Bengals founder Paul Brown once said he chose Bob Johnson with the franchise's first draft pick in 1968 because the play couldn't begin without the center snapping the ball, never mind building a team. That appeared to be the same mindset Saturday when the Bengals made their first of what is expected to be a bevy of off-season moves by extending center Trey Hopkins to a three-year deal that keeps their most consistent offensive lineman this season in place.
Hopkins and right tackle Bobby Hart are the only faces that haven't changed along a front this season that starts its eighth different combination Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Paul Brown Stadium against Cleveland in the finale. But for Hopkins it's only the beginning with a contract that that caps one of the great stories anywhere in the NFL.
"I didn't think I would ever be in this situation," Hopkins said. "I started as an undrafted free agent just making sure I at least made the team. It's nice having a little bit of security."
The same could be said for head coach Zac Taylor. As he heads into an offseason that promises to be a roster rehab, he's got one of the more important positions buttoned down.
"He's proven himself as a center and brings stability to the unit. I'm really pleased with his performance and the way he's jumped into the scheme, fully immersed himself and done a great job learning it and leading through it," Taylor said. "He's a lead by example guy. When he speaks, everybody listens. That's what you want from your center. Guys that people trust and know they're going to do it the right way and they're going to work the right way. He brings all of that to the table."
On the brightest day of his career, Hopkins couldn't help re-live some of the darker moments. How he burst into the 2014 training camp out of Texas undrafted and had a roster spot all sewn up until a horrific broken leg in a pre-season game obliterated his rookie year. It took him two years to get back and by the 2017 training camp he had played in only one game until he won the right guard job when Kevin Zeitler moved on. Then he lost that job last year, only to open up eyes by starting nine games as a backup at all the interior spots that included six at center.
That's the tape new offensive line coach Jim Turner watched last offseason and he was taken by Hopkins's brains, quickness and reach at center. His first move on the job was to recommend tendering Hopkins a $3 million contract for 2019 and that set up a training camp battle between Hopkins and Billy Price, the club's first-round pick the year before. When Turner named him the winner, Hopkins hasn't looked back. Turner, of course, is the ultimate authority, but Hopkins is usually their highest-graded lineman by outside sources.
"I had never really played center until last year," Hopkins said. "But it was a spot that didn't take me very long to feel comfortable."
Hopkins has a tackle's long arms and a mathematician's mind. In fact, for a month last offseason in Cincinnati Hopkins was a substitute math and science teacher who once thought about majoring in pre-med in Austin before majoring in biology. He's regarded as the unquestioned brains of the line, so he knows exactly what the deal means.
"Like I said, I never thought I'd be here. No question, it is a life-changing event," Hopkins said. "Nothing is really going to change for me. The one thing I'm glad I can do is help my family. They're pretty excited.
"I guess if I can leave anybody with anything, it's perseverance. Get a foot in the door and keep working."
His mother is a respiratory therapist at St. Luke's Hospital in Houston, where his grandmother is semi-retired and works in voter registration. But Hopkins has spent most of his time in Cincinnati during the last two offseasons and his signing is a boon to the community. In the last year he's become involved with Maslow's Army, a local volunteer group aimed at helping the homeless. He's on the group's board as an honorable chair.
"It's going to be nice to be able to get back with them here in the offseason," Hopkins said. "On Sundays at the (Hamilton County) Justice Center they have a big outreach where they hand out clothing, hygiene products and they even have food. Some of the other guys have come out with me. Billy has been out. Homelessness is a big problem in a lot of major cities and Cincinnati is no exception."
Hopkins is like everyone else. He just wants the Bengals to get healthy. Starting with this year's No. 1 pick, left tackle Jonah Williams, a guy that had a rookie year not unlike the one Hopkins had and missed it all because of injury.
"It will be good to get him back. He was looking really good before he got hurt," Hopkins said." Just across the team, to get a lot of these guys back, I think it will be a real good re-set."
Hopkins hardly thought about going on the market. It's been a long road already.
"It's nice to be wanted," Hopkins said. "I'm in a place where I'm comfortable. I feel like I'm valued. I think I can contribute and help the team."