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A Pro Bowl celebration


PHOENIX, Ariz. - Toby Strausbaugh, all seven and a half years old of him, has got the stars scoped out before his uncle.

 He talked to Andrew Luck out at the pool, where Luck politely turned down a picture. When Toby pointed out Jason Garrett, the Cowboys coach came over to chat him up. He hung out in the hot tub with Connor Barwin.

"Who else do you have left to meet?" asked his weary mother, Emily, who just happens to be Kevin Huber's sister.

"A.J. Green, John Harbaugh, J.J. Watt, Andy Dalton," Toby pronounced. "I've met (Green and Dalton), but I want a picture with them."

Huber, the Bengals flip-the-field punter, took it all in with a smile of his first Pro Bowl, a true homegrown affair.

 "He recognizes more of these guys than I do," Huber said Sunday, a few hours before kickoff at University of Phoenix Stadium.

About 20 of his family members and friends have turned the Arizona Biltmore into Anderson Township West, a benefit of the game not played this year at its usual site in Honolulu. Saturday night they all gathered a few miles away at the Capital Grille around an endless table as this most recent milestone huddled with past memories. In the crowd were UC's punter before Huber, Brian Steele, now a Phoenix policeman, as well as Amir Ikner, a former UC soccer play now working in Chicago.

The only ones missing are his two grandmothers, both north of 90, who no longer go to games but watch their Bengals every Sunday.

 "A lot of them couldn't have come because it would have been just too expensive," Huber. "It's nice. This way everybody can enjoy it."

And why not? Huber is the greatest homebody in Bengals history, their only Pro Bowler who played high school  (Anderson's McNicholas) and college (the University of Cincinnati) in town before being drafted (2009 fifth round) by the Bengals. His Main Street address provides a glimpse into his Park Place reliability and Boardwalk stability.

"Everybody is still only about 10 minutes away from each other. My two sisters. My brother. My parents," Huber said. "I don't know anything different. But it's helped that everyone has always been there."

(Of course, his girlfriend, Mindi Naticchioni, and her parents are also East Side Cincy all the way, hailing from New Richmond, about two doors down Beechmont Avenue.

He invited the other two members of the trio, but kicker Mike Nugent lives out here and he's visited the hotel twice. Long snapper Clark Harris and his wife couldn't make it because they're dealing with house rehab in New Jersey.)

After six seasons in the league, Huber is done with being star struck. Long before this season he was a big factor in the Bengals' run of postseason success and the weekly ritual of meeting the other specialists before the game quickly took the awe out of it all.

But he admits spending the week riding the bus and practicing with the best in the game is a thrill to be savored. And he's taken advantage of it. How often do you end up holding for a Hall-of-Fame kicker, which is what he'll do when the Colts' 42-year-old Adam Vinatieri lines it for Team Irvin?

"I'm getting ideas. I've been watching what he does," Huber said. "He's in something like his 19th season, so he's doing something right. I'm just picking his brain. The workout he does, his thought process during the season. His big thing is, 'I'm not getting any younger,' so he's taking care of his body. I've asked him about anything that's changed over the years and I'm going to take that home and take a look at what I'm doing and adjusting it and making it a little better. As he got older, stretching became more important. Stretching often is something I should do a better job of and hearing that from him is definitely something I'll be working on."

It turns out Huber has to help negotiate Vinatieri through a few Sunday challenges. The width of the Pro Bowl goal posts have been narrowed from 18 feet to 14 feet and the extra point has been moved back to 27 yards.

"Adam was joking about how this is supposed to be a fun game and they're making it harder," Huber said. "I hope shrinking the goal posts is just a test and they won't switch to it for good."

The Pro Bowl has become a punch line because it has all the intensity of the commissioner's yearly Super Bowl party, scheduled for later this week. The only thing the Pro Bowl lacks is the punch bowl, but this is serious business for Huber because on the other side is the greatest punt returner of all-time, Devin Hester.

"You don't want to give up a return," Huber said.

"There's incentive to win for the bigger paycheck. Its $55,000 if you win, $26 000 if you lose. That would help out (paying for) the trip."

He thought Bengals returner Adam Jones got ripped off when he wasn't named to the Pro Bowl. But…

"I'm glad I don't have to kick to Adam," Huber said.

Vinatieri's teammate, Colts punter Pat McAfee, is well known to Huber and their friendship goes beyond the once-every-couple-of-years-pre-game-confab. McAfee came out of West Virginia the same year Huber got out of UC, so he's been privy to McAfee's outgoing, celebrity personality for a long time.  It was no surprise to him when he looked out in the Biltmore courtyard a few days ago and saw McAfee doing a bit with the man of many sports voices, ·Frank Caliendo.

"When he stops playing football, he's going to be the next prime time late night host like Jimmy Fallon or Letterman," Huber said. "He's one of the wittiest humans I've ever met in my life."

If it's not McAfee, then it may be the Eagles' Jon Dorenbos, his long snapper on Sunday. The laid-back Huber may be the life of the Bengals no-nonsense trio, but he's the straight man here after Dorenbos arrived with tricks literally up his sleeve.

"The most amazing thing has been watching his card tricks. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," Huber said. "He's talking, he's got distractions. Almost every night he's got 40, 50 people around him in the lobby. He does them on the bus to practice and he's driving guys crazy because they have no idea."

Pro Bowl or no Pro Bowl, punters are always going to get kidded. They don't do much in practice. Especially at a Pro Bowl. He says he's worked more on his passing than his punting this week in delivering pat-and-go passes to the star-studded linebacking corps of Clay Matthews, Von Miller and Luke Kuechly.

"They've all got pretty good hands," Huber said.

There are lobby rumblings of a trick play, a pass perhaps. How about if Huber throws a Pro Bowl TD off a fake punt or field goal? For Kathi Huber, the impossible has already happened and there have been no tricks about it since that first game for IHM in sixth grade.

 "I think back to this little baby that was born in Owensville, Ohio and you see this out here and you just have to pinch yourself," Kathi Huber said. "It's so special because all of our children and grandchildren are here."

Toby Strausbaugh is certainly here because of punting and family. When his dad, Rich Strausbaugh, was coaching Huber at McNick, Huber's sister Emily picked up her brother at practice one day and was introduced to Rich.

The rest is history and that's what Rich will be teaching when he returns to Anderson's Nagel Middle School on Tuesday instead of his typical math class. He'll be running through the history of the last week with a Pro Bowl sweatshirt he plans to buy at the game. Emily, an elementary school teacher in Goshen, also had to swing Friday and Monday off.

"I try real hard not to be star struck," Rich Strausbaugh said. "For me it was just watching Drew Brees playing with his kids in the players' lounge.  We got a picture with our kids. Drew was the referee for his three boys who were fighting over the darts. That was cool because that's what I do as a dad.  And it was cool to see Tony Romo just hanging out in the players' lounge."

And it was cool to see Toby Strausbaugh pointing it all out in this homegrown Pro Bowl.

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