PITTSFORD – Chances are, the reputation is permanent. He gets that. Richie Incognito harbors no illusions.
He’d love for you to view him as tough, as physical, as a leader. But the Buffalo Bills guard admits he cannot change perception – probably never will.
“There’s a lot of people out there who just perceive me as being a piece of [crap],” Incognito said. “They got bits and pieces of the story and that’s what they’re going to believe. And I’m the same way. I read stories about people in the media, I form my opinion and I kind of move on.”
Incognito peers back at the locker room behind him.
“That’s all that really matters to me,” he said, “my teammates here.”
Lost in the haze of linebackers breaking jaws and coaches punching minors was the renegade signing that started it all.
In February, Bills coach Rex Ryan granted Incognito a chance to resuscitate his NFL career. Now, the infamous ringleader of the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 bullying controversy will start at left guard. The lazy narrative to paint here is one of a man who saw the light, who’s reformed, who’s changed. Count on such nonsense being regurgitated on pregame broadcasts all season.
More mature? Yes. Changed? No.
This is a player who thrives on violence. Agitation is his adrenaline. Incognito realizes he cannot simply flip a switch. He cannot suppress the SOB within because that SOB is the reason he’s even in the NFL, why Ryan called in the first place. When Ryan courted Incognito, he told him to “Be yourself. We know who you are.”
Ryan wants Incognito’s energy to become contagious. And, of course, the coach said at his opening news conference that he wanted to “build a bully.”
Now, Incognito must walk that fine line.
“I’m going to continue bringing it,” Incognito said. “The easy narrative is ‘Oh, he’s this changed man.’ I’ve definitely changed for the better, but I think what you see is a guy who’s just really focused.
“Earlier in my career, it was really hard for me to differentiate between being a tough, nasty football player on the field and a tough, nasty guy off the field. It was all mixed and jumbled. As I grew, as I matured, as I became more professional, I found my way to be that guy on the field and then just turn it off.”
Thrown by ‘tidal wave’
This is the challenge Incognito now faces. His career (and the success of the Bills’ offensive line) depends on it.
When Incognito thinks back at how everything unraveled in Miami, the “tidal wave” upsets him most, the manic rush to judgment. A damning 144-page Ted Wells Report deemed teammate Jonathan Martin was subject to “a pattern of harassment” that included racial slurs and sexual taunts about his mother and sister.
Incognito was pegged the primary tormentor.
“There was so much stuff thrown out there that was believable because, hey, I had a checkered past,” Incognito said. “I was labeled as a dirty player. So when this stuff came out, everybody said ‘Oh, this has to be true.’ And a lot of stuff wasn’t necessarily true.”
Like what? First, Incognito dismisses the idea that there was a “free for all” culture in Miami’s locker room of “hammering” on guys. Rather, he says, they were all friends. They joked around.
“We busted” on each other, Incognito said. “ … So then, with what went down with him, there were a lot of things that were going down in his life that really never came to light.
“There’s a lot of stuff about the situation that can re-frame the picture a little bit.”
Incognito said this on Tuesday, at St. John Fisher College. On Wednesday, Martin provided a fuller picture on Facebook.
Martin, who’s now out of the NFL, detailed that his struggles with depression and being bullied date back to middle school and that he attempted suicide multiple times in the NFL. The Ted Wells Report touched on Martin’s personal demons – vaguely – while zeroing in on Incognito, Mike Pouncey and John Jerry as the source of the suffering.
Incognito does not view himself as blameless. Through those 1,000-plus text messages, through trying to toughen up Martin, Incognito admits he was a jerk.
He crossed lines.
“I think just being a jerk in the locker room,” Incognito said, “and overstepping my bounds. I was looked to as a leader in Miami and I kind of went haywire with it.”
As a result, Oct. 31, 2013 was Incognito’s final game in Miami. He has not played since.
He also hasn’t spoken to Martin since.
Many mornings, he couldn’t lift himself out of bed. Incognito sprawled in a state of frustration.
He was toxic. Banished. The face of “bullying” in sports. Back home in Arizona – training daily at EXOS through the 2014 season – Incognito accepted the fact that his career might be over.
“It was nerve-racking,” Incognito said. “It was really tough for a while mentally and emotionally moving past what went down.”
Dad helped. His brother, too. And EXOS trainer Brett Bartholomew recharged Incognito’s focus workout to workout.
Still, his place in history seemed to be written. At best, he was a punch line. At worst, a villain you don’t want in your ZIP code. After many workouts, Incognito returned home and refused to leave.
Said Incognito, “I was just kind of secluded. It was an everyday battle.”
All along, he tried to mimic an NFL season in training. His game days were maxing out at the bench press, the power clean, the squat machine. He began to run more than ever. He did plyometrics. Incognito underwent massages, physical therapy and hydrotherapy as if he were on a team.
Bartholomew saw Incognito bring a raw “grit” to each workout and channel all frustration in a positive way.
“We prepared every day,” Bartholomew said, “as if he was going to get that call tomorrow.”
Usually trainers at EXOS work with athletes over a one- or two-month period. And here was Incognito with Bartholomew all year. Knowing these 8 a.m. workouts would become monotonous, the trainer mixed it up as much as possible. He’d add competitive elements to training.
The key was to stimulate Incognito’s “body and mind” in countless ways so he wouldn’t wear down mentally. Bartholomew took a holistic approach.
Not to mention that he has trained players on all 32 teams and only Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor can match Incognito’s engine.
All along, Incognito didn’t change who he was.
“Richie has trained with us 10 years,” Bartholomew said. “It’s less of him needing to change and more of people needing to know the real him. His temper never got out of control. He worked. He understands it. He has a blue-collar, old-school mentality.”
In August, Incognito visited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They passed. In mid-November, the Denver Broncos provided a flicker of hope in flying Incognito in for a visit. He liked Denver. He saw himself as a piece of a championship puzzle. Yet even Incognito knew this was a disaster.
“It would’ve been a huge distraction,” he said. “In my mind, I’m thinking ‘What are they doing? They can’t bring me in. They have a good thing going. They’re rolling.’ ”
Word leaked out. The Broncos were criticized. Incognito returned to Arizona with his tail between his legs.
Such public rejection was “disheartening” and “embarrassing.”
It took Incognito a full three days back in Arizona to recover. When he rejoined Bartholomew, he strapped on the boxing gloves and swung away at the heavy bag to release all anger.
By Thanksgiving, he accepted that 2014 was a wash.
It’d take the right situation. It’d take Rex Ryan.
His last chance
The rap sheet on Incognito is long. From college to the pros.
At Nebraska, he was charged with three counts of assault after a fight at a party, suspended and left the school. He was kicked off Oregon’s football team. Multiple pro teams – Indianapolis and New England, to name two – removed Incognito from their draft board completely.
In four years with the St. Louis Rams, Incognito drew 38 penalties, including an NFL-high seven unnecessary roughness calls. In 2009, Incognito was named the league’s dirtiest player in a Sporting News poll of 99 players. On to Miami, where Incognito enraged Houston’s Antonio Smith so much that Smith ripped the guard’s helmet off and swung it at his head.
Translation: The kind of player Ryan covets.
“I’m nasty. I finish plays,” Incognito said. “I get after people. There’s finishers and there’s not finishers. I like to finish plays. I like to knock people around. I like to set the tempo. I like to hit people early, I like to hit people often. I like to impose my will on them. I’ve been labeled ‘dirty.’ I think it’s something where I come out, I’m physical and I don’t relent.”
The Bills didn’t necessarily need IK Enemkpali, but they absolutely need Incognito. Last year’s offensive line was a soft, permeable bunch that caved weekly and meekly in averaging 3.7 yards per rush attempt.
And Incognito is anything but soft. He didn’t endure any psychoanalysis, any world tours of enlightenment his year off. He lifted weights. He stayed hungry, motivated, maintaining the same on-field temperament as best he could.
Now, he needs to harness it all into good. That’s been the challenge his whole career.
Incognito has made a conscious effort to be a better guy in Buffalo, which he calls “a college atmosphere.” He hits the links with teammates with Eric Wood (“a good golfer”), Kyle Williams (“a stud”) and Matt Cassel (“inconsistent”). The O-Line has gone bowling. Dined out. Connected beyond the field.
Teammates have even poked fun at the bullying scandal. Every so often, Incognito will push the envelope with a joke in the locker room.
“And Wood will be like, ‘Oh! There he is! He’s coming out, he’s getting comfortable,’ ” Incognito said. “So I think that we can joke about it, that’s what’s really helped.”
Rookie John Miller describes Incognito as the quintessential locker-room guy. The vet has helped him with the nuances of playing guard – how to “buzz your eyes” while pulling, how to anchor down in the run game.
In this locker room, there have been no issues so far.
A “piece of [crap]?” Miller says, laughing. He hasn’t seen any signs of that.
It stinks for him, Miller said, “that he has to walk around with that tag on his name. Honestly, when you meet the guy, when you sit down and talk to him, you really see that he’s really a good guy. So I can’t speak about the past. All I can do is judge him for who he is now.”
That checkered past
Above all, between the lines, this is a mean, vulgar, tattooed, 6-foot-3, 319-pound parasite. He gives your team a distinct attitude. Incognito’s antics have led to fines and suspensions for himself and opponents. Oakland’s Richard Seymour once punched him. He clashed with ex-Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Of course, Kyle Williams would know. He butted heads with Incognito those 3½ years he was in Miami.
“He’s a guy you know will stay after you for 60 minutes, a guy I’m glad is on our team,” Williams said. “He sets the tone. Plays hard. He’s what you want in an offensive lineman – he’s going to play until the echo of the whistle – and that’s what’s going to get our ground game going. A guy like him.”
Oh, Incognito despises the power at Commissioner Roger Goodell’s disposal and what he views as a not-so-independent investigator in Ted Wells. Said the guard, “I still have a lot of hard feelings.”
But he prefers to look forward. He feels liberated in Buffalo, he’s eager to lead.
So many people around Incognito said he needed to change, to re-examine his life, to be someone else when he left the Dolphins.
Ryan? He told Incognito to be himself.
“And that was a nice surprise,” Incognito said, “for them to say, ‘We know who you are. Just be yourself. Be you. Do you.’ That was fresh. That was a great message to me and kind of gave me a sense of relief.”
Starting Sept. 13, Incognito must strike this delicate balance. Off the field, Incognito is toning down the rhetoric. On it? Incognito won’t be toning down anything. He promises to provide a nasty, hellish, 60-minute presence.
“I’m definitely that guy. “That’s my trademark.”
And if people never change their opinion? Well, that’s OK.
“It’d be ignorant to say it doesn’t bother me,” Incognito said. “It bothers me but I understand it.”