Richie Incognito was a chubby boy with a cherubic face. He was an easy target for the cruel kids.
One schoolmate, who was small for his age, tormented Incognito relentlessly, calling him fat and stupid. Incognito’s father told his son to retaliate and teach the bully a lesson.
“Richie was a nice, quiet kid, and he resisted because he didn’t really have it in him to fight this punk,” recalled Seth Bendian, who coached both 10-year-olds in baseball. “When Richie finally snapped, he beat the kid up pretty good, but he found it very upsetting, and he ran home crying.”
In the ensuing years, Incognito grew into his enormous frame, converted fat to muscle and, at six-foot-three and 320 pounds, became a star football player whom no one dared tease. But during the transformation, Incognito went from bullied to bully, and his trip-wire temper led to fistfights, the black label of “Dirtiest Player” in the NFL and ugly endings with his college and pro teams.
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The cycle seems to have repeated in Miami, where Incognito had temporarily turned around his career and found peace through therapy, medication and the support of loyal Dolphins teammates.
Now he finds himself suspended and unlikely to be reinstated after sending racist and threatening messages to offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who abruptly left the team last week after a series of incidents in which he was harassed, including Incognito’s demand that he pay $15,000 for a group trip to Las Vegas that Martin didn’t want to join.
The NFL is investigating whether a culture of intimidation was allowed to fester, Dolphins coaches and players are being blamed for a lack of oversight and sensitivity, Martin is home tending to “emotional issues,” and Incognito has responded to the allegations only with Tweets saying “I want my name CLEARED” and, quoting Buddha, “Three things cannot be long hidden: The sun, the moon and the truth,” and Winston Churchill, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Incognito has not explained why he sent Martin a message in which he called Martin a “half-n-----,” threatened Martin’s mother and concluded with “I’ll kill you.”
Many Dolphins insist Incognito, 30, is no dimpled demon, just a provocative prankster.
“It’s what football teams do, like playing with your brothers,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “I don’t feel like he was out of hand. I wish he was here right now.”
Jack Limbaugh does not remember Incognito fondly. They were teammates at Nebraska. Incognito was a scholarship player who had been heavily recruited by the University of Miami, among numerous schools. Limbaugh was a walk-on. During one practice, Incognito blindsided Limbaugh, ramming him in the back.
“It was away from the ball, against a defenseless player,” said Limbaugh, who was often picked on by Incognito. “Everybody laughed. I got up, removed my helmet and walked into the locker room. I did not want to explode and get into a fight, which is what he wanted. He got into altercations all the time.”
Limbaugh, who works at his family’s tire business in Iowa, said he “feels sorry” for Incognito, who was known for cheap shots in practice and against opponents but who was regarded as untouchable because of his talent.
“It would scare people if they knew how younger players were treated,” said Limbaugh, who became backup center for the Cornhuskers. “Especially among offensive linemen, they really rag on each other, consider themselves a different breed, and are antagonistic and violent toward each other. You’re expected to suck it up or they will break you.
“I think it takes leaders willing to stand up and say, ‘Enough; this is counterproductive.’ We’re grown men, and in the corporate world, such behavior would result in lawsuits. Camaraderie and joking is on one side of the line, but Richie was constantly crossing it. I hope he gets help for the issues that have troubled him.”
Nebraska coaches sent Incognito to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., the same clinic where they had sent Lawrence Phillips, the ex-running back who had dragged a girl down the stairs by her hair. Incognito went there for a week during his sophomore year for psychological counseling. Incognito recorded 171 pancake blocks during his freshman year but he also spat on an opponent and got into a fight after a face mask penalty in a game against Penn State.
“Richie was a feisty guy with a loose trigger who got into some scuffles,” said Milt Tenopir, Incognito’s position coach at Nebraska. “I tried to harness his aggression while not squelching it. I did not have a problem with him, and I think most of his teammates understood his disposition.”
But Incognito continued to get into trouble. He was involved in a fight at an off-campus party his junior year, charged with punching three people and convicted of one count of misdemeanor assault. In September of his senior year, after chasing a receiver around the locker room, coach Bill Callahan dismissed him from the team. Incognito reacted by turning over Callahan’s desk.
Incognito transferred to Oregon, where he was to complete an anger-management class before he could join the Ducks, but was dismissed by coach Mike Bellotti before he even attended practice.
He was drafted 81st by the Rams and spent five controversial seasons in St. Louis before coach Steve Spagnuolo cut him after Incognito was flagged for two head-butting penalties in a late-season loss. As a Ram, he committed 38 penalties, including seven for unnecessary roughness; was voted Dirtiest Player in the league in a Sporting News poll of his peers; mocked booing Rams fans and argued with Spagnuolo on the sideline.
When he was penalized twice for fighting and almost cost the Rams a game in 2008, coach Jim Haslett was recorded on the sideline saying, “What is wrong with this motherf-----?”
Those who know Incognito say he gets his fire from his father, Richard Sr., the son of an Italian father and German mother who immigrated to the United States. Richard likes to tell the story of the Incognito name: When his father was processed at Ellis Island, he said he did not want to keep his family name, so the official bestowed upon him the name “Incognito.”
Richard, a Vietnam veteran, is proud of his “hard-nosed, working-class” upbringing in Union City, N.J., where kids were raised to “keep clean and steer clear of trouble.” He is a self-described Norman Rockwell fanatic. He moved his young family to Bogota, N.J., where Bendian, who is a baseball instructor, noticed Richie’s competitive streak.
“He was an adorable kid who could have been in the movie Stand by Me, but when we played this game where he had to throw the ball by me, he would get very intense,” Bendian said. “His face would change. There was a switch in his demeanor. If I beat him, he was very disappointed. It meant a lot to him to win.”
When Richie was 11, the family moved to Glendale, Ariz., where Richard Sr. got a job as a swimming pool builder. At Mountain Ridge High School, which had only two black players on the football roster, Incognito excelled as a two-way player. It was an affluent neighborhood. Incognito was a hard worker in the weight room, and got along with everybody.
“There was nothing to indicate he was a ticking time bomb,” said Incognito’s high school coach, Jim Ewan. “He wasn’t a boy scout, but he wasn’t a high-maintenance kid.”
Incognito’s parents told Ewan that Incognito had been picked on when they first moved to Arizona. Richard had told Richie not to “take [expletive] from anyone or you will take [expletive] for the rest of your life.”
“His father had that tough, New Jersey mentality, and his mother was overprotective,” Ewan said. “Like many parents I’ve seen over the years, they do too much for their kids.”
Richard Sr., using his birth date and usual user name, is presumed to have defended Incognito by writing inflammatory posts on a Dolphins fan website Monday after the team announced Incognito’s suspension. He said Incognito was being treated unfairly and that “black people say the N-word in rap music.” He implied that Martin was unstable and “does not belong in an NFL locker room,” and asked readers to “pray [general manager Jeff] Ireland and [coach Joe] Philbin die of AIDS.”
Things went bad
How did everything turn so vicious for Incognito, who had been thriving as a changed man in Miami? Incognito was a member of the team’s Leadership Council. He was given the “Good Guy” award for his cooperative attitude toward local media. During a preseason game incident with Texan Antonio Smith, Incognito did not swing back when Smith ripped off Incognito’s helmet and swung it at him; Philbin praised Incognito’s “poise.” The Dolphins even chose him to narrate a video encouraging fans to act “civilized” in the stands.
Incognito told NFL.com last summer that he had been a pot-smoking, heavy-drinking, party-hardy player in St. Louis but realized he could not blow his last chance with Miami. He saw a therapist who prescribed Paxil, an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug that Incognito described as “a life-changer, a game-changer.” He listened to Ricky Williams’ recommendations and practiced meditation. He spent contemplative time on the beach outside his Fort Lauderdale apartment. To mark his rebirth, he had a phoenix tattooed on one of his massive forearms.
“I’m definitely not healed, and I’m not saying I don’t make mistakes,” he told NFL.com. “But from where I was to where I am now, I mean, it’s night and day. And it’s something that, you know, I hope people can respect about me.”
But something must have snapped, as it did 20 years ago when Incognito confronted a coward and found the power of intimidation. He was involved in a fight at Club Liv in Miami Beach in June. A TMZ video shows a shirtless Incognito shouting, "Mike Pouncey, n---a!" as he stomps around a Fort Lauderdale bar in a rage, while Dolphins center Pouncey laughs. And now hateful taunts and insults of Martin, 24, are being revealed, dating back to Martin’s rookie year.
Incognito’s Twitter bio gives a clue to his inner conflict: “All Star Wild Child #68 on the field but #1 in your heart!!”
“It’s a shame,” said Ewan, Incognito’s high school coach. “Richie seemed to be making a conscious effort, but behind that there had to be telltale signs. This will probably be the end of his tumultuous career.”