Commentary

NEBRASKA'S RICHIE INCOGNITO ALWAYS PLAYS ON

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:20 PM ET
By BRUCE FELDMAN

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 still, Bernard found that the kid held grudges. "I loved that," the coach admits.

"Ben knew what Richie went through," says Richie Sr. "So he made sure that in drills Richie was one-on-one with someone who broke his horns when he was younger."

"Football gave me confidence," Richie says, "and something to put my energy into." And in football, Incognito found a game for which all of his faults were virtues. Bernard marveled at Richie's mean streak and how he was able to summon that hostility on every down. He'd never been around a guy so rough. "When he put the pads on, he became such a [jerk]," the coach says. "He'd yell, 'I'm not so fat now, am I?' It was a job keeping him from hurting our other guys."

In Richie's senior year, his goal each game was to wipe out every starter across from him by halftime. Bernard says Incognito made good six of 10 times. He didn't surrender a sack his entire prep career. Every powerhouse recruited him. His old man wanted him to go to Miami, but Junior felt at home during his visit to Nebraska. "I don't want to go anyplace else," he told his father. "There is nothing to do there. It's just football."

RICHIE SAYS he can't explain what makes him better than other linemen, but he does know what makes him good. "My love for the game," he says. "I play with passion. It's hard-nosed football. You try to wear the other guy down so he's sitting on the sidelines, saying, 'Damn I don't wanna go out there again.' I want other players to always have me in the back of their mind."

Tenopir, Nebraska's crusty O-line coach from 1973 to 2002, says Incognito has as much potential as any of his six Outland winners. "Richie's got excellent feet and tremendous strength," says Tenopir. "And he's full of pep and vinegar. You can't teach what he came here with."

Actually, Coach, you can. Sports psychologist Curt Lox says that aggression can be cultivated. "Football players are taught, socialized to be aggressive," Dr. Lox says. "Coaches want their guys to kick butt, and the more, the better."

Tenopir admits he didn't mind the scuffles at practice. Heck, it might've fired up some of the other guys. Tenopir's take on trying to rein in Richie? "I don't think you ever want to take spunk out of a guy," he says. "you make him less of a player." And right there is the gray area. "I can work with an athlete for days, even months," says Dr. Lox, "and a coach can undo it with just one statement. So can a parent, because we're talking about kids, really."

Richie's mom has tried to help her son find the balance. Last year before each game, she called to give him the same speech: "I know how you want to win this game, but there's one thing you've got to do for me, and that's be good. Don't get in any fights today." And then, at some point during the game, Richie would get into it with someone. That's when Mom would barge her way toward the Nebraska bench. "The event staff would say, 'You can't talk to him.' And I'd say, 'Yes, I can.' And then I'd tell Richie, 'You play the right way or you get off the field.'" Richie smiles when he's asked about Mom's advice. "She really doesn't understand football," he says.

Nor does she understand what many fans want. Incognito has grown into a folk hero in Nebraska. Husker Nation sees him as a link to the glory days of Outland Trophies and national titles. Fans flock to him wherever he goes, and even his parents get swamped with e-mails and photo-shopped pictures of Richie defending the Stars 'n Stripes. None of the rest matters to the fans: not the memories of those early playground humiliations, not the pressures of being a freshman starter on the worst Nebraska team in over 40 years, nor the pain at having a mentor sacked.

Ultimately, the school sent Richie to Menninger not because he was a threat to himself or others. They sent him because they were worried about his emotional well-being. In fact, what he went through at the clinic was not technically anger management; Richie just did a lot of talking and a lot of listening to counselors with advice as simple and obvious as take deep breaths and think before you react. Makes sense in a quiet treatment room, but what about in a rabid stadium with the seconds ticking off the play clock?

Will he be a changed man on the field this fall? He'd better be: Incognito was the only Husker named preseason all-Big 12, and the team is counting on him to lead. The Incognitos say that their boy has matured and that his trip to Kansas has helped-to a point. "He didn't get it after running all those stadium stairs," his mom says. "Richie just thought of that as a workout. But I don't think Richie is ever going to completely stop being the way he is. There's just a fire in his belly."

"He just knows how to control it better," Senior adds, hopefully.

Richie thinks he's learned from his mistakes too. "I had a problem with letting stuff roll off my back," he says. "And I've worked on that." But consider two of Richie's idols-Kyle Turley (Rams) and Olin Kreutz (Bears). Both were sent to anger management training, and neither has toned down the fury. This fall, when Turley signed with the Rams, coach Mike Martz was thrilled, and not just because his newest lineman has Pro Bowl talent. "Any time you can add attitude like Kyle's at any position, you should do it," Martz said. "I love the way he plays."

So does Richie Incognito.