USA TODAY - Richie Incognito once bullied a teammate so badly that the teammate suddenly got up from the ground and stomped out of football practice.
It was early 2002 — long before Incognito was accused of similar behavior with the Miami Dolphins. Incognito was just a freshman at Nebraska, but that didn't stop him from picking fights or harassing teammates, in this case a non-scholarship offensive lineman named Jack Limbaugh. Incognito plowed into Limbaugh's back during practice, knocking him to the ground for no apparent reason.
Limbaugh responded by getting up, grabbing his equipment and walking out, according to the diary of teammate David Kolowski.
"Richie was a guy who came in with all the talent in the world, and Jack was an easy mark for a guy like Richie, who came across as a bully," Kolowski told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. "Jack was a walk-on just trying to make the team. There was a bit of that kind of bullying with Jack. He didn't appreciate it, but in that culture you don't run and cry to the coaches."
Limbaugh didn't immediately return messages seeking comment. He rejoined the team and graduated in 2004. But the pattern stuck for Incognito. And this time might finally be his last. The Dolphins suspended Incognito on Sunday amid allegations he bullied a younger teammate, Jonathan Martin, who left the team.
"Hate is a strong word but I've always hated Incognito," Lawrence Jackson, a former NFL defensive end, said Monday on Twitter. "Just for perspective, he's the guy that makes you want to spit in his face."
So how is he still employed in the NFL?
One word: Talent. In football, mean streaks can be assets as long as they stay under control. But that has always been the issue for Incognito: Can he control it this time after not being able to control it previously?
The answer — again — appears to be no. Since his freshman year at Nebraska, all of his college and pro teams have ended up suspending him, cutting ties with him or both.
This time, the NFL is investigating voice and text messages sent by Incognito to Martin. Some reportedly contain a racial slur and vulgar threats.
There's a pattern at work here, much of which resembles an old stereotype: The privileged jock who likes to make life miserable for opponents and easy targets. Indeed, a sign in Incognito's locker boasted, "There are two things Richie Incognito does not like: taxes and rookies." But it's more complicated.
In previous interviews with reporters, Incognito and his father indicated other students ridiculed him for being overweight as a child, especially during sixth grade in Glendale, Ariz. His father, Richie Sr., a Vietnam veteran, told NFL.com that he gave his son advice: "If you let anyone give you (expletive) now, you're going to take (expletive) your entire life."
It's a common cycle for victims of various kinds of abuse, including bullying. Those who suffered often repeat the abuse themselves, especially when they accumulate power over others when they get older.
"When somebody is bullied or there's any type of abuse in their life, we see the cycle of abuse repeated in many different ways," said Shana Alexander, a psychologist in California who has worked with sports teams. "They act out sometimes all the way through their lives. Unless that person can recognize they have issues and want to change that pattern, it tends to want to repeat itself."
Just don't expect his victims to give him much sympathy. The issues stretch back at least as far as his Nebraska years, when he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and suspended from the team at least two times before transferring to Oregon in 2004. He often instigated fights with teammates and was ejected from a game for fighting in 2002. In 2003, he allegedly spat at opponents in the Alamo Bowl. Oregon even cut him loose before he participated in a single practice.
"He didn't know where to draw the line," said Kolowski, who published Diary of a Husker.
In the NFL, he quickly gained a reputation as a dirty player, even being voted as the league's dirtiest in a 2009 survey by the Sporting News.
The St. Louis Rams gave up on him after he head-butted two opponents in 2009, the latest of the 38 penalties he committed with the Rams in four seasons. The Buffalo Bills claimed him, but dumped him after three games, leading him to Miami, where he seemed to settle down after signing in 2010. He spoke of getting treatment for depression and learning from his mistakes.
But in August, Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith ripped off Incognito's helmet and swung it at his face. He said Incognito instigated it — a common accusation from opponents, who say he pinches them in piles and takes cheap shots at them when he can get away with it.
Kolowski, his old teammate at Nebraska, called him "hyper-active."
Jackson, the former NFL defensive lineman, called him something else.
"Richie Incognito is... a dirty and disrespectful player," Jackson said on Twitter. "For those wondering...I played him 4x when I was with Seattle. We all knew to watch our KNEES and be alert for his antics."
Contributing: Lorenzo Reyes in Davie, Fla.
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