Why Rex Ryan is welcoming infamous NFL brawlers to Buffalo

ByElizabeth Merrill ESPN logo
Friday, August 21, 2015

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- On the day after IK Enemkpali's career was saved, he was so overcome that he practically dropped to his knees in thanks. It's not every day, he knew, that an unknown sixth-round draft pick gets another chance -- especially when he's just broken the jaw of his starting quarterback in another locker room 300 miles away. Enemkpali found Bills coach Rex Ryan in the cafeteria at St. John Fisher College, home of the Buffalo Bills' training camp, and smothered him in a big hug.

Ryan, for his part, was rather unemotional. "Good to have you," he said.

This was not the first time Ryan had opened his doors to a wayward soul. In his seven months in Buffalo, he has welcomed two punchers (Enemkpali, Percy Harvin), signed a guard who'd been out of the league since 2013 because of a bullying scandal (Richie Incognito), and stood by an assistant coach who ran afoul of the law after an argument with a child over beach chairs (Aaron Kromer).

Detractors might say that the Bills are out of control. But Ryan is just the opposite. He's back to his swaggering self, wielding the same aura and command he had back in his glory days in New York. Ryan wants to build a bully in the AFC East, and deep down, he knows these are the kind of guys he needs to push Buffalo to its first playoff appearance since 1999. He added them because he's Rex Ryan and he can. He has power and confidence and is already beloved by many of his players in Buffalo, so he doesn't have to give a damn about what anyone else thinks.

For a minute, let's assume Ryan does give a damn about what they think. It's Monday, a few days after Enemkpali arrived. Ryan is sitting near the Bills' practice field, his ultra-white teeth shining in the morning sun. He is talking about how he knows these men's hearts. He knows they will fit into his locker room.

Ryan sees a part of himself in them. "There's nothing that special about me," he says. "I'm just a hard-working guy, I'm dyslexic, I had to overcome a lot of things like that. Maybe I wasn't just the traditional-type person or whatever. I got to the top, but I got there maybe unconventionally. It wasn't just a straight line.

"I had to find a way, and maybe that's why I look at different things in people."

EMBRACING PLAYERS WITH a history of violence is tricky business, especially with last year's domestic-abuse cases of Ray Rice, Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy still looming over the league. Ryan is quick to say he doesn't condone violence toward anyone.

But in a different time, a better time, the Ryans might say, a guy could mix it up with an opponent, or even a teammate, and it was just football, not the lead story for a week.Ryan's father Buddy once punched fellow assistant Kevin Gilbride on the Houston sideline during a nationally televised game, and he wasn't exactly vilified: He was hired as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals before the next season.

Just after the punch, the conversation between Buddy and Houston owner Bud Adams, according to Buddy's oldest son Jim, went something like this:

Bud Adams: Did you throw a punch at him?

Buddy: Yeah.

Adams: Did you connect?

Buddy: Not really, I kind of grazed him.

Adams: Well, that's too bad. What a dumbass, throwing the ball in that situation.

Buddy didn't just fight; he encouraged his players to do the same. As head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he'd walk over to the defense during practice and tell them that the O-line was bragging about kicking their butts, just to get them riled up. Then he'd go to the offensive line and say the same thing, adding, oh, the only reason you're having any success is because the defense says you're holding.

"My dad always had a saying," Jim Ryan says. "A dumbass will get you beat, and a coward will get you beat. And he tested people's manhood. There were players that my dad wouldn't play because if you were going to be one of his boys, you were going to go through a heck of a test."

So it was no coincidence that Rex, who idolized Buddy and wanted to be a football coach because of him, was a fighter too. He got into numerous scrapes and barroom brawls throughout the lower plains, where he played college football at Southwestern Oklahoma State. Rex always seemed to be defending someone, be it himself or his twin brother Rob. At least one of fights landed Rex in jail. Buddy bailed him out.

Despite all the scuffles, Rex never considered himself a bully. Jeff Weeks, one of his old college teammates and best friends, chalks much of Ryan's troubles up to youthful restlessness and boredom in a tiny Oklahoma town. Weeks, who's now an assistant for Ryan with the Bills, says Rex stopped getting into fights long ago.

But his players haven't, and Ryan obviously has an affinity for guys with an edge. Nobody who knows Ryan was all that surprised last week when he picked up Enemkpali, who also served 13 months of probation after punching a police officer during a bar fight in college.

"That, to me, was a Buddy Ryan-type move," says former Eagles receiver Mike Quick, who played for Buddy. "And Rex was cut from the same cloth. Buddy would've loved [Enemkpali]. Buddy would like the attitude of a guy that if he has a problem, that's how he's going to settle the problem, with fisticuffs.

"One of Buddy's lines was, 'They're football players. They're not selling bibles door to door.' He's looking for guys that didn't mind busting another man's head."

HE WAS ALWAYSkicking butt, always grinning and bragging. Until he wasn't.

One of the lowest moments of Ryan's career may have happened, coincidentally enough, against the Bills last year. Buffalo had just been slammed with a lake-effect snowstorm, forcing the Jets and Bills to Detroit to play their November game. Ryan invited one of his high school buddies, Chuck Abate, to the game, putting him up in a hotel room on the coaches' floor. Abate immediately noticed that his friend's demeanor was different. The Jets were 2-8 at the time, Ryan felt hamstrung by former Jets GM John Idzik, and he knew he wasn't long for his job.

"He was tired," Abate says. "I've never seen him so tired, you know? He's got so much energy; he's so gregarious. It just wasn't the same old Rex."

Desperate for a distraction from the season, Ryan began talking about competing in a triathlon. Before long, he, Abate and Weeks were splashing around in the hotel pool. Ryan struggled after one lap. No, he decided, he could not do a triathlon until he worked on his swimming.

The next six weeks were agonizingly dark, and Ryan was fired on Dec. 29. Then the Bills came along, and everything changed.

From the start, he's enjoyed the full support of Buffalo's front office. They trust him. When Ryan went to owner Terry Pegula and general manager Doug Whaley about Enemkpali and said, "I believe in this guy," they were on board. Whaley says he has full confidence that with Ryan's knowledge of his players, plus the strong leadership in their veteran locker room, the Bills will be fine.

"We're trying to build a consistent winner here, and we're going to turn over every avenue," Whaley says. "But we're not doing this flippantly. We do our [background] work on these guys.

"Now, because of this," he continues, "it's getting out there that we're just going to harbor all your fugitives. That's not the case. We do make sure that it fits in with what we're trying to do."

Signing Incognito was perhaps the most shocking move. He hadn't played since November 2013, when he was suspended for his final eight games for harassing former Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito tried out for several teams in 2014, including Denver and Tampa Bay, but never got an offer. He was considered toxic before Ryan and the Bills called this past winter.

He was also one of the best guards available when Ryan took over in January. The Bills had a glaring hole, and when they went through the list they immediately stopped on his name. The talent was there; he was a Pro Bowler in 2012, his last full season. But the Bills needed Incognito to convince them he was a good fit.

Whaley won't comment on the questions they asked Incognito during his interview. Incognito said he was sorry. Everybody says they're sorry. But what impressed Whaley was that he owned up to his actions and that he had "fail-safes" in his life to ensure he didn't go down that road again.

Incognito, 32, showed up for camp in phenomenal shape, Ryan says. And he's confident that every player in his locker room would say they like him. That they'd fight for him. But it's August.

Does he feel compelled to save guys like Incognito? "I think guys save themselves," he says. "It's up to him what the rest of his life, his legacy, is gonna be. Is it gonna be that he was this bully or whatever or is it gonna be something else? And I believe it's gonna be something else. I think it's gonna be really good."

Harvin, known as much for his locker-room fights in Seattle as his massive talent, says Ryan never placed one-strike-and-you're-gone restrictions on him. There was no big speech. With Ryan, he says, you don't need one. He just doesn't want to let his coach down.

"He came in and told me to be me," Harvin says. "He didn't want to hear about any of the past events. He told me to come here, do what I do. Be a great person and a great teammate, and we won't have any problems."

WHEREVER RYAN GOES, he commands a loyalty that is rare in an inherently disloyal profession. There are stories from New York to Baltimore of players, mostly defensive guys, who say they'd literally do anything for Ryan. Bills defensive end Marcell Dareus says he fixated on Ryan long before he came to Buffalo. He saw Ryan on TV talking about how he was going to kick the Patriots' butts. Dareus had never heard an NFL coach talk like that.

"I was like, 'God, I would love to play for somebody like that,'" Dareus says. "He doesn't care. He's going to speak his mind, and that's exactly how he feels. He took the job here, and it was almost like a dream come true. Just seeing his energy makes you want to play for the guy."

Manny Lawson, who's been on three teams and gone through several coaching changes, says that though Ryan comes across as laid-back, he's never played in a camp as structured as Ryan's. Just like his dad, Ryan respects veterans, Lawson adds, and gives them plenty of time to heal between practices. Harvin, meanwhile, has become such a Rex disciple that last year, he sought out Buddy after a Jets' game. Harvin had heard so much about him from Rex that he just had to meet him.

The old man is 84 now and has battled cancer and encephalitis. Jim Ryan thought for sure they'd lose him last fall, but then Buddy started pulling out all of his hospital wires and wanted to go get a margarita. His mind is still sharp, and his ties with his players are still deep. When Jim went to visit him in Kentucky recently, he was taken aback by his dad's guests.

Gary Fencik and Dan Hampton, guys who hadn't played for Buddy in three decades, had flown in to take him out to lunch. They doted over him the whole time, asking him if he needed water or assistance. That's the loyalty Buddy commanded. Now, they have his back.

In Buffalo, Rex utters the words, "Super Bowl," and his players -- plus all of western New York -- are riveted. Maybe Bills fans believe in second chances too. Maybe they're so hungry that they don't care how the sausage is made.

It's a gamble -- five gambles, if you include the Bills' fifth-round draft pick, Karlos Williams, who was investigated but never charged for domestic assault last year. If one of Ryan's second-chance guys slips up, his plans for 2015, and his harmonious locker room, could implode.

Nobody is thinking about that right now. Ryan is brimming with confidence. As he walks out to the practice field Monday, a guy in the rafters yells to him, "No fighting today, coach." "I'm not fighting," Ryan replies. The fan keeps talking. He says the only reason the coach isn't in the mood to fight today is because New England coach Bill Belichick isn't there. Ryan smiles.