After going down with a torn Achilles tendon in Week 2 and missing the final 14 games of the 2020 Season, C.J. Uzomah is back and making sure people learn how to say his last name correctly.
“Right when it happened I was distraught. I was like, ‘man this is terrible’, Uzomah said in an exclusive interview with All Bengals. “When it first happened it was incredibly tough, but the thing that helped me was knowing that there was nothing that I could do to expedite the process of rehab.”
It took nine months to recovery, but he had good company on the rehab field next to Trey Hopkins and Joe Burrow. They didn’t waste any time forming the bond that we've seen glimpses of on the field this season.
"Once he (Burrow) had his injury I hit him up a couple of times when he was out in California," Uzomah said. "When he came here I was fortunate enough to be on the tail end of my rehab and he was in the middle and kind of the toughest part of his so I just kept talking to him.”
If the Bengals gave out a Mr. Congeniality award, Uzomah would win it every year.
He’s not afraid to be himself or show his personality and his tendency to goof around has served him well over the years, especially now with a new group of coaches and remade roster. Most of the people in the building weren't part of the Bengals' organization when Uzomah was drafted in 2015.
“I don’t have to be reserved as long as my actions on the field speak for themselves. I can be who I am," Uzomah said. “Our chemistry in the locker room right now is something that I haven’t seen in a long time. I mean coming in and seeing Ja’Marr (Chase) and treating him like a little brother.”
The rookie receiver and the veteran tight end have an unshakable bond already, and they’re both stacking stats next to their names on the field.
Ja’Marr Chase leads the AFC in receiving yards (835 yards) and has already won multiple awards in his short NFL career.
“Ja’Marr and I talk crap to each other the entire practice. We are at each other’s necks," Uzomah joked. "It is all in good fun and that adds to the chemistry, it builds it up a little bit."
Uzomah and his teammates challenge each other, but also make sure that practice is a fun place to be, with so many hours spent together.
The rest of the football world knows Chase as a key weapon for Burrow, but Uzomah sees a completely different side of the rookie, especially when it comes to the LSU product’s vocabulary.
“He’s got some funny vernacular so I make fun of the way he says something or the way he addresses something and if he does it early in the day I’ll just go with it," Uzomah said. "The entire day is that and then he’s finally like, 'alright bro, I get it' and he’s got a big smile and laughing. We just make fun of each other a little bit, it’s nice."
Being comfortable around this new group has helped Uzomah morph into the reliable weapon we are seeing this year on the field. The seasoned tight end is on pace to have his best season. He has 25 receptions for 313 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Uzomah has an 89.3 catch percentage, which is a career-high.
“For me personally, it’s a huge weight off my shoulders if I can express who I am as an individual to my teammates who are my brothers who I am with 24 [hours a day]," he said. "I am with them so much that if I had to put on a disguise and act like someone I wasn't, that would take a mental toll on me”.
The hard work Uzomah has put in to build relationships and come back from a devastating injury has proven to be fruitful, even if some of the tasks were tedious.
“I did so many calf raises… like I don’t even want to think about it," he said. "Like just saying calf raise makes me cringe a little bit."
The 2021 season has been very different from the first two years under head coach Zac Taylor. A big shift in the locker room culture came when players started holding each other accountable. The overall mindset has shifted to a common goal of not just winning in the future, but winning now.
“We are treating each other like brothers," Uzomah said. “If I say something to TB (Tyler Boyd) or if TB says something to me we aren’t taking it personally. We know what it takes to win the game and what it takes to be the best that we can be for the team."
Changes were made to Cincinnati’s staff and key pieces were added to the roster, allowing the culture to shift in the right direction.
“We aren’t taking personal digs at each other, it’s truly uplifting and not to say that it wasn’t completely like that in the past, but it’s on another level this year," Uzomah explained. “It’s going to take some time and I think right now what we have in the locker room with the pieces that we’ve added, the people that are buying into the culture, the connection, the chemistry we have is just unique.”
Accountability and chemistry will go a long way as the team takes time to regroup during the bye week.
The Bengals face the hardest part of their schedule during the final eight weeks of the season starting with a road game in Las Vegas against the Raiders on Sunday, Nov. 21.
Watch our entire conversation with Uzomah below.
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