BEATRICE — Richie Incognito flips his white hat backward and squats into a stance, feet spread wide, eyes forward. His teal Nike T-shirt clings to his barrel chest. Tattoos cover his forearms. Sweat mats his hair.
Standing before him is a kid half his age and about half his size. Incognito tells him where to line up. He’s going to demonstrate a reach block.
“Let’s say we’re running wide zone left. The first critical factor is I have to open my hip up enough so that my backside hip can come through. This is where I’m going to generate all my power. So this first step is just the guide point to where I want to attack him. I want to attack him at his armpit.”
Incognito is surrounded by 15 to 20 high school players who were born about the time he was fighting Blackshirts at Nebraska. They’re too young to remember him at Memorial Stadium, but old enough to Google search his sins.
Next move: the shuffle pull. He points out a common mistake.
“You don’t want to do this. If you watch me play, I do it a lot, but I get away with it because I’m good.”
He laughs. He just spent 30 minutes in the school auditorium preaching accountability. But do-as-I-say rings a bit hollow considering his past. This is more his style. The wind is howling. The sun is pounding. Incognito is breathing heavy.
“There’s three things that win the block: hands, feet and pad level.”
He stopped in Nebraska for 48 hours en route to the West Coast, where he’ll finish preparing for Buffalo Bills training camp. Tuesday he met Mike Riley’s staff and a few Huskers, his first visit to Memorial Stadium since the Pelini era. Wednesday he conducted a small clinic at Beatrice High School, organized by his financial advisor, Paul Garnett.
During an hour with teenagers, Incognito alluded to mistakes, but not the bullying scandal that stained his reputation and nearly ruined his career. He referenced starting his 13th NFL season, but omitted the fact that he missed a season after he was blackballed from the league. He emphasized a strong locker-room culture, but excluded his falling-out with Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin.
Surely the kids knew, but they didn’t ask.
* * *
As the story goes, Richie’s grandpa left Italy at 15 without the family name. His father wouldn’t let him have it.
“My grandfather was young and tough and said, ‘Fine, I’ll go to America. I don’t need your name.’ ”
When he set foot on Ellis Island, immigration officials asked for identification. I have no name, he said. So officials gave him “Incognito.” Richie’s grandpa was too stubborn to change it.
“It’s always been like an oxymoron. I’m Incognito, but I’m the largest person in the room, talking the most and with the most tattoos. Not very incognito.”
One day in elementary, a rough kid was picking on Richie, who was pretty gentle in those days. It happened often. This time Richie fought back and pummeled the kid.
“I’d figured out that if you punch the bully in the mouth they won’t mess with you anymore.”
Richie’s dad was a Vietnam vet who moved the family from New Jersey to Arizona when he was 11. Football was Richie’s social savior.
In high school, he fell in love with Nebraska’s offense and attended the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, a trouncing of Tennessee. He didn’t bother visiting other schools.
“Plain and simple, I wanted to be the best. I wanted to play for the best.”
In Lincoln, he stood out right away. Typically incoming freshmen linemen keep a low profile. Join the scout team. Hit the weight room. Keep your mouth shut. Incognito picked fights with the toughest dudes on the defense.
“Milt was always on me to bring it back,” Incognito says. “He said, ‘You’re a helluva ballplayer, you don’t have to do that crazy stuff. Lesser ballplayers have to do it.’
“I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. I was too in the moment. Somebody would shove me and I’d lose my mind.”
In spring 2003, Incognito made headlines when he received treatment at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. NU told The World-Herald it was for anger management. Incognito says that was a lie; he’d simply failed a drug test for marijuana.
A frat-party fight in February 2004 put Incognito on thin ice with new coach Bill Callahan. Then a weight-room shoving match with teammate Grant Mulkey prompted an indefinite suspension. Years later, news outlets reported that Incognito flipped over Callahan’s desk during the conflict.
“That’s the lore of Richie Incognito,” he says. “I’ve heard some good stories that aren’t true.”
* * *
The stories escalated in the NFL.
In 2005, Incognito was a third-round pick of the St. Louis Rams. He missed his rookie season with an injury. In ’06, he won a starting job but began losing favor in the locker room.
As the Rams accumulated losses, Incognito piled up personal fouls. He was named “dirtiest player in the league,” according to an NFL player poll.
He fought with Darnell Dockett — “We got into it one day. It was like all-out war.” And Richard Seymour — “We didn’t see eye-to-eye.” And Warren Sapp — “He poked me in the eye one game.”
Why did everyone hate Incognito?
“There’s this unwritten bro code in the NFL,” he says. “Hey, this is a good player, don’t throw him on the ground. Don’t treat him bad. That was everything that I had been taught to do. Just impose your will. Break them mentally, physically. Grind them. And in the fourth quarter when they get tired, you get stronger. They didn’t like that.”
“My fight-or-flight switch, it was quick. ... 99.9 percent of the time, it was fight.”
Incognito was fighting himself, too. Smoking weed on a daily basis. Binge drinking, too. Combined with all the losing, it was “mass hysteria.” Entering 2009, he told reporters he’d matured. Then he got two personal fouls in the first game.
“Oh man, it was all downhill from there.”
His bad behavior had become such a talking point that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2009, after Incognito committed two more penalties in a 47-7 blowout loss to Tennessee, the Rams cut him.
He knows the history, but he says anger was never the issue. He was merely trying to set a tone and be “the most physical player in the world.”
“Did it cross the line sometimes? Yeah. But was it rooted in hate and anger? Absolutely not.”
* * *
The darkest times came after St. Louis, Incognito says. That’s when he started improving his life.
He’d spent hours upon hours with psychiatrists, therapists and counselors. He’d racked up bills approaching $100,000. Finally, Incognito began listening to their message. He was getting in his own way. Sabotaging his career.
“I started doing the right thing every single day.”
He cut back on his partying. He committed to sleeping and eating right. He quit fighting opponents.
In 2010, he found a comfort zone in Miami — executive Bill Parcells and head coach Tony Sparano were old-school East Coast guys, like his dad. He adopted a new motto. Finish the play, then get back to the huddle. It worked. Two years later, Incognito made his first Pro Bowl.
At 29, he’d finally turned potential into performance. Then came the real storm.
In October 2013, teammate Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins in distress, the victim of locker-room bullying. The alleged culprit: Incognito.
The NFL suspended him for the final eight games and launched an investigation. The Wells Report, released in February 2014, showed a steady stream of vulgar taunts and insults directed at Martin.
By then, Incognito had been blackballed. He retreated to Arizona, where paparazzi trailed him every time he left the house, he says. One day, in a fit of rage, he reportedly smashed his $300,000 Ferrari with a baseball bat.
The Martin incident, Incognito says, “was blown way out of proportion.” And the Wells Report was “bulls—.”
“The story was so believable because of all the baggage. All the anger management and flipping over Bill Callahan’s desk and the penalties and all this stuff that was kind of misinformation and misunderstood.
“Then it came out (that I was) racist and bullying. It was like, ‘Oh, it’s easy, we believe it.’ The most frustrating thing was I couldn’t do anything to defend myself. I was told not to speak to the media.”
But what about the texts?
“The text messages were real, but they were in a friendly, back-and-forth manner,” Incognito says. “There was no harassment through text messages. You can read all 1,100 of them.”
He and Martin were friends, Incognito says. The texts reveal how they communicated. Incognito declines to go into further detail, he says, because it would distract from his career.
“I will say this: The truth will come out someday and I know the truth is on my side.”
* * *
Incognito wasn’t sure he’d ever get a chance to play again. But he promised to be ready if he got a call. In 2014, he visited Tampa Bay, then Denver. Neither franchise signed him.
Then in February 2015 — Super Bowl week — his agent told him that Buffalo was interested. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula wanted to have dinner with him. So Incognito boarded a plane for Florida.
When he arrived at the hotel, head coach Rex Ryan and GM Doug Whaley invited him to the lobby for a beer.
“I’ve been out of football for a year and a half at this point. I’m so worried about my image. I sat there and I drank water for like an hour. Like, is this a test? I don’t know.”
The next day, Whaley told him that the owners had read the whole Wells Report. They were having second thoughts. When you talk, Whaley said, just be yourself.
He had a two-hour meeting with the Pegulas, who peppered him with questions. What did you learn? What will you do for our locker room? What will you do with your platform?
They left the room for about 10 minutes and returned with an invitation to rejoin the NFL.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulder,” Incognito says. “I called my mom — she was crying. My dad was crying. I was crying.”
Incognito feels intense loyalty to Ryan, who was fired last year, and to Buffalo. But it wasn’t always so natural. In 2015 training camp, Incognito kept a low profile in the locker room, worried that his jokes might not be well-received. By opening week, he’d built friendships.
“That’s always been my trademark,” he says. “I get along with everybody.”
He capped the 2015 season with a second Pro Bowl invitation — Pro Football Focus ranked him the fourth-best offensive lineman in the NFL. He earned another Pro Bowl bid in 2016.
He’s evolved to the point, he says, that teammates are “freaked out” by his calmness on game day.
“It’s almost a Zen-like intensity. I’m just focused on what I’m doing. I keep getting better and better as a player.”
* * *
Incognito shows the teenagers where to place their hands. How to lower their pads. How to “duck walk,” staying on balance at all times. He’s a mountain of a man and his athleticism is a wonder to watch.
“Play as heavy as possible while moving as quickly as possible,” he says.
In two weeks, Incognito turns 34. He weighs 330 pounds, bench-presses 500, squats 700 and runs a sub-5.0 40-yard dash. He attributes his longevity to Pilates, Yoga, acupuncture, massages and fish oils, among other things. But the real reason? Fire.
“You get the same guy every single day.”
For better or worse. Incognito’s reputation used to bother him, he says. But the harder he runs away from it, the faster it catches him. So he tries to focus on what he can control. He still Googles his name on a regular basis. Sporting News recently named him the No. 9 “most hated” player in the NFL.
He wants to play as long as possible. And when he’s done — get this — he wants to join the media. “Maybe be a talking head on one of those debate shows.”
Over the years, his mouth has gotten him in a lot of trouble. But there’s a difference, he says, between old Richie and new Richie.
“Now I know when to turn it off. I know how to control my message.”