Long before Trey Hopkins became the mantle of a Bengals offensive line rocked by change as it prepped for Monday night's game (8:15 p.m.-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the Steelers, he was an aspiring scientist in gifted classes playing high school football in east Houston who noticed details.
One of them is when he watched football, it struck him that while white players were routinely described as "He carries his lunch pail," or "He knows exactly where he's supposed to be," or "He's always in the playbook," as "dependable," and "coachable," they were rarely called "athletic."
That seemed to be reserved for African-Americans like himself. Black players, Hopkins noted, were not only known as "athletic," but they were also "explosive," or, "they have intuition." Or, "they have good ball skills." To Hopkins, it seemed the terms "I.Q." or "smart," were rarely applied to black players.
Hopkins, who spent part of an offseason in Cincinnati teaching seventh grade science and math, went a little bit younger during this season when he brought those kinds of experiences into two Zoom sessions with fifth- and sixth graders from a couple of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky schools as part of the Bengals' partnership with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Implicit Bias Experiences program.
For Ryan Wynett, manager of the program who moderates the discussions, that seemed to be about the right age. He had worked with former Bengal Michael Johnson's foundation a few years ago and it resonated with him when Mike told him he was about ten when he began to notice people going one way or the other.
"Trey was phenomenal both times," Wynett says. "Having him up there as saying, 'Yeah, I'm a professional athlete who is black, but I can also play the piano and I could have been a biologist,' I think is a really important visual for these kids to see. Maybe it doesn't resonate for them this year, but eventually it will. Just representation and being at the table."
The partnership with the Freedom Center's Implicit Bias program grew out of the players' goal to foster social justice in the city through a variety of programs with the $250,000 the Bengals gave to the cause back in the spring. Hopkins, tight end C.J. Uzomah and running back Trayevon Williams have also Zoomed with classes this season and Wynett says he couldn't have power-pointed it anybody better.
"It's been everything I had hoped for and more," Wynett says. "They've had experiences I could never had."
In Hopkins, 28, the self-made seventh-year man out of Texas whose only college play at center was a kneel-down snap, Wynett hit gold. The week before the season, Hopkins, with input from a variety of teammates, wrote the players' two-paragraph social justice mission statement he and quarterback Joe Burrow read in front of the Freedom Center after the team and ownership marched the two blocks from Paul Brown Stadium.
That has ended up being a preface for a challenging season for him on the field. Since they played the Steelers five games ago on Nov. 15, Hopkins is the only offensive lineman to start every game, a daunting assignment at the line's quarterback position. The only guard that hasn't played next to him is seemingly long-time Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, the most versatile O-lineman in club history.
"He's been pretty solid physically and mentally," Lapham says. "I think that gives them a feeling of comfort that he can get everybody on the same page with his intelligence. Making the right calls. Communicating with those guys. It puts everybody at ease. Coaches love smart players. There's no doubt about that."
There's no doubt that Hopkins has spent the week immersed in studying the Steelers. You can talk about Ben and A.B. and JuJu and this Watt and that Watt, but the two Steelers that have defined the dominance in this series the past five seasons have been interior defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward.
"You can't get those guys going," Hopkins says. "They're kind of like sharks in the water. They smell blood and it becomes a frenzy. In the early run calls, you really have to take advantage of those and play as aggressively as we can up front because those guys …. You just don't want to get them started. Once they get going, their beasts."
So it turns out that Hopkins' NFL career has blitzed the stereotypes he grew up absorbing. He's cerebral, savvy and not only does he know exactly where he's supposed to be, but where everybody else is supposed to be, too. And, yeah, he's carrying that undrafted free agent lunch bucket.
It would seem talking to kids about implicit bias is the perfect pitch for a guy who not only plays the piano, but the guitar. While Hopkins enjoyed his teaching stint, what he really enjoys talking to kids about are things not in a book, but experiences in the world.
He savors the idea that children that young are simply hearing terms like "implicit," and "bias." When he was ten, he doubts he had ever heard those words and he was only vaguely aware of the term "racism."
"I love it because it takes bias out of the social context and explains it in a way that you see it as an everyday thing your brain does," Hopkins says. "A lot of times implicit bias is not intentional, but it's a result of oversight into a lack of representation.
"Implicit bias is how your decisions are affected sub-consciously. It's how you group people and how you associate people with things and feelings. We all have implicit bias."
Wynett hasn't delved much into the players' own experiences with implicit bias. Not yet. The program is ongoing. But both he and Hopkins believe it's an enormous impact on children to be exposed to different people and to begin to gnaw away at bias.
Wynett has a series of questions about the players' backgrounds and the kids also have questions, ranging from what is his favorite candy, to does he have kids, to has he ever been tackled. When Wynett tried to get Hopkins to talk about teams he disliked growing up as a way to show that even people the kids respect and admire have implicit bias, Wynett discovered Hopkins was more into music and science before he got into football.
While he spoke with Hopkins as students began to log on to one Zoom, Wynett glimpsed a child's eyes bulge when he saw the Bengals center on the screen.
"I knew that wasn't for me," Wynett says.
Hopkins' favorite and best question he got was, "Why are you doing this?" He could have referred them to the opening paragraph he wrote in the mission statement:
"As this country continues to see instances of racial discrimination and injustices, it is time for us to act. Together, as a unified front, we must identify, address and ultimately end those practices and policies that would deny liberty and justice to all, regardless of race, religion, or creed. It is time for us all to take a stand!"
But the kids, Hopkins, discovered, love to be interactive. He thought the Zooms would be 50-50 with half the kids asleep at their computers. But it was just the opposite and he left the sessions admiring how they've adapted and wondering how he would have made it out of elementary school in the new norm.
"Fortunately, the kids usually ask me why is this important for me to share this information," Hopkins says. "Implicit bias is important because we all have it, right? The brain wants to group things and sometimes we don't have the full story. So your brain uses past experiences.
"It's important because we're hoping and asking you to be the leaders of the future. We want you to have this knowledge and know how your mind operates and know how the world operates so you can change it to make it more fair."
With that, the Bengals cerebral-savvy-tool-chest-reliable center grabbed his lunch bucket and went back to work on the Steelers.