[UPDATE, March 8: Bills re-sign guard Richie Incognito at three years, $15.75 million]
PHOENIX – His torso is unlike any torso on any NFL offensive line, as if God built a house on two legs. Massive, tattooed, busting out of his white henley, Richie Incognito weaves through patrons half his size at The Henry, an upscale restaurant off Camelback Road.
With each turn, eyes dart in his direction.
Incognito’s arms hang in a WWE-strut. His presidential hair is tucked underneath a backward hat. His smile, infectious.
And why not? Soon, this man will get paid.
But, no, life was not so picturesque for Incognito three years ago.
When the bullying frenzy reached its fever pitch, he estimates 10 news vans and 25 reporters lurked outside his home in Miami. “Good Morning America” left a note on his parents’ door in Arizona that read “We’re on your son’s side. Just talk to us.” An avid reader – the man can talk politics for days – Incognito refused to log online.
So finally, Incognito took a deep breath and lounged on the recliner. He’d shut the blinds, seclude himself and watch anything but sports.
“Legit, 30 seconds into watching the ‘Today’ show,” Incognito said, “my face pops up and they’re talking about me. I literally turned off the TV and sat in the chair for 12 hours that day. I was like, ‘Oh my God. My life is over.’ ”
So how did Incognito transform from the most unwanted football player in America, a pariah, a villain to … wanted? From an emotional wreck who couldn’t leave the house – mom even flew in for support – to this unfiltered jokester polishing off a salad and cod?
He knows exactly what came to your mind when hearing the name, “Richie Incognito.”
“A guy who punches old ladies and eats babies,” he said. “That’s what people think – and deservedly so! I had done everything to deserve that.”
The answer is found at the site of exile, here in Arizona, where the free-agent-to-be awaits word from the Buffalo Bills.
The path to this payday was a test of body and mind. He believes, at 33 years old in July, he finally found the balance.
A renegade ... between the whistles. A 320-pound agitator in the locker room ... who doesn’t cross the line. A maniac who will never, ever be outworked in the gym. A – get this – leader.
One source indicated the Bills never made Incognito an offer all season, lowballed him at the NFL Scouting Combine and then didn’t contact his reps for a four-day stretch last week. Odd considering Incognito was a driving force behind the league’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack and will draw interest. Multiple teams could start bidding once Baltimore’s Kelechi Osemele finds a home.
General Manager Doug Whaley has insisted the Bills are “working diligently” to re-sign Incognito.
Incognito himself is grateful Buffalo was the team that extended a hand. But he read the passive-aggressive leak from One Bills Drive, the one that indicated Buffalo was “frustrated” he wouldn’t take a “hometown discount.”
“This is a high-stakes business,” Incognito said. “There’s no such thing as a hometown discount. There’s fair, there’s market value, there’s team-friendly, there’s player-friendly. … I definitely feel I owe Buffalo a lot. But I owe them on the football field.
“I play my heart out.”
Now, it’s the eleventh hour, the clock is ticking and Incognito isn’t sure who he’ll play his heart out for next.
Rock bottom is silence. Waiting. The “monotony.” Exiled in Scottsdale, Ariz., Incognito needed to “will” himself out of bed for 8 a.m. workouts. Doubt crept in, that “what-am-I-training-for?” dread.
“Just get to breakfast,” Incognito told himself. From there, Incognito’s sanity was tested weekly.
His agent usually called on Monday with a jolt of hope. A team was interested, maybe even wanted the guard in for a visit. Tuesday would pass. Then, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Silence. He visited both Tampa Bay (August 2014) and Denver (November 2014), but neither team wanted the PR nightmare.
Who in their right mind would sign someone labeled Jonathan Martin’s source of torture?
“There was what was going on in the media and who Richie Incognito really is,” Incognito said. “I knew who I was. I knew I was a good person. I knew I made some bad decisions but I knew at the core of me that I was a good person. But it was intense for a while.
“I lost my identity for a little bit.”
So the first challenge was finding that identity.
He met with counselors, psychiatrists, family members, everyone who could help him fight through the cruel déjà vu. That’s what stung most – Incognito had already redefined himself. With the St. Louis Rams, 2006-09, Incognito racked up 38 penalties, including seven unnecessary roughness calls. Voted the NFL’s dirtiest player, Incognito says he was a “bad boy, party animal” then.
His behavior off the field was worse. He’d show up for practices hung over, eyes bloodshot.
“A ton of drinking,” Incognito said, “a ton of smoking weed.”
Both St. Louis and Buffalo cut Incognito loose and he slipped into depression. The medication Paxil helped. So did all the visits with therapists. Incognito pieced his identity together, signed with Miami – knew this was his last opportunity – and made the Pro Bowl.
Then, of course, his world came crashing down. Again, he was banished. Again, he could only blame himself. Again, this all happened in a precious contract year. The publicized text messages to Martin were damning. Yet in the moment, nobody knew Martin’s personal demons dated to high school.
Right then, Incognito could’ve stayed on that recliner, rolled up a joint and called it a career.
Yet once the initial media blast passed, and those vans left, he realized he didn’t care about anybody else’s opinion. He thought back to when he was bullied as a kid – called “lardass,” “whale” – and socked his bully in the face. He thought back to all the fights with teammates at the University of Nebraska, where he eventually left after getting charged with three counts of assault at a party, back to getting booted off Oregon’s football team.
To the ordeal in St. Louis. To everything.
He only knows one response: Fight, not flight.
“I’ve been in so much trouble my entire life that I just bounce right back,” Incognito said. “I’m resilient. I’ve been in so much hot water that I always push it to the very limit, I get my ass in trouble, and then I go the complete opposite direction.”
This time, he found the right direction. Incognito takes you along for the ride.
On the field, 80-degree rays are piercing. In the weight room, Lil Wayne is rhyming. At the pool, he’s in his glory talking trash.
Welcome to Richie Incognito’s sanctuary.
At EXOS, formerly Athletes’ Performance, the hell-raising veteran operates at one speed.
He calls himself a “choirboy” off the field now or, as he put it, “as choirboy as it gets for Richie Incognito.” Bed by 10:30. No late-night drinking during the season. He waited until the season was over to let loose in Key West. But Incognito realized he’d never be able to suppress the beast, the rage, the animal within who once got Antonio Smith so mad the end grabbed Incognito’s helmet and took a swing at his head.
Winks Incognito today, “This face wouldn’t be so pretty.”
Here at EXOS, he learned to let it all out on the weights during his year of ostracism.
For two-plus hours this morning, Incognito resembles a runaway freight train of destruction. He’s not providing mere lip service in saying he wants to play another “five-seven” seasons. Incognito rips through sprint drills, a cycle that includes driving a sled with six 45-pound plates 30 yards at turbo speed. For the next 45 minutes, he builds that torso. Incognito fires up an 80-pound dumbbell six times with each arm on an incline bench press. Then, 110. Then, 115. Then, 120. He’ll reach 140 by training camp.
Incognito grunts each number aloud, chucking the weight to the ground after “Six!”
Then, it’s off to the pool for circuit training. In 30-second bursts, he’s hurling medicine balls, hoisting heavy pipes and broad jumping into the water from the deck.
Most bring a preseason urgency to the workout. For Incognito, it’s the Super Bowl. And one strength coach here insists it was like that every day when nobody wanted Incognito.
“He brings intensity in every rep,” said EXOS’ Eric Dannenberg. “He kept making gains, he kept bringing that same innate intensity. He didn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to get depressed and fat.’ He said, ‘I’m going to become a freak.’ ”
Incognito trudges over between sets.
“If I had a nickel for every time I said ‘That guy could be the best dot-dot-dot-dot-dot, if he just gave a crap.’ ”
He shakes his head, names one such Bills teammate and returns to a machine.
Granted, Richie is still Richie. When his pal, Tennessee Titans tackle Taylor Lewan, chucks a tennis ball at him while on the sled, Incognito drives that sled directly at Lewan. When Incognito barks for Lewan to get his, um, breasts lower while shuffling side to side in the pool, Lewan snipes that he’s not “4 foot 11” like Incognito and then, smelling blood, Incognito goes in for the kill.
“You’ll make a great right tackle one day!” he shouts. “The best in the league!”
Of course, Lewan’s team holds the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and could take Ole Miss’ tackle Laremy Tunsil.
But Incognito has learned how to channel his trademark belligerence to the field. When asked which highlight of his interested teams should replay, Incognito literally licks his chops, rolls up a sleeve and smirks.
“Every play I pull,” he said. “I’m trying to knock the (expletive) out of somebody. I whack people. They know I’m coming around with bad intentions.”
Maybe, just maybe, Incognito finally struck a balance.
Now, he just needs a team.
The fit was perfect.
At The Henry, Incognito’s mind flashes back to his first meeting with Rex Ryan, Whaley and Terry Pegula at the owner’s office in Boca Raton, Fla. Incognito needed to resurrect his lost career; the Bills have been in need of resurrection 16 years running.
“Everything meshed with Rex’s personality,” Incognito said, “and the hunger for the town and the city for a winner and me trying to redeem myself, the underdog. Buffalo’s the underdog. People ask me – do you like living in Buffalo? And I tell them ‘Yes. I love it!’ ”
He eats at Tempo, Tappo, Hutch’s. He laughs with fans on Twitter. He goes to Sabres games. Incognito feels the love from fans, from teammates.
And players insist he is a leader, a presence who sets a tone.
Said guard John Miller, “A lot of people look up to him. I know I do myself with how he carries himself. ... You know what they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course I heard a lot of things. You can’t judge a guy’s character based off speculation.”
So center Eric Wood texts him daily: “Is it done? Is it done?” Ryan leaves voice messages on his phone.
Incognito sincerely sees a team ready to contend. Channeling his inner Donald Trump, he jokes that he wants “To make Buffalo great again!” To him, this is a team knocking on the door.
“And hopefully next year,” he said, “we kick that door down. I mean, we are right there. I want Buffalo at fever pitch. I saw the ‘Four Falls of Buffalo’ with them on the City Hall steps. I want that. I envision that. And that’s no bull. That’s what I see.”
The table is cleared and Incognito searches his name on Twitter to check for reports. Nothing. The eerie silence he once dreaded has returned. He exhales and heads outside to the parking lot.
Gazing ahead, Incognito explains that he’s still single. He’s in no rush to build a family – he’s been too busy piecing together his own life.
But now, yes now, he knows it’s pieced together for good, be it in Buffalo or elsewhere.
Incognito smiles, waves and drives away.
For once, at peace.