Archdeacon: ‘Mr. Cincinnati’ the man of the moment for Bengals

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Long before he was the man of the moment, he was the Man of the Year.

Had anybody looked for it, they may have seen the decal on Sam Hubbard’s helmet that proclaimed just that as he rumbled 98 yards down the Paycor Stadium field Sunday night and straight into Cincinnati Bengals’ lore.

And into the NFL record book, too.

Earlier this season, the Cincinnati Bengals 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end was presented with a helmet decal designating him — for the second year in a row — as the club’s nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, one of the league’s most prestigious acknowledgements.

It recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field that mirror his excellence on the field.

But after Sunday night, it might seem tough to equal the latter though Hubbard — or “The Cincinnati Kid” as NBC play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico excitedly referred to him during the broadcast of the AFC Wild Card game — is one of the rare players who could pull it off.

The 27-year-old defender out of Moeller High School made the play Sunday night that lifted the Bengals over the stubborn Baltimore Ravens, 24-17, and set up an AFC Divisional Game matchup with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y.

To set the scene for Hubbard’s heroics:

With the score tied 17-17, the Ravens had a third-and-1 situation at the Bengals’ 1-yard line with 11:54 left in the fourth quarter.

As instructed, Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley — filling in for the injured Lamar Jackson — attempted a quarterback sneak, but instead of going low, as was the intent of the call, he tried to leap over the pile of bodies in front of him.

He was met by Bengals’ linebacker Germaine Pratt, who stone-walled him and stood him upright.

In response, Huntley tried to hold the ball out to break the plane of the end zone. But instead —with Huntley’s effort still some 18 inches from the goal line — Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson hammered the ball with both hands and knocked it loose.

It flew straight the mitts of Hubbard, who turned and lumbered toward the other end zone 98 yards away. He soon picked up a caravan of three teammates — linebackers Akeem Davis Gaither and Markus Bailey and safety Vonn Bell — and they became his protectors.

Earlier in the night — at halftime – the Ohio Players, the famed R&B/funk band from Dayton, performed their ‘70s hit “Fire” from a stadium stage.

One lyric from that song especially resonated as Hubbard began his journey:

“The way you swerve and curve really wracks my nerves…And I’m so excited child.”

Like an overloaded dump truck, Hubbard swerved a bit to the right as he began his run, drifted back to his left near midfield and then arched back to his right at the 20.

Although he admits he was gassed as he made is way down the field — NFL Next Gen Stats clocked him going 17.43 mph — he seemed fueled by the energy of the overexcited crowd, the second largest (66,399) ever to attend a game at the stadium.

The only Raven to threaten him was tight end Mark Andrews, who — clocked at 20.72 mph —was closing in on him.

Hubbard said he was looking up at the Jumbotron screen as he ran and saw Andrews coming and began to pray someone would block him.

“‘Please don’t get caught,’ that’s all I was thinking,” Hubbard said.

On the Bengals’ sideline, coach Zac Taylor said he had similar thoughts:

“I was yelling at all those people to just block somebody. It looked like Mark Andrews was going to run him down and we had a whole caravan of people. That’s what was going through my mind: ‘Run faster!’”

Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase huddled with Hubbard afterward: “I told him, ‘You look fast,’ even though I was lying.”

When Hubbard was coming out of Ohio State, he said he was criticized by some during his Pro Day workout because he ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash.

“That doesn’t matter now,” he told reporters late Sunday night.

Although exhausted from a tough, physical game, he hadn’t wilted on his epic run. He said he was proud of that.

He was helped by Bell, who bumped Andrews off course at midfield, and then by Baily, who ran interference on the persistent tight end who made one last ditch — and unsuccessful — dive at the 30.

Hubbard’s touchdown — the longest fumble return for a score in NFL postseason history — saved the day and further fueled a team that has become one of the most dangerous in the playoffs

Giving back to his hometown

On the Bengals’ sideline, receiver Tyler Boyd sensed karma in action as he watched Hubbard’s run.

“It was just a thrill to see that,” he told reporters. “That’s something you see on Madden or something

“For him to get that, he’s deserving because he’s Mr. Cincinnati.”

After starring at Ohio State, Hubbard came back to his hometown as Cincinnati’s third-round pick in the 2018 draft.

He had cheered for the Bengals growing up and now he was one of them and he didn’t take the opportunity lightly.

He wanted to lift his team and his town and he labored to do both.

On the field — as one of his best friends, quarterback Joe Burrow noted Sunday — he’s known for his “toughness, hard work and leadership,” qualities that made him a team captain this year.

Off the field, he’s been just as dedicated.

“When I found the stat of how many people in our own community right here were going hungry, it blew my mind,” he once explained. “Something that everybody can rally around is feeding meals to people that need them.”

In 2020, he created the Sam Hubbard Foundation with the goal, as his website states, of “bringing equitable access to food, education and a healthy lifestyle for all Cincinnatians.”

That first year he partnered with Freestore Foodbank and served hundreds of thousands of meals to people in the Greater Cincinnati area.

With money from fundraisers and much out of his own pocket, he soon expanded the scope of his foundation and now has everything from a Thanksgiving Turkey Drive to a youth football league and especially a school supply cupboard — Hubbard’s Cupboard — which is in several schools and provides students with school supplies, healthy snacks and hygiene products.

He recently provided funds for a UC Medical program that fed 2,000 people.

At Christmas, he partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cincinnati and took 20 kids on a Christmas shopping spree. First came a pizza party and then each child was given $250 and couple of hours to shop. Afterward Hubbard sat at talked and played with them.

The list of his giving ventures goes on and on and that’s why the Bengals nominated him for the Man of the Year award last year and again this year.

Each of the NFL’s 32 teams has a nominee and the winner will be announced during an NBC-TV special on the Thursday before the Super Bowl.

And now Cincinnati has a decent chance of playing in that championship game the same as it did last year.

On a roll

The Bengals are a team on a roll.

They’ve won nine straight games and have a string of six straight games where their defense has made a fourth quarter takeaway.

Over the past two seasons, they’re now 4-1 in the playoffs, quite a turnaround for a team that had a 31-year drought of postseason success.

“I think it says something that last year, we had to break the curse or whatever, but this year we weren’t worried about the past or anything,” Hubbard said. “It’s a whole new team, era, whatever you want to call it. That’s just the mentality we have. We’re not worried about curses or the past or anything like that. We’re on to the next.”

While that is the case, he first needed to do something else after his epic TD run.

He returned to the Bengals’ sideline, removed his helmet and took a seat on the bench next to an oxygen tank.

He put the mask up to his face — which was streaked with eye black, but now lit up with a glowing smile — and once his nose and mouth were covered, he gulped in some much needed air.

But with his right arm, The Cincinnati Kid made a muscle pose.

It was an assuring signal to his team and his town and it was an image that also will go down in Bengals’ lore.

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