Two Dolphins’ Paths to a Scandal

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 24, 2014 at 9:22 pm •  Published: February 24, 2014
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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.”

‘Don’t Lose’

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.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

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.

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