Huber's recovery enters all-mental stage

CINCINNATI -- Late the night of March 19, Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber sent out the following tweet:

He was referring to Aroldis Chapman, the Cincinnati Reds' closer who had just been carted off the field after being hit in the face by a hard line drive during a spring training game. For the Cincinnati sports fans who saw Huber's tweet, it was a jarring juxtaposition. One couldn't help but remember the Sunday night football game last December when Huber's season ended. His jaw was broken and one of his vertebra cracked following a vicious blindside hit on a punt.

One of Cincinnati's popular bars, Holy Grail Tavern and Grille, responded to Huber's tweet saying, "Now you know how we felt when you got hit. Pit in the stomach."

The good news for Chapman is that the injury looked scarier than it was. He's in the middle of a rehab program that should get him back to pitching sometime next month.

For Huber, though, the road to recovery will take a little longer. Because it's the offseason, Huber won't have a chance to participate in truly live punting exercises for another four months.

When he met with reporters in the Bengals' locker room earlier this week for the start of the team's voluntary offseason workout program, Huber said he had been cleared to participate in most of his pre-injury activities. There are still a few weight-lifting restrictions in place, but he's allowed to go through the motions of kicking.

The hardest part of Huber's rehabilitation process is the part that he's beginning now: the mental stage. Now that his jaw is fully healed and he's long been out of the neck braces he wore as precaution for the cracked vertebra in his neck, it's all about blocking out the hit itself and going out and fearlessly performing the way he did before the collision.

"I've definitely thought about that and how I am going to act in the situation," Huber said, reflecting on his first in-game punt. "I can tell myself now, 'Oh, I'll be fine,' but you don't really know until you're in the situation."

His first chance to kick against 11 players not wearing stripes will be Aug. 7 when the Bengals travel to Kansas City for their preseason opener.

Asked about his tweet regarding Chapman, Huber compared his looming mental hurdle to the one he's sure Chapman is experiencing now.

"He'll probably be out there and be nervous, but I'm sure after the first hit or something he'll probably calm down, and the same with me," Huber said. "After my first punt, I'll be fine and calm down."

Huber's last punt was among his three worst last season. Sure, he got decent hang time, but he shot 38-yard kick straight down the middle of the field while his coverage team anticipated it going to a sideline. An alley opened, allowing Steelers return man Antonio Brown to sprint 67 yards practically untouched for a touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead 21-0 in the first quarter. That score effectively gave the Steelers the game. They ended up winning, 30-20.

As troubling as it was that the Bengals allowed the score, it was equally troubling to see upon further review how the massive middle-of-the-field hole opened for Brown. There was a questionable no-call or two on possible blocks in the back and holds that gave Brown the lane. Then, just when the Bengals' last line of defense -- Huber -- recognized that he would have to prepare for a possible tackle, he was blindsided.

Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin was the blocker. He wasn't flagged for a personal foul, although the NFL's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, later said he should have been punished. The hit was delivered to the head or neck area of a defenseless player, Blandino said. Such hits are illegal.

After lying on the ground for several moments as trainers evaluated him, Huber eventually hopped up and jogged off the field with a piece of bloody gauze hanging from his mouth.

Much like he did in the days immediately following the injury, Huber harbored no ill will toward Garvin when he spoke on the play earlier this week. Huber acknowledged that while he was still in the hospital in December he missed a phone call from Garvin apologizing for the result of the play.

"I sent him a text back and said I appreciate the call," Huber said.

Otherwise, Huber felt Garvin had no need to even reach out. The play, by his estimation, was a football play involving two football players; neither of which he believed to have been "defenseless."

As Huber prepares himself for his first live punt, he contends he won't shy away from playing the way he used to. He thinks he'll still be going after tackle attempts if situations warrant them.

"I'm sure I'm going to have to be because otherwise [special-teams coordinator] Darrin [Simmons] will probably yell at me," Huber said, laughing. "I don't have very many tackles in my stat book, but I'll still try."

He has two, for the record.

He'll always be remembered for the one hit that ended his fifth season. But now it's time for him to wipe it clean from his memory.