Joseph Ossai’s hit on Patrick Mahomes falls into Bengals infamy, but it wasn’t looked at alone

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — BJ Hill is 6-foot-3, 311 pounds, and had just spent three hours trying to pull Patrick Mahomes.

Now the Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle had taken on a new job, the most intimidating and perhaps most protective press secretary in the world.

In a devastated Cincinnati Bengals locker room, Hill stood directly on the left shoulder of teammate Joseph Ossai and warned the media who had gathered before them.

“Any stupid questions and I’m shutting this down,” Hill said.

There was no reason not to believe he would, or even more if necessary.

The Bengals had just lost the AFC Championship Game, 23-20 to Kansas City, on a field goal with just three seconds left. In the crowded post-game locker room, there were tears and deep, gasping exhales and heads buried in hands.

“Extremely painful,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said.

Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai (58) pushes Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes out of bounds in the final moments of the AFC title game, a play that would be flagged for unnecessary roughness. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nowhere has that pain been more intense than with second-year defensive end Ossai. With eight seconds remaining, Mahomes broke free from the pocket and rushed to the right for a first down. Ossai sued, trying to track down one of the NFL’s most elusive players

As Mahomes passed the sticks, he walked to the sideline in an attempt to stop the clock. Just as he went out of bounds, Ossai came in and nudged him with his right arm, sending them both collapsing. It was unnecessary roughness from a textbook. Several flags flew.

The extra 15 yards sent Kansas City out of Cincinnati 42-27. Instead of needing a Hail Mary or an unlikely 60-yard field goal to win the game, the Chiefs sent Harrison Butker to send them to the Super Bowl with a 45-yarder. He did it.

The late hit was the final and deciding play of the game. Ossai knew immediately, finding himself on the bench in tears. He knew the reactions that were coming.

“You need to be more aware,” they shouted on the Bengals radio show. “Why the [expletive] would you touch the quarterback? cameras caught teammate Germaine Pratt screaming as he entered the locker room. Social media was, well, social media, vitriol sprinkled with occasional messages of sympathy.

In the locker room, teammates had kissed him. They tried to lift him. They patted him on the back and told him that it was just one game within a game of many, that it was a hustle error, not a sign of anything more than “playing his heart”, as Hubbard said. Head coach Zac Taylor came over and kissed him and let him cry into his shoulder.

For Ossai, support meant the world, but he also felt he had let the world of the Bengals down.

“I have to be better,” Ossai said.

It’s a moment of individualized sporting trauma, a nightmare, something that’s much easier said to minimize than it really is. Prospect was hard to find.

Ossai was born in Nigeria and moved with his family to Conroe, Texas, about 40 miles north of Houston, when he was 10 years old. The transition was difficult. The family of seven lived in a one-bedroom apartment and his accent made him easy prey for bullies at school.

His solace became football. He would grow to 6ft 3in and 263lbs and become a star. He went on to play at the University of Texas, was named an All-American, and was drafted in the third round by the Bengals. It has speed, power and a relentless engine.

Yet now he had made the biggest mistake in the biggest game. There is no good manual for this. All he could do was hope for compassion and understanding.

“I was just in chase mode,” Ossai explained. “And try to push [Mahomes] to maybe push him back [out of bounds] and make that clock tick… I gotta know not to approach that quarterback when he’s approaching that sideline.

Hill stood up and listened to each question and each answer. He cut two queries he deemed “dumb” or perhaps unfairly accusatory.

“Ask a better question bro,” Hill snapped.

The media mob continued. He was a teammate, literally standing for another teammate, shoulder to shoulder, side to side, question for question. In the darkest moments, it was impressive.

Everyone knows that these things can linger, haunt and damage reputations and careers. In that case, in those first few minutes, Hill was going to do anything to make sure that wasn’t the case.

When football teams talk about being a family, well, it’s a family.

“It didn’t come down to this game,” Hill said. “I’m not going to take stupid questions that make it look like it’s all his fault. It takes more than him. It takes a whole team.

“He’s my brother,” Hill continued. “I’ve been in this situation before too. I had the chance to make a winning bag [against Dallas]. I just missed a bag. I was here. Trying to put the blame on one person, I’m not going to have that.

“The way he plays his butt every game,” Hill explained, “that’s how he trains and that’s how he plays. I have no problem with that game because that I know what his intentions are [were].”

Those feelings echoed in the locker room. At least publicly. Support. Fraternity. Sympathy. This loss was painful. So close to victory. So close to the Super Bowl. Still, that’s football. Only one team is happy at the end. A million things lead to it.

“It’s a blessing,” Ossai said of Hill and others’ outpouring. “I’m sorry things didn’t go our way.”

That might not be enough for some fans or even some teammates or maybe Joseph Ossai to really put this behind him. Time will tell us. Time will hopefully heal.

It was enough for the moment though, a guy standing up to the worst mistake he’s ever made on the pitch in the biggest game he’s ever played. And a teammate standing with him in solidarity for the Bengals, saying as much about this team as any victory ever had.

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