You punch your quarterback and break his jaw in two places. Suddenly, you’re at the center of a national story. Before you can even grasp the magnitude of the situation, you’re out the door. And before you can come to grips with that, you’re on another team.
Welcome to that fateful 24-hour stretch of IK Enemkpali’s life.
“It was a whirlwind, man, a whirlwind,” he recalled Wednesday, more than four months after his infamous locker-room altercation with New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith. “The attention was crazy. It felt like” he was “a first-round draft pick, but under different circumstances. Everybody was making this big deal about just everything, from the Jets to here, Rex … just a lot going on.”
Much more than could have ever been expected for a marginal player who was a sixth-round draft pick from Louisiana Tech, and whose main contribution to the Jets as a rookie in 2014 came on special teams. But because Rex Ryan was his coach that year, Enemkpali got a second chance by joining the Buffalo Bills, the team that gave Ryan a second chance after the Jets fired him.
So as New York tabloid headlines screamed his name, along with local and national radio and television talk-show hosts, the defensive end arrived at St. John Fisher University for the Bills’ training camp. Unfamiliar surroundings. Almost no familiar faces beyond those of Ryan and some assistant coaches who had been with the Jets.
Enemkpali was just someone that pretty much the entire world knew as the culprit in an ugly, violent incident, embarking on an “interesting” and “up-and-down” journey.
The whirlwind has long subsided, but the consequences of what Enemkpali did to end up in Western New York linger. He continues to be a significant part of the storyline of the Bills and the Jets as they prepare to meet for the second time since “The Punch” in Sunday’s season-finale at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It can be argued that he’s an even larger part now. Jets fans like to say Enemkpali is the team’s “real MVP” for forcing the switch to Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. That’s because Fitzpatrick’s red-hot play has done plenty to put the Jets in position to secure a wild-card playoff spot by beating his former team.
Enemkpali doesn’t see it that way.
“Nobody knows if what I had done was going to deter whether Geno was going to play or not,” he said. “Nobody knows that exactly. In the league, it’s next man up.
“I mean, the Jets’ fans – I was up there for a year – they’re crazy. They say anything and they have no filter at all. So I’m not surprised” that the joking about him being the Jets’ MVP “was said at all.”
Enemkpali makes an effort to keep the Jets and “The Punch” in the past. That’s easier said than done. After the Bills claimed him off waivers, his mind was clearly torn between two places. “You know, getting to know new teammates, new organization, new city on such a short notice,” he said.
Enemkpali’s cellphone was “going off haywire.” He didn’t return many calls or texts. He made a point of saying as little as possible to anyone, including his new teammates.
“I didn’t really want to talk about what happened, because you never know what’s going to be said,” he remembered. “I just had to control that, control who I talked to.”
Within a couple of days of Enemkpali’s arrival, veteran center Eric Wood saw him at a team chapel service. He seized the opportunity to get to know the most controversial player in the NFL, at least for the moment.
“He seemed like a nice guy, and I kind of formed my opinion of him through that,” Wood said. “A guy who made a mistake, and I’m sure he’s not going to do it again. And he hasn’t. He’s been a model citizen since he’s been here. I like IK; he’s alright by me.”
Enemkpali would be put through the additional stress of being released for the second time a month later, re-signed to the practice squad shortly after that, promoted to the 53-man roster on Sept. 11, and then suspended by the NFL for four games on Sept. 12 – the day before the season-opener against Indianapolis.
He recognized that he could use some help coping with all that had happened to him, so he “latched onto the people in the front office.” The person to whom he latched on the tightest was Janice Furst, the team psychologist.
“She’s been a big help, been a great help,” Enemkpali said. “I met with her, still do. Week in and week out, I talk to her” about “how I’m feeling. I can really just kind of vent to her, so she’s been a great help. She gives great advice.”
The message from Furst that has stuck with Enemkpali the most is: “The past is the past. Somebody else is always going to make the news.”
And knock your story out of the headlines.
“There’s new news that comes up every day,” he said. “When” the incident with Smith “happened, I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Everybody’s talking about this, they’re going to keep talking about this.’ The next week, there was some more news” about something else. “The week after that, some more news. And everybody, soon, forgets about it.”
Enemkpali hasn’t made much more of a contribution to the Bills than he did with the Jets. He acknowledges that he got off to a slow start, but has seen gradual improvement in his play.
He attributes that to keeping his past in the past, even if Sunday’s game causes it to rise to the surface again.
“I’m thinking about here, now,” Enemkpali said. “If I spend time thinking about what I was, where I was, you can’t really improve like that. I’m living in the here and the now.”
And he doesn’t limit his accomplishments to what has happened on the field.
“I proved that I could go into a new place and just kind of redeem myself and have new teammates, and they all kind of see the new person that I am,” Enemkpali said. “And just trying to be that personable guy and trying to be a good teammate.”