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Senior College Football Columnist

Incognito's sad story going from bullied to bully

After he figured he simply couldn't handle any more of the torment, he turned around and cracked the bully in the face.

Twice.

Gave the dude two black eyes.

That's how we've been told to handle bullies, right? Give 'em a taste of their own medicine.

The guy who had been tormented was none other than Richie Incognito. He had been bullied for much of his childhood, getting called "fatass," "lardass" and "whale," Incognito and his parents revealed to me years ago when I profiled him in 2003. At the time, Incognito was a Nebraska O-lineman plagued with anger issues.

When he was in elementary school, teachers told his parents that Richie never stuck up for himself so his old man told him, "You can't let them keep doing it."

Incognito told me that smashing the bully that day didn't make him feel any satisfaction.

"We were both scared," Incognito admitted. "He ran one way, and I ran the other."

The ridicule he endured for being overweight didn't get any better after his family moved to Arizona when he was in the sixth grade and he realized the only thing worse than being the fat kid is being the new fat kid. But he ended up in more fights. He later found what seemed like an ideal place for that rage that had been brewing inside him: the football field. One of his coaches told me back then how he loved that young Richie held grudges, and that he made sure to put him up against anyone who made fun of him when he was younger.

"Football gave me confidence," Richie Incognito told me then, "and something to put my energy into." And, as the old movie line went, it gave him a place where all of his faults became virtues.

In the past few days ugly details have surfaced about Incognito's treatment of Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin after the second-year lineman left the team amid reports that he had been bullied and Incognito was identified as the ringleader. In texts and voicemails Martin made available to the Dolphins and the NFL, Incognito used racial slurs when referring to Martin, colleague Jason La Canfora reported Monday. Additionally, there were several instances of threats, and one exchange in which Incognito refers to defecating in Martin's mouth. Incognito also made reference to tracking down members of Martin's family and harming them.

The reports are hardly the first time in Incognito's NFL career where he has been the center of ugly allegations and controversy. He has been voted the NFL's dirtiest player by his peers. Not long after that magazine story I wrote about Incognito in 2003, his career at Nebraska bottomed out after more incidents due to his rage issues.

"Hate is a strong word but I've always hated Incognito," former NFL defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson, a former NFL defensive end tweeted Monday in the wake of the news. "Just for perspective, he's the guy that makes you want to spit in his face."

When the accounts of what was in the messages Incognito sent to Martin surfaced, it prompted outrage in the media and from some other former NFL players, but seemingly not from his Dolphins teammates. Actually, it was the opposite. They, apparently, viewed all of this as more hazing than harassment.

“I love Richie,” said wide receiver Mike Wallace. “I think he's a great guy.”

Cornerback Will Davis called Incognito one of the most popular players in the Dolphins locker room.

As vile as those alleged messages Incognito sent are, it appears the Dolphins were picking the racist bully over someone they perceived as weak, or worse yet, soft.

The sad reality in this is it's a reminder, like with many other cases of abuse, about how a victim -- Incognito -- learns to become the victimizer in some sort of power play.

Football didn't just enable Incognito's abusive behavior, it rewarded it. And, in one way or another, it encouraged it. Two years ago, Incognito signed a three-year $12.9 million contract. He wasn't being paid for being a nice guy. Incognito plays with an edge. Opponents may hate it, but coaches -- and the majority of his teammates, it seems, love it. But this isn't to put all the blame for Richie Incognito's behavior on a sport.

My guess is years ago -- maybe right back to that day a young Richie wheeled back around and slugged that mouthy kid -- his persona first took root. Eventually, he liked it, because he got respect. Or at least some version of respect. And whether he was liked or hated or probably both, he believed he had respect, which is such a weird twist since his behavior had so little to do with the truest definition of respect.

Truth is, this is a sad, ugly story that you'd have to be pretty cold-hearted or just doused in denial and insecurity not to grasp. It's what happens when people don't have respect for each other or themselves.

The more I heard about the story about the two Dolphins linemen, I wondered if deep down Richie Incognito is still that same scared little kid.

Hopefully, this Incognito/Martin story, which has gotten uglier by the day, will eventually have a positive side due to the attention and, perhaps, awareness that follow.

 
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