When the NAIA scheduled its inaugural Champions of Character Foundation Awards Luncheon, it didn’t consult with the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito.
But there it was, the intersection of tumultuous topic and positive message building in athletics.
The cover of the event’s program said it all: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, leadership. The NAIA has promoted those ideals since its inception in Kansas City nearly eight decades ago.
How about this kicker? The keynote speaker Wednesday was Tom Osborne, the great former Nebraska coach and perhaps the most respected person to wear college headsets. Incognito started his career at Nebraska.
But when asked about the Incognito situation, response was limited and general … and smart.
Who knew exactly what had happened and — was happening — in Miami? In this rapidly evolving story, Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin had left the team to deal with emotional issues last week. A few days later, the word bullying was first used, and a day later Incognito was identified as the bully. Then came a response from Incognito’s Twitter account “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”
Incognito was suspended and his racially charged voicemail toward Martin from last spring became public.
At this point, public opinion stacked up against Incognito, and his history at Nebraska was reintroduced. I covered a Cornhuskers game at Penn State in 2002 and saw Incognito get kicked out of the game after throwing punches with Nittany Lions defensive end Jeremiah Davis.
It was one of several temper tantrums during his three years there. Incognito was suspended from the team, transferred to Oregon and lasted a week.
Osborne, who retired from coaching after the 1997 season and began the first of his three terms in the U.S. House of Representative in 2001, never coached Incognito. “He was kicked off the team, so there must have been a problem,” Osborne said.
But as the story evolved this week, moods shifted, at least in the football world. Dolphins teammates came to Incognito’s defense, insisting Martin should have stood up for himself. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill described Martin and Incognito as good friends. Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks said, “We’re trying to clear Richie’s name. He’s getting a bad rap.”
The story burrowed deeper, beyond bullying and hazing and into locker room culture and teammate and position group camaraderie. Even the role coaches may have played came into question when reports surfaced that Incognito may have been asked to toughen up Martin.
That’s why, even at a luncheon that celebrated character in athletics, Osborne and honorary co-chair Mark Donovan, the Chiefs president, declined a direct comment on the story. So did Chiefs assistant coaches who were made available for interviews on Tuesday for the first time this season.
But as the saga was unfolding in Miami, it reminded many who attended the luncheon that perhaps one of the less acknowledged components of the Chiefs’ remarkable start is a harmonious locker room.
Getting along when a football team is 9-0 may be met with a chorus of “duh,” and it’s fair to ask if winning begets unity. Because if it’s the other way around last year’s locker room, along with the team, was among the worst in franchise history.
This year, it’s a real thing to coach Andy Reid, who believes the Chiefs have won games this season because guys have each other’s backs.
“The thing that surprises me most about the team … is how close the group is,” he said. “They don’t care if they’re ahead or down, they just keep encouraging each other.
“It’s kind of a neat deal. It’s a special quality to have and we’ll keep building on that.”