Pre-Script: I know I just wrote about the NFL last week, but this has been one of the strangest weeks of off-field NFL activity that I can remember. But to help remind you (and myself) that football isn't all bad, here's a link to a story about an inspirational middle school football team. Now let's get sad again...
Back when the Boston Marathon bombings happened, I wrote a piece recounting the time I ran the last four miles of the marathon my junior year of college. My friend Kathryn was running the race, and as she passed by Boston College’s campus, what started out as a 50-yard jog belong side her for encouragement turned into a 30-minute cheerleading session through downtown Boston. Some other friends even joined me, including my friend Noah who helped a complete stranger that was absolutely exhausted persevere through the final few miles. When they crossed the finish line, she actually ended up embracing him with the purest, most beautiful form of gratitude. While I may not have "technically" run the marathon, that afternoon I was given the opportunity to know the empowering feeling of connective humanity that is firmly at the marathon's core.
So when I first reflected upon the bombing, my first few thoughts were about all those people that wouldn’t be able to experience that aforementioned feeling of what makes that day special. They wouldn't be able to enjoy that unifying sense of accomplishment that comes from a shared effort.
And now that the anger and the confusion from that horrific day has sifted their way out of my system, I find myself experiencing the same resigned disappointment when I think about what's happening with the Miami Dolphins.
For those that are unaware of what's happening with this football team, here is a very brief explanation of the situation (and here’s a longer one):
Until earlier this week, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin were both offensive linemen on the Miami Dolphins. However, on October 30th, Martin left the team following an incident in the cafeteria which involved veterans (including Incognito) picking on the 2nd-year Martin in a relatively harmless way. It eventually came to light though that Incognito had been consistently and mercilessly bullying Martin specifically, possibly at the behest of his coaches, to the point that Martin checked himself into a hospital for emotional distress. This harassment included not only physical threats but abusive text messages and voicemails as well, some of which have been leaked online.
I really like that Brian Phillips of Grantland, in order to remind us how ugly this is when spelled out, didn't censor his transcript of the voicemail so I haven't either:
Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you.
Now there have been a smattering of reactions from former and current NFL players, which range from the sympathetic, "What [it] seemed like was going on there was beyond hazing, beyond your normal rookie-type deals,” to the the defensive, "I love Richie. I think he's a great guy. I don't think he was out of hand. I have a lot of respect for Richie,” to the antagonistic, "I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you're a man," and even the sadly realistic, "I don't think the media, I don't think fans, I don't think anyone outside is really in a position to really fully understand what occurs inside of a locker room and inside of a football team.”
Yes, it’s true I’ll never know what it’s like to be part of an NFL football team, but I am lucky enough to have played rugby in college for four years (and continue to do so today), so I have some idea of what life is like in a locker room.
Like that old saying about prison goes, it is what you make of it.
And it’s a shame that this is how the Dolphins chose to make it. It’s a shame that someone who's making millions of dollars would hate going to their job so much that they were forced to quit due to emotional duress. It’s a shame that Martin didn’t feel like there was any other way he could handle this (even though I believe there were other unexplored avenues). It’s a shame that Incognito was told by so many people, both overtly and through their inaction, that this was okay. It’s a shame that these two men, who play the toughest position in football and who need to depend on each other the most on the field, find themselves in this situation.
But the real shame about it all is that they’ll never know the feeling of being on a true team like I do.
I picked up rugby my freshman year of college and after a few broken bones, black eyes, and bloody noses, it was one of the major parts of my identity. Having gone to an all-boys school for most of my life, I really enjoyed having that place for fraternal camaraderie and with two years under my belt, I was closer to being identified as a veteran than a rookie. I was finally starting to understand the game, and I was even competing for a starting position. But on top of actually knowing what I was doing on the field, one of the more enjoyable responsibilities that came with being an older member of the team was the unofficial task of “adopting” some of the new freshman players.
There’s no formal discussions or drafts about it like I hear fraternities and sororities do; it’s just an organic process of seeing something in a younger player that makes you want to reach out to them. I had players do it for me when I was an awkward 18-year old rookie (I vividly barely remember the first night they took me out drinking with them…), and it really helped make me feel like I was not just someone playing a sport but a member of a team. So when the time came for me to return the favor, I was more than ready to oblige.
As I look back, I can’t discern the exact reasons why it was them specifically, but as the season began I found myself having adopted a whole gang of roommates that were on the team: Taylor, Kirk, and Tripp. Taylor was an ex-football player who had a tendency to get over-excited while on the field, Kirk was a California bro who stole all the freshman girls away from his friends, and Tripp was a 6’5, lanky Midwesterner who was about 20lbs too thin to be playing the position he was. They were an eclectic bunch, but somehow, they were mine.
And sure, during practice I would keep my eye on them and give them advice when I could but really, I wasn’t their coach. That wasn't my job.
I was their teammate.
I showed my affection by tackling them as hard as I could during drills, going after them during scrimmages, and barking at them to hustle when they looked tired (and most likely using tons of vulgar, highly-offensive expletives while doing it). And I'd watch them run faster, hit harder, and really push themselves.
Yeah I would make them (and their parent-bought meal plans) buy me food in the dining halls occasionally and I may or may not have solely relied on one of their’s notes to pass a class one semester, but I would also meet them at the gate of the freshman campus with a suitcase of cheap beer and vodka and I provided them access to the forbidden fruit of upperclassmen parties.
And more importantly, I made sure they knew we were more than just idiots that slammed into each other without helmets on and guzzled beer from shoes while singing drinking songs (don’t ask...).
When Taylor started getting those inevitable freshman jitters, I was there for him. When Tripp confessed that he was tired of getting yelled at by a specific hot-headed senior, we made sure a little behind-the-scenes magic got done. And When Kirk eventually told us he was experiencing some serious post-concussion symptoms that eventually led to him having to retire, the other seniors and I made sure he knew he had all the support in the world and that he wasn't any less tough for admitting he was hurt.
With that said, I’m sure I’ve let slip that I would kill them all at least once or twice while on the field together and I’ve definitely screamed at them from the sidelines that their intensity was lacking, but I honestly believe there is a time and place for that kind of tough love. I yelled not just because they were warriors on a battlefield that needed motivation, but because I cared about them. They knew I was not just a drill sergeant trying to grind them down, but a proud older brother whose responsibility to them didn't end when the match's final whistle blew.
Recently, the Boston College alumni magazine ran a feature on Taylor, who has spent the past two years teaching English to underprivileged children in Paraguay. It had been a while since I had kept up with him but as I read about the life-changing experience of a kid who I once had to fireman’s carry home when he was black-out drunk, that same proud older brother feeling crept up in me and warmed my heart.
I have a few friends that either play or have played in the NFL and when I asked them about this whole ordeal, ex-Jacksonville Jaguar player Colin Cloherty told me that rookies do have to pay for veterans' meals now and then and they occasionally “got thrown in the cold tub,” but he made sure to emphasize that “Incognito’s comments definitely crossed a line,” and that this was "way outside [his] experience or anything [he’s] heard.”
Another source who chooses to remain anonymous due to his current status with the NFL told me that he had heard that Incognito “is a raging alcoholic and a complete psycho,” and this video of Incognito belligerent at a bar corroborates that portrayal (plus anyone that has this collection of tattoos isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed).
But what shifts this situation from infuriating to tragic is that both men, yes both Incognito AND Martin, were unable to be true teammates to one another. There are a lot of woulda/coulda/shoulda’s involved in all this but in the end, the result is that these two couldn’t transcend being just players wearing the same jersey to reach the inherent camaraderie of the sport. And that's a real shame.