KANSAS CITY — P.J. Hill delivered the warning as soon as the reporters began moving toward the locker booth to his right, where a stunned Joseph Osai sat on a chair in a folded position, his eyes bloodshot and welling with tears.
“Stupid first question, I’ll shut it down,” Hill said.
At the time, head coach Zack Taylor went straight to Ossai after leaving his post-match press conference. Taylor put an arm around the 22-year-old and leaned in to tell him how much he loved and appreciated him and to keep his head held high.
Sam Hubbard stepped in with an equally protective but less threatening request.
“Can we give Joe some time?” Hubbard asked. “I will answer any questions you have.”
Osai headed to the shower area in an effort to take away the pain of committing an unnecessary rough penalty with eight seconds left in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead, shoving quarterback Patrick Mahomes to the bench after a five-yard scramble in front of Cincinnati’s 42-yard line.
Had Ousai Mahomes not hit, the two Chiefs would have had one play with no timeouts to try and get into more realistic field goal range on a frigid night when players were struggling to get their usual starting distance and field goals.
A 60-yard long shot would have been inaccurate at best. But the penalty moved the attempt to 45 yards, and Chiefs’ kicker Harrison Butker had enough leg to clear the crossbar and send the Chiefs to Super Bowl LVII with a 23-20 victory.
And sending Usai to Cincinnati’s infamous athleticism, seven years after Vonta’s Perfect and Bachman Jones committed 15-yard penalties in the final seconds of an AFC wild game against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, enabling Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell to make an easy 35-goal. Field to win 18-16.
Unlike Jones, who fled the locker room that night before entering the media, Osai stood in front of reporters with his raw emotions and went into detail about the best match and worst night of his life. All while Hale stood by his side waiting to answer any questions he deemed stupid, which didn’t take long.
The first question was about the support he was getting from his teammates.
“And that means the world to me. It definitely gives me peace now,” Osai said softly, while sniffing occasionally.
The next question asked Usai what he saw on his last play of the game.
“Stupid question,” Hill said. “Come on. He played his ass the whole game. Ask a different question.”
The question was not stupid. Hale was just protective. And he was not wrong about how Usai played in the biggest match of his young career. He finished with five tackles, including one for loss, five pressures, two quarterback hits and a pass defended in just 19 snaps.
One of those pressures on the play came before the penalty kick when he beat Chiefs Pro Bowl left guard Joe Thune to attack Mahomes’ face as he attempted a pass to open tight end Travis Kelsey. Osai hit Mahomes’ arm while throwing, resulting in an incomplete third and fourth game that would be the last upset scrimmage of the season for the Bengals.
It was a great moment for the 2021 third-round pick who spent last season watching his teammates run to the Super Bowl after suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener. He was thrilled for part of it this year.
Until Sunday night, when he wished he wasn’t such a big part of what happened.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “I was in full chase mode, and I was trying to push him to maybe get him back because I knew he was going for that sideline. I was trying to get him to come back up, run that clock. I didn’t know how far out of bounds we were.
“At this time last year I was on the couch,” Osai added. “Just to be able to be in this game and be on this court, and be in this dressing room with these guys, it’s a blessing. I thank God for that. I’m sorry things didn’t go our way.”
Cam Sample, who was drafted 42nd pick after Ossai, was consoling his friend on the bench as Chiefs players ran to celebrate after Butker’s kick went through the uprights.
“If one of my brothers got hurt, I got hurt,” said Model. “I know how hard he’s been working and how much this means to him. He’s going to sting for a while, but he’s going to learn from it and grow from it. He has the fuel to move forward.”
Culture and connection have been cited as reasons for the run that brought the Bengals within a game, within seconds, of back-to-back Super Bowl trips. That’s why they’ve managed to put together a 10-game winning streak and tie the franchise single-season record with 12.
And those bonds don’t break when adversity strikes. They condense.
“We’re a very tight family, and he hurts us as much as he hurts himself,” said Sample.
“We just have to be there for each other,” added team captain von Bell. “I’ll be there for him. This is my brother. Tough situation. We can’t blame him. He was trying to make a play, chasing the quarterback. Striving. We’re all here for him. Not just on him. It’s a collective unit.”
Feeling Ossai’s soreness and pain as he scrolled through his phone and watched the plays from the game, DJ Reader hesitated to remove his last pads for what he knew would be his last for several months.
“He-and-the King is bad,” said Reeder. “The pain is real. Just understand that. But he’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time.”
The reader was also quick to point out that Ossai wasn’t the only player to hit someone well out of bounds. Bengals running back Joe Mixon was run out of bounds at the 2-yard line by Kansas City safety Justin Reed when cornerback Jaylen Watson reached and hit Mixon farther down the sideline than where Ossai made contact with Mahomes.
“It happened with Mixon on the goal line, and no one seemed excited about it,” said Reeder. “It’s just one of those things where a quarterback is protected in this league. At least some. It’s just how it goes. It’s a tough game. Gotta hold up. But you know, he’s emotional, he chases the ball as hard as he can, he’s just trying to give more.” It’s tough.”
While many of Usai’s teammates insisted he did not deserve to blame the albatross, Hubbard went a step further and pointed to himself as the culprit, saying his failure to maintain containment was the only reason Mahomes escaped from his pocket and ended up being chased by Usai.
“BJ and I should have done this play,” Hubbard said. “It shouldn’t have come down to that, so we blame ourselves. Nobody blames Joseph. He was playing as hard as he could. That’s why we’re great, playing amazingly hard. Sometimes that’s just the way the game goes.”
“He’s a great player and a great person,” Hubbard added. “You shouldn’t focus on him. There were a million chances for us to win the game, including losing me. I put that on me, not Joseph.”
Jesse Bates – who was almost as emotional as Ossai but for different reasons, knowing that Sunday might be the last day he would call the guys in the locker room with his teammates – also said he didn’t get a chance to have a conversation but he intended to.
“I know his number. We have the same agent,” Bates said. “I would be happy to speak with him. Just keep being it. This is what Joe does, running towards the ball. This is exactly what happened. He hit the quarterback.”
No one has refuted the punishment.
The point was that there were 128 other plays in the game, and on many of them, Usai looked like one of the best players on the field.
But this will not ease his pain or his regrets. This would be the longest season of his life. But he knows that the support that surrounds him in the locker room will still be there in a fortnight as players watch the Super Bowl they were so close to being a part of.
He’ll still be there in April when they come to the OTAs. And July for training camp. And perhaps for the rest of Osai’s career.
The greater the error, the greater the stage, the greater the heartbreak. The longer the validity period.
But Usai knows that his pain is not his alone.
“We are one big family,” he said. “When the going gets tough, we don’t start pointing fingers. We lift each other up. I’m glad I got this group of guys around me, supporting me now. Because it’s hard.
“I just have to learn from the experience. In a painful situation like this, I have to do better.”
(Top photo: Sam Greene/USA Today)