Cincinnati

                              Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer via Imagn Content Services

                              When Germaine picked that ball off to end the game last week, I started looking into the crowd. The noise was incredible. The excitement was contagious. I’d never seen Paul Brown Stadium like that — I’d never heard it like that. It was just so pure. And as I looked around, I saw fans throwing their arms in the air, jumping up and down and screaming their heads off. But for every one of them, there was a fan with their hands on their head, staring into the distance with just a smile on their face.

                              And I knew exactly what they were feeling.

                              Relief.

                              I’ve been a Bengals fan for as long as I can remember.

                              And I felt it, too.

                              In that moment, it was like this weight was lifted off our shoulders. Just like that, 31 years of demons — gone. And I just remember soaking in the vibe in the locker room, and seeing the guys celebrating, and thinking, Man … so this is what it’s like? This is what it’s like to win a playoff game in the NFL? This is what all those other teams have been getting to feel?

                              It was the most special night of my career, without a doubt.

                              And it was special because of all that had come before.

                              I’m from Cincinnati. Grew up in Anderson on the east side. Went to Archbishop McNicholas High on Beechmont Ave. Went to UC. This city — it’s who I am. I’m proud to be from here, I always will be. And standing on our field last week after the game … I felt every bit of that pride. I felt it in my soul.

                              Jamie Squire/Getty Images

                              Here’s the thing about that pride, though: It never went away. It was always there — even in the worst moments.

                              And I remember all of those moments. I know that everyone reading this probably does, too. The Steelers game in the 2015 season. The Texans games. The Steelers game in 2005. I remember them all.

                              I remember Riverfront.

                              It was a bit rough around the edges … but it was ours.

                              I used to go down there when I was 12 or 13 years old for these 3-on-3 basketball tournaments called Hoop It Up. They’d hold the games in the concrete concourses of the stadium. It was so different in the ’90s. The Banks weren’t nearly what they are today. Back then there were just a bunch of pedestrian walkways that went over the highway to get to the stadium. And on rainy days it wasn’t the most inspiring walk. Inside, I remember all those different colored seats. The dark blue ones were the best, and then in the nosebleeds, I think they were red. It wasn't the nicest stadium in the world. It was just a very … industrial place. That’s how I’d describe it. But like I said — it was ours. Cincinnati isn’t a flashy city. It’s never been. It’s the type of city that goes to work every day and puts in a shift that it’s proud of. I think Riverfront reflected that part of us.

                              In that moment, it was like this weight was lifted off our shoulders. Just like that, 31 years of demons — gone.

                              Kevin Huber

                              And in a lot of ways, it’s where my football journey began.

                              The way my good friend Tommy Linz tells this story, he makes it seem like he should get the credit for getting me into punting. And to be honest, I don’t even remember how it all went down, so Tommy can have this one. Sometime in middle school he told me about the Punt, Pass and Kick competition that was being held down at Riverfront. I’d played soccer most of my life and my dad was a punter at Xavier in the early ’70s before they shut the program down, so Tommy knew I had a decent leg on me.

                              Long story short, I ended up winning the whole thing for my age group. My mom still has the plaque in our home in Anderson.

                              And then the scouts all started knocking on our doors. I was getting more offers to D-I schools then you could even believe, Bobby Bowden was calling my dad — no, I’m just joking. That’s not quite how it works for punters. In my freshman year of high school our football coach circled us all up like, “Alright, who can punt?”

                              “Well, coach. I did it in grade school. So … me?”

                              “Cool. Sure.”

                              From there, I started to get more into the art of punting and everything that went into it. When I’d go down to games at Riverfront, I’d really take notice on fourth down. And if you watched the Bengals in the ’90s, you’ll know that they did a lot of punting.

                              It was a tough stretch for the city, no doubt. There were a lot of bleak fall days down there. But no matter our record, no matter the state of the team — there was a core group of diehard fans out tailgating under the highway and making their voices heard every Sunday. Those fans stuck around, man, even in the real dark days. They got back on the faith bus every year.

                              And I’ve been thinking about those fans a lot, these last few days.

                              They’re such a huge part of what made nights like the Raiders game possible.

                              Perry Knotts/AP

                              Around the time I was heading to UC, Marvin Lewis took over. He kind of changed everything here. Riverfront was gone. Paul Brown Stadium was new and shiny. I was in college, but I still watched every game, and made it to a few — and I really just remember how Marvin’s teams had this aura about them. These weren’t the Bengals I had grown up with. We were winning games again. We had Carson and Chad, Odell Thurman and Justin Smith. We had some real dudes. And the stadium was electric. I remember when we won the division in ’05, it almost felt like a fever dream. But what happened in that first round … man, it was tough. Watching Carson get hurt like that and just seeing a great season fall apart — it didn’t seem fair. And the team took a few years to find their feet again.

                              My career really got going in my last two years of college, ’07 and ’08. I played full-time those two seasons, and heading into the draft in ’09, I knew I’d have a pretty good chance to be picked. But at the same time, there’s usually only two or three punters taken each year — and only a handful of teams might have a need or show interest.

                              My year, one of those teams was the Bengals.

                              I met their special teams coach, Darrin Simmons, at the Senior Bowl, and we had some really good conversations — and I started to think they might draft me. I thought they might. I hoped they might. But I really didn’t know. And I’m not going to lie, I was pretty nervous.

                              So on the second day of the draft, I booked a round of golf for me and some buddies. I didn’t want to sit there staring at the TV praying to see my name. We played at a local track called California Golf Course just off Kellogg Ave. I had my ringer on loud, you know, just in case. And on the 17th hole, a par 4, I got a call from Coach Simmons.

                              “Hey, you wanna be a Cincinnati Bengal?”

                              Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

                              My buddies saw the big smile on my face and they started going crazy. Coach Lewis called me right after that and he could hear them in the background and he was cracking up. I’ll never forget that moment. Never. Standing there, talking to Marvin Lewis … knowing I was going to be a Bengal … can’t beat that, man. Can’t beat it.

                              And then we lost in the wild card round in six of my first seven years.

                              How ’bout that?

                              I don’t even really know how to explain that stretch. It honestly did seem like a curse. I think a bunch of us, we almost became numb to it. I know that sounds weird. I know. But it’s like, after that loss to the Colts, there were no new feelings to experience. We’d been there so many times before. It’s just how it went. It’s just what it was. It felt like … that’s what it means to be a Bengal. It was frustrating beyond belief. 

                              And 2015, that was the toughest of them all.

                              That team was so, so good. Truly.

                              Andy and A.J, Pacman and Reggie, Geno and Carlos. Eight Pro Bowlers. We had all the talent in the world, we really did. But I don’t know. It just wasn’t meant to be. I remember as those last seconds were ticking off the clock against the Steelers, just looking around and thinking, Seriously? What did we do to deserve this?

                              It hurt. Still does, obviously. In our locker room after, there was just nothing. Sadness, frustration, confusion. But mostly just nothing. Everyone was totally empty.

                              The end of that game exposed one of our biggest flaws: maturity. We took a lot of penalties that year and when the time came, it bit us. Maybe there was a curse, I don’t know. But I do know we shot ourselves in the foot, and we threw away a great, great opportunity.

                              And that’s something I don’t see in this year’s team.

                              This year’s group is different. I’ve waited a long time to say that and know it’s true. Every year after we’d lose, I’d try and tell myself that this one would be different — that we’d finally turn the corner.

                              But this year really was different. 

                              And I could see it coming. Last year we had a tough season. Joe’s injury, some unlucky losses. It was disappointing. But I saw something in our group that I really hadn’t seen before. I’ve been a part of some bad teams, where, once there’s nothing left to play for, guys tap out. They don’t give it their all in practice or on every snap. But last year, we were playing “meaningless” games and I’m watching guys like Tee and Jessie and Germaine go flat out, every play. It almost caught me off guard. I could see how serious these guys were about flipping the script around here. There was no finger pointing after a loss, no dejection.

                              Every game the objective was to get better.

                              To me, that’s maturity.

                              That’s why I knew this year would be different.

                              This year’s group is different. I’ve waited a long time to say that and know it’s true.

                              Kevin Huber

                              Coach Zac deserves a bunch of credit for the culture he’s helped build. And so do our leaders and veterans. There’s one common goal for us right now. Everyone is bought in. Everyone is moving in the same direction. And everyone is following Joe.

                              I’ve seen some talented quarterbacks in my day. But Joe has more than just talent — he’s got this X factor about him. Sorry, I know that sounds cliché. But it’s true. He’s just got this confidence that’s very rare. I wouldn’t necessarily call it cockiness. It’s more of a swagger. When he gets into the locker room on game day, he’s got a vibe. 

                              I look at him and I’m like, This dude wants to win the game by a thousand points. 

                              No disrespect to our opponent. But Joe seriously wants to win the game by a thousand damn points. He never wants to punt. He’s all gas, all the time. And if you’re in the huddle with him, if you’re on the sideline with him, it’s hard not to be like, Well — if he wants that, then I gotta do my part. That’s how he leads. And I think it’s a perfect fit for our team. 

                              For some of the guys like me who have been here for a while, that scar tissue we have … it’s real. It’s tough to get over. But Joe, Ja’Marr, all our young guys? They don’t have it.

                              Man — do you think they care about the Super Bowl losses, or the pain of 2005, or the penalties against the Steelers? Of course not. They’re here to knock your teeth in. They’re here to win. They’re here to make history, right now.

                              We’re here to make history, right now.

                              Emilee Chinn/AP

                              And that win against the Raiders? That was just the first step. If you’re from here, if you bleed orange and black — you know what that win really meant. You felt it deep in your soul. Because you’ve been here for the heartbreak, same as I have. When Germaine ran back to the sideline after the pick last Saturday, I looked at Coach Simmons, who’s been with us since 2003, and he looked at me…. And there was only one thing to say: “Finally.”

                              Finally. That was the word of the night. I saw it on the faces of thousands of people around Paul Brown. I hope everyone soaked in each second of it. That night was special. That night was for everybody who never gave up. 

                              That night was for Cincinnati.