At 32, safety Michael Thomas is the oldest Bengal on offense and defense and the only one to have played in more than 100 NFL games from scrimmage when they line up for Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Steelers at Paycor Stadium.
But the grizzled vet was so overcome Monday when his teammates voted him special teams captain, he was still fighting back tears ten minutes after head coach Zac Taylor announced the captains at the end of the Labor Day practice on the Paycor field.
"I don't do this because I want accolades," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to be a better player and better teammate. To be voted by these guys, it's really humbling."
Quarterback Joe Burrow and running back Joe Mixon return as captains on offense and are joined by new center Ted Karras in a move that says as much about the strength of this locker room as anything else. Strong safety Vonn Bell and end Sam Hubbard also return on defense and are joined by first-time captain and veteran nose tackle D.J. Reader.
"It's really hard, unless you're around him for a really long period of time, to really get the full Ted experience," Taylor said. "He's a phenomenal human being. He works his tail off and it's really important to him. He really brings a lot to the table locally. I think he's been to every restaurant in town and made friends with everybody he could possible make friends with. He's had a great impact on our community and our team in a short time."
A long-timer, punter Kevin Huber, ready to set the Bengals' all-time record in his 208th game Sunday, had been a special teams captain for the past two years. Thomas didn't get here last season until October, didn't get on the roster until November and he suppled a calming influence amid injuries as Huber's personal protector/punt quarterback for the last half of the season and the entire postseason.
"It doesn't lessen or change what I'm going to do and I'm happy for Mike. I think he's very deserving," Huber said. "There are probably ten other guys that could be in the same spot. It shows you what kind of locker room we have right now and it showed last year.
"(Thomas) is our biggest leader on special teams. Very vocal, he spends time with guys that need help, talking them through things. He's very present."
Thomas said he didn't expect it. He looked around the room as he ticked off the names it could have been. Huber. Clark Harris, the long snapper playing Sunday in his 202nd Bengals game. Evan McPherson, the radar kicker. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan, who led the kicking game in snaps and tackles last season. Linebacker Clay Johnston all over the preseason with 27 tackles, two of them on teams. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, a rising star.
"I really respect a guy like Kevin Huber, a guy who has been here longer than anyone. A great leader," Thomas said. "Same with Clark. Money Mac. Then you get into guys like (Morgan), and it's really an honor."
Kick returner Chris Evans wasn't surprised Thomas got the nod. He watched late last season as Thomas pulled a Vonn Bell and gathered the special teamers for players-only meetings on Fridays to get in extra work.
"He got my vote. He's the OG. From the minute he got picked up he was a leader," said Evans, who also saw him quickly absorb special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' scheme. "Once he knew how Darrin wanted things, he was off."
Thomas is used to making a sudden impact. During the one season was with his hometown Texans in Houston, he was also voted a captain in 2020. The same thing happened to Karras his one year in Miami in 2020.
"It's a huge honor. One of the biggest honors of my life," Karras said. "Obviously there are a lot of great leaders on this team. You realize how special it is to be considered among the leaders of such a great organization."
After watching Thomas and Karras get their "Cs," so quickly, Huber gives it an A.
"That goes back to what Zac was talking about making a big push for guys that were captains and that were leaders," Huber said. "On previous teams. College or whatever. It just shows the locker room we're trying to build where even new guys coming in, they're still leaders and voted captains by their teammates."