Reader, a former Houston Texans defensive tackle who joined the Bengals last offseason, had never missed more than two games in any of his four previous seasons, so sitting out for the final 11 games of 2020 was as mentally challenging as it was physically trying to recover.
The Bengals were counting on him and a rotation of Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels to make for a solid interior presence on the defensive line last year and all three struggled with injuries.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been through an injury, and it was probably the toughest thing of my life the first couple weeks,” Reader said. “Just not being able to do anything, never being down like that. But I’ve got a strong support system. My mom came down, took care of me for a couple weeks, I was able to spend a lot of time with my son. You get those mental reminders that life is bigger than you and you can do it. Take it a day at a time. I didn’t think about it too much, every day it got better. It’s been a process, it’s been a grind, it’s been fun though. I wouldn’t have started the journey if I didn’t think I was going to come back. I told myself from Day 1, don’t go out there if you’re going to quit. As soon as I started rehab, I knew what my journey was and how I wanted it to end.”
Reader had to be smart about his diet and figure out ways to stay in good shape when he couldn’t do anything on his leg. He said he’s “been grinding” since he was able to get back to running, but avoiding his favorite sugary cereals while he wasn’t able to move around much took some serious willpower.
Part of that, he said, just comes with getting older and more mature about his game and preparing his body.
“I’m a big cereal guy,” Reader said. “Holding off on cereal is a big thing. I’m a sweets guy. I’ve gotten off of that lately. But cereal, it’s a problem in my household. It’s always been a thing. That’s the thing I have to stay away from. It can turn from one into five bowls really quick.
“I just don’t do it. Just stay strong. Maybe go to bed a little bit earlier. Lay down, drink some water, pretend you’ve got like sugar in it. Just trying to get the good meals in during the day, that way I don’t have those cravings at night.”
Reader had cut 20 pounds off his 340-pound frame between the 2019 and 2020 seasons and managed stay within the range he wanted this offseason, while building some strength.
“It worked out well,” he said. “This year I kind of restructured my body to try to add a little bit more muscle mass to that 320. I think I did a good job. I’m at 324 right now and I feel good. I feel confident and strong.”
Now Reader has some new faces to get to know and different teammates who will be working alongside him, which makes OTAs important for building rapport even when not able to work directly with those newcomers. The Bengals added depth up front in the draft and signed defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi.
Reader said the biggest difference he sees in the unit this year is “size and energy.” He especially looks forward to working alongside Ogunjobi, the former Browns player who is from the same area where Reader grew up in Greeneville, S.C., but said he’s overall “excited about the defense.”
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that play ball and are confident in themselves and they’re around,” Reader said. “You watch guys come from other teams and guys who have played a lot of ball come over to this team, they just want to make this team better. The expectation is high, we’ve set a high expectation for ourselves. We saw what we could do in flashes and we added pieces and we don’t want to fall off, we want to go forward. We’re excited and we set high expectations. I can’t tell you exactly what those goals are right now, we just had our first OTA. Things are good and everybody has a really hungry mentality heading into this camp.”