KANSAS CITY, Mo. — B.J. Hill stands 6-foot-3, weighs 311 pounds and had just spent three hours trying to haul down Patrick Mahomes.
Now the Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle had taken on a new job, the world’s most intimidating, and perhaps protective, press agent.
Inside a devastated Cincinnati Bengals locker room, Hill stood directly on the left shoulder of teammate Joseph Ossai and warned the media that had gathered in front of them.
“Any dumb questions and I am shutting this down,” Hill said.
There was no reason not to believe he would, or even more if necessary.
The Bengals had just lost the AFC championship game, 23-20 to Kansas City, on a field goal with just three seconds remaining. In the crowded postgame dressing room, there were tears and deep, gasping exhales and heads buried in hands.
“Extremely painful,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said.
Nowhere was that pain more than with Ossai, the second-year defensive end. With eight seconds remaining, Mahomes broke free of the pocket and scrambled to the right toward a first down. Ossai pursued, trying to track down one of the NFL's most elusive players.
As Mahomes passed the sticks, he headed toward the sideline in an effort to stop the clock. Just as he stepped out of bounds, Ossai came in and pushed him with his right arm, sending both of them sprawling. It was a textbook unnecessary roughness. Multiple flags flew.
The extra 15 yards sent Kansas City from the Cincinnati 42 to the 27. Instead of needing either a Hail Mary or unlikely 60-yard field goal to win the game, the Chiefs sent Harrison Butker out to send them to the Super Bowl with a 45-yarder. He made it.
The late hit was the final, deciding play of the game. Ossai knew it immediately, winding up on the bench in tears. He knew the reactions that were coming.
“You have to be more aware,” they shouted on the Bengals radio broadcast. “Why the [expletive] would you touch the quarterback?” cameras caught teammate Germaine Pratt yelling as he walked into the locker room. Social media was, well, social media, vitriol sprinkled with occasional messages of sympathy.
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In the locker room, teammates had hugged him. They tried to lift him up. They patted his back and told him that it was just one play in a game of many, that it was a hustle mistake, not some sign of anything more than “playing his heart out,” as Hubbard put it. Head coach Zac Taylor came and embraced him and let him cry into his shoulder.
For Ossai, the support meant the world, but he also still thought he had let the Bengals' world down.
“I have to be better,” Ossai said.
This is a moment of individualized sporting trauma, a nightmare, something that is far easier to say should be minimized than actually minimized. Perspective was hard to find.
Ossai was born in Nigeria and moved with his family to Conroe, Texas, about 40 miles north of Houston, at age 10. The transition was hard. The family of seven lived in a one-bedroom apartment and his accent made him easy prey for bullies at school.
His solace became football. He would grow to 6-3, 263 pounds and become a star. He went on to play at the University of Texas, was named All-American and got drafted in the third round by the Bengals. He has speed, power and a relentless motor.
Yet now he had made the biggest of mistakes in the biggest of games. There is no good playbook for this. All he could do is hope for compassion and understanding.
“I was just in full chase-mode,” Ossai explained. “And trying to push [Mahomes] to maybe get him go backwards [out of bounds] and get that clock running … I’ve got to know not to get close to that quarterback when he gets close to that sideline.”
Hill stood and listened to each question and each answer. He cut off two queries that he deemed “dumb” or perhaps unfairly accusatory.
“Ask a better question, bro,” Hill snapped.
The media gaggle carried on. This was one teammate, literally standing up for another teammate, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, question for question. In the darkest of moments, this was impressive.
Everyone knows that these things can linger, haunt and drag down reputations and careers. In this case, in these first minutes, Hill was going to do everything he could to make sure that wasn’t the case.
When football teams talk about being a family, well, this is being a family.
“It didn’t come down to that play,” Hill said. “I’m not going to put up with no dumb questions that make it seem like it was all his fault. It takes more than him. It takes an entire team.
“That’s my brother,” Hill continued. “I’ve been in that situation before, too. I had a chance to make a game-winning sack [against Dallas]. I just missed a sack. I’ve been there. Trying to blame it on one person, I’m not going to have that.
“The way he plays his butt off each and every play,” Hill explained, “that’s how he practices and that’s how he plays. I have no problem with that play because I know what his intentions [were].”
Those sentiments were echoed across the locker room. At least publicly. Support. Brotherhood. Sympathy. This loss was painful. So close to victory. So close to the Super Bowl. Yet that’s football. Only one team is happy at the end. A million things lead to it.
“It’s a blessing,” Ossai said of the outpouring by Hill and others. “I'm sorry things didn’t go our way.”
It may not be enough for some fans or even some teammates or perhaps for Joseph Ossai to truly put this behind him. Time will tell. Time will, hopefully, heal.
It was enough for now though, a stand-up guy facing up to the worst mistake he ever made on the field in the biggest game he’d ever play. And a teammate standing with him in Bengals solidarity, saying as much about this team as any victory ever had.