Jim Leonhard knew what was required of him as a rookie in the Buffalo Bills’ locker room.
“I had Lawyer Milloy. His big thing was if he ever came in this locker room and there was not music on, he was coming at me,” Leonhard recalled this week, remembering the 2005 season as if it were yesterday. “If that was the case, then I owed him something, and he got to choose what that was.”
Leonhard made sure to always carry out his job.
“I was a good rookie, because I didn’t want to get into trouble,” he said. “I didn’t want to find out what he had in store.”
Rookie responsibilities like Leonhard’s are not uncommon in the NFL. Carrying pads from practice, going on water runs … those are tasks expected of first-year players.
“It’s a little lesson in humility,” Leonhard said. “A lot of guys get to this level and they think they’ve made it. They’ve arrived. You try to bring them back to earth a little bit. You’re not trying to humiliate them or embarrass them.”
But as the situation in Miami plays out this week between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, it can rise to that level. How it got there presents a bigger question: How much is too much when it comes to the rite of passage for young players?
When does it stop being good-natured ribbing and start becoming bullying or harassment?
“You have to know when to draw the line,” Leonhard said. “Some guys don’t know when, and that’s when you have to count on other guys to say, ‘hey, that’s enough. That’s getting disrespectful.’ It’s no longer about the message, it’s about getting somebody.”
To a man, the Bills interviewed this week were surprised at the situation with Martin – who has left the Dolphins and is seeking counseling after alleged verbal abuse from Incognito – went as far as it did.
“I see both sides. I would say, men being men in the locker room … you don’t think someone’s going to up and leave, just give up like that. Especially when you’re in a profession where you’re getting paid a good amount. I don’t think Incognito thought it was going to hurt him to that extent,” receiver Stevie Johnson said. “Then I play the other side, where you’ve got to know your line. You’ve got to respect everybody in this locker room. You may not know the life they’ve had prior to being in this locker room, so you’ve got to have that simple amount of respect for someone.”
The Bills have a tradition in training camp of giving rookies unflattering haircuts. Johnson recalled a situation from this summer when one of the first-year players – whom he chose not to name – had no interest in sporting the goofy look.
“It came to me, and it was squashed,” Johnson said.
There’s a certain hierarchy in a locker room, with each position group usually having a veteran leader. That’s the case with the Bills – with players like Johnson, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, running back Fred Jackson and center Eric Wood, to name just a few, providing that leadership.
“You go to the veterans in the room,” said Leonhard, an eighth-year pro. “If you take it up with a veteran or other guys on the team, they’ll get stuff taken care of 99 percent of the time.”
Whether Martin chose to do that was something the Bills openly wondered about.
“Maybe that’s where Miami slipped up at,” Johnson said. “Maybe they didn’t have those players he could go to.”
When he was a rookie with Indianapolis in 2010, Jerry Hughes’ responsibility was getting the food order of the defensive linemen before Saturday flights.
“It probably cost me maybe $100 for the whole meal,” Hughes said. “You do what little brothers do. If big brother says go get some water bottles, you go get some water bottles. If never felt like they were just picking on me. I don’t know if you want to call that hazing, but I never felt like anybody crossed the line. That’s how guys interact. I didn’t really think anything of it.”
Like Hughes, Bills linebacker Manny Lawson is a former first-round pick. He was responsible for taking the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers out to dinner as a rookie, a meal that set him back $600.
The Miami Herald reported earlier this week that Dolphins’ rookies were recently handed a bill for a $30,000 dinner.
“As far as the extent I guess Miami’s taking it, it is surprising. We don’t do that here,” Lawson said. “We have mad respect for everybody in this organization. I’m not worried about that happening over here.”
Respect is a word that came up time and time again among the Bills this week.
“For us, it’s all love,” defensive end Mario Williams said. “It’s one big family in here.”
“There’s a lot of intelligent guys in here that know when you’ve crossed a line,” Leonhard said. “It seems like things got a little out of hand down there and no one put it back in check. That’s the biggest issue. Everyone knows right and wrong. Whether you’re trying to teach a rookie a little lesson, everyone knows right and wrong. It’s not that difficult.”
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel said coach Doug Marrone has set a tone of mutual respect that has filtered through the entire team.
“I think the veterans all respect us as rookies,” Manuel said. “Obviously we still have to do things that a normal rookie would do. I think we’ll keep that between the team … but the biggest thing is continuing to have respect amongst yourself and the team.”
The situation in Miami is a black eye not just for the Dolphins, but the entire NFL. The Bills who spoke this week are aware that allegations of bullying and harassment are serious charges in today’s society, ones that cast the entire league in a negative light.
“It sucks, because we don’t want to hurt anybody. We don’t want to do any of that type of stuff,” Johnson said. “It goes back to the respect for the grind that they had to get there. People probably think because of the sport that we play, we’re just beasts and warriors on and off the field. They don’t really know everybody’s not really like that.”
“This is one situation, but in the eyes of the public, that’s everyone,” Lawson said. “It can put a bad name on all of us.”
In a locker room with 53 different personalities, it’s not uncommon for a few players not to mesh.
“That tends to happen. Especially if you have one of those practices where it gets kind of rowdy and it carries over into the locker room,” Lawson said. “Those two guys may never speak again. But as far as it escalating into anything crazy, I haven’t been in any locker room where that situation has happened.”