Who is Richie Incognito?

He can't change what you think of him. But Richie Incognito is trying to change what he thinks of himself

By Tyler Dunne

September 15, 2016

Bleacher Report

Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images

BUFFALO, N.Y. — He's not in hiding anymore. Richie Incognito doesn't barricade himself from the press. The address, four-digit code to enter his apartment building and room number are all texted without hesitation.

Knocks on the door elicit a loud "Come in!" and, hey, there's Richie Incognito spread like a starfish on one table with teammate Jordan Mills on another. The two Bills linemen are getting massages.

"Welcome to the Zen Den," Incognito says.

He lives in shocking simplicity. On his kitchen countertop, there's only a Keurig 2.0 coffeemaker, George Foreman grill and— his pride 'n' joy—a first-place bocce trophy from a tournament at Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant. (At one point, he stands up, tucks his feet together in a stance and demonstrates his majestic overhand-gripped, back-spinning release.)

There's no weed, no booze on the dining room table. Only a mountain of vitamins to keep his 33-year-old body tuned.

Comedy Central hums in the background. A copy of the Jim Kelly book, Kelly Tough, rests on a coffee table. Brick interior, wooden beams and exposed piping give the "den" a rustic ambience.

Incognito struts into the kitchen as one of the physical therapists is caught glaring at, what she calls, his "beautiful face."

"That's an insult to beautiful, isn't it?" Mills snipes.

"Wait," says Incognito, motors churning on an insult, "what did you just say?"

I cut in to tell Incognito his face wouldn't be so beautiful if ex-Texan Antonio Smith would've connected and drilled the ex-Dolphin in the face with the guard's own helmet.

"It would not be beautiful. I would look like Jordan."

"Hey, I'm married now! Don't need to worry about that."

With that zinger, Mills exits and Incognito sprawls back on the table to get his foot and ankle worked on.

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Richie Incognito in the Zen Den (Tyler Dunne).

Incognito cozies his head into a pillow, clasps his hands over his stomach and, for two hours, seeks the answer to a question no one has: Who in the hell is Richie Incognito? He's so many characters to so many people. A bully. A ticking time bomb. A drunk. A pothead. A Pro Bowler. A leader. The dirtiest player in football. A Donald Trump fan. But add it all up, and who the hell, really, is Richie Incognito?

Truth is, he's still figuring that out himself.

On the cusp of another season, Incognito does his own forensic study into who he was, who he is, who he'll become. The damning details are no secret. As he quips himself, "S--t, my entire life has been publicized. … It's an interesting way to live." But he inches closer to an answer as the conversation winds down at the Zen Den, extending his left forearm to showcase his favorite tattoo. It's a phoenix. This one was inked two weeks before his infamous 2013 tailspin began.

"A phoenix builds its own fire, sets its own demise and re-rises as a new being, new spirit, new beginning. If that ain't me in a nutshell, I don't know what is."

Many folks reading his comments will forever judge him through a bullying prism.

"They see me as a racist bully," he says, "and it ends at that."

His issues, for a decade-plus, have been so raw, so public—the world literally read his text messages—that Incognito lost himself along the way.

The phoenix is being reborn, but into what exactly?

Start in his element: the locker room. 

Bills coach Rex Ryan and Richie Incognito (Joe Robbins / Getty Images).

Richie Incognito is a ball-buster.

Sweat mats his hair. Back arched, arms hanging at a 90-degree angle, Richie Incognito is only missing a club in one hand and the winter's meat in the other as he enters the locker room. His gloved hands appear wrapped in boulders of tape.

What's that, Richie?

"A cast," he says, ripping the tape off, balling it up and throwing it at my chest. "I'm gonna punch you in the face with that."

Incognito plops into his stall and drinks a shake as yet another pingpong classic wraps up in front of him between Kyle Williams and Reggie Bush. His locker is positioned oh-so-conveniently five feet away from the table.

"All I do is just talk s--t," Incognito says. "If you want to get someone fired up in here, just say, 'You suck at pingpong!' and they'll go 'Arr-arr-arr!'"

Bush flips his paddle in anger.

"What was the score, Reg?"

"I had him down…"

"No, no, no. I didn't ask that! I asked what the final score was."

Bush storms away. The victor, Williams, next takes on tight end Charles Clay, who didn't practice today. Easy prey. Incognito goes in for the kill.

"Kyle, don't let him build confidence, bro. He's so trash. Hey! If you didn't practice today, you can't play pingpong! … I remember when Chuck used to be tough."

Asks Williams, "That's what y'all called him when he was tough?"

Incognito channels his inner Donald Trump.

"Chuck!" he says, "Scumbag Chuck."

Clay laughs. They all laugh. Incognito is an equal-opportunity heckler. Pick any random day and, chances are, you'll hear Incognito ripping a teammate, spraying F-bombs or calling you a nerd. The guy once banished from the NFL for his treatment of teammate Jonathan Martin was not reborn into some muzzled choirboy. No, Incognito is a meathead and owns it.

This was the Bills' colossal gamble in February 2015.

Incognito used demeaning language and called Martin the N-word—his No. 1 regret. Their friendship dissolved, and Martin accused Incognito of bullying him to the point of depression. The situation nuked the locker room. And whatever team signed him next, the narrative went, would be nuking its own.

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Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin in 2013 (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo).

Thing is, that hasn't happened. His Bills teammates, on and off the record, say they love Incognito's digs, that he's their daily shot of caffeine through the dreary grind of an NFL season. He says he tries to thicken others' skin, instill toughness, have fun.

And yet he still struggles with boundaries. Incognito admits that "Old Richie" resurfaces. The "off-color jokes," the "pressing things way too far and continuing to press."

"It's a day-to-day battle," Incognito says. "It's constant work. It's like anything in life—once you think you have it mastered, that's when it comes back to bite you in the ass."

So friendly reminders echo throughout the facility. Maybe he's in the locker room, maybe he's in a meeting. Whenever Incognito crosses a line, quarterback Tyrod Taylor or veteran center Eric Wood reel him back in with two words: "New Richie!" Earlier this morning, in a hurry to lift weights, Incognito popped his head into the equipment room and barked, "Can I get some f--king shorts, please!" And around the corner, there was the workaholic Taylor already finished with his 5:30 a.m. workout.

"New Richie!"

Cussing out the people who do your laundry is such an "Old Richie" move.

Incognito's trick is to stay conscious of every interaction with every teammate. He gauges how much you can handle. Weekly dinners with the offensive line have cultivated a team-within-the-team bond—a true "brotherhood," he says. He works the room, too. In a chat with Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks recently, both DBs told him that so many of their friends back home ask what it's like to play with Richie Incognito, as if he's an alien from outer space.

He has a fire-and-ice, good cop-bad cop approach with Wood. Wood is the "voice of reason," Incognito explains, and he's the "crazy uncle."

"You have your first beer with your crazy uncle—'Don't tell Eric!'" he laughs. "I embrace it. I'm the rubber bouncy ball in the room, just bouncing all over the place. We spend a lot of time together and know each other really, really well. You know each other, love each other, you're going to go through the whole gamut of emotions."

If the Bills weren't making fun of each other, Wood adds, nobody would even talk.

"Everybody's taking jabs," he says, "but that's what brothers do. We're tight."

In Miami, Incognito busted everyone's balls…but went too far. Suddenly, one teammate wasn't laughing back. He says he's more conscious of his message now.

Go ahead and rip him on Twitter. Call him a jerk, and he'll probably agree with you. There is, however, one narrative Incognito believes you have all, all wrong.

Former teammates Mike Pouncey and Richie Incognito after a game in 2013 (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

Richie Incognito is not angry. Really.

Of course, his $300,000 Ferrari would beg to differ.

When Incognito was suspended indefinitely, when the paparazzi picked at his every move like vultures and he literally locked the door, closed the shades and refused to turn on his TV, he went full Giancarlo Stanton on his prized possession.

"Oh, I beat the s--t out of my Ferrari," he admits. "That was my breaking point. I had internalized everything and was just so sick of being followed around and being the national pariah for something I didn't feel was just."

But don't let this ravaged Ferrari fool you. The theory that he's a raging lunatic, he says, is based on a lie. The "biggest misconception" of his career.

Backtrack to his college days, to the 2003 story that triggered this narrative. While playing at the University of Nebraska, yes, he did visit the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. And, yes, the Omaha World-Herald caught wind of his visit. A reporter asked the school about this, and Nebraska said that Incognito was at the clinic for anger-management treatment.

Years later, Incognito now says it all was a cover-up. He wasn't there for anger management. He failed multiple drug tests.

"I could never say anything because I didn't want to talk about failing a drug test," he says. "But now it's 2016."

He was starting fights in practice, brawling to get noticed by coaches, which made the myth so easy to sell. Little did Incognito realize then that this label would haunt him the rest of his career.

On to the St. Louis Rams, he partied, he drank, he smoked, his team kept on losing, and Angry Richie, he says, "manifested itself." Incognito drew 35 penalties in only 44 games as "Richie Incognito" became synonymous with the guy who "punches old ladies and eats babies."

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Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images

Was he a pothead? Sure. He smoked every day. This period of his life was "a haze." But now a faux, manufactured reputation from Nebraska was forcing its way into Incognito's reality, and he lost his identity. His mental state crumbled. Soon, Incognito was pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into counseling—psychologists, psychiatrists, life coaches, you name it.

"It's frustrating, but you just have to understand: That's not me. That's not what I'm about," he says. "That's why I'm so conscious of what people around me think—because I've been so misunderstood."

The ricochet of a pingpong ball sings in the background and Incognito repeats: "Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of counseling."

On to Miami, he thought he turned the corner. But then Incognito became the face of bullying in America and emergency phone calls dominated his life. Any random morning, around 3 a.m., Incognito would call someone in his inner circle. His go-to was often agent David Dunn, his "Jedi Master."

"Dude, it's f--king 3 o'clock in the morning," Incognito says. "Substances in your body. You're freaking out. You're wanting everything to go a certain way, and it's not going that way."

His point? The mind is "a tricky, tricky place." For years, Incognito would convince himself he was cured. Just one drink, just one joint spiraled into just 10 drinks, just 10 joints until Incognito was completely out of control, and everyone saw it but him.

"It deteriorated me mentally more than I ever knew," Incognito says. "My body just didn't react well. I never gave my brain and body a chance to be stable, to realize I was doing wrong.

"Next thing you know you're beating the s--t out of your Ferrari in the front yard."

Oh, right, the Ferrari. This offseason, Incognito finally sold it and then bought himself a Rolls-Royce Wraith, turning that dark page in his life. But he's still fighting those demons. Still gets counseling. Still seeking a balance off the field.

What happened in Key West with teammates on a postseason splurge will stay in Key West. Same for those long nights (mornings?) at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. But he says he parties in doses now. Not binges. He's not hungover at practice. During the season, he's confined to the Zen Den either getting a massage, hanging with Wood or hearing every word of every conversation through the thin wall in his bedroom.

Jerome Felton lived next door. Jerome Felton also watches MSNBC.

Incognito cringes.

"Thank God he moved out!"

Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images

Richie Incognito is on the Trump Train.

He'd never admit it to Felton's face. No, that'd be a sign of weakness. Defeat. But Incognito bites his tongue and says that, yes, the fullback raised valid points.

So most nights in the den, he researches. He reads. He fine-tunes his stance on everything. The economy. The borders. Social programs. Our nation's debt. Because the next day, Incognito knows he'll be sparring with Felton.

Incognito is a staunch conservative. Felton is a staunch liberal.

"I go right to the enemy," Incognito says. "I go right to CNN."

What about MSNBC?

"That's too much for me. That's too far down the rabbit hole."

The Bills released Felton in early September but signed him back this week. Incognito will continue to feud with him. He's been to the rallies, he's supported him publicly. Indeed, Incognito is on the Trump Train for good.

Support a candidate unlike anything this country has ever seen, and you'll certainly be known for that, too. First, Incognito cites Donald Trump's business background and negotiating skills.

"I think that he can help this nation get back to a world superpower," Incognito says. "Where I think he could help is putting us first again and having that—it's my mentality, too—having that tough attitude where you put America first and everyone's thinking we're the greatest nation in the world. Don't mess with America. That toughness is where I identify with him."

He can sense you fuming while reading this.

Let him explain.

"He'll say something because in the moment he feels it. In the moment he feels that to be true and the best thing said. With politicians, everything is so rehearsed that when they say something like that, it's derived from a script and all their words and actions have to back that up. Now, Donald may say something crazy and go out on a limb, like a normal person, and he has to backtrack and make amends and change his views.

"I think that's life. There's no such thing as an absolute."

Which is why Incognito identifies with Trump.

He made mistakes. He backtracked.

He also believes his own life has been painted in callous black-and-white strokes. It's true, he did use language in Miami he'll regret forever. It's also true African-Americans in Miami considered him "an honorary black man" and he's been a mentor for the Bills' other starting guard, John Miller. Grilled on Incognito's brashness, Miller asserts, "You need somebody like that on your team. They've got an edge to them."

Shooting from the hip, topic to topic, Incognito meanders into so many shades of gray.

On Rex Ryan? "Guys love him. They'd lay down and die for him. He's the f--king best coach ever. You play for so many coaches who are not like you. Like nerds. You can talk to Rex about anything. You could say, 'Rex, I don't like the lines on the field being painted white.' And he'll say, 'Done. What color do you want to paint it?'"

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Mark Zaleski / AP Photo

On his relationships with black teammates? "When it's 4th-and-short and you're pushing for that one yard, you're not looking at race. You're looking at your brother next to you saying, 'Let's go!'"

On his current go-to show, The Night Of? He digs the metamorphosis of an introvert into a hardened inmate. On Making a Murderer? Steven Avery is still guilty in his book, but he cannot believe no DNA was found in his home. "It would have been like the perfect crime!"

He doesn't badmouth NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when given the opportunity, insisting it's on the NFL and NFLPA to both get their act together and knock out lingering issues before a lockout in 2021.

He does let investigator Ted Wells have it. "Ted Wells and his role in the NFL? Finished. Done."

He doesn't criticize Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem, saying he can see both sides to that argument.

When asked about politics last season, he didn't shout, "Build a wall!" or, "Bigly," or, "Yuge." He dissected rivaling factions of the Middle East for a half-hour and later sent an in-depth video to keep the discussion going. And today, he absolutely likes the fact that race has become a dominant topic in America. When told that some people in this country label Trump racist, Incognito acknowledges the Republican has "inflamed" many people. Yet he then veers in an unexpected direction.

"It's such a prominent issue in our country right now—racism—it's encouraging that there's so much talk about it," he says, "because for so many years it's been taboo. Now that we have all these people speaking up on both sides, I think that there's good healthy conversation between a lot of people who have never had that conversation before."

Incognito lifts his 6'3", 320-pound block-of-granite body off the table to test out the ankle Anna Hartman has been treating. She has worked on him his entire 11-year career, and this season she'll fly into Buffalo three days a week to keep his body right.

Breaking in new insoles this week had led to stinging pain. Incognito drops into a stance, approves with a "much, much better" and then lays back down to have kinks worked out on his other leg.

Hartman asks if he wants to flip sides so he'll talk to me face to face.

"No, that's OK," Incognito says. "I don't like his face."

If only I received a Trumpian nickname like Clay. Bummer. I flip my chair around to the other side to appease babyface Richie.

Heck yes, he has received death threats on Twitter. Those don't bother him at all.

As for what other NFL teams say? Trump, er, Incognito offers a warning.

Rick Stewart / Getty Images

Richie Incognito seeks revenge.

OK, now, Incognito looks like he could sink his teeth into a 20-ounce rib-eye steak.

He seeks revenge. Craves it.

He thinks back to this past March when the Jedi Master told him during free agency that half of the NFL wouldn't touch him. Anchoring the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing attack in 2015, to them, didn't change the fact he was a toxic bully. On the self-destruction scale, signing Incognito remained somewhere between injecting asbestos into your facility and dropping an atomic bomb.

No, Incognito will not rattle off the hit list of teams. But there is a hit list.

"No doubt when we play those teams, I want to beat the crap out of them," Incognito says. "You think, 'Oh yeah, I remember what they said in free agency about me. Let's go beat their ass.' They know who they are. And when they turn on the tape and see No. 64 pounding their team, they'll know they made a mistake."

His performance was indisputable. Exiled in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the entire 2014 season, Incognito did everything but drink raw eggs in training, signed with the Bills, started on Day 1, pulled and pulled some more en route to Hawaii. He did it between the whistles, too—his only personal foul was a bogus chop block.

Yet here he was, still, again, running from a reputation.

In Miami, Reggie Bush ran for 2,072 yards and 12 touchdowns in his two seasons with Incognito. The Real Richie, to him, is someone who defied logic the other side of 30.

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Richie Incognito blocking for Reggie Bush in 2011 (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images).

"It's tough to come back," Bush says. "There are some sports where you can miss a year, come back and be OK. Football is not one of those sports. It's tough to miss a year, come back and play at a high level. So that speaks volumes to his work ethic, his character. I'm glad he's on our side."

Adds Wood, "It's really gone flawlessly. It couldn't have worked out any better for us."

OK, so it's not rage. It's vengeance.

That's what drives him.

Take the comment from Hall of Famer Bill Polian on Sirius XM last December that the Bills' line was "aging" and "unathletic." On the spot, Incognito's memory raced back to Polian and Tony Dungy removing him from their Colts draft board. He texted Wood. He kept Polian on his mind. And the Bills rushed for 236 yards and two scores against Dallas.

To him, this has all been a "fairy tale." Western New York has wrapped its arms around Incognito in a You might be an SOB, but you're our SOB embrace, and if Rex Ryan's last name was actually "Incognito," nobody would be surprised.

St. Rex has doled out second chances to the man who was alleged to have witnessed Jameis Winston committing sexual assault before testifying otherwise (Ronald Darby), a position coach whom the NCAA banned (John Blake), an end who solicited a prostitute (Adolphus Washington), a pass-rusher who broke his own quarterback's jaw (IK Enemkpali), the one blamed for fracturing the Seahawks' locker room (Percy Harvin) and a coach who punched a minor over a beach chair (Aaron Kromer). He then also hired that coach's son, who was involved in the incident.

And now, the crazy uncle must serve as the crazy glue holding together a sinking ship.

Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images

Richie Incognito must lead.

The two have not spoken. They probably never will again.

Martin gives anti-bullying speeches in California. He tells crowds that bullying led to suicidal thoughts.

Incognito is here. Moving on.

"Jonathan and I were close friends, and everything went down the way it did," Incognito says. "Now, he has to live with that. I have to live with the consequences, and so does he. Because at the end of the day, me and him are the only two who know exactly what happened."

To Incognito, the story has been "refocused," a nod to Martin's lengthy Facebook post in which he revealed his depression dated back to childhood. Meanwhile, here, players are suspended or injured daily. Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland—drafted one-two to fix a comatose defense—are both injured. Karlos Williams gained 40 pounds, was suspended for substance abuse and cut loose. Marcell Dareus is in rehab.

Incognito tried. By God, he tried.

He pulled Williams aside for several conversations. He met with Dareus, listened to Dareus. Those talks, he says, will remain confidential.

Those talks never sparked change.

"The biggest thing is giving into it and saying, 'You know what, I have a problem. I'm f--king up,'" he says. "Enough bad stuff has to happen to you to get to that point. You're young, you're brash, you're having success, and it kind of falls into the pattern of, 'I'm doing everything right.' But you've got to make that conscious decision of 'I'm going to change my life. I have a problem.'"

The conversation shifts to Seantrel Henderson. The right tackle endured a hellacious summer. Through two surgeries in relation to Crohn's disease, the 24-year-old needed a bag attached to him to relieve himself and then had his intestines reattached. Yet there's concern, not sympathy, in Incognito's voice.

He's well aware that Henderson was suspended three times in college for marijuana use and flunked a drug test at the NFL scouting combine. He sees his work ethic up close. Incognito hopes such misery serves as a wake-up call.

"I hope it showed him how lucky he is to be in this position," Incognito says. "And it just goes back to the change can't be made until the person, the individual, wants to make the change. Hopefully going through a traumatic experience like that is all he needs."

Exactly one week later, reports surfaced that Henderson will be suspended four games by the NFL for substance abuse. Marijuana can be used to treat Crohn's disease, yes, but Incognito also knows the drug can GPS a young player into a black hole.

Simply ask the people he called at 3 a.m.

So he wants to be Buffalo's hero. The most unlikely, unfathomable leader has emerged to once and for all end the longest playoff drought in professional sports.

"If there's anyone in that locker room who can understand what's going on right now, how to wrap their mind around it, it's me," Incognito says. "Been there, done that, came back stronger."

For the Bills, this was the gamble all along. What if there isn't someone there to yell, "New Richie!" when he goes too far? What if 2016 rolls along perfectly, he gets comfortable and tricks himself into thinking he can party just a bit harder, and those "doses" become binges? What if there truly is rage boiling inside of him and he's in denial?

He's asked the question once more: Who is Richie Incognito?

This time, Incognito points to his first conversation with owners Terry and Kim Pegula. Both told him he can "rewrite" his narrative in Buffalo. Change opinions. Change his life. When millions watch Incognito on TV this season, the truth is, millions will already have permanent answers to the question.

Incognito knows he cannot change those minds. He can, however, work this locker room.

"They spend five to 10 minutes with me, and they realize, 'Oh wait, this guy's not a monster.' People who've never met me? I've let go of that," he says. "I can only control what I can control: how I act around these guys and how my teammates respect me."

Miller walks by. He's shooting home for the weekend to see his family. His mother died last October.

When he's not needling Scumbag Chuck, Incognito is standing up to give Big John a hug.

No, Richie Incognito has no clue how Richie Incognito will be remembered. But he's still playing football.

Bursting out of his compression shirt, he purses his lips and nods.

"It's time to flip the switch. It's f--king go-time. We've got to be some f--king animals."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.