Fantasy Football For Poets: Week Ten

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THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how big you are, or that you went to Stanford on a football scholarship, or that you’re a starting player in the NFL.

On October 28th, 2013, Jonathan Martin, offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, entered the team cafeteria. The Dolphins are a team that enjoys hazing its players, and the offensive line, led by veteran Richie Incognito, make it a lifestyle. One of their traditions is that the final offensive lineman to enter the cafeteria has to eat alone; if he sits next to teammates, they have to get up and leave the table.

That day, Jonathan was the last one, and this time, the ritual made the young second-year player snap. He threw his cafeteria tray to the ground, left team facilities, and has never returned.

Reports say he’s with family members. Some say that he checked himself into a hospital or entered a treatment facility, but it’s unsure what exactly for. The only thing everyone knows for certain is that Jonathan was the target of repeated and sometimes racist hazing at the hands of Richie Incognito and other teammates, and this undoubtedly contributed to his unexcused absence.

Jonathan’s sensitive, funny, and smart. “Interesting that ‘Druthers’ is a part of the English language, first written by Mark Twain,” Jonathan tweeted earlier this year – adding #YesImANerd.

Back in March, he tweeted this, which I think is brilliant: “Most of the time when I don’t hear what someone said, I start laughing like they made a joke… Usually ends up awkward smh”

And in September, he tweeted this one, which, in context with everything we know now, is revealing: “I’m done playing credit card roulette SMDH.”

As it turns out, Jonathan had to do a lot more than credit card roulette. As an NFL rookie on the hazing-friendly Dolphins, Jonathan was often forced to pay for the lavish meals of veterans, despite the fact that he was making a fraction of what many of his experienced colleagues were making.

“Everything tastes better when rookies pay for it,” veteran Miami defensive lineman Jared Odrick tweeted last Friday. “Yes, the bill would make you sick.”

“I just seen a dinner bill for $30,000… WOW,” tweeted Dolphins defensive back Will Davis, adding #RookieNight.

Jonathan also had to chip in $15,000 towards a team vacation to Las Vegas. Jonathan didn’t even go on the trip.

The NFL rookie salary of about $400,000 a year seems like a lot of money, but when it’s flying out of your pocket in these increments at heavy regularity, it can be crushing. Some NFL rookies on teams with a lot of hazing end up living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Paying for the veterans wasn’t Jonathan’s only issue. Richie Incognito, a member of the team’s elected leadership council, has singled out young Jonathan for special treatment, christening him “Big Weirdo” and leaving messages on his voicemail that to Dolphins management didn’t sound like humor, tough love, or even what they’d typically recognize as hazing.

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of (expletive),” Richie said. “I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. (expletive) in your (expletive) mouth. (I’m going to) slap your (expletive) mouth. (I’m going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter). (Expletive) you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

Richie IncognitoHearing this from Richie, who is white, directed towards Jonathan, who is bi-racial, horrified the Dolphins, who suspended Richie indefinitely on Monday. “From a club perspective he’ll never play another game here,” a team source told the Miami Herald.

To some, it’s a miracle that Richie got this far in the NFL. “I didn’t want him coming out [of college] and I don’t want him now,” former Patriots & Chiefs executive Scott Pioli said on NBC, adding “if Incognito’s a leader in your locker room, then your locker room has a leadership problem.”

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy, on the Dan Patrick show, added that Richie was on the Indianapolis Colts’ “DNDC” list – “Do Not Draft because of Character.”

“It’s unbelievable to think that he wielded his powers the way that he did.” ESPN’s Adam Schefter said on WEEI Boston’s Dennis & Callahan show. “We’ve seen in the NFL, veterans take rookies out and rookies picking up big dinner tabs and things of this sort. This went above and beyond that. This was an example where Jonathan Martin felt threatened, he felt intimidated, he felt harassed.”

Brendon Ayanbadejo, former Pro Bowl special teams player for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, knows a thing or two about being an outsider – his outspoken advocacy of gay rights and same-sex marriage throughout his long playing career didn’t always make him very popular in NFL locker rooms. But when it came to hazing, he both took it and dished it out.

“Over the course of my football career, I have witnessed — and participated in — the making and breaking of countless young men,” he writes for Fox Sports. “Since the day I started playing football at age 14 I was told to have thick skin and that I couldn’t be sensitive.”

Other ex-players are far less even-handed. Former NFL lineman Brett Romberg, appearing on 790 The Ticket, said that he had “no sympathy” for Martin – and that he was speaking on behalf of the vast majority of football players. “If you want to be sensitive, go play tennis,” said Romberg.

Jonathan himself participated in hazing, though possibly just to adhere to the program. According to the Miami Herald, Martin was a part of the group that “stole” and hid teammate Josh Samuda’s car during training camp, and he was also part of the lunchtime table prank when lineman Nate Garner was the last guy into the cafeteria the week before.

It’s clear, however, that whatever side he was on, this was one aspect of football life that was getting to him. Last week, after his self-imposed absence, he even texted this to Richie Incognito, implying that his teammates are just pawns in a larger game: “Yeah, I’m good, man. It’s insane bro, but just know I don’t blame you guys at all. It’s just the culture around football, and the locker room got to me a little.”

Still, whatever we on the outside call what Jonathan Martin has experienced—many have called it bullying, a few have called it a hate crime—it’s important to remember that, so far, Jonathan himself has not characterized his emotional experience in the NFL with so tidy a label. He stepped away from his team for his own reasons, having a lot to do with hazing but, one senses, having more to do with the NFL lifestyle in a holistic sense, and a lot of folks who can’t understand why someone would walk out on a six-figure, high-profile dream job are looking for schoolyard analogies to help them understand it.

When a smart, funny, sensitive, successful man walks out of a lucrative, hard-earned spotlight, we want answers. For now, Jonathan Martin isn’t talking, not that he owes us a damn word. His teammates, in spite of their lineup taking a major hit—they’re now missing two starters with Martin absent and Incognito suspended—are, perhaps unsurprisingly, patient and understanding.

“Obviously, we care about J-Mart a lot; we just want him to be all right,” Tyson Clabo, who has inherited Jonathan’s job in his absence, tells ESPN. “I want him to come back to work. He’s a talented, young football player. I can’t say what he’s feeling. But I know if and when he wants to come back, I will be there to shake his hand.”

 

A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND

Week Nine of the NFL season, more so than most weeks, was heavy with irreproducible results. Several players filled or emptied the hearts of fantasy football enthusiasts worldwide with obscene statistical achievements, and it was as beautiful as a Norman Rockwell painting, lit on fire and being chewed apart by prairie dogs.

Yet before you go trading Adrian Peterson and Brandon Marshall for Nick Foles, allow me to discern which of these athletes may be able to replicate their achievements, and which ones will never be seen again, like a New Yorker magazine left behind on the subway.

1. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton’s three-touchdown performance vs. the Houston Texans.

I watched part of this game with my friend George at a bar in Hollywood. The person nearest to us kept talking to me about off-roading in the Mojave Desert, and, being attentive to them out of politeness, I missed a decent part of this game, including all of T.Y. Hilton’s touchdowns. That said, I can’t say if they were the result of blown coverage, or a blossoming, gorgeous bond emerging between the second-year quarterback Andrew Luck and his second-year receiver, Hilton. Perhaps they will spend their entire careers together, and in a dozen years we’ll stare back into this night and behold the impulse buy of true love.

I do admire that T.Y. Hilton listens to Beyonce, Marvin Sapp, and Betty Wright to psych himself up for games. “I’ve just got to have my slow music with me,” Hilton told Sports Illustrated. “Eases my mind.” But three touchdowns in one game, again? Considering that all three happened in just over one quarter, let’s say absolutely it’ll happen again.

Probability of repeat: 8 out of 10, or your chances of sharing a cross-country red-eye flight with a crying infant.

2. Pittsburgh wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery’s three touchdowns vs. the New England Patriots.

It was garbage time, with New England ahead by seventy million, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had all day to throw, and he seems to like Jerricho Cotchery. However, the veteran had only two touchdowns in 2013 before last week, and averages just a hair over five targets a game. He doesn’t have the size of fellow fluky receiver Riley Cooper, or a starting job. Look elsewhere unless desperate.

Probability of repeat: The likelihood that the person sitting next to you in the Jiffy Lube waiting room has been typing you a secret love note this whole time. Or the likelihood of ever meeting someone named “Jerricho Cotchery.”

Nick Foles 23. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles’ record-tying seven touchdown game against the Oakland Raiders, on the road in Oakland.

Who else in history has ever thrown seven touchdowns in a game, and when? Sid Luckman (1943), Y.A. Tittle (1962), George Blanda (1961), Peyton Manning (2013), Adrian Burk (1954), and Joe Kapp (1969). Let it be noted as well that Nick Foles threw his seventh touchdown in the third quarter, and may have certainly set the all-time NFL record had they not taken him out of the game to protect him from being hurt. Nick, the son of a multi-millionaire restaurant entrepreneur, who sold 11 restaurants in 2011 for $59 million, would’ve liked to have broken the record, though he’s not eager to follow his dad Larry into the family business just yet.

Probability of repeat: We’re talking about something that has only happened once since 1969, equal to the number of elections that Richard Nixon won since that year. It is just as likely that you will ever administer a urine test to the Dalai Lama, break a giraffe, or discover that Paul Ryan’s favorite cocktail is “Grand Marnier & Coke.”

4. Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard breaks five tackles on a single 35-yard touchdown run, vs. the Miami Dolphins on Halloween.

My girlfriend and I watched most of the Cincinnati v. Miami game in a townie bar in Sherman Oaks. The guy to my left, who was drinking whiskey and had a few teeth, had convinced himself that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing in this game.

“Tampa Bay’s gonna score on this drive,” he told me in the third quarter.

“I assure you they will not,” I said.

“Tampa Bay’s gonna return the kickoff for a touchdown,” he said later.

“Not today they won’t,” I said. “Perhaps on Sunday, when they play the Seahawks.”

I still can’t figure out which team he believed was Tampa Bay. The Dolphins, because they were also from Florida? Or the Bengals, whose orange-heavy color scheme more closely matches those of former Tampa Bay uniforms? Or neither, and his imagination was superpositioning a second, more wonderful football game over the one on the screen, where Tampa Bay raced up and down the field, their ability to score never in question.

Probability of repeat: The chance that Giovani Bernard will once again break five tackles in a single scoring play on Halloween against Miami, or even Tampa Bay, is not good. The likelihood is somewhere between being dealt a royal flush in a game of video poker and meeting the man of your dreams in line for flu shots, and it’s Jerricho Cotchery.

THE COMFORTS OF HOME

Former New England Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, after retiring from football, thought he had a great plan for his second career – he, like a lot of former athletes, would go into the restaurant business.

After Matt and his wife Erin witnessed the popularity of a creperie in Colorado, Matt went to business school with the idea of learning how to operate their own crepe restaurant, and his business plan for “SkyCrepers” won a $60,000 prize from the school. With this seed money, Matt and Erin opened their brick-and-mortar “fast-serve crepe shop” at the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleboro, Massachusetts in August of 2011.

Less than a year later, Matt posted this message on the SkyCrepers Facebook page:

As many of you have noted, we closed our Emerald Square Mall beta location this week (July 13 2012). We truly appreciate your patronage and support there over the last year, but our company’s goal of bringing to the masses our innovative & crave-worthy crepe products you’ve come to love was ill-suited to the realities of that mall.

These are exciting times for SkyCrepers, as we begin our search for new opportunities and new channels to reach customers with our Cinnilla (TM) products and patented crepe fries.

Even combining a more proven business plan with an expert chef yields no guarantees. Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Amos Zereoue, a native of Cote D’Ivoire, impressed his teammates for years with his homemade African cuisine. When he retired, it seemed natural to open his own restaurant, and in 2007, he became owner and head chef of an eponymous West African restaurant in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood. The food was revered, but after years of problems with telephone lines & air conditioners, décor changes, and trying to stay solvent in a tough city, Zereoue the restaurant closed its doors.

According to a 2007 article in Business Week, 25% of restaurants close or change ownership within their first year. After three years, that number rises to 60%. Business Insider quotes the five-year fail rate in New York City at 80%.

“It’s the dumbest thing anybody could do to think they could operate a restaurant as an athlete,” former NFL quarterback (and current restaurant owner) Joe Theismann told Forbes magazine. “Even if you understand the food business and have worked in a restaurant, it’s an ever-changing business that presents new challenges every day.”

“They just can’t help themselves with the temptation of the restaurant business,” former NFL player agent Jack Bechta writes in the National Football Post. “I have had some clients invest with friends, families and proven entrepreneurs but have never seen one work. Yes, the facts are that the majority of restaurants fail miserably. Furthermore, the ones that work are usually owner operated …It’s still a bad investment no matter how you look at it.”

That said, Amos and Matt are far from alone. Famous vegetarian Ricky Williams’ Miami Beach restaurant Proof, which promised “an inviting and affordable health-conscious and delicious alternative,” is gone. Former Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington closed Sideline, his swanky Baltimore bar & restaurant, while facing eviction and a $5.5 million debt to creditors. Ex-NFL kicker Max Zendejas shuttered his Tucson-based Mexican eatery and committed $10,000 worth of vandalism to the property on his way out the door, earning himself a criminal indictment. Former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser closed two of his four Minneapolis-area restaurants in the months after his wife Amy was charged with criminal-vehicular homicide.

It seems like a jug band of woe, but there are exceptions. As John Elway, Brett Favre, and Joe Theismann have proven, the more famous the player, the more likely the restaurant will enjoy long-term success.

Of the three, Brett Favre had the most difficult omelet to flip, and not just because he left the Packers to play for the Jets and Vikings; they had to reconcile Favre’s bayou roots with the Green Bay clientele. “Eventually we learned that the Midwestern palate is not a Cajun palate,” John Whitehead, the managing director of Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, told Forbes.

While a couple of new restaurants from current NFL players are off to promising starts—notably Bruce Gradkowski’s upscale, Toledo-based Gradkowski’s and Kamerion Wimbley’s family-operated, fast-casual Wings & Things in Wichita—there are still two other ways a current NFL player can break into the food service business, if the work of building an eatery from the ground up seems too daunting.

One way is to buy into an existing franchise; many NFL players are owners or part-owners of chains like Burger King, Jimmy John’s, Wingstop, Brother Jimmy’s, and Jersey Mike’s. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning owns 21 Papa John’s franchises in Colorado, all of which have become far more profitable since the famous quarterback purchased and promoted them as his, according to TMZ. When you see the Papa John’s ads starring Peyton Manning, you may involuntarily recall the Jorge Luis Borges line, “fame is a form, perhaps the worst form, of incomprehension.”

Lastly, a player can do what former St. Louis Rams running back Terrance Ganaway did last summer. “I just wanted to stay fit, stay out of trouble, and really just try to save money and not spend a lot of money,” Terrance told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “So I just jokingly tweeted that I needed a job in Waco. Was anyone hiring?”

Terrance, who earned $390,000 as a rookie in the NFL, ended up making $7.50 an hour working at a Jimmy John’s.

Terrance-Ganaway JJ“I’m on the line that makes the sandwiches,” he said. “I bake bread. Take the cashier spot. I had to sweep the other day. Clean the tables. I mean, all types of stuff. Slice the meat. Wrap the meat … Got to learn everything on the menu. It’s something that I’m learning every day. You’ve got to know your sandwich.”

Even at the bottom of the food service hierarchy, Terrance might be smarter than many of his NFL peers who are investing and failing in the restaurant business. While an undergraduate at Baylor University, Terrance had a 3.79 GPA, was named to the Big 12 Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll multiple times, and was probably one of only a handful of people with those academic credentials to be named the MVP of a college Bowl game.

He’s since retired from football and entered graduate school, but seemed to enjoy his time making sandwiches as much as his stint in the NFL. “They’re good people,” he said of his Jimmy John’s co-workers. “It’s a really great environment and I love working there.”


J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →