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In C.J. Uzomah, Bengals get big-game 'anti-villain'

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CINCINNATI -- It was the day of the biggest game of the year in Alabama: the Iron Bowl.

Down in those parts the mere mention of the words "Iron Bowl" conjures wellsprings of pride that can only truly be articulated by those who have experienced it.

C.J. Uzomah, one of the Cincinnati Bengals' two newest tight ends, has.

"This is something I put my body on the line for," Uzomah said Saturday, his voice quickening as he spoke.

You see, Auburn-Alabama, the annual game that bears the "Iron Bowl" moniker, isn't just an event. It's an all-SEC test that crowns the state college football champion, and in certain years -- like 2013 -- has helped dictate which of the two teams plays for the national championship.

In the state of Ohio, no football game rivals the importance of the yearly Michigan-Ohio State game, but on the NFL level, the bi-annual Bengals-Browns matchup still generates its share of the state's pigskin spotlight. Last December's Bengals-Browns meeting even stole the national limelight.

Sure, the country was paying attention mostly because it was embattled quarterback Johnny Manziel's first career start. But the underlying story line was that the Bengals and Browns were playing a division game that helped dictate whether one or both of them made it to the playoffs.

It was Week 15. It was an important game. It was Ohio's NFL "Iron Bowl."

Before it, Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals tight end who months before dubbed himself the team "villain" because of how he felt Bengals fans perceived him, was testing out a toe injury that popped up late the week of the game. Slightly hobbled, he looked OK as he ran routes and caught pre-game passes. It appeared he would play.

But minutes later, his name was announced with Cincinnati's game-day inactives. It was one of two games Gresham missed despite testing out injuries pregame. The other was a playoff game Cincinnati later lost. Privately, some coaches and teammates frowned upon Gresham's decisions not to play.

Which brings this back to Uzomah and the "Iron Bowl." Two years ago, after taking a hard shot while blocking on the second series of the game, Uzomah partially separated a shoulder causing him to leave the game ... briefly.

"I knew the implications [of staying in] and I knew that with the treatment I was going to be getting afterwards that I'd be fine," Uzomah said. "I feel like I was in a position to make plays given my shoulder."

"There was no way I'm missing a game like that."

Remember former Auburn defensive back Chris Davis' miracle game-winning return touchdown off a missed field goal? That was this game.

One of Uzomah's two post-injury catches for Auburn was a 13-yard touchdown that tied the game late.

"You can see on tape that he is a tough kid," Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes said. "He's going to push the guys in my room and it's going to help us all get better."

Uzomah's fifth-round selection in this weekend's draft likely marks the end of Gresham's time in Cincinnati. Previous to Uzomah being picked up and fellow tight end Tyler Kroft the day before, there was a sliver of a chance that Gresham might return to the Bengals as a free agent following recent back surgery. That sliver was swallowed Saturday.

"We're making a new transition and we appreciated those guys' work and everything they did for us, but we're going to continue to move forward," Hayes said, referring to Gresham and another free-agent tight end, Alex Smith. "This ship stops for nobody. If you're not going to be on board, it's going to set sail anyway."

At tight end, the Bengals sail on with their new anti-villain.