If there is one guy you can talk Reds with in the locker room, it is Kevin Huber, the Bengals punter who is even more homegrown than Joey Votto and Kevin Youkilis.
Like Youkilis, he went to high school (McNicholas) and college (University of Cincinnati) here. Like Votto, he has quickly become an unassuming staple of his team in the pros. At the same time, Huber is the kid next door from Anderson Township and one of the more promising punters in the NFL. The rookie who outdueled Cleveland’s marvelous return man Josh Cribbs to help key the Bengals’ first-ever division sweep last year hasn’t gone as far as Columbus yet in the offseason.
That comes in a couple of days when he swings by Oakley and the Courtesy Chevy dealership where his father has worked as the comptroller longer than Kevin has been alive and gets a car to drive up to Buckeye country for a kicking camp with Bengals kicker
No Vegas or Hollywood or Mount Everest or Afghanistan for the real Cincinnati Kid.
In the post-LeBron hangover of the hometown getting jilted in an hour-long made-up reality TV show, cue the breath of fresh air.
“I’m going to the Bahamas for a week right before training camp,” he admitted this week. “Just to get away for a little bit.”
Huber may be coming off his first NFL season with numbers the Bengals haven’t seen in the 21st century, but the routines that began when he was challenging his brothers and dad to kick it over the house in a Township cul-de-sac remain the ‘90s same.
Fourth of July?
He stayed on the East Side and celebrated one of his buddies’ birthdays by playing sand volleyball at one of the marinas clustered on Kellogg Avenue. Then they went back to the guys’ house to grill out for dinner.
Monday The Fifth?
He flipped on the Mets-Reds for a little bit in his downtown condo (in between watching his Monday favorites on the History channel, “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars”) and was able to weigh in on the Votto All-Star Snub.
“Considering he’s one of our best players on the team, I think he should have gotten a spot,” Huber said. “He had a couple of homers (Monday) night, so it looks like he’s still making a push to get on the team.”
Darrin Simmons doesn’t want to rely on the Midwest stereotype because he’s a Midwesterner, too. Kansas. But he has to admit this no-frills-low-maintenance stuff is a reason the Bengals were attracted to Huber while he was reaching All-American status at UC before they drafted him in the fifth round last year.
“It’s what makes him unique. I think he’s very much like this city. Very solid. Good people,” said Simmons, who has lived here for eight seasons as Marvin Lewis’ only special teams coach. “He’s pretty easygoing. Never too high. Never too low.”
Simmons’ wife, Rhonda, grew up two hours away from her husband on another farm in Kansas and they’ve raised three children in Cincinnati’s northern suburbs. It has been a good fit all the way around.
“In Kansas, living two hours away is like being neighbors,” Simmons said. “The people here have been good to me and my family. She’s made some very good friends here. We have friends our age who have kids about our kids’ age and it’s nice. My daughter is a dancer and we’re going to T-Ball games (to watch a son), so it’s become a place we really enjoy. The kids would go to Kings Island every day and we love it, too.”
Simmons likes that kind of tight-knit support that Huber gets from his family. He noticed it when they were around him at the Senior Bowl, where Simmons was his coach for the first time. Simmons got a kick out of it when he heard that for Christmas Huber’s family got together and gave Huber a box of Butterfingers, a safe six weeks after his dropped hold on an extra point in Pittsburgh ended up not hurting the Bengals in their 18-12 victory.
“We made it to every game. Home and away, and we really enjoyed that,” said Ed Huber, his dad who is another homegrown kicker via Xavier University. “Our goal is if he’s lucky enough to play that long, we’d love to see him play in every stadium in the NFL.”
One thing you know is that home or away, Huber is going to do what he’s been doing since McNick: Meet his parents right after the game outside the locker room. And, look, this isn’t New York. Win or lose, Simmons stops and talks to them after every one.
“It might just be something casual, but he’ll always say something,” Ed Huber said. “It’s a little bit different than in high school or college because we pretty much knew every family. We only know some on the Bengals, but a lot of the coaches stop and talk.”
Ed Huber had to laugh. They had their own welcome-to-the-NFL moment in Cleveland when Kevin emerged a bit woozy and asked if they had any aspirin.
“He had a pretty good headache,” Ed said. “It was on one of those (Joshua) Cribbs returns and he said he wasn’t looking and he got hit pretty good by a linebacker. Got sent flying and they were giving it to him pretty good on the sidelines.”
The hometown pressure is there, but it’s not. It’s like the radio commercials that Kevin Huber does for Courtesy now. What’s it hurt? And Ed thinks it has helped business some.
Simmons: “Besides his obvious talent, what made him appealing to us was there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of transition to kicking in the stadium, the weather. People ask about him playing in Cincinnati and it’s very simple. He’s done it his whole life.”
Huber: “I’m not thinking of it as a hometown place. When it comes down to it, I would have to punt the ball in every other city. I just try to catch it and punt it the same as I would anywhere else.”
Not much bothers the kid. He was unflappable during a playoff run that included a change in snappers.
“If you had told me that when he was a freshman in college, I would have said he would be a nervous wreck,” Ed Huber said. “But not now. I think he might have been nervous before the first preseason game, but after that it was ‘Hey, this is my job. It’s just another job.’ “
With most of his mates out of town, Huber is still a regular in the Paul Brown Stadium locker room trying to do that job better. He kicks three to four times a week and this week he had in tow his former UC snapper
(Not to pound the polite Midwest stereotype, but note that Huber has said virtually nothing publicly about his good friend Windt. Presumably he doesn’t want to interfere in the impending roster battle with Harris. That’s a Gentlemen’s club that wouldn’t raise the ire of Roger Goodell.)
“The biggest thing for him,” said Simmons of Huber’s second year, “is to kick better down the stretch. I’d like to see him finish better. He had a pretty solid start, but he needs to be able to put it together for 16 games. What we’ve got to do is eliminate the bad kicks.”
The idea is to close the gap between the booming kicks and the clunkers. Still, Huber's 43.2-yard average was the Bengals’ second-best punting average in 11 years. One of his best and worst moments were in the same game, that long day’s journey into night at Cleveland in the fourth game of the year when he allowed Cribbs to dominate regulation by giving him the middle of the field. But Huber bounced back in overtime to pin Cribbs on the sidelines a couple of times deep in his territory in giving the Bengals time to eke out a 23-20 win with four seconds to spare.
“I started out pretty well last year. I hit a low spot in the middle of the season,” Huber said. “I got my power back, but I kind of lost my control a little bit. I was happy with how I was hitting the ball, but not with how I was controlling it. Towards the end, my touchbacks crept up a little bit. I’ve got to stay in kicking shape the entire season and not let a couple of games in the middle of the season affect me.”
Until then, Huber will relax by attacking every golf course he can. Mainly on the East Side, like California, Legendary and Stonelick. He’ll also keep up on the Reds and his favorite player.
“I’m a big fan of (Scott) Rolen,” Huber said. “He’s been playing pretty well. He’s a big strong guy. An intimidating figure. A power hitter. I like him a lot.”
And in another month, his buddies will be tuning in again to follow him as the homegrown guy.
“It,” Huber agreed, “is pretty cool.”