WCPO’s Mike Dyer is giving a behind-the-scenes look at how Cincinnati Bengals rookie Sam Hubbard is adjusting to life in the NFL, both on and off the field. These stories will chronicle how the former Ohio State and Moeller standout is progressing with on-field play, interactions with teammates and coaches and his new day-to-day experience of life as an NFL player.
CINCINNATI – Gus Ragland feared the worst.
The Miami University quarterback was among the hundreds of friends, family and supporters at Sam Hubbard’s NFL draft party at Queen City Radio in Over-the-Rhine on April 27.
The anticipation was thick on this second night of the draft. Countless anxious eyes focused on Hubbard -- the former Ohio State defensive end and 2014 Moeller High School graduate -- as 11 players were chosen early in the third round.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the No. 76 pick. Hubbard picked up the phone at 9:46 p.m., as those around him watched intently.
“Everyone is going, ‘Oh no, this dude is about to go to Pittsburgh,’” Ragland said. “We are going to have Pittsburgh jerseys and fake being a Pittsburgh fan his whole career just to support him. He’s on the phone and there is kind of rising tension and anticipation, and he finally hangs up and says, ‘That was Marvin Lewis from the Bengals.’ The whole place just erupted.”
Jim Hubbard, Sam’s father, later joked that his family didn’t plan well for a phone call and probably should’ve sequestered the new Bengals’ rookie defensive end.
“I don’t know how he even talked to Marvin,” Jim Hubbard said. “Poor Marvin was trying to have a conversation.”
The euphoria was palpable. Smiles were everywhere. And yet Sam Hubbard understood it was just the start of the professional journey that had brought him back to his hometown.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “We talk about it all the time – my family and I. It just gives me more motivation to give everything I got and make this the fact they made the right draft choice.”
Adjusting to the NFL
More than five weeks have passed since that draft night.
Hubbard now has an apartment at The Banks with a nice view of the Ohio River and a Chevy Tahoe thanks to family friends at McCluskey Chevrolet. He shops in Northern Kentucky. He still makes time to play video games with friends. And he avoids wearing Bengals gear in public so he can blend in.
“If you didn’t know the guy, you wouldn’t know he was a draft pick for the Bengals,” Ragland said. “He’s so humble and down to earth and easygoing. He’s a great dude.”
The weekend before Organized Team Activities (OTAs) began in mid-May, Hubbard invited some friends over to hang out at his new place.
It was just like old times.
“We were playing Fortnite and he kicked my butt,” said Stephen Langenkamp, a former Moeller teammate and Hubbard’s friend since the fourth grade at All Saints School.
Langenkamp, a former Ohio University offensive lineman, said Hubbard isn’t someone who gets sidetracked. He remains true to who he is with the close friends he’s had from Ohio State and Moeller.
“He is a big ‘Lord of the Rings’ and 'Harry Potter' guy,” Langenkamp said.
Hubbard chuckles when asked about reciting lines from the “Lord of the Rings.” He and Langenkamp remember seeing the movie in grade school and love the topic.
They also used to wear Bengals gear and throw the football around during their grade-school days in suburban Cincinnati.
“I remember people joking around with him in high school because he was always the guy who was well liked by everyone, athletic and had all his ducks in a row,” Langenkamp said. “Our friends would be like, ‘Hubb is going to go to college and get drafted by the Bengals.’ It’s just like the perfect storybook scenario.”
To Hubbard, maintaining friendships from Ohio State and Moeller is key as he adjusts to being on his own.
“That is everything to me,” Hubbard said. “Just balancing the lifestyle here and having those friends that are always going to be loyal and there for you when you need them even when things are good or bad – I am just so thankful that I keep in touch with them and they are such a big part of my life. If you came to my draft party it was all the guys that I have been friends with the last 10 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Hubbard understands the opportunity he has been given. But he’s not caught up in the hype.
“This is a business now,” he said. “You are a professional. It’s not like you are a college kid anymore with people taking care of you. You got to do it all on your own and you got to be successful and you have to take care of yourself. That’s the biggest adjustment so far.”
Keeping the spotlight in perspective
The media presence was obvious around Hubbard’s locker during the rookie mini-camp in May.
Reporters wanted him to recount the famous story of how Ohio State coach Urban Meyer noticed him at a dodgeball game at Moeller. They also asked him about the uniqueness of playing all three levels of football in Ohio.
And even if teammates around him know cameras will follow the rookie, Hubbard isn’t fazed.
“This is his city,” said Bengals rookie linebacker Chris Worley, a former Ohio State teammate. “You guys wouldn’t be doing something right if you didn’t talk to him. Sam is a great guy. He loves Cincinnati. I am happy that he was able to play for the Bengals.”
Hubbard downplays the fact there could be added pressure playing in his hometown. He has a sense of pride being able to walk into the Paul Brown Stadium locker room.
“First there was all excitement and everyone was so pumped,” he said during rookie mini-camp. “Now, everyone is getting season tickets and Hubbard jerseys to support me. But I am really thankful that I have a great support system here, and they are going to be my No. 1 fans.”
Madison Hubbard, Sam’s sister, has helped coordinate a list of family and friends from around the country who are requesting customized Hubbard jerseys from the Bengals Pro Shop.
Madison has collected about 150 names for the No. 94 orange and black jerseys, which will be ordered in June. She hopes the jerseys will be ready in three to four months.
“Everybody just can’t wait to get one,” Jim Hubbard said. “There is a lot of pent-up demand from all those Ohio State years.”
Family members may have been able to get a customized jersey in Columbus. Hubbard was used to being in the public eye, having played at one of the nation’s top collegiate programs.
“He’s very focused, a very disciplined kid,” Jim Hubbard said. “He doesn’t have any bad habits. He’s very ambitious and smart. He can see where people make mistakes. To be honest, Urban was a great mentor and teacher, not only about football but how to conduct yourself – what challenges are going to present themselves to you professionally, personally and financially. Sam was just a sponge. He just absorbed it all.”
Jim Lippincott, the former Bengals director of football operations who was Moeller’s defensive coordinator when Hubbard was in high school, said Hubbard also needs to be cognizant of the potential perils of playing in his hometown.
“He’s going to have to learn that this is his job,” Lippincott said. “That this is his livelihood and that every waking moment that he has, he has to devote to football. He’s going to have to learn how to say no. It’s a dangerous thing to play football professionally in your hometown. He’s going to get inundated with ticket requests and people looking for favors.”
But Lippincott is confident Hubbard will maintain his focus.
“It’s easy to say that somebody is smart, but that doesn’t give Sam enough credit,” Lippincott said. “He’s got a lot of things going for him that’s going to help him be a success.”
WCPO.com reporter Laurel Pfahler contributed to this story.