The Bengals coveted Thomas Howard so much in the 2006 draft that they still remembered five years later and grabbed him for two years in the first hours of free agency in 2011.
Then they had so much regard for what he did in his 1,000 snaps at WILL linebacker last season that they traded the guy he replaced even though he was a first-round draft pick.
And yet Howard is still coming at the game like he did his freshman year at the University of Texas at El Paso, when he was a walk-on and had to parcel out his financial aid money to eat.
"No doubt," Howard says. "You still have to stay hungry."
Howard has plenty on his plate. Not only has he become one of the Bengals locker room statesmen in just one season as well as one of their most productive players, the Thomas Howard Foundation is taking off. After becoming a hit in Cincinnati last season with his "Tuesday Tours," it had its signature event last month honoring the very walk-ons Howard has based his approach.At the foundation's Athletic & Academic Achievement Awards dinner on the UTEP campus, two walk-ons from the football team were honored with partial scholarships to "lessen the financial burden," as Howard calls it.
"I'm not the first one. I won't be the last one," says Howard, who won his scholarship in training camp of his second fall at the school. "No one really honors the walk-ons. No one really knows the struggles except the few guys that have gone through it."
Howard is going through a walk-on's renaissance with the Bengals after a five-year run in Oakland that ended with a thud in 2010 when he was relegated to special teams after he missed four games with a knee injury.
"They had a good rhythm when I was gone and maybe they just felt like there wasn't a lot of love for Thomas upstairs," Howard says. "It happens. To me I've been blessed to come to a great situation."
There are as many reasons Howard chose the Bengals last season as there are why he turned his career around. Drawn by the 2009 AFC North sweep, the experienced NFL defensive minds of head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and a 4-3 defense that changed his sides from SAM to WILL, Howard saw an opening in a starting lineup that eventually had Howard, fellow free agent
The conventional wisdom is that they are most athletic trio of linebackers the Bengals have had in Lewis's 10 seasons.
"It's the coaching, it's the guys, it's the scheme," Howard says of his success. "It's good coaching. It’s playing beside guys like Rey and Manny, and the biggest thing is playing behind the defensive line like we have. I should have a much better year playing behind such talented, young defensive linemen. A guy like (tackle)
The Bengals were in no man's land in '06 when it came to the 6-3, 240-pound Howard. Even before he lit the scouting combine with a 4.41-second 40-yard dash, their scouts had given him high marks for his willingness to hit, his hustle, coverage skills and brains. But with late picks in the first and second rounds at Nos. 24 and 55, respectively, Howard was an early second-round pick for the Raiders at No. 38.
"He's a good veteran leader; a solid player that can do so many things for us," says linebacker coach Paul Guenther, recalling how Howard held dangerous Bills running back Fred Jackson to five catches for 32 yards out of the backfield.
"He's an athletic guy that can cover. Yeah, he's got that walk-on mentality. The thing I really like about Thomas is how he's open to learn things in a different way. He's come up that way, whether it is as a walk-on or getting traded or coming to a new team, he saw an opportunity and took the bull by the horns."
Howard, who turns 29 just before training camp, sounds like a kid when he talks about his defense and team.
"This is an awesome locker room; on this defense, we're a brotherhood," Howard says. "Our goal is to get to New Orleans and win the (the Super Bowl)."
He only smiles when it is suggested that last week's trade of Keith Rivers to the Giants for a fifth-round pick shows just how much the Bengals think of him.
"I'm happy for Keith," he says. "We're friends on and off the field. He's happy. He's been hurt and hasn't had a chance to play. We talked and he's happy, so I'm happy."
Howard and Guenther say there are still adjustments to be made as Howard continues to adapt to Zimmer's scheme.
"Now it is going to be fine-tuning," Guenther says. "Now he'll know why we're asking him what to do and how instead of knowing just what to do."
Howard says Zimmer is emphasizing tighter pass coverage to the linebackers and he says, "I have to get more involved in the turnover battle." Howard led the Bengals in tackles last season, but had no interceptions and he remembers his second season when he had six interceptions for the Raiders and ran back two for touchdowns.
"It was a decent year, but we have so much room to grow," he says of his adjustment to playing behind the 3-technique on the line. "As you adjust more to the scheme and the freedom you have, you also look at how disciplined you have to be with your eyes and feet."
But not on Tuesdays.
That's the off day during the season and last year Howard parlayed some of them into a fundraising effort for the foundation with backstage tours of Paul Brown Stadium. With a donation to his foundation via his Web site Mr53.com, fans could dine on pizza and soda after Howard led them on a tour of the facilities and the locker room. A total of 53 of them, of course, and he says to be on the lookout on his site for three tours this season.
"Thomas is interested in education," says Bridgette Coates, who helps him with the foundation and is based in Oakland. "I think it comes from his mother and father and I think he's got a real appreciation for kids that are experiencing what he did, like walking on."
Coates says Howard is so keen on education that he has finished up his classes at UTEP and his walking in the May 11 graduation. And next week he's headed back to Oakland for his "Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?" program designed to boost spirits and morale about learning.
But then he'll be back here walking on.
"Budgeting for food," says Howard about the toughest thing he faced walking on. "We were required to do everything that the scholarship players had to do, but we weren't on the meal plan. I had financial aid and loans, so I had to learn how to do a budget and I had learn to cook, too.
"That was good. But I just want to help lessen the financial burden."
So far, he's been money in the bank for the Bengals.