You’d be hard-pressed to find a man happier that the Cincinnati Bengals made it to the Super Bowl than Troy Hobbs.
Hobbs doesn’t work for the Bengals and most Cincinnati fans don’t know his name. But he is a direct link between two Bengals, playing a vital role in the development of both.
Two players will represent Gwinnett County in Super Bowl LVI, and Hobbs coached them both in different roles at two schools. He was the receivers coach at North Gwinnett High School when CJ Uzomah was playing for the Bulldogs, then took over as head coach at Shiloh High School, where he coached defensive end Cam Sample.
“I’ve had the occasion to text them for the past two weeks trying to get a picture of the two of them because I want to display it in my office,” Hobbs said. “I’m thrilled for both of them. Big families, both kids. Cam Sample’s dad was on my touchdown club board when I was at Shiloh. I’m just excited for both of them.
The first was CJ, who was at North Gwinnett from 2007 to 2010. Uzomah played quarterback with the Bulldogs, but head coach Bob Sphire and his staff began moving him around as scouting attention academics was increasing.
“(Uzomah) was clearly the best athlete in the program, especially in that age group,” recalls Sphire. “He was a quarterback there for a long time because he was the best athlete, but I knew his future was a receiver.”
Somehow, things come full circle for Sphire, who now coaches in his native Kentucky at Highlands High School. The school is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, which means he’s coaching a few miles from one of his former players who is living his NFL dreams.
“What’s really cool is I’m sitting in my house in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and I can look at one angle of my compound and see Paul Brown Stadium,” Sphire said. “It’s a huge country of Bengal; this place is buzzing. I had reporters from the Cincinnati area contact me.
He recalled the 2008 Class AAAAA state playoff game against Lassiter High School where the “top athlete” nature of CJ’s game was on full display. Sphire asked quarterback Scott Hosch what the play should be on a critical third down. The answer was short, but categorical.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Throw the fucking ball to CJ,'” Sphire laughed.
Hosch — who later played quarterback at Harvard and is now a graduate assistant at Northwestern — was more than comfortable playing the CJ card whenever needed.
“We just knew we could trust him,” Hosch said. “I can agree that this story happened because it happened many times. There’s your get out of jail card – throw it at CJ”
Uzomah committed to Auburn, where he moved to tight end and caught seven touchdowns. He was a member of the 2013 team that qualified for the national championship game in his junior year and was a finalist for the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end in his senior season.
The Bengals drafted him in the fifth round, and his role has gradually increased since 2015, going from a sparing blocking tight end to becoming one of the offensive focal points.
More than a decade after his Suwanee days on a third-and-one early in the playoff opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow fired a Hosch and kicked the ball to CJ in a playoff match. Uzomah caught it for a touchdown, the first Super Bowl rushing touchdown.
“I rooted him so hard in the early years of his career where he had injuries and the team was always struggling,” Hosch said. “You never knew if he was going to get his chance. It’s so cool to see that the talent that we always knew was there; he’s finally in the spotlight. I’ve been supporting him the whole time.
It looked like injuries were going to derail Uzomah in the most significant moment of all when he left the AFC Championship game with an MCL sprain. But on Monday night at Cincinnati’s kickoff rally, he put an end to any thoughts of missing the game when he whipped the crowd into a frenzy by pulling off his knee cap and throwing it into the air.
“I feel good,” Uzomah told media on Tuesday. “It was a chore. Lots of early mornings, lots of late nights of rehab and fighting through certain things. But I feel really good. »
On the other side of the ball is Sample, a rookie from Tulane. Like Uzomah, he made some positional adjustments in high school. He started his high school career as a linebacker, but the coaching staff soon realized he was better suited to play defensive end.
“I thought I was a running back; I was actually a running back in college,” Sample told the Daily Post in an exclusive interview. “When the (Shiloh) staff came, they said I wasn’t a ball carrier, and they moved me. In fact, they said I was anything but a ball carrier.
Although he knows his days as a running back are behind him, he still enjoys joking with his teammates about his days as a running back.
“I have the old movie,” Sample joked. “I can go and wind it up. The film speaks for itself. »
Dream of shooting a William Perry and scoring a Super Bowl touchdown as a defensive lineman apart, Sample was reluctant to move away from linebacker at Shiloh. It took a former NFL player — Shiloh’s defensive line coach Walt Curry — to help him make the transition.
“When (Ryan) Andrews took the (head coaching) job, he was trying to play the linebacker role,” Curry said. “I told him he had to put his hand in the dirt. He didn’t want to, but he finally agreed. I knew he was a hard working kid and everything he did had to be done well.
The man who originally came up with the idea of moving him to defensive end wasn’t Andrews or Curry, but Shiloh’s defensive coordinator at the time, Waymond Jackson. And much like Uzomah’s move to wide receiver, it was all about trying to give Sample the best chance to get to the next level.
“When I saw him he was about 225 (pounds),” Jackson said. “And just seeing his frame and knowing his frame, I thought he was going to be a defensive end. I said, ‘Let’s go and move him over there now instead of wasting him as a linebacker.’ He was a little resistant; he liked to play linebacker. But we kind of sat him down and explained the benefits to him.
These perks helped Sample catch the eye of college recruiters, despite only having four offers out of high school. The first man to notice was Jimmy Lindsey, Georgia Southern’s defensive line coach at the time.
“It was actually after I clocked him in the 40 (yard dash) and he ran a 4.6 at 240 pounds,” Lindsey said of when he remembers knowing that Sample could play at the next level. “I was like, ‘we have something.’ I knew he wasn’t heavily recruited – Georgia Southern was like his first offer, I felt like he was a diamond in the rough.
Although he was already well advanced as a defensive end when Andrews took over as Shiloh’s head coach from Hobbs, Sample’s game still caught his attention quickly enough to become something of a stick. measure for his teammates.
“I know this is going to sound crazy, but if you had to pull together a perfect player from the intangibles, it would probably be him,” Andrews said. “He didn’t give you an attitude; he was going to play hard. If you had to rip it, he understood why he was getting ripped and he never took it personally.
Sample ended up with offers from Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Southern Mississippi, and Tulane, eventually signing with Tulane and head coach Willie Fritz. Sample had 10 1/2 sacks and 162 tackles in 41 games with Tulane, making his way into the 2021 NFL Draft as a fourth-round selection.
“He’s just a solid person,” said Kevin Peoples, Tulane’s defensive line coach at the time and current Missouri defensive line coach. “If I had a kid – and I don’t, but if I had a son – I would want him to be like Cam. Just the way he takes care of business, the way he treats people. folks, the way he goes on – and I really mean it Some people say athletes shouldn’t be role models, but Cam Sample is a role model who happens to be an athlete.
Both players still carry many of the same personality traits in the NFL as they did in high school, and that’s a big part of why they’ve both been successful.
“Cam is just an easy-going kid,” Andrews said. “That’s how he’s always been.”
Uzomah is the same person he was in North Gwinnett, which benefits everyone around him. Whether it was telling the media during Super Bowl week that he was going to take a bath in Cincinnati’s famous Skyline Chili if the Bengals won, or the story Hosch and Hobbs told about when he dressed up as Buddy the Elf before a high school game, people sense Uzomah’s presence in every room he enters.
“CJ is one of those guys where if he’s not in practice you know within the first 45 seconds on the court,” Sample said. “He talks, he jokes with everyone, he is the real energy of the team. He’s just a great guy to be around and a great football player. A guy you want to have on your team.
When Uzomah and Sample take to the field on Super Bowl Sunday, it will be a snapshot in Gwinnett County football history. Two players from opposite sides of the ball and opposite ends of the county, but still proudly representing the region. And outside of Cincinnati, Gwinnett County, Georgia might be rooting for the Bengals more than anywhere else.
Or so Sample hoped as he concluded the interview with a brief comment.
“Anyone who gets the newspaper better support the Bengals!”