Sam Hubbard's Season Of Trial Gets A Lift

Sam Hubbard: good news came this week.
Sam Hubbard: good news came this week.

Amy Hubbard, the jack-of-all-trades nursing supervisor in her hometown's University Hospital in Cincinnati where one minute she can be solving a problem at a bustling nursing station and the next be in the deathly glow of a room where a COVID-19 patient slipping away, is a medical mirror of her NFL son.

Of course, Sam Hubbard, the Bengals do-it-all defensive lineman, doesn't have to deal with life and death. But like his mom, you can find him anywhere at work with a nurse's high-beam intensity. He can come off the edge on one play to disrupt the quarterback and then drop in coverage on the next or after that, on the next snap, try a pass-rush move dipping inside at tackle.

And he'll have to be everywhere when the national stage brings to his hometown the bruised and vengeful AFC North leaders from Pittsburgh for Monday Night Football (8:20 p.m.-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paul Brown Stadium.

"Like she always says, if things are going bad in the hospital, as long as you have a mission or a goal or task that you're on to make things better even if it's small, then you have something to move forward and do," Hubbard says. "That's kind of what I do. If things aren't going well, focus on something you can, small even, to make yourself or the team better."

Sam Hubbard is much relieved this week and certainly not because of the task of slowing down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's split-second releases. Relief has come from the tip of a needle since Amy Hubbard received the first of her two COVID-19 vaccines.

 "We're really excited about that. Now its 21 days to the next one," Sam Hubbard says. "It's a huge relief. Sometimes she works 12 hours a day. Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I don't know how she does it. I couldn't do it."

Amy Hubbard has been doing it for 40 years as a critical care nurse. Sam's sister, Madison, is nursing with her mother. In the last nine months they've never seen it so critical, the care so needed. Their hospital is at 90 percent capacity.

"It's very horrible this COVID, whatever it is," Amy Hubbard says.

She is living the headlines on the front lines. They've learned much, but they've also learned the virus remains a lethal enigma.

That's why they've spent 2020 checking on each other. Sam Hubbard figures he talks to his parents every day or every other day, but this year it's been different. He knows his mother has asthma and she knows he's playing a sport where outbreaks have forced the NFL to postpone games. The close-knit family has split into islands in the effort to keep Amy and Sam healthy. Rarely, if it all, are they together.

"I know he feels better because Madison and I are at high risk and it decreases the risk for what I do every day," Amy Hubbard says. "But even when you get the vaccine, you still have to wear a mask and be socially distant."

She couldn't do anything about the elbow injury that took him out for a month at midseason. But Sam Hubbard gives his mother a large share of the credit for keeping him off the COVID list. That, and adhering to the rules.

"The NFL is doing a really nice job from what I can tell," Amy Hubbard says. "The stories you hear when it doesn't work, somebody didn't follow the rules for the most part. He's very aware of the risks and consequences. We've been telling him from the get-go how horrible it is and the practices to be the safest you can be. I'm sure he's told some of his teammates who don't have medical people in the family. I think everybody gets it now."

Her shifts begin by donning a face mask and a face shield. If she's in a COVID room, she gowns up with gloves. She won't say she's drained after every shift, but she notices the toll on the younger nurses like her daughter.

"I think they have a harder time because they haven't had as many life experiences," Amy Hubbard says. "You do what you've got to do. You have to keep going because there are more sick people and you need to be there."

He doesn't gown up in life and death, but Sam Hubbard ended up bringing a nurse's head-down-focus approach to sports. After all, she was his first coach. He broke in playing soccer as a little kid growing up in the Cincinnati suburb of Montgomery and never strayed far from the neighborhood or the mentality playing football at All Saints, Moeller High School and Ohio State.

He came into his third season this year with 14.5 sacks to lead his draft class and established himself as a linchpin for future Bengals defenses. But he hasn't escaped the trauma up front, never mind he's probably playing with one arm.

Three tackles went to season-ending injured reserve, Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins was never healthy and a lead that the pass rush needs for that final boost has been elusive. The defense that was overhauled in March with $130 million committed to future years couldn't get on the field until August and has been dogged by injuries ever since. He's got one of their 15 sacks, but he's keeping his head down and he's making sure his defense does, too.

 "When you add all those things up on top of COVID, not being able to be around each other, talk to each other, even be in the weight room a certain day, it's been a year of adversity for sure," Hubbard says. "We've got a lot professionals that love the game, are competitive and aren't going to back down from anything."

The elbow seems to be coming around. He thinks he's been more like himself the past couple of weeks with some big rushes and pressures. He says he keeps grinding for his teammates and the people that helped get him here and it helps that they're right next door.

Amy Hubbard and her husband Jim raised their kids two streets over from where she grew up in Montgomery. Her parents can see through to her backyard. One sister lives across the street. Another sister lives around the corner. The only way she wanted it. So Cincinnati.

"It's totally Cincinnati," she says. "We're Ohio State trained on tailgates. We love it that he's able to play so close to home. We've been lucky with Thanksgiving and Christmas. There have been games at the stadium and those were big family events. We've got a big family. We have 15, 16 season tickets, so Sundays are a big family gathering."

Not this year, of course. Amy Hubbard shut down the holidays. Jim and Amy drove to Sam's house on Thanksgiving. Sam came out to the end of the driveway, they masked up, stood apart and visited for about 30 minutes.

"Then everybody went home and had dinner in their households," Amy says.

Expect the same thing Christmas. On Monday night, it's just going to be Amy and Jim watching the game on the couch. Even though she'll have both vaccines soon, she'll continue to follow her stringent guidelines until the pandemic withers.

"It's hard, but we have to stay safe for next year," says Amy Hubbard.

Until the next tailgate, the nurse will put the PBS Bengals-Steelers program with her son on the cover into his memorabilia box in her basement.

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