Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack's "Glass-Eaters," are chewing through the playoff picture and the pundits. When they try to take a bite out of the Buccaneers Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Tampa Bay, right guard Alex Cappa plays his old team as he continues his rise from Safeway to-go cups to champagne bottles.
Before Cappa became a target in the Bengals' offseason O-line overhaul and emerged playing to Pro Bowl reviews, he won a Super Bowl ring with the 2020 Bucs. That was barely five years removed from getting one offer to play college football as a 240-pound tweener tight end-tackle out of California's East Bay in Dublin.
The letter came from Division II Humboldt State, a good five hours away tucked in the trees about 100 miles from the Oregon border and light years from the NFL. The bus ride to Southern Utah was 28 hours round trip. Only one Humboldt player, the legendary Taylor Boggs, has had more than a cup of coffee in the league in this century. Even before Cappa got the ring, they dropped its playoff football team and the place is now known as Cal Poly Humboldt.
"Boggs was Paul Bunyan," says Lucas Govan, Cappa's college teammate, later coach and always great friend. "We would hear the stories. How he'd block five guys with one hand. How he got into a fistfight his first day with the Jets. And then you meet him and he's the nicest guy in the world, always helping us, joking with us."
If you want to know how Cappa got here, you have to go there. To a Velcroed band of offensive linemen glued together by long-time Humboldt strength coach Drew Peterson. When Boggs was playing his 12 NFL games for three teams from 2013-2016, he was watching every Humboldt game on the internet during those Saturdays at the hotel, quite taken with the red-shirt freshman tackle who put on all that weight and still moved like that.
"I'm always drawn to work ethic," Boggs says. "He had really good body control and could make defenders go where they think they wanted to go, but where they would go is on their back."
And now at 35 as he gets his master's in counseling while working with athletes in Phoenix with his specialty on the offensive line, Boggs has watched all of Cappa's 65 NFL games.
"I get a lot of anxiety during every game," Boggs says. "I know he's a great player and having a great year. But I'm just so relieved when the game is over. You want a hard-working guy like that to do well. You see the way the guy works and how he approaches the game, you realize it's something special."
Pro Football Focus has Cappa ranked as the 31st guard on its website of grades, 33rd on the run, 37th against the pass. He's got a much higher grade in Paycor Stadium. The Bengals new-look offensive line, after allowing 13 sacks in the first two games, has allowed just two per game since. In the last five games they're ninth best in the league running the ball at 4.6 yards per pop while the offense has climbed to fifth in everything during a stretch Cappa and the Bengals' interior has controlled dominant defensive tackles Jeffery Simmons of Tennessee and Chris Jones of Kansas City.
Bengals all-time left guard, Dave Lapham, the club's long-time radio analyst, says Cappa is playing at an elite level and compares his pass-blocking prowess to his Super Bowl teammate and multiple Pro Bowl right guard Max Montoya.
"He's added new tools to his game during the offseason in pass protection," Boggs says. "He's playing pass pro a little differently. He's always been a monster in the run game. He plays the pass a little more aggressively than he did in Tampa.
"I think he's playing his best ball with an offensive line that hasn't been together all that long. I think all that experience is settling in. You would see it in flashes. He would shut down Akiem Hicks and then in those break-out games against Kansas City he would do well against Chris Jones. I think this year he's shown that consistency game-to-game and doing what he's supposed to do."
Boggs finished up in Arizona with the Cardinals and settled in the desert, where he'd host the Humboldt O-line for a few days of training and one day when Cappa was a sophomore Boggs took him aside and pointed to a building.
"I think he was questioning how good he was," Boggs says. "I just told him if you don't think you can play (in the NFL), jump off that balcony right there."
One of life's classic jumping off points.
"He told me, 'Get your mind right because you're going to the league,'" Cappa recalls. "I believed him. Maybe I was ignorant or overconfident. But that built my confidence. He was a guy that had done it. He had played in the NFL. That's when I thought I could make it. When I got to Humboldt, (football) became more of a priority."
There were still a lot of days in the Humboldt State weight room ahead and it wasn't exactly Division I plush. Govan, now the offensive line coach at the University of San Diego, remembers those summers as those days of his life. They would get up and go to the weight room wearing their Haynes T-shirts with the screen-printed Adidas logo. Then they'd head to Safeway for two breakfast burritos and a half gallon of chocolate milk, go back and take a nap and then the offensive linemen would head to work as security guards for the Humboldt Crabs, a baseball team in a college summer league.
"He was the face of us," Govan says. "He was about a foot taller than the rest of us, long hair and a killer personality. He doesn't let you in until you get to know him."
One night Cappa almost lost his job when the bosses looked out beyond left field and saw him trying to keep the kids in the playpen entertained with his juggling, a self-taught talent. A few years later when he was the only offensive lineman that could juggle while doing pass protection drills, it added to his 2018 Senior Bowl legend as the small school player who took over the week of practice. And showed he could play guard, too.
"He was the weird guy from Division II with the long hair who stood out like a sore thumb," Govan says. "But he showed them what we all knew. No moment is too big for him. He was always cool, calm and relaxed and took care of business. All the work, all those decisions he made … he lived in the weight room … He went from 240 to 300 with the lower body of a race horse. We were all jealous."
Govan learned a life lesson about judging the covers of books. He hosted Cappa on his recruiting visit and wondered what was going on when he stayed in playing video games. Then since they were kinesiology majors, they took a biology class together and Govan was stunned. He showed up for a lecture with a laptop and papers and there was Cappa with a piece of paper and a pencil. He didn't take a note and thought he looked like a baseball catcher hanging off his seat listening to the teacher and memorizing the board.
Govan shook his head. He thought Cappa to be some kind of a big Spicoli, the vacuous surfer dude from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High who would last a few months at Humboldt and …
"We walk out after taking the test and there was something like 80 questions," Govan says. "I got a C-plus. He missed three questions. The guy got straight As when he was there. Really smart, knew what he wanted to do."
Govan would find himself out Friday and Saturday nights, but he doesn't think Cappa went out more than once or twice. And somewhere along the way he became Paul Bunyan.
"We were a young group on the offensive line," says Govan, the center. "Sophomore year, he's playing tackle, there's an outside run, he takes the D-end and throws him to the ground with the running back on his hip the entire time, blows up the linebacker, he hurdles a DB on the ground and finishes another dude. I'm standing there in awe thinking this guy is playing a different game than me … Humboldt is a hard place to get to, so when we started seeing the NFL scouts cruising through training camp, we had an idea."
Humboldt may have been hard to get to (six hours from the Oakland airport) but Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting and California native who has the Golden State wired, had a pretty good idea what they were going to see at the Senior Bowl. Not only did the Bucs trade up in the third round to take Cappa, but the Bengals had him high enough on their board that four years later when free agency came around, he was a top target.
"He was a great interview for us," Radicevic says. "The exposure there and the feedback we got from players that he's played with played a huge role in us going after him in free agency. Energetic. High football IQ. All he did was train in the offseason."
After Humboldt dropped football, Govan coached at McKinleyville High School in a small rural town in Humboldt County with an enrollment of about 500. The football team had no amenities, but Cappa, the guy who wore screen-printed T-Shirts in college, made sure they had something to practice in when he shipped Govan a bunch of Nike gear.
"He's that guy," says Govan, a long way from the bus rides.