rick Norton,” said Stofa of the Kentucky quarterback the Dolphins took with the second pick in the 1966 AFL Draft.
But no one knew that a few years earlier when LoCasale was the personnel man in San Diego, the Chargers liked Stofa enough to send him to the minors for seasoning.
When Stofa surfaced in Cincinnati right after the trade, the only other Bengals around were Paul Brown and his son, 32-year-old assistant general manager Mike, a former Dartmouth quarterback. Stofa and Mike threw together at Princeton High School as the team was formed.
“That’s how it was. If I was a receiver, we had no receiver. It was a fond memory of mine,” Mike Brown said. “He used to kid me about that. Because I would tell him, ‘Hell, I can throw the ball better than you can throw the ball.’ He used to pretend. To say that might be true just to get me talking so I could make a fool of myself. We had fun with it.”
Injuries followed Stofa to Cincinnati, but after he missed the Bengals’ first game ever in San Diego (a 27-13 loss started by rookie Dewey Warren), he started the Sept. 15, 1968 home opener the next week and gunned touchdown passes of 58 and 54 yards to tight end Bob Trumpy and wide receiver Warren McVea, respectively, for the first touchdown passes in Bengals history during a 24-10 victory at Nippert Stadium.
The Baby Bengals became the talk of the walk the next week when Stofa started another home game the Bengals won when they beat the Bills, 34-23, to go to 2-1. They didn’t win for eight more weeks, until Stofa came off the bench in relief of Sam Wyche at, of all places, Miami, and hit six of eight passes for 138 yards and a touchdown.
“We wanted a veteran quarterback that could play. Someone who had some experience,” Mike Brown said. “He did what we hoped. He had moments where he was really pretty good.”
They finished 3-11, but lifelong friendships were built on a team that became a cornerstone of their adopted city. When the Bengals won the 1970 AFC Central with that corps of players, they were regarded as the most successful expansion team in sports history.
And the pass to Trumpy was not only the Bengals’ first touchdown throw, but it became a 50-year plus gag for the tandem. Trumpy would kid Stofa about throwing it three yards and he did the rest. Stofa would respond that Trumpy never ran that far in his life. The wives of Stofa, Wyche, Trumpy and Mike Brown are friends to this day.
“They were all close,” Stofa told Bengals.com. “Talk about building a chemistry. That was a good start with it. People feel a part of it and you make friends and you want to do it together. I think one of the reasons the Bengals had early success was getting the right people on board, the right chemistry …. And that’s not easy to do. It’s the players that make it work.”
Katie and John Stofa felt so comfortable that except for a spate of about 15 years in Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati has been home for them and their grandchildren while he worked in insurance. And that included in the early 1970s, when Stofa had another stint in Miami as well as the World Football League.
“Cincinnati is a great town,” Stofa said in 2017. “Our children were born here. They made a lot of friends and we made a lot friends here. We built our home here. When I was playing, we’d come back in the offseason.”
The hometown quarterback did have a brush with Hollywood even before he became a Bengal. While Stofa was in Miami, word came to him that the people making the movie “Paper Lion,” hoped he could spend time with the star, an up-and-coming actor named Alan Alda.
Alda portrayed George Plimpton’s chaotic training camp adventures with the Detroit Lions while writing a book on trying to play quarterback and Stofa was signed up to help Alda with the fundamentals. He recalled they gave him a few lines and when the film came out in 1968, it turned out to be one of the films Paul Brown liked to show his team the night before a game.
“OK guys, be ready. There I am,” is what Stofa said he told his mates before his “brief,” appearance. “You know how it is. I was harassed a little bit, but it was all in fun.”
Stofa said his character didn’t have a name and it looks like he didn’t get a cast credit.
“I was just one of the backup quarterbacks that was nameless,” Stofa said.
Not in the production Paul Brown created, where he’ll always be a leading man.