Two years ago, Richie Incognito found himself at the center of one of the biggest scandals of the 2013 NFL season. The bullying incident severely damaged his public image and left the former Pro Bowler on the sidelines for the last six weeks of the 2013 season and the entire 2014 season. Although his journey back to the field isn't complete, Incognito has come a long way since then. Last Sunday, he was named the starting left guard by head coach Rex Ryan after just three days of training camp.
When Incognito was signed in February, the Bills knew that they were taking a risk. He brought lots of baggage from his off-the-field scandal and he hadn't played professional football for 15 months. Inside the locker room, however, Incognito instantly had the support of his new teammates.
"I was excited for him to get another chance personally and I was excited to add him to the line," center Eric Wood said. "I was excited to see how he handled his business and he's been nothing but a great professional since the day he got here."
"I've got to thank the guys on this team. They were really cool; they welcomed me with open arms," Incognito said. "They were very welcoming, they took me at face value and we're building that respect every single day."
Incognito has a history that goes well beyond the 2013 bullying incident. Athletically, he's always been gifted. He threw shot put and was a competitive weightlifter in addition to being an All-American offensive lineman in high school.
While he was in college, Incognito was considered one of the top centers in the NCAA. Discipline problems held him back from reaching his full potential in college, however he was still drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. He made the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season as a member of the Miami Dolphins. That season, he was also given the Good Guy Award—honoring players from each NFL team who help the media do its job—along with teammate Reggie Bush.
As part of his journey back, Incognito has had to prove that he isn't as he was portrayed two years ago. Discipline problems have plagued him throughout his career, so for him, it's an ongoing process.
"I have something to prove every single day: something to prove to myself, something to prove to my family, something to prove to my teammates," he said. "I'm just out here to prove that I'm a good guy, I'm a good teammate and I can be trusted with this opportunity."
Since his return to Buffalo, Incognito has been a model teammate. Not only is he working hard and being a good citizen, but also, according to Wood, he's "fun to be around."
"I've hung out with him off the field before [he came to the Bills]," Wood said. "He's always been a popular guy amongst guys around the league and he just handles his business."
One of the biggest questions surrounding Incognito's return to football was whether or not he could maintain his athleticism. Although he's always been athletically gifted, it's difficult to mimic offensive line drills without a team around you. Despite the obstacles, Incognito showed up to spring practices in great shape.
"I just grinded. I was back home training at EXOS in Arizona," Incognito said. "We approach every day like I was preparing to play and I never lost sight of that. I just woke up in the morning and willed myself to get better every single day and it showed."
Incognito's hard work in his time away from the game didn't go unnoticed by his teammates. Wood said that Incognito was even "a little better" athletically than he was two years ago, despite his time away from the game.
"Freshness wise and athletically, he's got those fresh legs from a year off," Wood said. "There's not a lot of O-line play that you can practice on your own."
That athleticism was a significant factor when Ryan named Incognito as the starting left guard last early in camp. Ryan said that he was one of the fittest players on the team during conditioning tests.
"When we were doing our conditioning tests, he was 20-30 yards ahead of everybody else," Ryan said. "He's even further along than I thought he'd be as far as coming back in shape and it's like he never missed any time. I think when you look at Richie he's been absolutely tremendous here."
Incognito's past is behind him, but earning the respect of fans and teammates alike is ongoing and he's taking nothing for granted.
"I'm approaching it like it's my first time playing the game. I'm doing all the little stuff and just looking to grow and continue to be a good teammate each and every day," Incognito said. "I feel good now and I'm going to put in a productive season."