CINCINNATI — Sam Hubbard was engrossed in a dodgeball game during his high school gym class when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer walked through the door. A lot of heads turned, including his.
And his sports career took a very different turn.
Hubbard doesn’t recall anything about the dodgeball game, other than the unexpected visit that changed so much. Hubbard went from an aspiring Notre Dame lacrosse player to a Buckeye football star and now a draft pick for his hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals .
“I’ve had a winding journey to get here, and a lot of fun stories,” the third-round pick said Friday as rookie camp opened.
The 6-foot-5 defensive end was committed to playing lacrosse for Notre Dame — he was a midfielder on Moeller High School’s team — when Meyer showed up at gym class during his junior year. Hubbard also was a safety on the football team. Meyer was on a routine recruiting trip to see several prospects, and Hubbard’s gym teacher was Moeller’s football coach.
“Everyone in class was staring,” Hubbard said. “To have Urban Meyer walk into your class was unexpected.”
Hubbard’s coach mentioned him as a potential Buckeye. Meyer watched Moeller’s game film and took note of him along with the others. Eventually, Ohio State offered a football scholarship and Hubbard changed paths, heading two hours up the road to Columbus instead of South Bend.
There were several more unexpected changes ahead.
The Buckeyes tried him at linebacker and tight end before deciding he’d be best as a defensive end, a position he’d never played. Hubbard was totally out of his element, but grew into the position, adding weight while learning what it takes to tackle an elusive running back and take down a quarterback.
He’d hoped to get drafted by the Bengals, but thought there was little chance of things working out so perfectly. That might have been the biggest surprise of all.
On Friday, he walked into their football-shaped locker room, heading past Andy Dalton’s locker on the right and Carlos Dunlap’s on the left, to find the one with his name and No. 94. Then he was off to an adjoining practice field, a short trek that felt surreal after all those years rooting for the Bengals.
“It’s insane,” he said. “To come in here and see the locker, the helmet, to put on the jersey and go out on the field — it was a special moment.”
He’ll get a chance to work his way into the Bengals’ defensive line rotation as a rookie and become part of those big rivalry games he followed so closely as a youth — Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are on the schedule in four months.
Chase Big Ben around the field?
“Ha!” he said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but that’s obviously the end goal. I’ve got to learn the playbook first and make a good first impression.”
Hubbard knows the franchise’s history of futility as well as anyone. The last time the Bengals won a playoff game was the 1990 season, five years before he was born. He attended Bengals games regularly as a youth. He knows about their run of five straight first-round losses from 2011-15, an NFL record for playoff futility.
Hubbard was in the stands at Paul Brown Stadium for one of their worst moments. Carson Palmer tore ligaments in his left knee when he was hit on his first pass against the Steelers on Jan. 8, 2006. Pittsburgh pulled away to a 31-17 win in the opening-round playoff game.
“That one’s burned in my head,” he said.
DRAFT PICK SIGNINGS
The Bengals signed four of their 11 draft picks at the start of rookie camp: fifth-round picks CB Davontae Harris and DT Andrew Brown, and seventh-round picks QB Logan Woodside and G Rod Taylor.
COME ON DOWN
The Bengals also signed 10 undrafted free agents for rookie camp: WR Devonte Boyd, Nevada-Las Vegas; DE Gaelin Elmore, East Carolina; OT Austin Fleer, Colorado Mesa; RB Quinton Flowers, South Florida; TE Jordan Franks, Central Florida; S Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii; LB Junior Joseph, Connecticut; RB Ray Lawry, Old Dominion; DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State; and LB Chris Worley, Ohio State.