KAHUKU, Hawaii — Richie Incognito completed his return to the NFL with a spot in the Pro Bowl. His journey in the aftermath of the 2013 Bullygate scandal was far from easy and included his sitting out the entire 2014 season. Incognito recently discussed his travails with Bleacher Report.
Bleacher Report: I can imagine that you probably didn’t envision yourself being in the Pro Bowl at this time a year ago after sitting out the entire 2014 season.
Richie Incognito: No doubt. I’m just thankful for having come out on the other end of it. Getting the opportunity to come back and play, a big thing for me was enjoying the moment and enjoying training camp, enjoying practicing with the guys. To come out on the other end of it and sit back in Hawaii and reflect on how everything went, it was a crazy ride, a wild ride.
B/R: How close were you to thinking that you weren’t going to get a chance to play again?
RI: It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t make it back. The thought that crossed my mind during the 2014 season was that I knew after Week 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all those weeks rolling by that it wasn’t possible that season. I held onto hope that once teams got into their offseason cycle for 2015 that I would get some interest, and that happened.
B/R: Is there a lowest moment? I say that as the son of someone who dealt with being bipolar and suffered from extreme ups and downs.
RI: I think the darkest moment was willing myself out of bed because I just wanted to lay there all day long, all night long. I was getting myself up and getting myself in the gym everyday and then I’d come home and I’d have nothing to do. I was at the point where I said to myself, "Do I go back to school? Do I start interning? Do I get a job? What do I do?"
The repetitiveness of doing that—working out and then going home and laying on my couch—it was almost unbearable for a while. I did that for almost a year, year-and-a-half, on any given day. That was the lowest point, of being in that repetitive cycle of not knowing what I’m training for or training my butt off and not knowing if I’ll get an opportunity and just the emptiness of not playing football.
B/R: What was the feeling like of putting the pads back on for the first time?
RI: It was good, man. I remember walking around the locker room at training camp. It felt like a game to me. I had the music going.
B/R: Earphones on?
RI: Earphones on, off in my own world, getting focused. It felt like I was getting prepared for a game. We went out there and started hitting people around and it just kind of affirmed to me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
B/R: What was your vision of what a football player was supposed to be before this, and what is a football player supposed to be now? Is it different?
RI: I think my vision of being a professional, as opposed to being a football player before, has completely changed. Being a pro is doing everything right all the time. It sounds cliche, but if you apply that to strength training, if you apply that to a lot of body work, if you apply that to making good decisions, all the work I did on myself and all the time I spent with therapists and doctors and family, that was my mantra: "Do it right all the time."
It started to build momentum, and it started to build up steam. Then once I got the opportunity to come back and play, I just kept using that and it helped.
B/R: But it’s also about knowing what is the right thing to do. Jeff Darlington of NFL Network did a great story on you, and one of the things the story talked about was how your dad taught you not to take any crap. I understand that advice and even tell my own kids a version of that. There’s hearing that and then taking that too far, as if that’s the only answer in the face of all problems.
RI: Right. I think the biggest thing is that I had time to sit back and reflect on everything that happened to me and realized that things went too far. It was a process for me to realize…when everything first went down, I was in denial about it. "Not me, this didn’t happen. My teammates had my back."
Then you go back and look at the situations from both angles, and that’s where the progress and the growth came, by being able to look at it from the other side. Moving forward, knowing to do the right thing was learning from my mistakes of the past. Sometimes it’s just, don’t do that.
B/R: Is the answer as simple as thinking first rather than reacting to every situation?
RI: I think that, in the moment, yeah. But I really had to think about how I carried myself in the locker room, how I carried myself as a leader of the team. And once the thoughts and the thinking changed, that’s when everything came around and changed for me. The way I carried myself, the way I was perceived. Until I stopped and thought about that, it wasn’t going to change.
B/R: Is there a moment when that clicks, or is it progressive?
RI: You know, it was slow at first, and then the ball got rolling a little bit and I had a great team around me, family, friends for support, doctors, therapists, mentors. I was willing to listen to anybody and everybody who would help, and thank God I had a really good group of people to get me in touch with the right people to kind of help remake myself. Without good help, I wouldn’t have been able to take those steps.
B/R: Where is your dad in this process of helping? I know he loves you and wants to help, but does he help?
RI: I think we all went through this together, and he’s been my biggest supporter. I think we all learned from this and got better.
B/R: Jonathan Martin is obviously out of football now. I’m a Stanford grad and said many times that I didn’t think he had the right makeup for this game. Have you ever talked to him about this?
B/R: If you could, have you ever thought about the kind of conversation you’d like to have?
RI: Absolutely nothing.
B/R: There is no way to bridge that gap?
B/R: You talked about how this is what you’re meant to do. Talk about actually getting back on the field and playing again.
RI: At first, it went well. I knew I had a strong training camp and could play. But being able to do that week in and week out, it’s tough. Being out there with the guys and practice, it really turned the corner for me.
Even though I got signed by Buffalo and was playing, that didn’t mean that I didn’t have dark days. It took time to get accustomed to the locker room and get back in the groove and then just start concentrating on football again. So to get out on the field, it was like milestones, checkpoints. The first game back against the Colts, I felt good and we won and all that feeling came rushing back and it was important for me to hold onto that.
B/R: Is there a tendency after you return to want to go back to the way you did it before? You’re out on the field, you have the confidence back, you’re feeling good...does it maybe feel like you can go back to old habits that can be destructive?
RI: That’s the important thing, knowing where my weak points are and staying as far away from them. It was good this season in that the temptation was never really there. That’s how I know in my heart that I’m on the right track.
B/R: Before I ever covered the NFL, I covered the NBA and the Golden State Warriors. I remember one time after Chris Mullin went through alcohol rehab that a teammate shouted at him after a game and asked if Mullin wanted to get some pizza and beer. Mullin just smiled and said no. But the temptation is there and sometimes teammates do things, even unwittingly, that can hurt.
RI: No, I don’t think so, and even if they did, it wouldn’t affect me. Again, the biggest thing for me is surrounding myself with good people and steering clear, far clear, of all my demons in the past. Being in Buffalo with guys like Eric Wood, Tyrod Taylor, Kraig Urbik...the temptation was never there. The temptation to do the right thing was there and to hold up my end of the bargain.
B/R: Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News said that win or lose, you talk after every game. You don’t hide from the attention.
RI: Win, lose or draw, it’s our obligation to talk. When you’re winning, it’s easy to get out there, but when you’re losing, it’s tough to be out there and talk. I think it’s important that I speak. That’s my responsibility.
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.