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Aaron Maybin, a first-round draft pick for Bills in 2009, finds peace through art

BALTIMORE – There comes a time in Aaron Maybin’s artistic process when he needs to scrutinize his canvas. ¶ In a cluttered, paint-splattered studio – on the first floor of his three-story row house in the city’s gentrified Canton neighborhood – Maybin will pace this way and that. He will squint, cock his head, even climb halfway up the staircase in search of a fresh perspective. ¶ Right around then, Maybin will take a deep draw of marijuana from a Black & Mild cigar or toke from one of the bongs scattered about. ¶ “When I light one up,” Maybin said, “I’m usually figuring out what my next move is. It helps you see your vision from a different angle.” ¶ Maybin is happy when he’s vibing. He can feel creative energy pulsing through his body. His senses crackle.

He’s guided by emotions. They dictate his actions, helping him create provocative art.

All that’s conveyed springs from within him, for him. Immersed in his art, Maybin is the master of his world, not a servant in somebody else’s. He cares not a driblet what anyone thinks or expects.

“I have no one to answer to,” Maybin said. “If I want to experiment with something, I’m going to do it.”

Through art, Maybin conjures his own enjoyment. He doesn’t have to wait for a general manager to extend a contract, for a coach to give him an opportunity, for a fan to cut him some slack.

Maybin knows many people consider him a football failure and one of the worst draft picks in Buffalo Bills history. Fans grew to loathe him for his colorful personality and wee production.

Many fans would say: “I would have given my right arm to have his opportunity.”

But fans might lop off their left arm to have Maybin’s life now.

His third-floor patio offers a magnificent panoramic view of downtown Baltimore and the harbor. He works with gorgeous models. His art explores whatever cultural, political and sexual themes move him. He travels the world. He’s involved in his community, working to fund the arts in public schools and using the Freddie Gray shooting as an opportunity to examine public policy.

“It’s hard for people to understand,” Maybin said. “Most people see the NFL as the pinnacle. You hear people say it all the time. ‘I would die to be in that position.’ But they don’t know the reality.”

Maybin merely wanted to play football as best he could while earning enough money to take care of his family. He exploded in his third year at Penn State, with 12 sacks, 20 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. He was first-team All-America.

The Bills drafted Maybin 11th overall in 2009. Two years, one vainglorious rap song, several flamboyant hairstyles and zero sacks later, the Bills cut him. He was out of the NFL after four seasons.

Maybin isn’t solely to blame. Rare are the instances when an athlete’s inability to meet grand expectations is his fault alone.

Maybin, after all, led the 2011 New York Jets in sacks and tied for fifth among all NFL players in forced fumbles. He retired with an offer from the Indianapolis Colts on the table.

But with the Bills, he was miscast, mismanaged and misunderstood. He was unfinished when he arrived, and still unfinished when the Bills discarded him.

The Bills narrowed their 2009 first-round draft decision to three players and selected Maybin instead of future Pro Bowlers Brian Orakpo and Brian Cushing.

Maybin was a crafty pass-rusher, but undersized. He turned 21 just two weeks before the Bills drafted him. Much of his football canvas was blank. The Bills hoped he would bulk up, but his metabolism prevented him from maintaining weight.

Those around Maybin were unanimous in their praise of his work ethic and desire. But circumstance after circumstance wrung the joy out of him. He missed his rookie training camp, but he said it was because the Bills tried to lowball his contract.

Maybin was drafted to sack quarterbacks, but data shows coaches were reluctant to use him on passing downs. In two seasons with Buffalo, Maybin had three head coaches and two defensive coordinators. The Bills switched from a 4-3 defense his rookie season to a 3-4 defense the next. He’d never played in a 3-4 scheme.

Foreign X’s and O’s were trivial to Maybin compared to what else happened before his second Bills season.

Less than a month before training camp, a poignant twist buckled him. He did what other 21-year-old, multimillionaire athletes might; he got two women pregnant. They went into labor on the same day in different cities while he was running a youth football camp in Baltimore.

His son, David, was stillborn in Philadelphia. His daughter, Tacori, arrived healthy early the next morning in Virginia.

Maybin had to decide whether to be with David’s mother or Tacori’s mother. He chose to be at his daughter’s delivery. That dilemma still fills him with remorse.

“A piece of him wasn’t the same anymore,” said his sister, Connie Maybin. “Even to this day, he’s still dealing with it.”

Maybin’s mother died while giving birth to Connie. Aaron was 6 years old.

Maybin dealt with David’s death not with the help of a football family but on a canvas. “It was something the Bills couldn’t have cared less about,” Maybin said. His painting, “Behind the Player,” is a self-portrait in his Bills uniform. Maybin is crying behind a jolly harlequin mask that is broken. A baby’s handprints and footprints are in each upper corner.

“We are proud of how supportive we are for individuals within our organization during difficult times,” the Bills replied in a statement to The Buffalo News. “We offer various elements of support, including counseling and NFL programs, to all of our players who are dealing with personal tragedy and there are countless examples of the support and compassion we have demonstrated for our players, coaches and staff, some well-documented by the media and some that remain private.

“To suggest otherwise is inaccurate.”

Buffalo’s front office knew about Maybin’s pain, but many of his teammates weren’t aware Maybin had lost a child.

“This is real-life stuff,” former Bills safety Bryan Scott said. “If people knew the other side of the coin … I mean, he was 22 years old!”

Wide receiver Lee Evans was a captain for both of Maybin’s seasons with Buffalo but didn’t know until a few weeks ago that Maybin’s son died a month before 2010 training camp.

“I don’t think he was given a very long lifeline,” Evans said. “Their patience with him wore out quickly.”

Maybin’s love for football faded almost as fast.

He has come to learn that was OK.

“Football was his dream,” Connie Maybin said. “But when your dream isn’t something you enjoy, stop. He was blessed to have options.

“He’s not just a guy in a jersey. He’s a brother, a father, a son, a man who’s been through something. He has a story.”

Expensive property

A naked black man stands before a group of white men in suits. The white men are expressionless. They inspect the muscular specimen. In the background is a stadium filled with fans, whooping for large chess pawns on the field. The stadium’s U.S. flags ripple at half-staff. One large eye peers from the video scoreboard.

The symbolism in Aaron Maybin’s painting “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” is unmistakable.

“Fans can’t really wrap their minds around all the elements of it,” Maybin said in the office on the second floor of his home. His framed No. 58 Bills jersey hung on a wall. “From a fan’s perspective, to ever compare a pro athlete to a slave or a gladiator, they’d be, like, ‘What? How could you have the audacity when you make millions of dollars?’

“But a picture like that is going to make two people with different opinions have a conversation.”

Maybin speaks out of the left side of his mouth, his lower lip forming a backslash within a thick beard. His hair is shaved tightly around the ears, but in dreadlocks on top. On a sunny afternoon he wore a T-shirt, baggy shorts and canvas Converse sneakers.

He still looks like an athlete. Veins pop from his forearms and calf muscles. He said he doesn’t know how much he weighs because it doesn’t matter anymore. He uses the dumbbells stationed just outside his studio area. He does yoga, eats green and has audited his entire diet since his youngest child, 2-year-old Arian, was diagnosed with a milk allergy.

“I’d like to have him back this year!” said Maybin’s last boss, Toronto Argonauts General Manager Jim Barker. “You put him one-on-one with a tackle, there aren’t a lot more people in the world better than him. I truly believe that.”

Maybin certainly is done with football.

He made about $14 million in the NFL, sufficient to retire his folks to South Carolina. Michael Maybin was a Baltimore fire inspector. His stepmother, Violette Maybin, was a British missionary who had visited Michael’s church shortly after his first wife died. Michael and Violette now are co-pastors at a Pentecostal church.

For that, at least, Maybin in thankful. Amid the politics, heartlessness and business decisions that frequently drive professional football, he earned a rookie contract big enough to do something meaningful for his family. Maybin is proud of that.

“My family wanted out,” Maybin said, “and through football they got out.”

He’s unapologetic for making as much as he did without the stats to show for it. Football offers no guarantees for the team or the player. He wonders if he would have gotten into football in the first place if we knew then what we do now about repeated head trauma. He knows former players who went broke, who suffer from memory loss and depression, who have considered suicide.

“It’s so interesting when people lose their minds,” mentor and fellow Penn State star LaVar Arrington said. “They want to talk about somebody so hard and declare what they think that person is based on whether he had a successful career based on some standard.

“I know he was the 11th pick and didn’t do things an 11th pick should do. But he did something well enough to be the 11th pick.”

Arrington, the second overall pick in 2000, went to three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons with Washington. But he lost $6.5 million from a contract error his agent overlooked.

Arrington took a more orthodox route to his sports retirement. He’s an NFL Network analyst, who will be on “NFL Preseason HQ” starting Aug. 3.

“Aaron earned that right to go to the pros and do it the way he wanted to,” Arrington said. “Ultimately, he did.”

The business of football disgusted Maybin from the moment he attended the NFL scouting combine, an experience that inspired “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.” He claimed he felt like chattel then. His perception changed little as his career unfolded.

“People don’t see at the combine where you’re marched out almost naked in front of all the owners and GMs,” Maybin said. “They stand there with clipboards, survey the goods, point at a man and say, ‘I want that one.’ That was demeaning as s---, man!”

There has been debate over the years over who was most responsible for drafting Maybin. Bills President Russ Brandon was the general manager in 2009, but in title only. Tom Modrak was vice president of college scouting. Dick Jauron was the coach.

Two sources involved in the process told The Buffalo News the choice happened like this: Modrak and his scouts presented to Jauron three possibilities; Cushing is an inside linebacker, and the Bills already had Paul Posluszny there; Orakpo was a more polished pass-rusher than Maybin but with a lower ceiling; Jauron wanted Maybin, an underclassman with room to grow.

The scouting department’s research turned up no red flags. Feedback from Penn State was unanimously positive. Of the Bills’ six grades on Maybin, none was negative. Nobody in the draft room said not to take him.

Stalled potential

Maybin wore out Western New York’s patience before he signed his rookie contract.

The Bills were coming off their ninth straight season missing the playoffs. They were the lone AFC East team without a winning record in 2008, a year in which the New England Patriots were vulnerable because quarterback Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury on opening day. The Miami Dolphins went from 1-15 to the division title.

The Bills began 5-1, but lost eight of their last 10 games. They went 0-6 in the division.

They needed help to shove them into contention. That’s what a first-round pick is supposed to do. Maybin was drafted to tackle quarterbacks. Only three teams recorded fewer sacks than the Bills did in 2008.

Through the summer, however, Maybin didn’t have a contract. By the time he agreed to a five-year deal worth as much as $25 million, he had missed every snap of training camp at St. John Fisher College and three preseason games.

“If people really knew what happened,” Maybin said, “they would be [mad] at Buffalo, not me.”

The previous year, Buffalo drafted cornerback Leodis McKelvin 11th overall. Even before the rookie wage scale was instituted in 2011, rookie contracts have been based on the previous year’s draft slot plus a percentage raise for inflation. Before the wage scale, however, hard-line stances and stalemates commonly caused rookies to miss large chunks of training camp. The usual sticking points dealt with how guaranteed money would be structured.

“Until training camp was damn near over, the Bills were offering me less than the contract they gave Leodis the year before,” Maybin said. “No rookie would’ve signed that contract.

“I was meant to look like a bad guy. It reflected on my character in the media. I was calling my agents every day, almost in tears, yelling ‘Why can’t we get this done?’ They’re, like, ‘It’s not us. They know the number. It’s a slotted deal.’ And that’s exactly what I signed for.”

Former Bills running back C.J. Spiller, drafted ninth in 2010, recently heard this anecdote and laughed. Spiller said the Bills tried the same lowball negotiating tactic on him. Spiller missed 11 training camp practices before reaching terms.

Two Bills sources who did not want to be identified strongly denied Maybin’s claim that a contract worth less than McKelvin’s was offered to Maybin.

“The Bills organization has, and always will, negotiate in good faith,” the team replied in a statement to The Buffalo News, “and we believe that each of their agents would agree that both sides strongly adhered to that philosophy throughout the process of agreeing upon the contracts.”

Maybin’s agents, Joel Segal and Chafie Fields, did not respond to requests for comment. Spiller’s agent, Gary Wichard, died in March 2011.

With Maybin’s first training camp wasted in 2009, Jauron was careful in using him. The Bills still had veteran defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay, although both were near the end of their careers.

The Bills fired Jauron after a 3-6 start. Maybin lost his biggest advocate. He claimed interim coach Perry Fewell wasn’t interested in playing him the rest of that year, not even on third downs, when pass-rushers are meant to be on the field.

Analytics website charted Maybin for an average of 2.3 snaps a game when it was third down and longer than 2 yards to go.

“I told the coaches, ‘If you don’t think I’m good enough to play, cut me. But don’t tell me Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel can give you a better pass rush than I can,’ ” Maybin said.

“They judged me so harshly for every decision I made, but Aaron Schobel didn’t really practice. He literally would not tie his shoes or buckle his chin strap or his shoulder pads and get angry if an offensive lineman made contact with him. Aaron Schobel was trying to get certain numbers for his contract. Every offseason he would get over 300 pounds and say he wasn’t coming back.

“Everybody was out to get theirs on that defense. We were 11 individuals.”

After Maybin’s rookie year, Buddy Nix became general manager. The Bills hired Chan Gailey to coach and named George Edwards defensive coordinator. They flipped into a 3-4 defense.

Gailey decided right away Maybin wasn’t good enough to be on the field. Internally, coaches and scouts complained about Maybin’s inability to gain the weight needed to be an every-down defender. He played at 220 pounds for Penn State and had trouble maintaining 230 pounds two years later.

Maybin got 231 snaps as a rookie, but only 98 snaps his second season even though Schobel had retired. Maybin took 39 snaps on third down.

To get a sense of what kind of workload a rookie edge rusher can get, Washington’s second-round draft pick, Trent Murphy, played 595 snaps last year, while San Francisco’s, fifth-round pick, Aaron Lynch, played 521 snaps.

Maybin was humiliated in Week Seven, when Gailey made him a healthy scratch for the first time. The Bills informed Maybin that morning, hours before they played the Baltimore Ravens.

Asked about being benched in his hometown, Maybin was silent for 11 seconds.

“I was led to believe that was going to be a game I got a decent amount of playing time in,” Maybin said. “That’s a game I was looking forward to all season. My whole family came to the game. They were at the hotel the night before. The coaches told my dad they were excited to get me out there.

“I don’t like the head games of the NFL. If you’re unhappy with me or feel like you can’t use me, whatever you feel, you can tell me. That was when I said, ‘I need to leave. You need to get rid of me.’ ”

‘Maybin Mayhem’

Maybin had become a laughingstock. A few days after the Bills deactivated Maybin, Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan wrote “It’s quite possible that Maybin is the worst player in the NFL.”

Two weeks later, media outlets ravaged a rap song on Maybin’s official website. “Maybin Mayhem” was written and performed in 2009, but it had gone almost unnoticed for a year and a half.

Timing of the discovery made “Maybin Mayhem” the signature punchline for his Buffalo career.

He had one career start and zero sacks, but the lyrics proclaimed he was a quarterback-stalking terror (“defensive Wes Craven”) with an affinity for the celebrity lifestyle (“show the pinky ring; let him know I’m rich”) while reveling in his Nike and Ciroc vodka endorsement deals.

“I’m proud of that, though,” Maybin said.

He explained the song was an appreciation written by rapper Caddy Da Don (aka David Rice), the brother of Penn State defensive end and fellow Baltimore-area native Matthew Rice.

“He was doing music in prison,” Maybin said, “and we would play his songs for guys on the team. When he was in jail, he could tell people on the inside that this All-American from Penn State was his little bro and that when he calls I answer.

“He made that song to show me how much he appreciated the friendship. I wanted to share something that this man did. That decision was made out of loyalty.”

But what about all the sneers and howls over the song’s lyrics?

“I don’t care! To hell with those people,” Maybin replied. “They don’t know the story. I made an impact in that man’s life.

“I didn’t make the song about myself! Somebody else made it. I just put it on my website. Who wouldn’t?”

The loss of his son, getting benched and public ridicule over a rap song happened within four months.

“The Buffalo experience taught him the hard way,” Barker said, “and he grew a dislike for not being accepted for who he was and what he was.”

Maybin remained with the Bills until 2011 training camp. He was anxious the whole offseason, hoping to be traded into better circumstances. He craved a fresh start.

When the Bills waived him, Gailey said Maybin didn’t show “appreciable improvement.” Nix said he didn’t know in what scheme Maybin could perform at 228 pounds.

Jets rejuvenation

Maybin’s NFL career wasn’t totally joyless.

Getting cut was a relief, although no team picked up his contract. The Jets signed him two days later but waived him after the preseason. Maybin went unclaimed again.

About then, he suffered another loss. Dolores Maybin, an aunt who often took care of him, died at 53 from leukemia. Aaron slipped off to South Carolina to grieve with his family. Maybin stopped working out and picked at his food. He lost more weight.

“I felt really drained,” Maybin said. “I felt like I was in the ring and getting swung on, but I wasn’t allowed to punch back.”

Then came a phone call from Rex Ryan about returning to the Jets. They were going to Baltimore that Sunday, and Ryan wanted him to chase Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco around.

“I just gave him a chance to get out there,” Ryan said this offseason in his One Bills Drive office. “I didn’t do anything special.

“He’s the guy that played well for us and put the work in. I just gave him the opportunity.”

The Bills were mystified at ways to use Maybin, but he led the 2011 Jets with six sacks and four forced fumbles in just 13 games. Both stats would have led the Bills that season.

“I had the time of my life in New York,” Maybin said. “It felt like vindication. The coach believed in me, and my teammates did, too. They could see I could rush the passer, and I had a motor. The defense really played together.

“Other guys like Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas would pull themselves out of the game to get me snaps even before I knew the whole playbook. They had faith I was going to do something.”

In his first game, a year after the Bills didn’t think he deserved to play in Baltimore, he sacked Flacco and caused a fumble. In Week 12 against the Bills, he sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick twice on third down, forcing punts.

“That was my ‘up yours’ to Buffalo,” Maybin said. “There was a whole media tirade in Buffalo about me being worthless and too small to play. Then I had a more successful season than anybody on the Bills’ defensive line.”

Priceless fulfillment

Maybin’s breakout earned him a $1 million contract to return to the Jets for 2012, but second-year defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and rookie defensive end Quinton Coples commanded more playing time.

Maybin played eight games before the Jets cut him that November. He tried to latch on with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. He was cut in training camp.

“Either you define yourself or something defines you,” said Lee Evans, who is working on his MBA at the University of Miami. “It’s easy for fans to peg somebody as just a football player. For people who see themselves as more than a ballplayer, it can become a bit of a struggle.

“You play a sport you love, but you realize it doesn’t last forever. That sport is not who you are.”

Bryan Scott, the former Bills linebacker, said he has “a strong appreciation” for what Maybin has gone through. Scott is a trained pianist. People frequently are amazed that a football player can be such an accomplished musician. Imagine that.

“Football should not be something that defines who you are,” said Scott, who recently made a successful sales pitch for an innovative shoe insole on the entrepreneur reality show “Shark Tank.”

“Thankfully, Aaron was able to stick with his other passion, which is the arts. He has a long life ahead of him that’s not football.”

Barker convinced Maybin to give the Canadian Football League a try in Toronto, where Maybin could participate in the city’s vibrant arts scene.

Maybin played two games for the Argonauts and permanently retired a month after he turned 26.

“One of the saddest stories that will ever be told is Junior Seau’s,” Maybin said, referring to the San Diego Chargers linebacker who played until he was 40 and then killed himself two years into retirement. “He was the kindest, humblest person I’ve met in my life, but he was only about football.

“I never wanted to be the guy, scraping to stay in the league and keep playing. For a time, I was happy in New York. But to reach that point again I would have to play the journeyman role. I couldn’t do that.”

The transition to retirement was strange, at first. Maybin grew up yearning for fame, a closet crammed with Air Jordan sneakers, the glitziest watch, a stockpile of Hennessy and Dom Perignon.

“You grow up in the hip-hop culture, and they’re talking about the flyest cars and going to the clubs and popping bottles,” Maybin said. “That’s what guys are chasing, that aspect of fame and being known and getting all the things you always wanted – or thought you wanted.

“Every now and then we’re fortunate to encounter something in our lives that we truly love.”

One of the first requests he made after signing his Nike endorsement deal was to have every Air Jordan version shipped to him. He wanted to strut around in style. Now, he wears his Jordans when he paints. They’re in splatters.

He drives the same Cadillac Escalade he bought used as a rookie. He claimed he has managed his money well and relies on two financial advisers. He has invested in real estate.

“I saved a lot,” Maybin said, “but you’ve also got to be mindful when you take on certain responsibilities. That accounts for a lot of your money.

“I retired my parents and built their dream house. I don’t have the dream house. I don’t need a lot to be happy aside from the people I provide for. I try to invest my money. What I need, I spend. The rest, the future will account for it.”

Maybin’s garage is full of finished canvases, leaning on each other in rows.

There are portraits of Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Joe Paterno and Tupac Shakur, unhinged erotica, challenging images of gladiatorial sport and slavery, inner-city reflections on death, oppression and strife.

“All my painting I do from the soul, and very rarely does somebody understand it,” Maybin said. “But everything you see me create came from me.

“The beauty in art is that it has so many interpretations. I just want you to feel something to the point of starting a conversation.”

To start his artistic process, Maybin stretches a canvas and preps it with gesso. While the canvas dries, he plays some music. Maybe jazz, neo soul or 1990s hip-hop. The television probably shows ESPN, NFL Network or CNN on mute.

He’ll poke around a bookcase and wait for something to jump out. He might flip through previous experiments in his charcoal sketch pad or scroll through photographs he’s taken. He’s inspired by the work of urban artist David Choe, figure painter David Bacon and African warriors. Maybin will reach for photo albums of his children.

From somewhere within, Maybin will find a flicker. With paintbrushes and pallet he will create whatever he pleases. There won’t be a supervisor, an audience or expectations.

He won’t give a damn what anybody thinks.

“I know who I am, and I know what I want,” Maybin said. “That means everything.”

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