NEBRASKA'S RICHIE INCOGNITO ALWAYS PLAYS ON
BRUCE FELDMAN
10 de July de 2012, 2:20 PM
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The giant man with the little boy's face might be the best offensive lineman in college football. But depending on whom you ask, this apple-cheeked 20- year-old is all that is good or bad about the game. Some say he plays with a mean streak, that he's out of control. And some say-well, whisper-that if Nebraska is serious about getting back on top, it needs 10 more Richie Incognitos.
Last season, Richie was the first freshman offensive lineman to start an opener for the Huskers. He finished the year with 171 pancake blocks, the second-most in school history. Yeah, at 6'3", 310, Richie is a bit squat for a left tackle. But size doesn't make a great football player. Passion does. Fire.
Nebraska's coaches have loved Richie ever since he was a redshirt on the scout team, kicking the crap out of the starters every day. Inevitably, an upperclassman would get pissed at Incognito for not dialing it down, and come after him. But Richie wouldn't back down. No, Richie would go right back at him. The coaches would wink at one another, chuckle about his "spunk." Sure, they'd kick him out of practice or make him run the stadium steps whenever he squared off, which would be about three times a week. (One practice, Richie says, he had to run the steps five times.) He's been up and down those Memorial Stadium stairs more times than a hot dog vendor. But, c'mon, what coach doesn't want his guys to play like Richie?
And yet those little smackdowns didn't seem so innocent when Richie took the field for real last season. In his second game, he allegedly spit on a Troy State linebacker. Two weeks later, with the Huskers getting crushed at Penn State, Richie ended up on top of Nittany Lions DE Jeremiah Davis. CompuBox would've had a tough time logging the body blows. Richie's rage hurt Nebraska most late in the season. Against Colorado, he got flagged for a momentum-turning personal foul deep in Buffalo territory, after he took a swing at an opponent. Nebraska settled for a field goal and a 13-7 third-quarter lead in a game it would lose 28-13. "I hate pointing fingers," defensive end Chris Kelsay said after the game, "but that was stupid. Three points, and it should've been seven."
The off-season offered no relief for Richie. It was hard enough stomaching those seven losses before his mentor, position coach Milt Tenopir, was forced to retire as part of a staff purge. Then, in the Huskers' first spring scrimmage, Richie got flagged for fighting with a teammate and was suspended for half of spring drills. The coaches called his behavior a violation of team policy and told him he had to meet some off-the field demands before he could return.
Not long before camp broke, Richie was spotted in Topeka, Kan., at the Menninger Clinic, a facility that treats people with psychiatric and behavioral problems. The stay was supposed to be a secret. He was going to be in and out in a week, learning to control his rage, and he'd be back in Lincoln before anyone noticed he was gone. And then someone saw him-and tipped off the Omaha World-Herald.
A reporter tracked him down at a Ruby Tuesday's in Topeka, lunching with the Huskers' strength coach, and just like that, Richie's self-improvement odyssey was front-page news. The story did mention that an extensive check with Lincoln police and campus security showed Richie had broken no laws. But it also mentioned that the clinic was where Nebraska sent Lawrence Phillips after he dragged a girl by the hair down a flight of stairs.
Richie threw down his cell phone when someone called him about the story. He felt violated, and can you blame him? The clinic has discreetly treated dozens of movie stars and pro athletes, but a teenage college football player gets outed? Then Richie saw the moment for what it was-a test. He took a deep breath, just as he'd been taught, and thought about what mattered most to him: playing football.
DON'T GET the wrong idea about Richie: he's not one of those guys who's always spoiling for a fight. He's not even the most volatile guy on his line. Guard Junior Tagoa'i has been charged with assault, disturbing the peace and contempt of court. Richie greets strangers with a big smile, and he says "please" and "thank you." He doesn't answer questions with a simple yes. It's always, "Oh, definitely. Definitely," punctuated by a little kid's nod. He wants you to like him. He wants to make people happy.
But there is that other side of Richie, the one that rises up whenever he competes. Maybe it's fueled by an unabating need to win. Playing T-ball growing up in northern New Jersey, Richie watched as all the kids who hit grounders got thrown out at first. So when he hit one, he ran right to third and stood on the bag triumphantly. "See, Mommy," he said. "I tricked them."
"Everyone thought he was confused," says Richie's mom, Donna, "but he knew exactly what he was doing." Richie's folks already knew about his competitiveness. Whenever they played cards, he cheated like crazy to win. The Incognitos asked their pediatrician where that came from. The best the doc could come up with was that maybe it was an only-child thing (Richie is 10 years older than his brother, Derek).
Seth Bendian, a baseball coach who worked with the kid for three years starting when Richie was 7, vividly remembers the Jekyll-Hyde transformation. "He was this nice, sweet kid, but once he started playing, his face changed," says Bendian. "He was almost too intense, at least for baseball."
It didn't help Richie's disposition any that he was tormented by the other kids. Every day it was "fatass," "lardass" or "whale." When teachers told his folks that Richie never stuck up for himself, Richie Sr., a mason and old-school tough guy, told his son, "you can't let them keep doing it." So one day, on the playground in third grade, Richard Dominick Incognito decided that Joey, the local loudmouth, had called him "lardass" for the last time. Richie answered with a one-two combo that sent Joey home with two black eyes. The whuppin' didn't give Richie any satisfaction. "We were both scared," he says. "He ran one way, and I ran the other." But from that day on, Richie never backed down. "I think fighting was distasteful for Richie," Bendian says. "But he realized that if you want a kid off your back, you have to beat the crap out of him."
When Richie was in sixth grade, his family moved to Arizona, and he came to another realization: the only thing worse than being the fat kid is being the new fat kid. "It was terrible," he says. "I got into a lot of shoving matches."
And then football saved him. Ben Bernard, the school's line coach, says when Richie walked into the weight room at the start of his sophomore year, he looked "like a toad." But Bernard saw something in the big kid. He was hungry, and he listened to everything Bernard told him during their daily three-hour sessions. And the stronger he got, the hungrier he got. Better...
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