Despite a three-game losing streak and all-but-official elimination from the Big East title race, members of the Cincinnati Bearcats football team still have plenty to enjoy the final three weeks of season.
CINCINNATI -- Reuben Johnson didn't know where to start. With each of the previous three losses, the sting shot a little bit deeper. With each return to the solitude of his bed, the pain felt a little more taxing.
Yet, on Tuesday, the Bearcats starting cornerback strapped on his long-sleeve football suit, then attacked the two-hour practice through temperatures cool enough to make his mouth chatter.
Without a win in 35 days and wet from a practice rain shower would hardly represent what the New Jersey native envisioned when signing on the dotted line to play for the Bearcats.
The team's current struggles may not seem like a day in the park for outsiders, but upon digging deeper, Johnson revealed how easy it is to continue having fun through a disappointing stretch.
"I think about my close friend Eric LeGrand, who just got paralyzed," Johnson said. "Knowing that football can be taken from you at any time."
LeGrand and Johnson both played high school football and became friends in Jersey. On Oct. 15, the same day UC last won a game, LeGrand collided with an Army player and saw his life change forever. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Johnson almost feels guilty complaining about a three-game losing streak when viewed through the wider lens.
"I think about Vidal Hazelton, who got hurt the first half of the Fresno game," Johnson said. "I think about Dominique Battle, who messed his knee up in the first half of the season. You think about those things and you think hard and wonder, my football season could be over today or tomorrow. You got to have fun. This game is about having fun and if you are not having fun playing football then you shouldn't be playing football."
Johnson's played more this season than in any of his previous two. He currently leads the Bearcats in passes defensed (4) and is second on the team in tackles with 55. However, he's still at the centerpiece of a maligned defense ranked last in the Big East and 107th nationally against the pass.
The built-in excuses are available, if needed. The team does start eight sophomores and three juniors. This is the first year of a new coaching regime.
Along the same lines of having fun, Johnson knows it's time to let go of the excuses.
"It's easy for us to say it's a new system, oh, we got eight sophomores, but I am tired of the excuses," he said. "The team is tired of the excuses. We just have to play, it's on us. At the end of the day, we've got to have fun."
Keeping a positive attitude can be challenging when hearing the criticism around every corner.
"We definitely hear it," sophomore DB Camerron Cheatham said, "but we got no time to listen to that."
The focus remains on progress and positivity.
Cheatham stands in the middle of a laundry list of young players forced into starting positions due to injury or lack of depth.
"We are making progress, but probably not as much as we would like," Butch Jones said.
So, the grind of turning around the Bearcats 3-6 record continues every day. The glitz and glamour of what occured inside Nippert Stadium may be temporarily dimmed, but what those grinding practices mean isn't lost on the class of 12 seniors.
They fight for the opportunity to add another month to their careers. It will take a three-game win streak to make it happen, but pushed against the wall of being ineligible for a bowl game, the reality showed up.
"It hit me hard this week," senior WR Armon Binns said. "Everybody wants to play in December."
Whether or not this team plays in December will boil down to the progress of players like Cheatham and Johnson. It will boil down to keeping the proper perspective to stay upbeat.
"I can say we're making progress," Johnson said. "We are getting more turnovers, we are playing together as a team more, we are trusting each other more. Everything is getting better, you couldn't tell because of the losses we have been taken. That just gets back to having fun. No matter what the outside thinks, all we got is each other."