CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross had a decision to make two weeks ago when he found out his 3-year-old son and the boy’s mother were ill with COVID-19: Stay with the team to continue preparing for an important contract season for him or go home to be with his family.
The fourth-year player said it was an easy choice, because he is "a father first" – even knowing his future is on the line.
Ross, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list Aug. 12, a day after he flew back to Long Beach, California, to care for his son.
The child and his mother are feeling much better, Ross said, so he returned Thursday. But he couldn’t rejoin the team until Sunday, after having three negative COVID-19 tests.
“I’m telling you, it’s my son — it was not frustrating at all,” Ross said Sunday after practice. “I get it and I’m like, ‘I do got something going. I feel really good.’ But that all goes out the window when it comes to my son, my family, anything that’s important to me. Don’t get me wrong, my job is very important to me, but I feel like my job is always going to be here. The most important thing for me was to make sure my family was right, and then I was going to come back and be that same guy as how I left off.”
The 2017 first-round draft pick still has much to prove after three injury-plagued seasons with the Bengals, but he doesn’t consider his recent time away from the team as a setback.
Ross has played in just 24 of 48 games the last three years but gradually has showed his potential – just not consistently enough for the Bengals to pick up his fifth-year option.
Despite his uncertain future, Ross said the coaches and front office were understanding about him having to leave camp. He took precautions to avoid getting COVID-19 himself but said it was “worth the risk.”
“I just wanted to see him get well,” Ross said. “That was the most important part. The stressful part was me having to wear a mask, not being able to hold him, kiss him and let him know that I’m here for him. Just not being able to physically touch him and things like that.”
The former University of Washington standout still tried to stay in shape while away from the team, but he waited a day or two until everyone was feeling a little better to leave the house. Even then, he would wait until late at night to go out, sometimes going to a nearby park at 2 a.m. just to get a good run in.
Ross said he might have looked suspicious to any passersby but joked he could outrun anyone that might try to cause him trouble.
That speed is what the Bengals love so much about Ross, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough for them to fully utilize it. After receiving just two targets in three games as a rookie, Ross proved efficient in the red zone in 2018, scoring seven touchdowns on just 21 catches with 58 targets in a career-high 13 games. Last year, he was starting to show he could be effective between the 20s as well. He got off to a hot start with 270 yards and three touchdowns over the first two games, only to suffer a sternoclavicular joint injury in Week 4 at Pittsburgh. He ended up returning eight weeks later and finishing with 28 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, knowing he must earn a new contract, Ross has some extra motivation to prove he can stay healthy and contribute to the offense.
“For one, I need to play all 16 games,” Ross said. “I need to stay healthy and I need to make plays in every single game. It’s on me to do that. The thing about it, I wouldn’t have picked up my option, either. It guarantees (pay) if you get hurt. I’ve been injured every single year. That’s not a bad decision by them. And now it’s on me to show them why I should be here longer.”