Rich Braham, the starting center on a Bengals offensive line in 2005 that's set an unrivaled benchmark since Anthony Munoz's era, nearly wasn't a Bengal... or at least for very long.
A former walk-on at West Virginia University in 1989, the 225-pound Braham made the switch from tight end to offensive tackle in college. While being redshirted his first year, Braham added over 100 pounds and was given a full scholarship by 1990. His performances (started 37 games at tackle) earned him a spot on the WVU all-time team in the 90s, the Ira Errett Rodgers Award (for highest academic grade-point average on the team) and the offensive MVP award in 1993 when West Virginia finished 11-0 and played in the Sugar Bowl.
Phoenix (what they were named at the time) selected Braham in the third round of the 1994 NFL draft, where he made another transition to guard. Though some sources suggest that the Cincinnati Bengals traded for Braham during midseason, the Cardinals actually placed Braham on waivers, where the Bengals made a claim and were awarded Braham. After playing three games his rookie year with the Bengals, Braham suffered a major ankle injury during the preseason in 1995, placed on Injured Reserve during final cuts and missing the entire season.
Braham made his first NFL start in 1996, starting 13 games at left guard and three at center, for the injured Darrick Brilz. His performances were so impressive that, Braham, a restricted free agent in 1997, was nearly signed away from Cincinnati. The Patriots offered Braham a three-year deal that paid the starting left guard $800,000 in salary and bonuses in 1997, an incentive-laden salary in 1998 (could earn $600,000 if he played 75 percent or more of the offensive snaps) and $1.5 million in 1999 with a $500,000 roster bonus.
The Bengals matched.
However they were also facing increasing salaries that were pressing the team's payroll against the salary cap with contracts for Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens set to expire in 1999. So they restructured Braham's deal, front-loading the contract (it was back-loaded originally) and adding a fourth year through 2000. After making 28 starts at left guard through from 1997-98, the Bengals moved Braham to center, replacing the departing and aging Brilz, while the team signed Matt O'Dwyer on a two-year deal worth $2.7 million to start at left guard.
Braham was part of an offensive line that paved the way for Corey Dillon, who set (at the time) an NFL rookie rushing record of 246 yards against the Tennessee Oilers. In 2004 and 2005, Braham was the starting center when Rudi Johnson twice broke the franchise rushing record for a season while also limiting the number of sacks against Carson Palmer (19) in 2005.
One of the toughest Bengals players to wear a uniform having survived four arthroscopic knee surgeries, two sprained ankles, a herniated neck disc and a broken toe during 98 starts at center (142 total starts at center and guard), Braham would eventually retire after suffering a tibia plateau fracture in week two against the Cleveland Browns in 2006.
The Bengals held a tribute in Braham's honor (something they rarely do).
Braham has set the standard at center in Cincinnati. Since his retirement, every center that's joined the roster, has been compared to Braham. That's the impact he had.