Their bond goes back to the NFL draft last spring.
“Man, yeah, I guess it started when I called his name for the draft,” said Michael Johnson, the Cincinnati Bengals veteran defensive end who represented the team at the league’s annual talent grab last April at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Brought up to the podium to make the Bengals third-round pick, he chose Sam Hubbard, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end from Ohio State University and Moeller High School.
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“Just from that alone I think we’ll always be connected,” Johnson said. “Plus we play the same position.”
But both players agreed their connection now is based on more than simple ceremonial happenstance or similar real estate.
Their friendship has been nurtured since the first days of training camp this year.
In the preseason – even though their lockers are on opposite sides of the Bengals dressing room – they often were seen sitting together in free periods, talking and laughing and, Johnson notes, “listening to each other.”
Before the first game in Indianapolis, Johnson spent time in the end zone with Hubbard going through various techniques he might need that day.
Throughout the first month of the season they have often sat together in the film room sharing thoughts and regularly gone out to eat.
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And Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, Johnson and Hubbard – The Old Man and The Kid – turned into mirror images of each other.
The Bengals had fallen behind 17-0 and didn’t score their first points — a Randy Bullock field goal — until there was just 5:07 left in the third quarter.
But then came an explosive fourth quarter, one of the more memorable stanzas in Bengals history.
Running back Joe Mixon cut the deficit to 17-10 and then Johnson made the play that completely turned the tide of the game.
Under intense pressure from the Bengals defense, Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill tried to unload a pass before he was sacked deep in his own territory. The ball bounced off a receivers’ helmet straight into the arms of the 6-foot-7 Johnson, who rumbled 22 yards into the end zone for the first touchdown in his 10-year career.
Along with Bullock’s point after, it tied the score 17-17 with 11:43 left to play.
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Just over nine minutes later, Tannehill was stripped of the football by Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Hubbard picked up the fumble and ran 19 yards to the end zone for the touchdown that sealed the 27-17 victory for Cincinnati.
The comeback from 17 points down is tied for fifth-largest deficit overcome in franchise history.
The touchdown was the first in Hubbard’s pro career, too.
When Johnson had come off the field following his score, he cradled the football in his arms. One of the first people to meet him was Hubbard and soon they were sitting together on the bench.
It was the same for Hubbard after his touchdown. He brought the ball back to the bench with him and instantly was congratulated by Johnson.
“The way this all worked out it just a funny twist of fate,” said Hubbard. “I mean both of us getting our first NFL touchdowns on the very same day.”
When Hubbard scored, Johnson celebrated on the sideline and still showed his joy after the game when asked about the moment.
“Maaan, it felt like I was scoring again!” he grinned.
Someone suggested he seemed happier about Hubbard’s score than his own.
“That’s how you’ve got to be about you’re teammates’ accomplishments,” he said. “You’ve got to be more pumped up for their stuff than your own. We play for each other. We boost each other up and celebrate each other. That’s what makes a team.”
And that, he said, is why the Bengals are a surprising 4-1.
As for Johnson and Hubbard, they share a kinship regardless of their differences in age and experience.
Johnson is 31 and Sunday was his 144th NFL game. Hubbard is 23 and has now played in five NFL games. Like Hubbard, Johnson was a third-round pick when he came out of Georgia Tech in 2009.
There are a lot of other similarities too, Hubbard said:
“I think we have very similar personalities. We’re not the most talented guys but we outwork everybody. That’s one of the first things I saw in him. His work ethic. He’s the kind of guy I want to learn from.
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“I know you’ve got to follow before you can lead and he’s someone who’ll lead me the right way. He’s just a real dude. What he says is what he does. He’d always gonna back up his words with actions.
“He’s become my role model and, in the process, we’ve become good friends.”
Johnson said he took Hubbard under his wing because “he’s just a good guy who works hard.
“He’s not like your average rookie. He’s beyond his years in maturity, both in the way he approaches the game and his professionalism. He’s a team first guy. You see that in all the things he does for is on the field.
“And I can learn from him, too. He was taught well at Ohio State.””
For all their connections, both were surprised that their shining moments came back to back Sunday.
“I guess the stars just aligned,” Hubbard laughed. “It’s something special for both of us.”
Johnson though was going to take it a step farther.
Asked what he was going to do with his game ball, he just smiled:
“I’ll probably give it to my son. It’s his fifth birthday today.”
Like Hubbard said, he knows just what to do for the young guys.
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