NFL icon Stofa dead at the age of 79

John Stofa, the pro football player known as the “Original Bengal,” is dead at the age of 79, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

The Cincinnati Bengals confirmed the death Monday.

Stofa was a local legend, earning his nickname because the quarterback was the first player on the team’s roster before their inaugural 1968 season in what was then the AFL.

“You start out in football with first things first,” Bengals founder and owner Paul Brown told the press at the time.

“Taking Johnson as a center to work with (quarterback) John Stofa, who we already have, is like building down the middle on a baseball team. He’s like getting a good catcher in baseball to work with your standout pitcher.”

He only played with the Bengals for one season, but he lived most of his life in Cincinnati became a local legend.

Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1942, Stofa graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1964, where he set passing and total yardage records.

Stofa began his career with another AFL expansion team, this one the Miami Dolphins. He played a total of eight games for the team over two years, starting two of them.

It was a trade to the Bengals, however, that gave Stofa his most exposure as a pro player. While the team went 3-11 in its inaugural 1968 season, he famously led the Bengals to a victory in their home opener against the Denver Broncos, a 24-10 triumph at Nippert Stadium, the team’s original home.

Stofa was known to use the license plate “1ST BNGL” to denote his status as the first player signed by the team.

“He was more than that to a lot of us. Just a really good guy we’ve known for a long time,” Bengals president Mike Brown said.

“He had a lot of values we cherish. We admired the way he lived his life.”

In 1969, Stofa was replaced by University of Cincinnati star Greg Cook, who became the team’s first bona fide star despite also only playing one full season with the team. (Cook’s career was cut short by a shoulder injury in his promising rookie year; he died in 2012.)

Stofa would move back to the Miami Dolphins, where he backed up Bob Griese in 1969 and 1970. His last playing time came with the Jacksonville Sharks of the short-lived NFL competitor World Football League.

Stofa would battle Parkinson’s in his later years, but still took pride in his status as the first signed player in Bengals history.

“It was a real highlight just being selected as the first player Paul Brown wanted,” he said during a 2017 interview.

He recalled how, at the time of his signing, the only other Bengals around at the time were Paul Brown and Mike Brown, Paul’s 32-year-old son. Stofa would throw passes to Mike at a local high school as the team was being 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.”