Chidobe Awuzie, one of the linchpins of the Bengals Super Bowl run and an emotional fulcrum in the locker room, recalled Thursday how the emotion got the best of him.
As the medical tent on the Bengals sideline Monday night in Cleveland swelled with well-wishers, Awuzie covered his face while he wept. He had just been told his season was over. There would be no Super Bowl interception this year. His ACL was torn.
Several of his coaches and teammates checked in with him as the first half wound down. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Safety Mike Thomas. Cornerback Tre Flowers. That's all he can remember.
"And after, people were telling me they came in," Awuzie recalled before Thursday's practice, sitting at his locker and the crutches leaning on it. "They must have been really respectful because I didn't know they were there.
"I was crying. I have a great set of teammates here. That's the way everybody is. Good brothers to each other. Go to war with each other. We're emotionally tied to each other."
This is how great of a teammate Awuzie is. He plans to get surgery in about two weeks when the swelling goes down and until then he has assured Anarumo he'll stick around Paycor Stadium and attend meetings. He may not stay all day because they don't want him to be a sitting duck out at practice because he can't move. But he'll be here until then.
"I'm one of the guys that likes to challenge the system and try to get some answers out. If people have questions, I'm one of the guys who asks questions," Awuzie said. "I just want to keep doing that because you never know how you could be impacting the team and the defense. So I want to keep doing that. Obviously we have a lot of young guys, so if they have any questions or any things they want to ask, I want to be there for them. They can text me if I'm not here when I do get my surgery or while I am here. They can get whatever they can out of me."
They've been getting plenty out of him ever since he arrived from Dallas in free agency before last season. On the field, Anarumo assigned him to the best receiver and according to Pro Football Focus he is the 22nd best man cover corner in the league this season and graded higher than multiple Pro Bowlers Xavien Howard, Stephon Gilmore and Darius Slay.
But he's not sure this is his best season. It sure felt like it, though.
"This year, I just felt like I was really solid. Even before that game, I was talking to myself saying that was the best I've felt before a game," Awuzie said. "Going against one of my best friends, Amari Cooper, I was feeling good. Obviously can't predict these things in football. All I can do is look forward, give it to God and try to come out better. Just like how I've responded to most things in my life."
He's been tight with Cooper ever since the Cowboys drafted Awuzie in 2017 and, as fate would have it late in the first half Monday night, that's where he was breaking when Jacoby Brissett threw it across the middle.
"Honestly, I don't know what happened in that moment," Awuzie said. "When I looked back to see if (Cooper) caught or dropped it, my knee did whatever it did and I hit the ground. I think a lot of people can tell I'm not used to not being able to walk, so I immediately tried to run off the field because that's my instinct.
"Just get off the field. Just try to get back in the game. When I got back to the sideline I was thinking it might be something minor. Then they told me what they told me."
What they can't tell him is a timeline for his return. It's just too early to have one ("I'm not even close to that"), but he's getting plenty of advice. Former Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, now a Steeler, told him how he came back from last January's broken foot. And Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who has an NFL Comeback Player of the Year re-built ACL, sent him a lengthy text.
"He talked to me (after the game). The next day he asked confirmation. He told me about some things, what to look for," Awuzie said. "A little bit about his process and everything,"
He also spent time with Cooper after the game in the tunnel before the bus left.
"He wanted to introduce me to (Browns linebacker) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and we were talking about just life," Awuzie said, "and then he actually was talking about some stuff about the word, like the Bible and stuff."
Awuzie shrugged when he was told it seemed like he was taking it rather well. A man of many interests, starting with chess and music, he says he plans to get heavily involved in those ventures now.
"I have no choice. All I can do is look forward," Awuzie said of the positive outlook. "Even like when it happened, and like I said I was being emotional and I know I have to get that out regardless, but then after that, it was like, alright, what can I do now? Accept. Look forward, get better, try and maximize each day, make sure I'm doing what the doctors are telling me. I have great people in my corner. Football has blessed me in a lot of ways. So all I can do is look forward. It's out of my control now. So what I can't control is my emotions, my attitude and how I respond, so I plan to respond very well."
He's not sure when the surgery is. But he says for sure he'll be here to help when he gets to be mobile again. And he knows when they play the Super Bowl.
"It'll go on all the way to February,' he said of this season.