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Back in Buffalo: Richie Incognito’s long road from pariah to relevancy

A bullying scandal rendered Richie Incognito essentially unemployable for almost a year and a half. Now he and the Bills are bearing the fruits of his career rehabilitation in Buffalo.

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In the semi-privacy afforded by a glass-walled room within a busy downtown Buffalo sports bar/restaurant, Richie Incognito sat with 15 hungry Bills teammates one recent evening and proceeded to lay waste to the menu. Copious amounts of wings, rings, burgers, nachos and the locally famous beef on weck arrived in steady intervals and were quickly dispatched by the group, made up mostly of sizable offensive linemen. In fact, the food and drink rarely stopped coming—not to mention the banter—and through it all the smile hardly ever left Incognito’s round, cherubic face. The Bills’ veteran guard was in his element here, hanging with his guys and never missing an opportunity to lighten the mood. Even being a bit on display in this public setting didn’t seem to inhibit his repertoire.

By now, Incognito is used to the need for transparency, so perhaps in organizing these near-weekly dinners, he picked this particular room and this particular spot for partly that reason. He actually wants to be seen and heard from these days, if only to show, at least to those willing to give him a fresh look, that he’s not the twisted, misguided monster his texts to second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin made him look like when the Dolphins bullying scandal broke in the fall of 2013. (Attempts to reach Martin for this story were unsuccessful.)

Incognito was rendered essentially unemployable for almost a year and a half, and though he is now in the midst of a major career rehabilitation in Buffalo, he knows that going from being painted a total pariah in Miami to a respected pillar in the Bills locker room remains an impossibly tough sell for some.

“I’m very cognizant of the fact this is a second chance, an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, even understanding that some people won’t get past 2013 when it comes to me,” Incognito says while taking in an afternoon Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball game in the Bills’ private box at Coca-Cola Field. “That’ll be in their head forever and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I can only control what I do from here on out, and that is show up each day, work hard, and be a good person and a good teammate. I’m aware of the fact that everything I say and do is being watched and everything I say and do could be a national headline.”

He’s been in national headlines before, like this one, from the The New York Times in February of 2014: “‘A Classic Case of Bullying’ on the Dolphins, Report Finds.”

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Incognito’s career began its descent in late October 2013, when Martin left the team after alleging Incognito harassed and bullied him into paying $15,000 for a trip to Vegas and made racial slurs and sexual taunts about Martin’s mother and sister. After a review by the NFL and NFLPA, Incognito was suspended for the final eight games of the season by the Dolphins.

Incognito called the reports “false speculation” and “slander” and a subsequent report suggested a Miami coach called upon Incognito and other Dolphins linemen to “toughen up” Martin, who was thought to be particularly sensitive by NFL standards.

The league launched a deeper investigation, hiring prominent attorney and NFL report maker Ted Wells to examine the Incognito-Martin relations, and the Dolphins’ locker room culture as a whole. Three months and 144 pages later, Wells found a consistent pattern of harassment that was spearheaded by Incognito but included other members of the Dolphins organization. Wells’s report led to a broader discussion of the bullying culture in and out of the NFL. While Incognito’s suspension was lifted that February 2014, once the Dolphins released him, he was deemed radioactive and went unsigned that year.

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It wasn’t always pretty, but he endured his purgatory-like existence from early November 2013, when he was suspended by the Dolphins and later released, to February 2015, when the Bills threw him a lifeline, signing him to a one-year, $1.1-million prove-it deal.

He proved it on the field all right. Last season, Incognito was a superb left guard for Rex Ryan’s Bills, who led the league in rushing with 2,432 yards and a 4.8-yard average gain, capping his year with a trip to the Pro Bowl after being named an AFC alternate. The performance grading website Pro Football Focus gave Incognito an overall mark of 90.0 in 2015, the second-best among NFL guards.

In March, the Bills decided they wanted the once-banished Incognito to be a part of their future and signed him to a three-year, $15.75 million contract that he could have easily topped had he been willing to relocate. Which he categorically wasn’t. After being in career limbo in Miami, Incognito decided Buffalo was nirvana.

“This is bigger than me ... this is bigger than the NFL”

Incognito’s career resurrection didn’t look particularly likely in the days just after the Dolphins bullying story broke. His confusing relationship with Martin, and all those raunchy details of their text exchanges and phone conversations, were exposed to a public that was appalled by the fact that seemingly no subjects or insults were deemed off limits by Incognito. His reputation for pushing the envelope crossed big bold lines that left him in an almost indefensible position, and it did not take too long for him to grasp the enormity of the firestorm he was engulfed in.

“I remember being at my place [in South Florida] when I got suspended on a Sunday night, and by Monday, that’s when the s--- really hit the fan,” Incognito says. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m not going to read anything on the internet, because I’m just getting killed, and I’m not going to listen to anything on the air.’”  

By mid-week, with his mother in town to keep him company, Incognito turned his TV back on to watch The Today Show.

“Literally within a minute, my face pops up on screen and they start going off on me and the story,” he says. “That’s when I said, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than the Miami Dolphins, this is bigger than the NFL. This is big news and I was really shocked it got to that level.”

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Over the coming months, Incognito said he started to understand the outcry the story set in motion and the nerve it hit. He didn’t believe himself to have bullied Martin, but he knows he gave plenty of people reason to be convinced he absolutely did.

“Looking back on it now, it was a hot-button topic, and kind of like the perfect media storm, and it had a lot of elements to it,” Incognito says. “You looked at me and my history, and thought, ‘That makes sense. I can go with that.’ It was real easy for people to assume that all this was true and exactly how it was portrayed.

“With everything I went through and everyone I talked to, doctors, family and friends, it was the wrapping my head around the entire situation that was very difficult. Not the why as much as just the what, and where I was at in it. The biggest thing was accepting, ‘O.K., it happened. You can’t control anything from here on out.’ That took months, and that took hours and hours of sessions.”

Which is not to say Incognito today doesn’t acknowledge making a bevy of mistakes in word and deed in his working relationship with Martin.

“There’s no doubt things were said and things were texted and things were done where I clearly crossed the line,” Incognito says. “That’s part of the learning process I went through, and just growing up and maturing and being aware of your surroundings and who your audience is. I may find some things acceptable that other people don’t, and maybe I should just keep those things to myself. Not everyone has the same sense of humor as me, so you better be aware of what comes out of your mouth and what you say and text.”

That self-discovery did not come without setbacks. He experienced mental stress after the NFL’s investigation concluded that he was mostly to blame for the Dolphins’ “toxic locker room environment,” and he was on medication for anxiety while undergoing counseling for a good bit of that year. He has battled anger management issues in the past, particularly in his years spent with the St. Louis Rams (2005–09), and admits he’s still not anger-free when it comes to the controversial way his Dolphins tenure ended and the impact it had on his career and reputation.

“What’s today? So, it’s May 18, 2016?” Incognito asks. “Yeah, it’s still there.”

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But so too is the recognition that the saga showed him that there was much-needed work to be done on himself, even though it was difficult to confront his penchant for mood swings and self-destructive behavior.

During his absence from the game, Incognito came to grips with the reality that he had been his own worst enemy at times, that he lacked steadiness and the ability to be the same guy every day.

“As you go through the grind of the season, you have these ups and downs and you feel a bunch of different ways,” he says. “In years past, I would allow myself to go down in a dark place and bring some guys down into a dark place to bitch and moan with me. What’s good about me now is I notice it as it’s happening and I have the tools to make the adjustment.”

For a guy who so clearly feeds off being around his teammates and the camaraderie of the locker room, Incognito’s forced sabbatical from the game included plenty of solitude and separation. First, out of embarrassment with his predicament, and secondly out of a desire to start fresh and learn how to get beyond the mistakes of his past.

“I went away,” he says. “I went to Arizona [where he lives] and put myself in timeout. I didn’t talk to friends. I didn’t talk to family for a while. I was off Twitter. I was off everything. But being locked away, that instilled the drive to find a new beginning and a humble beginning, where I knew I had to come back and establish myself and kind of resurrect myself.”

The Bills bought into the idea that Incognito had learned and grown, and gave him that new beginning.

“It was clear to us not only did he recognize his mistakes, he understood how he got to that place to make that mistake,” Bills general manager Doug Whaley says. “Added to the fact that he now has fail-safes, to say if I start going down this road, I can alert myself and have ways to combat that.’’

Says Bills center Eric Wood, Incognito’s best friend on the team: “He could have gone one of two ways. He could have stayed in the dumps, stayed in that really low time in his life, and kept up the self-destruction. Or you can go the exact opposite way, which is what he did.”

“A locker room favorite”

Watching Incognito work a room filled with teammates is like watching a bee pollinate an entire patch of flowers, one by one, over the course of several hours. The start of training camp is still more than two months away, and the mood in the room is light. He teases a fellow offensive lineman for his choice of a summery white shirt, white jeans, white sneakers ensemble for dinner, and later a rookie arrives for the meal wearing some team-issued Bills gear, a clear violation of the veteran code. It does not go unnoticed by Incognito or other Buffalo vets, and the rookie quickly removes the offending sweatshirt/hoodie, acknowledging the lesson learned.

With an assist from Wood, Incognito beckons a Bills p.r. official to come forward and try a particularly spicy bite of something as penance for supposedly not telling players that on-camera interviews might be part of their relaxed evening. He dutifully complies as the room dissolves into laughter. 

The back and forth among the players continues between bites and drinks. All the while, Incognito seems to be that guy in the room who sets the tone and makes it his mission to pay everyone a little one-on-one attention, and it’s a role he revels in.

“Even when things were at their darkest and bleakest, nobody’s ever come up to me and had a negative thing to say,” Incognito says. “I expected somebody to come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, you’re an asshole.’ Something like that. But no one’s ever said that, and it’s just such a good positive flow right now here in Buffalo. ​

“I think when people spend more than five minutes with me and have a conversation, they get it. I think they say maybe there’s a little more to this guy than the headlines we’ve seen. It’s been very interesting to see how people perceive me. Be it guys who have played in the game or just fans, they’re like, ‘Holy crap, you’re a lot different than I expected.’ And I always say, hopefully for the better, right?”

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Bills players and officials all acknowledge that Incognito didn’t walk in the door last year talking loud and giving anyone and everyone the full Richie. He was damaged goods, he knew it, and he took time to learn his surroundings, learn his new teammates and learn from his past mistakes. 

“I’m sure Richie’s a lot more careful with what he says and what he texts, and what he tells people on the phone,” Wood says. “I do think he’s a little more reserved now. But guys kind of understood his situation. Still, from the moment he came in, he was a locker room favorite.”

Says Ryan: “He was looked at as a bully, and that’s almost as bad a thing as you can be in today’s culture. But I didn’t believe he was that person and now I know he’s not. He got a second chance and the guy’s making the most of it. I wish I had a whole bunch of Richie Incognitos, and I can tell you I’m super happy I have one.”

“The ultimate professional”

In his St. Louis incarnation, Incognito was known as a bit of an animal. He was labeled a dirty player who went out of his way to inflict punishment, and often seemed to be intent on drawing personal fouls and playing a style of game that bordered on out of control.

“I had a reputation in St. Louis and deservedly so,” he says. “I was out to get people, and I was going after people. I was frustrated with losing and being in that whole culture. I even had coaches who were scared of me, just flat-out scared of me.”

Ironically, his reputation improved with the move to Miami—after a brief three-week stay in Buffalo in late season 2009—and Incognito seemed to have fully harnessed his talents with a Pro Bowl season in 2012 as a Dolphin. Then came the disaster of 2013.

“The biggest thing that hurt me was, I’ve already done this, I’ve already been through a phase where I had to rebuild my career,” Incognito says. “Now I’m going through it again? But it was kind of unknown territory when the thing was at its hottest. I was like like, wait, what’s going on here?”

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Bills tight end Charles Clay played with Incognito and Martin in Miami, and has a unique vantage point in this saga. He was Incognito’s teammate before the storm of 2013 and all through his comeback season.

“I knew both guys and I know what it was like in that locker room,” says Clay early on in the Bills’ sports bar dinner. “From the start of the whole deal I kind of felt like things were blown out of proportion, honestly. But the one thing I do know is it humbled [Incognito]. He’s learned from it, and you can tell by the way he deals with everybody on a daily basis. He lost something he loved, and he has a much greater appreciation for the game now. But I tell the young guys on this team, if there’s one guy to emulate, to look at to see how it should be done? You look at that guy. He’s the ultimate professional.”   

Incognito’s low point through the whole ordeal, the moment when he faced the reality that his NFL career might never be re-started, came after he spent two days visiting Denver in November 2014 but couldn’t elicit an offer from the still-wary Broncos.

“I went up there and I sat there and we talked, and we talked, and we talked, and they decided not to move on it,” he says. “And I thought, man, this may be it, you know. This might be my last opportunity. I had pushed all my chips in on it happening in Denver, and then it didn’t happen, and that sense of rejection was massive. I was in a funk for a while, and it was like throwing logs on the fire and the fire just kept burning hotter and hotter. I had no choice but to turn it into motivation.”

Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, his future Buffalo teammate, saw what fueled that motivation every day as the pair worked out at the same Phoenix-area facility, sharing a trainer in the off-season of 2015. He only knew the caricature of Incognito from media reports, and was pleasantly surprised with what he discovered first-hand.

“I never saw anything that stuck out as a red flag in how he treated people at the facility and his fellow players,” says Taylor, who actually signed with Buffalo during free agency about a month after Incognito joined the Bills. “I was pleased with the guy I met, because I had only heard the stories. I didn’t know the Richie before the incident, but I’m pretty sure he learned from the situation and I think that’s made him who he is today. Would you look back and say that needed to happen for him to be the player and the person he is? I think he knows he’s definitely blessed with a second opportunity.”

Wood likes to tell a story about his friend and fellow lineman that involves an image that just doesn’t fit the persona that got attached to Incognito in the depths of the bullying scandal, when his text messages were filled with coarse and sexually explicit language involving Martin’s mother and sister.

“I know that situation made him look to be this terrible person, but he’s not,” said Wood, who along with Incognito has been dubbed “The Bash Brothers” by some Bills fans. “We did a birthday dinner for my wife up here last year, and here he is a single guy, and yet he brought a wrapped present. I mean, that’s pretty considerate. I don’t know if I would have done that. We go places and I ask my wife, ‘What did we get them?’ And Richie brought something wrapped. That’s a really cool gesture.”

As much as the blue-collar mentality of Buffalo seems to be the perfect fit for Incognito’s relentless, hard-working approach to the game, it didn’t take him long to learn that he’s still a lightning rod of a figure nationally owing to the bullying saga. He’s back on Twitter these days, and feeling brave enough to send out a pro-Donald Trump tweet earlier this year and attend a Trump rally in Buffalo, which did not go unnoticed.

“I’m a conservative and a Republican supporter, and I thought it was pretty much common knowledge that I’d be a Trump supporter,” Incognito said. “But I sent the tweet out and, oh, I got crushed. Absolutely crushed. But I’ve got as thick a skin as they come, and I thought it was hilarious.”

Incognito admits part of his fascination with Trump is how much he relates to the politician’s gift for surviving in the presidential race despite his glaring lack of political correctness, a clear connection he feels with the candidate given his past.

“Trump’s all over the map and he’s boisterous, he’s everything he shouldn’t be, but it seems like he keeps going and going and going, and when he misspeaks, he gets even more attention and momentum,” Incognito says. “I don’t buy the whole package, and there are some things I don’t agree with him on. But as a whole, I’m a supporter and I believe in him.”

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As does the Bills’ outspoken head coach, who took the stage this spring to introduce Trump at his Buffalo rally, earning Incognito’s ever-lasting respect.

“I think Rex has a huge pair,” Incognito says. “I think Rex is in the same boat as me in that our give-a-s--- factor is very low. I think we’re passionate people and if we believe in something, we’re mentally tough enough that we’ll throw our support behind a guy like that. But there’s definitely some debate in the locker room during an election year. That’s when all the locker room politicians come out. It’s give and take, and me and [fullback] Jerome Felton, we go back and forth. He’s a liberal and he’s got some great points, and it’s fun to sit there at lunch and debate.”

Even if it’s for a political debate, Incognito is happy to be back in his favorite place—an NFL locker room. He realizes his actions and his words will forever be on display, picked apart and parsed for any sign of the bully label he has worn since 2013.

“Going through all that and coming out on the other end, after learning a lot about myself and owning up to my actions, it made me a better person and a better teammate,” Incognito says. “I know this, this is the most solid, most stable ground I’ve been on in my entire life. That’s in life. It’s been a long process of just being comfortable in my own skin again.” 

Wherever his teammates are gathered, you can usually find Incognito in the middle of the group. Even his daily ping-pong battles in the locker room are now moments he cherishes.

“I’m like, this is awesome,” Incognito says, catching himself amid a recent game. “This is it. This is what I missed big time. I missed being around the guys. I’m a guy’s guy. I love hearing all the crazy stories, and telling my stories. That’s the fun part, and I’m going to just relish it all.”