CINCINNATI -- They spoke about his infectious smile.
They remembered, fondly, his two little girls and the unquestioned love he had for them.
They reminisced about the football lessons he taught them, and the unwavering commitment he made to the community he served.
When various members of the Cincinnati Bengals mentioned Thomas Howard's name earlier this week, they did so wishing the man many considered a brother could have been the subject of a different discussion. They wished they could have been talking about him in the present and future tenses. Not in the past.
"Gone too soon," was the way Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga put it, still visibly shaken by the news that one of his friends and former teammates had died at the tender age of 30. "It sucks talking about it because it doesn't seem real."
Unfortunately for the Bengals and staffs representing two other league franchises, it is.
According to media reports, Howard, an eight-year NFL veteran who spent two seasons with the Bengals and who had just been released by the Atlanta Falcons last week, was killed in a car accident in Northern California early Monday morning. Reports said the BMW he was driving was traveling at a high rate of speed -- upward of 100 mph -- before it clipped a semi truck and was launched across the median and into oncoming traffic. After clipping another car, Howard's slammed into another motorist. The driver of that final car, 64-year-old Zeng Long Liu, also was killed.
A Texas native, Howard was drafted out of UTEP by the Oakland Raiders in 2006. He spent five years with the Raiders before getting signed by the Bengals in 2011. He appeared in all 16 regular-season games that year, finishing with 70 total tackles and a sack. After one game the following season, he was placed on injured reserve when he tore an ACL during a Week 2 practice. He remained in Cincinnati during his rehab and continued to be a fixture in the Bengals' locker room despite his injury.
Already a veteran when he arrived, Howard played the role of big brother to several young linebackers who had come to Cincinnati around that same time. Maualuga, Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict were among those who benefited the most from his instruction. When Howard went down with the injury last year, Burfict, then a rookie, saw his role increase. Now the second-year defender leads the NFL in tackles and has become respected as one of the league's most intimidating enforcers.
Those same young players who sought Howard's guidance are vowing to make their former teammate an integral part of the remainder of the season. Maualuga told Bengals.com that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is working on hanging Howard's No. 53 jersey in the defense's meeting room.
After leaving the Bengals following his injury last offseason, Howard bounced around from tryout to tryout at the start of this season, trying to convince teams he was healthy again. The Bengals were one of them. When Emmanuel Lamur went down at the end of the preseason with a season-ending injury, linebackers coach Paul Guenther reached out to Howard. He and Lewis said Tuesday that Howard just wasn't quite back.
"He was still working back from the injury and we just decided to go a different way with it," Guenther said.
Howard eventually signed with the Falcons and spent two games with them before his release. According to media reports, he maintained a home just outside Oakland.
Here is how the Bengals choose to remember Howard:
LB Vincent Rey
"He's a funny guy. The thing about T-Howard, he's a genuine guy. Real. You love people like that. He always had a smile on his face and was all about helping others. He had a program here where every Tuesday he allowed people to come into the stadium, different people locally would come in and get a tour of the stadium and go on the field. He was about other people. That's what life is about.
"My prayers and thoughts go out to this family. He will be remembered here.
"He will not soon be forgotten."
Coach Marvin Lewis
"The first thing that comes to mind is his personality and his smile. How giving and caring he was to everyone. Him here on Tuesday nights taking his foundation group around and last year even when he was injured he continued to follow through on his commitments. He was a great player and a tremendous friend to everyone. It’s a shame for his two daughters, his mom and dad, such a warm and giving guy. It really affects our football team because this is someone who everyone had a great relationship with and felt for when he got hurt."
LB Rey Maualuga
"I was lost for words because Thomas, I and Taylor Mays, DQ [recently released linebacker DeQuin Evans], we had a strong bond when we were here as far as what we did on and off the field. I got a text from Frostee [Rucker] and I couldn't talk to Taylor about it. This couldn't be the Thomas Howard that we all know. We lost a great teammate, person and friend but my heart goes out to his two little girls. Like I said, you don’t wake up in the morning thinking it is your last time on earth. Things happen for a reason and you have to cherish your time here.
"Vontaze showed me the [accident] photo and they said how they couldn't get him out of the car. Hopefully he didn't have a slow, painful death. Gone too soon. Wish the best for his family and kids. We’ll try to do something for them when we return and they can be well taken care of."
"He was very involved in the community. Just kind of what the emphasis is now. A lot of the guys on this team are as good off the field as they are on it. That's really what's kind of helped change the culture. He was one of those people."