The Bengals are riding high. They get six days off after Tuesday's walkthrough and when they come back they'll be in first place in the AFC North with five games left.
But Rey Maualuga expected to find what would have been a usually boisterous locker room quite subdued on Tuesday morning as he digested the news Monday that popular former teammate Thomas Howard had been killed in a car accident in Oakland.
"I'm lost for words; my heart dropped as I read it on my phone," Maualuga said. "He always had that smile. And he was so passionate on and off the field. I bet you find no one who has a bad word to say about Thomas."
Howard, 30, was a key figure in Cincinnati's 2011 run to the playoffs as one of the cadre of highly-regarded new and old veterans who changed the culture of the locker room for the better at the dawn of the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era and head coach Marvin Lewis's reboot.
And his popularity extended out of the locker room, where he embraced fans and community works. Howard, a walk-on at Texas-El Paso, may be best known for his program for walk-ons that were part of the Thomas Howard Foundation geared to children ages 9-13.
"His passion is to provide other walk-on student athletes with financial assistance, so that they can focus on school and athletics," says his web site, Mr53.com, peppered with pictures from his Bengals days and layered with Who Dey wallpaper.
"Everyone's path to greatness is different. My journey to the NFL was one that I will never forget. If I can make an obstacle a building block for the next generation I will," Howard says on the site.
According to KRON-TV via Pro Football Talk, citing a California Highway Patrol report, Howard's BMW was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour when it hit the back of a tractor trailer and flew across the median into oncoming traffic, killing another driver.
In that '11 season, Howard became Cincinnati's best overall linebacker and he never came off the field after signing a two-year deal on the eve of training camp following the lockout. After five seasons in Oakland, Howard was rejuvenated as a WILL backer in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's scheme, leading the team in tackles while also serving as the club's best cover backer.
"No question he was one of the players that was the glue of that team," said linebackers coach Paul Guenther. "He was exactly the kind of player you love to coach. Unselfish. Dedicated to his craft. He wanted to help younger players. Every coach and player knew he'd be there for them. I feel awful."
But Howard never played for Cincinnati again after he tore his ACL in a Thursday practice before the second game of the 2012 season and the Bengals didn't re-sign him this past offseason. That's the injury that vaulted rookie Vontaze Burfict into the lineup and he hasn't left the WILL position with 25 straight starts as he makes a strong bid for the Pro Bowl this year leading the NFL in tackles.
Howard had been cut by the Falcons just a few days ago, the club he hooked on with last month after his bid to return to the Bengals didn't come through back in September. When nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason finale, the Bengals invited Howard and a group of linebackers to work out and the club eventually decided on former Giant Michael Boley after he played in all 16 games last year.
Howard may have played only 18 games as a Bengal, but he left quite a mark. He became involved in the community quickly and Maualuga recalls how he took fans on Tuesday tours of PBS during his days off. One Tuesday, Howard's mother came in from out of town to accompany the group.
"I'm just thinking about his mom and his two little girls," Maualuga said. "He was everywhere on the field. He was an athlete and he always seemed to be involved."
Maualuga feels a particular loss because that was the year he made the move to the middle from SAM and Maualuga found himself between two veterans, Howard and SAM backer Manny Lawson. Howard helped him along and Maualuga ended with the second-most tackles.
"He wasn't just a mentor to me, he was a mentor to a lot of guys," Maualuga said. "He'd give you anything you needed. It sucks he's gone this early. I think the locker room is going to be quiet tomorrow."