<
>

Richie Incognito's rough edges are an asset inside the Bills locker room

"When it comes to football, nobody judges you on your past," says teammate Walter Powell. Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 12 NFL Chemistry Issue. Subscribe today!

THERE ARE ENORMOUS men who use posture to diminish themselves. Uncomfortable with the attention that comes with their enormity, they slouch or curl or lean. They joke about their size to defuse or disarm.

Richie Incognito is not like those men. He is an enormous man who uses his posture to send a message. Unburdened by doubt or self-consciousness, he launches his 319-pound body at the world, belly out, chest forward, head up. He operates it the way someone with a learner's permit would drive a tank.

"He's massive," says Bills coach Rex Ryan, chuckling in admiration of the Pro Bowl guard, "and he knows it."

Every Bills practice starts the same way. After stretching, Incognito hoists that body off the ground, shoves his helmet down over his suitcase-sized head, snaps the chin strap and proceeds to do something truly startling: sprint. For the next several moments, he's the only guy on the field moving at a rate faster than a dreary jog. One moment everybody's lying around stretching, and the next this huge person is running as fast as he can for no apparent reason. His head tilted back, his arms pumping, his Doric-column legs churning -- it's like something out of a nature show. After about 30 yards of max effort -- he moves faster than you would expect, given the surrounding torpor -- Incognito looks over his left shoulder to see a football thrown by quarterback Tyrod Taylor descending into his thick, heavily wrapped hands. He catches it in full stride -- "I have great hands," he says -- and decelerates like a downshifting big rig. He tosses the ball aside and jogs, now as slow as everyone else, to the corner of the field, where he and the other offensive linemen will commence another day of sled-shoving drudgery.

"Every day, he jumps the line and starts running," receiver Walter Powell says. "We let him get his catch on. It's like, 'There you go, big guy. Now go on'" -- Powell makes a shooing motion with his hand -- "'and go do your own thing.'"

What's most striking about Incognito is the level of sheer earnestness. The engine has no governor. He attacks every drill with the choppy steps vital to his profession. Legs underneath him to maximize balance and force, his feet constantly moving, his head up, he's every offensive line coach's Platonic fantasy. That's the message: It means so damned much to this guy. Like, all of it -- even the stupid stuff. You think coaches don't love that? You think teammates don't get an extra boost just watching it? How many thousands of times do you think he's hit a sled? How many times has he gotten down in a three-point stance and fired his body into another human being? And somehow he still goes about it like a high school kid trying to impress a girl.

"Here's what Richie's done here," offensive line coach Aaron Kromer says. "He's come in and been the hardest worker on the practice field. He sets the tempo. He's shown the young guys how to practice hard. Doing drills, he's finishing to the point where you're like, Whoa. You look at the other guys and say, 'Just do it like that.' And just by virtue of other guys paying attention to what he's doing, it really helps the culture of the room."

Watching that keg of a body putting every ounce of effort into something as silly as catching a pass after stretching, you remind yourself: This is a 33-year-old man. It's simultaneously comical and endearing, but what's clear is that he cares. His reputation is well established -- Incognito is abrasive and loud and profane and abusive, perceived as the epitome of the maladjusted football player. But caring this much eventually becomes its own absolution.

That's the thing about this game: Every unsavory aspect of Incognito's past -- from being suspended at Nebraska for his inability to control his temper, to being cut after head-butting two opponents in the first half of a game against the Rams in 2009, to nearly ending his career after the bullying scandal involving Jonathan Martin in Miami -- has been weighed against his ability to bring a flinty edge to a huddle. In the NFL, there's plenty of dirty work to be done, and Incognito has always been an enthusiastic and proficient worker.

"If he was on the other side, I'd hate him," Powell says. "But I'd love him at the same time. He's the type of dude who has a tough-guy side that you need in a locker room."

It is one of the most uncomfortable truths in a sport that has many: Incognito's personality, and how it fits into the small-group dynamic of an NFL locker room, is prized because of its rough edges, not in spite of them. The culture creates it, fosters it, rewards and then discards it, never particularly interested in whether it can exist in a world that doesn't subscribe to the same rules.


THE BILLS' LOCKER room is a tangled maze of walls and random partitions. Lockers for offensive linemen are along one wall, facing the main door. Specialists are around the corner, with running backs to their right and linebackers to their left. The trend in the team-building business is circular inclusiveness, a nod to visibility, a symbolic erasure of cliques and divisions. This one, though -- a tight end could get lost on his way to visit a cornerback. It looks like it was designed by an architect who specializes in haunted houses.

Between center Eric Wood and guard Ryan Groy, squarely in the middle of a wall of offensive linemen, is where Incognito makes his home. Facing the entrance, two lockers wide, he occupies a spot ideal for a ceremonial palace guard. Not much about this room makes sense; LeSean McCoy has three pillows shoved against the wall and approximately 30 pairs of shoes on the floor. But the location of Incognito's locker -- front and center, facing the door -- seems carefully considered.

There's nothing subtle about Incognito, no hidden complexity. As a 16-year-old at a Nebraska football camp, he collected money from other campers and placed a call to have two strippers come to the dorm. (They were turned away by the staff.) Three years ago, his actions in Miami caused a national debate that touched on a triple crown of social ills: bullying, racism and sexism. And yet within this average American NFL locker room, he is uniformly praised as a leader who is willing -- no, eager; no, determined -- to defend those teammates with unquestioned loyalty.

"He's a guy who's accountable," guard John Miller says. "You have to admire someone who's willing to take up for his teammates. Every team needs one of them."

Not to say that he and his teammates agree on everything. Incognito was vocal in his support of Donald Trump during the election, but his politics -- and his outspoken adherence to them -- don't seem to have altered the chemistry of the Bills' locker room. (Rex Ryan, it should be noted, introduced Trump at a rally in Buffalo in April.) "He knows I'm not voting for no Trump," Miller says. Asked if he and Incognito discuss politics, Taylor shakes his head and says, "Strictly football." He begins to laugh. It starts as a chuckle and accelerates from there. "Strictly football," he says, walking away, his laughter echoing off the locker stalls.


ANY SERIOUS ETHNOGRAPHY of an NFL team would uncover an Incognito character, a forward-facing alpha, overflowing with certainty, who is loved within his tribe and loathed outside it. He is the one who administers the initiation rites, who determines the weak and the strong. He was Ryan's first free agent signing when he took over the Bills before last season, and the pair seem to be a perfect match, Brady and Belichick for the beer-and-a-shot crowd. Ryan and Incognito met with Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who had to approve of such a controversial hire, and Rex says Incognito sealed the deal by "being incredibly genuine." Incognito rewarded Ryan, another guy working on a second chance, with a Pro Bowl season at left guard. The Bills rewarded the previously toxic Incognito with a three-year contract worth more than $15 million.

Incognito declined to be interviewed for this story, but that doesn't mean he refused to talk. For the better part of a week, we have an amusing back-and-forth. "Oh, hey, look who's here," he says with mock surprise every time he comes to his locker. We talk about wine and Buffalo cuisine and catching the first pass of every practice. But when I ask if he's willing to reconsider his decision and consent to an interview, he says, "Nope. It's been done so many different ways so many different times. I just don't see the point of doing it again." On my last day in Buffalo, he shakes my hand and says, "I hope you enjoyed Buffalo. Sorry I couldn't help." When I tell him I'll see him in Seattle when the Bills play the Seahawks the following Monday night, he says, "Oh, cool. So we get to do this again?" It's the most congenial refusal in the history of journalism.

Part of Incognito's reticence -- and I dare you to find another instance when those two words have been joined in any plausible manner -- is what he perceives as the predictability of the flipped plotline. From the moment he signed with the Bills, he told friends this day was coming; he would reassert himself with an NFL team and the redemption stories would roll out. Richie the Leader. Richie the Misunderstood. Richie the Changed Man. They're all predicated on the assumption that he somehow reformed, a proclamation neither he nor anybody else seems eager to make.

"I don't know if he's changed," Ryan says. "I can just tell you what he's been like with us. I knew this was a guy I wanted around our guys. He loves to play, and he's been nothing but a terrific teammate here. Has he been in a fight or two? Sure. That's him."

Ryan laughs, because that's what everyone does when talking about Richie. Sure, he's been in a fight or two. Sure, he's said some things that offended some folks along the way. Sure, he probably thinks the world is too damned sensitive. It's easy to see Incognito as something of a caricature, a man whose head and neck merge seamlessly, like the world's largest Glue Stic. His demeanor conveys supreme confidence, and coaches like Ryan -- who has made a fine living out of displaying the same self-assurance while winning fewer than half his games -- tend to believe toughness is a transmittable virus.

"We talked about building a physical team," Ryan says, "and the first guy I thought of was Richie."

The Bills were 8 -- 8 in Ryan's first year, 5 -- 5 through the first 10 games of this season. They're running a 16-year streak without a playoff appearance, and even though the AFC is rife with mediocrity, Ryan says he subscribes to the "normal math" that 10 wins gets a team to the playoffs. And because the Bills were built, at least in part, in Incognito's image, it's fair to suggest his performance and behavior could be intrinsically tied to the Ryan brothers' longevity in Buffalo.

In an overall chippy Week 7 loss to the Dolphins, Incognito got into a late-game altercation with Miami defensive end Andre Branch after Branch appeared to step on Incognito's head at the bottom of a pile. Incognito ended up standing near the goal line holding Branch's helmet, which he proceeded to huck 20 yards downfield like a bocce ball. When he was fined by the league, he tweeted a clip of the helmet throw with the message, "That's the best $9,115 I've ever spent. F*ck yo helmet!!"

Sure. That's him.

"I guess there are times when things get under your skin," Groy says. "I kind of laughed under my breath when it happened. I definitely would have handled it differently, but I'm not Richie."

Every time Incognito loses his cool -- which has occurred markedly less since he joined the Bills -- is a reminder that he is forever tethered to 2013, when Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins midway through the season and cited Incognito's bullying as the reason. The sordid details and complicated nature of the back-and-forth are well-known by now -- they're the reason Incognito won't talk, of course -- but the situation ended with Incognito's being suspended for the final eight games of the season for behavior that the NFL's report described as "consistent with a case of workplace bullying." He was, in his own words, "radioactive" -- and unsigned -- during the entire 2014 season, until the unabashedly impolitic Ryans took over in Buffalo.

Speaking to Miami reporters about the Martin incident during a conference call in Week 7, Incognito said, "I can sleep good at night knowing what happened and what my actions were. I'm not saying I was a saint, but I sleep well at night knowing what I did."

He said Martin "reached out and tried to speak a few times, but I have nothing to say."

"Richie's crossed the line at times," says Wood, who is one of Incognito's closest friends and was a teammate during Incognito's three-game stint with the Bills in 2009. "And he knows he's crossed the line. You've got to be very careful. Me and him are constantly making fun of each other, but there are times and people you can't do that kind of stuff with."

Martin has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since leaving the game in 2015, but he did speak to USA Today in May, and his comments spoke as much to the locker room culture as to Incognito's behavior: "I don't even know if Richie wants to be a bad person. Part of me thinks he just is because he's allowed to be in the realm he occupies."

Within the tribe, you're yelled at, pushed and teased at every turn. It comes from coaches, teammates, opponents, even parents. It's an endless cycle, and it becomes like background noise. Certainly, Martin's experience went beyond the norm -- the NFL's report concluded that "the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress" -- but within this culture, he doesn't get much sympathy.

From one locker to the next, Bills players made oblique references to "what went on down there." As in, "We know what went on down there" and "People don't really know what went on down there."

"I had heard stories and read stuff," Taylor says. "But I don't actually believe things about someone until I'm around them."

Perhaps the most concise and unintentionally comprehensive answer comes from Powell, who says, "When it comes to football, nobody judges you on your past."


IN LARGE GROUPS, common goals are often vague and unsatisfying. In small groups, like a 53-man football team, they're precise and attainable. The offensive guard has to get to the linebacker, seal the double-team, pick up the blitz. The running back has to read the blocks, carry out the fake, pick up the blitz. The communal nature of the work lends itself to a tight focus.

Comparisons between football and battle are an insult to those who engage in true combat, but it's understandable, and maybe even advantageous, for a football team to cast itself and its goals in military terms. There's an undeniable psychological benefit for a group to believe that it's fighting for its own preservation.

Through this prism, it shouldn't be surprising that Incognito -- the Bills' nominee for this year's USAA Salute to Service Award, incidentally -- is valued by teammates for his loyalty and intensity. Reformed bully? Same guy? In the locker room, it doesn't really matter. We're hardwired to accept those with whom we share the pursuit of a goal.

It's the tribal way. The Iroquois Nation elected civil leaders to conduct affairs during peacetime. When war broke out, however, wartime leaders took control to ensure the survival of the tribe. In the tribal world of the NFL, Incognito would be a wartime leader. Or maybe it's more accurate to say this: Richie Incognito would not be trusted with peace.