By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns rookie guard Garrett Gilkey visited Woodridge Intermediate School on Oct. 8 in Peninsula and spoke to more than 300 students about bullying, its impact on his life and the devastating effects it can have. He had no idea the subject would become the talk of the NFL a month later, but it has in the wake of a scandal that has enveloped the Miami Dolphins.
Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins last week because of emotional issues, and the organization suspended guard Richie Incognito indefinitely Sunday for conduct detrimental to the team. On Monday, ESPN released a transcript of a voice mail allegedly sent from Incognito to Martin in April that included a racial slur, a death threat and threats to harm Martin’s family. ESPN also reported that Martin received a series of texts that included derogatory terms referring to the female anatomy and sexual orientation.
The NFL is investigating the alleged harassment. ESPN reported one of the allegations being reviewed is that Incognito pressured Martin to contribute $15,000 to help finance a trip to Las Vegas by a group of Dolphins players last summer.
Practical jokes, hazing and initiation rituals are part of NFL culture, but the controversy surrounding the Dolphins has caused teams to reflect on the dynamics of their locker room.
The Browns, who are 4-5 and in the midst of their bye week, do not believe they have a problem.
“I’m not going to comment specifically on anything with the Dolphins,” coach Rob Chudzinski said Tuesday. “As far as from our standpoint and my standpoint, I feel good where our locker room is right now.”
“It’s a very healthy locker room,” Gilkey said. “Whether it’s the offensive line, the defensive line or the receiving corps, everyone has been great. With [left tackle] Joe [Thomas], [center] Alex [Mack] and [left guard] John [Greco], I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to learn underneath. It’s been a very healthy environment. I feel like they are big brothers I never had. It’s very encouraging.”
Gilkey, a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft from Division II Chadron State College in Nebraska, would know if he sensed bullying because he was a victim of it growing up. Living in suburban Chicago, Gilkey transferred from Sandwich High School to Aurora Christian just before his sophomore year because of harassment.
“I was booed in front of the entire school during the recognition of being on the scholastic team,” Gilkey said. “I had my baseball glove peed in. I was pinned down once and a soiled bodily device was thrown in my mouth.”
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Gilkey was about 5-10 and 160 pounds when he was bullied by older kids. But he stressed that even a powerful NFL offensive lineman like Martin, a second-round selection in last year’s draft from Stanford University, is not immune to bullying.
“I don’t care if you’re a 24-year-old NFL lineman, bullying is the same as if you were a 9-year-old girl,” Gilkey said. “The reality is that there is not a level of empathy that didn’t exist in that context, and I can’t help but feel for Martin and knowing that it was a very real battle.
“Being on your own essentially and having to constantly be scared of however you’re going to be hazed or ridiculed or made fun of, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how big you are. No one should have to go through that.”
The Dolphins’ situation hits home for Browns wide receiver Davone Bess, too, because he spent the past five seasons in Miami before being traded in April. Bess was part of the Dolphins’ six-player leadership council. He said he wasn’t aware of the situation because Martin never approached the council about it.
When asked the alleged harassment sounds like something Incognito would do, Bess said: “I don’t know. He’s never disrespected me, and that’s all I can speak on.”
Defensive captain and inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is among the Browns’ veterans who recall the rookie hazing they endured and can laugh about it now. He had to fill former nose tackle Ted Washington’s refrigerator with Red Bull when he was a rookie in 2006. As a rookie with the Washington Redskins in 2005, quarterback Jason Campbell had to buy doughnuts and biscuits for the offensive linemen.
“My rookie year, I was afraid to walk in the locker room,” Jackson said. “It was a part of the stories that you can go back and have fun with it. My rookie year, we had Willie McGinest, Ted Washington, Andra Davis. All those guys were veteran guys. I remember Andra called me over to his house one day and was like, ‘Hey I want you to come over and hang out.’ He and his wife were going out to dinner. I had to watch the kids. So they call me Uncle D’Qwell.”
Jackson believes the Browns know where the line is and not to cross it.
“There’s obviously the rookie hazing where you shave a guy’s head or things like that,” Jackson said. “That’s all fun. Your hair grows back. We wouldn’t cut off Garrett Gilkey’s hair because he has long hair. You wouldn’t do that to a guy. It’s all in fun. You’ve got to have fun. When a guy feels like he’s being singled out, that’s not acceptable at all.”
Jackson alluded to a 2009 incident involving former Browns defensive back Coye Francies, who attempted to fight teammates in the locker room after they tried to haze him. Jackson said he talked to Francies last season when he played for the Oakland Raiders, and they laughed about it.
“It was part of tradition — you throw guys in the cold tub,” Jackson said. “He didn’t want it, he reacted a certain way and guys left him alone after that. We talked to him like, ‘Hey, man, it’s all in good fun. It’s part of the stories you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about.’ He obviously didn’t see it that way, and guys addressed it and guys left it alone.”
Gilkey simply had to sing a country western song this year for his rookie initiation.
“There’s a difference between being heckled by veteran teammates or joked around with by older teammates when there is as relationship there,” Gilkey said. “When you have a relationship with guys and you are able to talk to guys and have a close relationship, that’s different. It’s like having an older brother. You love your younger brother, but you guys are brothers, and you’re going to pick on your little brother like you do, and so I think that is the difference. When there is no relationship in the context, it creates bullying.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.