c.2014 New York Times News Service
Three days after Jonathan Martin checked himself into a South Florida hospital for psychiatric help, he received a string of conciliatory messages from Richie Incognito, his Miami Dolphins teammate and tormentor, who asked about his health and said he missed him.
A few hours later, Incognito had a different exchange, telling another teammate, Mike Pouncey, that Martin was “ratting on everyone.”
“He’s not welcome back,” Pouncey texted back amid expletives. “He’s dead to me.”
But it was not Incognito or Pouncey who initiated the harassment that targeted Martin and eventually drove him from the team, according to an NFL-commissioned investigative report on the Dolphins’ locker-room culture.
John Jerry, another Dolphin, was the first to taunt Martin, daring him to fight back, according to the report. When Martin did not respond, Incognito and Pouncey joined the hazing, setting off a year of vicious bullying that included homophobic and racist slurs.
Incognito, 30, who is white, has emerged as the scandal’s lead figure, but he was assisted by Pouncey, 25, and Jerry, 27, two 300-pound offensive linemen who served as Incognito’s henchmen, the 144-page report found.
Pouncey, who is biracial, and Jerry, who is black, were each mentioned more than 100 times in the report, surprising many who watched them work their way up from humble beginnings, who saw them win state titles in high school, who cheered them as they thrived for top college programs, and who delighted in their rise to the NFL.
As investigators tried to piece together the Miami case, they zeroed in on the culture of the close-knit offensive line, led by Incognito, a lineman with a history of anger problems. Incognito, a Pro Bowler for the 2012 season, was banished from the Dolphins in November, soon after Martin, 24, a second-year lineman, left the team, saying he had been bullied into such distress that he had contemplated suicide.
The ugly drama provided a rare window into a world where a player could mock another by simulating a sex act on him and where there were no consequences for repeatedly making jokes about wanting to have intercourse with a teammate’s sister and mother.
If Incognito was the “disease” plaguing the Miami organization, as an unnamed player told investigators, Jerry and Pouncey had been badly infected.
The two players have similar backgrounds. Both are from Southern communities known for churning out top talent. (At Pouncey’s high school in Lakeland, Fla., a sign in his former coach’s office reads: “At some places they play football. At Lakeland we live it.”)
Although neither had the reputation for trouble that had trailed Incognito, both spent their formative years as leaders in locker rooms where camaraderie and ribbing often went together. That football culture extended into Pouncey’s and Jerry’s homes; each has a brother who also plays in the NFL.
Pouncey played on a University of Florida team that was known for trouble off the field as well as dominance on it. Pouncey was not arrested at Florida, but at least 41 of his teammates were arrested during college, afterward or both.
In the years since, Pouncey’s judgment has been called into question. After Aaron Hernandez, a former Florida teammate, was charged with murder last year, Pouncey, who was called to testify before a grand jury, was photographed wearing a “Free Hernandez” hat.
After Incognito was suspended, Jerry told reporters he had never heard Incognito use racial epithets but he would have laughed them off anyway. Jerry, who is from Batesville, Miss., also dismissed the abuse as typical pranks.
Pouncey denied making the insults, telling the investigators that if someone had made similar comments to him, he would “punch them in the mouth.”
Jerry and Pouncey have not been disciplined by the Dolphins or the NFL, and neither has commented publicly since the report’s release. A lawyer representing both players declined to comment through a spokesman.
A person familiar with Jerry and Pouncey’s thinking said they were embarrassed by the release of their communications and that they were upset at how the report characterized what they saw as harmless banter among friends and teammates. Neither had a sense that Martin was feeling bullied, the person said.
Pouncey’s stepfather, Robert Webster, at his home in South Lakeland, Fla., last week, struggled to explain what happened in Miami.
“I do hope something good comes from all this coming out — that they make some rules against bullying,” Webster said. “If it’s been happening, then they need to put a group on it to make it stop.”
He added: “It’s got to be a fairer world. We need to take care of the weaker ones and the innocent.”
In Batesville, Jerry is known as Baby J., the low-key but fun-loving younger brother of the fiery Peria Jerry, who was a year ahead of him in school and had his own nickname, Pooh. Long before John played for the Dolphins and Peria for the Atlanta Falcons, they lived in a trailer park off a long dirt road in their city of about 7,000 in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, about 60 miles south of Memphis, Tenn.
Their mother, Onethia Jerry, worked at a coffin company and as a bus driver, and the odd hours she kept meant that coaches would have to pick up the brothers and drive them to workouts.
“It was tough,” said Willis Wright, one of the coaches. “They were big ol’ boys. It wasn’t an easy job feeding those guys. They struggled.”
The Jerry boys grew up on the football field and in the locker room, and the game became their outlet, a means of finding a way out of Batesville. The first stop was playing for the powerhouse South Panola Tigers. At one point, John, Peria and their cousin Jamarca Sanford, now a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, fortified the Tigers’ defense.
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On Friday nights, the community would get behind the squad, with thousands of fans filling Robert H. Dunlap Stadium. Many of the players had fathers, brothers, cousins and uncles who had played there, too.
In the mid-2000s, when John Jerry starred for the Tigers, they went 44-1.
“It was just a tradition and a culture that existed: Don’t lose,” said Lucian King, a former Tigers assistant and a coach for more than 30 years.
King said Jerry, who grew to be 6 feet 5 inches and played on the defensive line at South Panola, was a quiet presence and one of the smartest players he had coached. Once, when a teammate missed a play, Jerry “slapped the other defensive tackle upside the head,” King said.
“John just took care of it,” King said. “He addressed the problem.”
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College scouts soon chased Jerry, but his decision was fairly easy. Peria and several cousins had played for Mississippi, which recruited him as an offensive lineman.
“It is real close to home, and I really do not want to leave my mama by herself,” Jerry told Scout.com in 2004. He signed with Ole Miss and spent a year at a military academy, as Peria had, before arriving on campus in fall 2006.
With the Rebels, he was considered among the top freshman linemen in the nation, and his improvement over the ensuing four years mirrored that of his team: Ole Miss evolved into one of the more formidable squads in the Southeastern Conference, winning the Cotton Bowl in 2009 and 2010.
In those winning locker rooms, banter and teasing abounded. They were especially prevalent among the offensive linemen, whose very responsibilities — working in unison to protect the quarterback and clear running room — fostered a closeness not often found in other position groups.
“There were some other guys in the locker room that said things that were pretty offensive,” said Brent Smith, an Ole Miss teammate. “I remember times when John would look at me and say: ‘Man that’s not right. You can’t say that.’”
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Mike Markuson, a former Ole Miss offensive line coach, remembers Jerry exhorting teammates in meetings.
“If a guy would get out of line in a meeting, he would tell ’em to straighten up,” Markuson said. “Linemen are funny guys. They’ll pick on each other in meetings, especially when they are watching film. They all razz each other.”
He added, “That’s part of the culture of playing football.”
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Like Jerry, Pouncey grew up playing football alongside his brother — his identical twin, Maurkice, who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their high school coaches recall them dressing alike and finishing each other’s sentences.
The Pounceys were raised in a modest one-story home on the corner of a quiet street in South Lakeland. Their mother, Lisa Webster, who works for a local Head Start education program, met Webster, their stepfather, when the boys were about a year old.
At the family’s home, photos of the boys, in their Steelers and Dolphins uniforms, hang on the wall. A few miles away, in the locker room at Lakeland Senior High, there is a photo of the Pounceys lined up together, with the words “Double Trouble.”
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At Lakeland, Dreadnaughts football is an obsession, and a winning tradition long predated the Pounceys’ arrival. On game days, the Dreadnaughts’ bus gets a police escort to the team’s 10,000-seat stadium a few miles from campus.
One of coach Bill Castle’s assistants, Dan Talbot, spotted the twins in the weight room before their freshman year.
“They were just two chunky little kids with decent height,” said Talbot, who is also the school’s athletic director. “They couldn’t even bench 135 pounds. I just walked by them, looked at them and said, ‘Y’all keep at it, or you aren’t ever going to play for us.’”
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The twins spent a year on Lakeland’s junior varsity before being promoted to varsity. As juniors, the Pounceys earned starting spots on the Dreadnaughts’ offensive line, but sometimes they persuaded coaches to let them play defense, too. During their three years on varsity, the team won 45 straight games and three state championships. The Pounceys created a legacy as stars at a school celebrated for producing top-level talent. The coaches remember their 2007 graduating class for sending nine football players to the SEC.
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“With Mike and Maurkice, they had a vision for what the game was going to do for their future and their family,” said John Flath, who coached the Pounceys on the offensive line in high school. “They focused on that.”
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The Pounceys chose Florida, where they were part of the team that won the 2009 title game. (The squad’s only loss was to Jerry’s Ole Miss Rebels.) When the Gators won at home, Mike Pouncey would play air guitar to the song “Party Like a Rockstar.”
“He thought he was the best air guitarist in the world,” said David Young, a fellow offensive lineman at Florida.
Young recalled that Pouncey welcomed him and gave him clothes, money and shoes.
“Mike must have given me seven different pairs,” said Young, who played three years with him. “I was like their little brother.”
Young said Pouncey was not the type to harass teammates.
“I don’t see Mike belittling anybody because he never belittled anybody on our team,” Young said. “If anyone was worthy of getting belittled, it would have been me. They had high expectations for me, and I didn’t pan out to be the player I could have been. And I never got picked on.”
In 2010, Maurkice entered the NFL draft, forgoing his senior year. Mike stayed at Florida, sliding over to take over his brother’s job at center. As a result, he became a top prospect himself.
A Locker-Room Force
For three straight years, the Dolphins used high draft picks to bolster their offensive line, with Jerry, Pouncey and Martin helping to reshape the franchise. There were leaders in place, but another lineman — a guard with a snarling temper and a history of disruptiveness — was gradually establishing himself as a locker-room force. His name: Richie Incognito.
By the time Martin, a tackle, was drafted out of Stanford in April 2012, Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey had formed a clique. Pouncey, a center, and Jerry, a guard and tackle, were particularly close.
“They did everything pretty much together,” said Ray Feinga, an offensive lineman who spent parts of four seasons with Miami before he was released in September 2012. “They hung out after practice, ate together, hung out in the locker room together.”
They were also “jokesters,” said Will Barker, a member of the unit in 2012.
“People like Mike and John — they’re good people because they bring humor to the locker room,” he said, adding: “They like to mess around, and part of that messing around is jabbing at other people. Most of the time guys are jabbing back, almost like a banter kind of thing.”
Feinga said he did not notice any behavior that he would classify as bullying — just “typical rookie joking around.” Feinga was let go around the time that Martin, investigators were told, began to be harassed.
Toward the beginning of that season, Jerry began calling Martin a bitch and doing it repeatedly, the report said. From there, the situation deteriorated, with Incognito often serving as the instigator. An unnamed player in the report said, “He divides a locker room.” The harassment extended beyond Martin, to teammates and staff members.
Fines or suspensions could be among the next steps by the NFL. The fallout is likely to be especially damaging for Jerry, a free agent. Pouncey remains under contract with Miami, and his prowess as a lineman — he was selected last season to his first Pro Bowl — might be enough for potential suitors to disregard the allegations against him.
Back home, Jerry’s friends and coaches are hoping there is a good explanation.
“John Jerry is nothing but a big ol’ teddy bear,” said Ricky Woods, a former coach at South Panola. “With what’s going on — I don’t know what happened. That’s not his demeanor. I never had a problem with John. The kids enjoyed playing with him.”
The news also hit hard in Lakeland, where Mike Pouncey has been a regular visitor since his graduation. The Pounceys, after reaching the NFL, set up a foundation to underwrite programs for children, including ones in their hometown. Among the programs listed on the foundation’s website are anti-bullying clinics.
Webster, a father figure to the twins, said he had “no idea” how Mike had become immersed in the bullying saga. “But I can tell you that he’s been raised to respect the value of his family and his team,” he said.
Now Webster is just hoping Mike can move past the scandal — and soon.
“He’ll be back to playing football,” Webster said. “That’s what he needs, and that’s what he’ll do.”