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tara sullivan

Seeing the Bengals in the Super Bowl is special but bittersweet for Dan Ross’s family

Dan Ross's widow, Joan, and her children, Jillian and Dan Jr., during a visit to the Bengals home in Cincinnati.Courtesy/Joan Ross

Artie and Paul Ross were in front of the television in Artie’s Saugus home two Sundays ago, captivated like the rest of the football world by the final seconds of the Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship game. Just as they had 40 years ago, when they’d traveled from their Everett home to Cincinnati for the Bengals’ first-ever trip to the conference final, they were rooting hard for the Bengals to reach the Super Bowl.

Back then, they braved the bitter cold and freezing winds of a game known as the Freezer Bowl to support their brother Dan, who was down on the field as the Bengals’ standout tight end.

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Now, they do it to honor their brother’s memory, knowing he’d have loved nothing more than to see the Bengals return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years, knowing he’d have been rooting just as hard for his old team to win its first NFL championship.

“Every Super Bowl we have a party at my house, but now that the Bengals have made it and it’s the 40th anniversary of Danny’s team making it, we’re having an extra-big party,” Artie said.

The Rosses have reason to celebrate, but so too should Bengals Nation pause to remember the man who did everything he could to help them win the franchise’s first Super Bowl back in 1982, whose record-setting Super Bowl performance stood for more than three decades. This is the time to assure that Ross’s inspiring story from the Cherry Street projects to the fields of Northeastern to the NFL is not lost to the haze of tragedy.

Dan Ross died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2006. The giant of a man, whose 6-foot-4-inch, 238–pound frame belied the gentle and giving soul inside, whose humility and intellectual curiosity set the example for both the family he grew up in and the one he was raising with his wife Joanie, whose extraordinary athletic talents took him from Everett to the pros but never took the South Boston out of him, whose 49-year-old body looked as if it could still play in the NFL right up until the moment he died, came home one May morning from a run, started opening mail in the family kitchen, and keeled over.

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“The doctors said it was like turning the light out,” Artie recalled.

As with their own father Charles, who died of a heart attack in 1978 at age 51, there were no signs of trouble, despite an autopsy that showed at least 75 percent blockages in three of Dan’s four arteries. For Joan and their two children, Jillian and Dan Jr., for Artie and his wife Susan, who is also Joan’s sister, for their entire families, there was every predictable emotion. Shock, sadness, grief, denial, anger.

“We loved doing so much together,” Joanie said. “We were friends. We could go out and have fun.

“I feel so bad that he’s gone. He left way too soon. He died right in front of me. Almost 16 years later, I think about his grandkids that he never got to meet. It’s not about football. It’s about them, what would he be showing them, telling them, taking them fishing, playing golf.

“It doesn’t hurt my heart like it used to. It hurts that he’s not here for my children and grandchildren.”

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Dan Ross (right) picks up yardage during the AFC Championship win over the Chargers in January 1982 that propelled the Bengals to their first Super Bowl.Anonymous

If the passage of time is a natural healer, the rise of the Bengals is a joyful tonic. As second-year quarterback Joe Burrow was leading the game-winning drive against the Chiefs, as rookie Evan McPherson was making the clinching overtime kick, Joanie was stemming her own tears, so moved was she by the franchise’s resurgence.

“I couldn’t help it. I was so excited for them,” she said. “Floods of memories. Me and my husband were together for 30 years, it was only 10 years of football. When this comes around, this just floods you even more.”

For those who go back far enough, who know the history of Massachusetts football, who might count themselves among the Bengals fans who count Ross as one of their cult heroes, there is no need to refresh a memory. They have never forgotten Ross, not when his alma mater dropped its football program in 2009, not while Cincinnati languished near the bottom of the yearly NFL standings, not as NFL rosters suddenly were flooded with the brand of pass-catching, hard-blocking tight ends for which Ross was a prototype.

“He had unbelievably good hands,” said Ross’s college quarterback Allen Deary, who as a freshman starter had the good fortune of inheriting Ross as a No. 1 target. “He ran perfect routes and then he was a weapon once he caught it. He was also a tremendous blocker, a great lineman in that regard.

“We would run live routes, he would go to the opening, I could always trust he’d find the soft spot. He didn’t have to be open to throw him the ball. He caught everything. He was bigger than most of the DBs, faster than the DBs and safeties, and certainly no linebackers could cover him.”

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Dan Ross's grandchildren, Bree and Blake.Courtesy/Joan Ross

His college coach Bo Lyons, who died last year, told the Globe before the ‘79 draft that Ross was “as flexible a person in relation to a football as I’ve ever seen. He has that hand-eye coordination without fear of hearing footsteps. To watch him catch a football is an experience everyone should have.”

Those were the skills the Bengals coveted, and after pairing Ross with quarterback Ken Anderson, after adding a rookie receiver a few years later named Cris Collinsworth, the dividends came in that 1981-82 playoff run.

Though it would end in disappointment when the Bengals lost Super Bowl XVI to the 49ers, 26-21, Ross did all he could. Six of his 11 receptions (for 104 yards) and both of his touchdowns came in the fourth quarter. The 11 catches set a Super Bowl record that stood (with a few ties along the way) for 32 years, broken in 2014 by Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and held now by the Patriots’ James White, who had 14 in Super Bowl LI.

Ross was not impressed with his stats, however, telling the Globe’s Will McDonough, “I would give back every catch, everything that I did in the game, if we could win instead.”

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That humility was learned at home. Artie still laughs when he thinks of their mother, welcoming veteran Channel 5 reporter Don Gillis into their home prior to the draft. When Gillis turned to Rita and said, “You must be awful proud of your son,” she replied, “Which one? I have three of them.”

Said Artie, “She knew what he meant, but she was letting Danny know he was no better than any of us.”

Artie is hosting the party on Sunday, with 50 or so family members, all of whom will be wearing shirts Susan had printed: “Bengals” on the front, Dan’s “89″ on the back along with the phrase “toss it to Ross,” the same words that were spray-painted near the neighborhood corner store back when Dan played in the big game.

His grandchildren, Jillian’s kids Blake and Bree, diehard football lovers already, will be there. Blake’s third-grade classmates heard all about his Papa during Blake’s “star of the week” report. His recent trip to the barber resulted in a full-color Bengals designshaved into the back of his head.

A show of support from grandson Blake.Courtesy/Joan Ross

The family is all in — “They’re going to win, I have this wicked feeling,” Joanie said — with Dan most certainly there in spirit. His family needs no special reason to remember him. They do that naturally all the time. But perhaps they can hear his voice in their heads when reminded of something he said to McDonough on the eve of his first playoff game, speaking then of the loss of his own father. He could have been speaking of himself:

“It was a shock to all of us when my father died. Such a young man. Such a good man. Everyone loved my father. As the years passed by, I’ve learned to accept what happened, because I realized one thing: My father died a happy man. I keep that thought with me.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.