NAPA, Calif. — Pride is a tough meal to swallow, even more difficult for the biggest and strongest among us, men shaped like mountains and conditioned from their first Herculean stride down a school hallway that seeking help is among the weakest of our humanly links.
“It’s an ego thing,” Richie Incognito said. “I know it was for me.”
He wasn’t sure the phone would ring again, that there would be enough interest in a 36-year-old offensive lineman whose obvious talent on the field has time and again been eclipsed by his disturbing behavior off it.
But in signing Incognito in May, the Raiders traveled a road most NFL teams had decided against, and it was after the team’s first full-squad training camp practice Saturday when the veteran guard spoke publicly about it for the first time.
He is fighting dark days and menacing demons magnified by past headlines about issues with the law and locker room bullying while reportedly using racial slurs and vicious sexual taunts, about incidents that have called into question his mental health.
One such example, in which Incognito wanted to cut his deceased father’s head off for research purposes and threatened to shoot employees at a funeral home if they didn’t allow him access to the body, resulted in a two-game suspension without pay to begin this season.
He also was admitted to a mental hospital in May 2018 after allegedly throwing weights and tennis balls at gym employees and another patron in Florida, then telling responding officers that the government was spying on him.
“I think there is a platform for me to talk about mental health,” Incognito said. “Mental health in this country is something that is stigmatized. It has been well (publicized) that I’ve had my ups and downs. I’m still working through it, so I’m not really comfortable speaking on it right now. It has been a long journey.
“When I first came into the league in 2005, there was zero talk about mental health. But with concussions and traumatic brain injuries and mental health taking the forefront in the news, the league needs to spend more time on it. You see guys struggle with it when they get away from the game and guys like myself still in the game who struggle.”
It might not even be day to day with Incognito and the Raiders.
It might be second to second.
Recent reports suggested that, despite missing 1½ years after an investigation into bullying behavior and insults, the four-time Pro Bowler continued using offensive language in the Bills’ locker room during his final three seasons (2015-17) with Buffalo.
He then missed all of last season, at first embracing the idea of retirement before hoping for a final chance to write a different type of closing narrative.
The Raiders obliged, a central reason being there was a need at Incognito’s position and a belief that he can help win games. So they signed him to a one-year deal and stated there would be a “clinician” on site to aid in the process.
At what cost?
They think he can still play.
Best version of self
Ironic, no? The one place where many of his issues have arose, the sanctuary inside which the 6-foot-3-inch, 325-pound Incognito has proven himself so talented and yet so troubled, is where he feels safest.
“It’s about redemption,” Incognito said. “It’s about getting another opportunity, and (general manager) Mike Mayock and (coach) Jon Gruden and the Raiders giving me that. I want to make this a positive for everybody. I want to come in here and be a leader and rewrite the ending.
“It’s about me being man enough to ask for help when I need it. We’ve obviously seen that I have had setbacks and my dark days, but I’m focusing on the positive days and building some momentum. I think the path is just being around the guys, being around football, being in a good state mentally, physically and emotionally, working toward a goal, showing up and being accountable.”
Redemption can be hard and messy. It can be a deep, dark hole from which to emerge.
Richie Incognito says he is here to begin climbing, and the Raiders have offered him a ladder.
It will be a second-to-second ascent.
“I’m bringing the best version of myself,” he said. “I really want to get this right.”
Chapters are written as life unfolds, even a final one.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.
Richie Incognito file
Hometown: Englewood, N.J.
NFL career: St. Louis (2005-2009); Buffalo (2009); Miami (2010-2013); Buffalo (2015-2017); Oakland (2019).
Pro Bowl: 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017