The Battle Within: Things Bigger than Football

Photo: ABC Image Group

Since the Steelers play on Monday night football this week, the opponent preview will come out tomorrow. And perhaps this is an appropriate week to have it knocked out of its regular day. Because yes, there really are things more important than the next game, even for NFL players.

After it was revealed that Martavis Bryant was not with the team during the first three weeks of his suspension, but was in Houston working with an addiction counselor, Mike Tomlin said:

“He has issues that he’s dealing with that are bigger than football. We’re committed to assisting the man in that.”

It’s easy to forget the man behind the football player, especially in these degenerate days of fantasy football. And I mean that sincerely. I’ve played fantasy for a couple of years now, and I noticed a change in how I view players. In fantasy, you can have no loyalty whatsoever to a player. Your sole focus is on how he can benefit your team. And of course when you are hopping from player to player, benching or cutting guys as necessary, the luxury of trying to get to know something about the person behind the name is completely eliminated. He becomes a mere cartoon character in your personal video game.

You can’t close Pandora’s box once it’s opened, and with the explosion of single week leagues the situation has become more and more dehumanizing.

But I didn’t set out to write a post denigrating fantasy football. Instead, I’m hoping to persuade us all to step back for a moment and think about the men we ask to perform for us, week after week. They have hidden struggles and injuries and heartbreak, but they trot out onto the field anyway. As Mewelde Moore once told me, “We are modern gladiators.”

One of the big road blocks to seeing the players as ordinary men, albeit ones who do something extraordinary, is the issue of money. Even Tunch Ilkin shook his head in a Steelers Live broadcast earlier this week as he enumerated the money the Steelers currently have tied up in kickers. The one which pulled him up short was the money the Steelers just agreed to pay new kicker Chris Boswell—a pro-rated amount of the rookie minimum of $425,000.

Tunch, now obviously off book, said “425,000 dollars! In my day the rookie minimum was $25,000, and I know that for sure, because that’s what I got!” After Bob Labriola muttered something about inflation, Tunch noted that the price of a car had not increased to that extent.

The average price of a car in 1980, Ilkin’s first year in the league, was $7,210. The most recent figure I found for the average price of a new car these days is $31,252. So Chris Boswell could buy 13 and a half new cars with his salary (or could if he was signed for the whole year.) Tunch could have only bought three and a half cars. The 2015 cars are probably a lot fancier too, although not nearly as durable. But that’s another post…

To return to the original point, the money is immaterial. Ivan Cole put it very well in his third Training Camp For Fans article:

A man is selling a rug at a bazaar.

“Who will give me $100 for this fine rug?” he asks.

“Why are you just charging $100 dollars?” a friend inquires, “The rug is priceless!”

The dealer replies “Is there any number higher than 100?”

This little parable speaks to some of the pitfalls associated with motivation. How often have fans made the bottom line statement of “They’re paying them enough money”? Perhaps understandable in the general sense given that in this society money is God in the considerations of many.

But there comes a point of diminishing returns. To those who can’t conceptualize beyond a hundred, what meaning or value can there be for a thousand? It is here that the idea of money and more money serving as a consistently reliable motivator begins to fail.

it’s easy to be incredulous at a Josh Gordon, at a Justin Blackmon, at a Tanard Jackson, at any of the men who have possibly thrown away a career and “left a lot of money on the table” because of personal demons they couldn’t conquer. And yes, I refuse to engage in the argument that if marijuana was legalized it would no longer be an issue. If there is a substance your employer has forbidden you to use, whether it is marijuana, celery salt, or Dapper Dan’s pomade, and, knowing you can lose your job if you don’t stop, you use it anyhow, you are an addict.

If you want some depressing reading, check out this Wikipedia article, List of Suspensions in the National Football League. It lists suspensions of any length, for any reason, and includes coaches. It is very long, as it begins in 1925 with the lifetime suspension of Art Folz for his role in the Chicago Cardinals/Milwaukee Badgers scandal and ends, so far, with the October 2nd four-game suspension of (now former) Bears wide receiver A.J. Cruz.

The substance abuse violation list only begins in 1983, and currently has 368 incidents on it. (There are some repeat appearances, so the number of players is somewhat smaller.) Most of the suspensions are four games or less, but there is a substantial number of indefinite suspensions on the list, which generally spelled the end to a meaningful career.

Many of the names are obscure, but some of them are those of the most promising young men to play the game in recent years. Besides the names mentioned above, a few which catch my attention are these:

Will Hill—S, currently with the Baltimore Ravens (and possibly the best player on their defense.) Here are the various things Hill has been through, according to his Wiki article:

On October 8, 2012, the NFL suspended Hill for using the prescription drug Adderall. He was able to return to the Giants active roster on November 5. Hill was suspended a second time for the first four games of the 2013 season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy; his suspension ended on September 30.

On December 21, 2013, Hill was arrested in New Jersey on a warrant for outstanding child support payments. Despite the arrest, Hill still played that Sunday against the Detroit Lions. During the game he intercepted a pass thrown by Matthew Stafford in the fourth quarter and scored on a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game and force overtime. In overtime, the Giants would go on to win the game 23-20.

In March 2014, New Jersey police issued a warrant for Hill’s arrest for failure to pay child support.

On May 30, 2014, Hill was suspended for the first six games of the 2014 season for violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.

Hill has been trying to make changes in his personal life. “I sit in the house with my family. I used to be a nightclub guy, especially coming out of college. I’ve just been watching a lot of movies. I’m a homebody. I took a long look in the mirror and decided to change a lot of things,” Hill said in December 2014.

Aqib Talib—CB, currently with the Denver Broncos.

Talib was suspended for four games during the 2012 season for, as he said, “making a mistake” by taking an Adderall pill without a prescription. But Talib’s life has not been without other issues, (also from his Wiki page):

Talib has had several conduct related issues since his NFL career started. At the NFL rookie symposium in July 2008, Talib was involved in a fistfight with fellow Buccaneers rookie Cory Boyd. On August 20, 2009, Talib allegedly battered a taxi driver, and he was arrested by Florida Highway Patrol and booked into the Pinellas County jail, charged with resisting arrest without violence and simple battery. 

In March 2011, police in Garland, Texas issued a felony warrant for Talib for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after accusing him of firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend. He was later released on $25,000 bond. Talib was indicted on the charge in May 2011. On June 18, 2012, the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence and character concerns with the accuser.

Aldon Smith—DE, currently with the Oakland Raiders.

From his Wiki page:

On January 28, 2012, Aldon Smith was arrested for driving under the influence in Miami Beach, Florida. 

On June 30, 2012, Smith was believed to have suffered stab wounds when attempting to break up a fight at a party at his residence. Two other people were shot in the incident. On October 9, 2013, Smith was charged with “three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon” relating to the stabbing incident. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanors. 

On September 20, 2013, Smith was involved in a single vehicle accident in San Jose, California. He was subsequently arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. After the loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the third week of the football season, he voluntarily entered a rehabilitation facility, to be put onto the non-football injury list with an indefinite leave of absence. 

On April 13, 2014, Smith was detained and arrested following an incident at the Los Angeles International Airport in which Smith became belligerent and uncooperative with a TSA agent, who alleged Smith claimed he was carrying a bomb. After interviews revealed that Smith did not clearly state he was carrying a bomb, the Los Angeles City Attorney decided to drop the charges. Smith was suspended for 9 games for the 2014 season.

On August 6, 2015, he was arrested in Santa Clara, California, for an alleged hit and run after driving under the influence, and vandalism charges.  He was released by the 49ers the following day August 7, 2015, as a result.

The Oakland Raiders signed him to a contract shortly thereafter, and he is playing while the court process for the latest DUI plays out. But it’s very hard to imagine he isn’t facing a one-year suspension unless he is completely exonerated of the charges from the August 6th incident.

Dion Jordan—DE, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins first-round pick in 2013 (taken third overall,) Jordan is currently serving a one-year suspension for his third episode of failing the league’s testing.

Jerome Simpson—WR, currently with the 49ers.

Simpson was the Bengals’ 2nd round pick in the 2008 draft, and played well for them. He is now serving a six-game suspension for the following incident:

In September 2011, police searched Simpson’s Crestview Hills, Kentucky townhome after intercepting a package to be delivered to his home containing 2.5 pounds of marijuana. When police arrived at Simpson’s home, Simpson’s girlfriend asked if they had a search warrant. They did not have one. After the search warrant was issued, the police found 6 more pounds of marijuana, scales, and empty packages similar to the one they had been intercepted. Simpson’s teammate Anthony Collins was at the residence and was also questioned by the police. No arrests were made.

On January 19, 2012, Simpson was indicted in Covington, Kentucky for “Trafficking in more than eight ounces and less than five pounds of marijuana”, a Class D felony, which carries a 1 to 5-year prison sentence if convicted. The NFL stated it would wait until the police investigation was complete to decide if it would discipline Simpson. On April 5, 2012, Simpson was sentenced to 15 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and 3 years probation.

And let’s not forget Chris Henry, the exceedingly talented but seriously troubled Bengals receiver who died in the aftermath of an altercation with his fiancee. As per his Wiki page:

On December 15, 2005, Henry was pulled over in northern Kentucky for speeding. During a search, marijuana was found in his shoes. He was also driving without a valid driver’s license or valid insurance. He pleaded guilty and avoided a jail sentence.

One month later, on January 30, 2006 he was arrested in Orlando, Florida for multiple gun charges including concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm. He was reported to have been wearing his #15 Bengals jersey at the time of his arrest. He pleaded guilty to this charge and avoided jail time.

On April 29, 2006 Henry allowed three underage females (ages 18, 16 and 15) to consume alcohol at a hotel in Covington, Kentucky.  One of the three, an 18-year-old woman, accused Henry of sexually assaulting her; she later retracted her story and was charged with filing a false police report.  On January 25, 2007, Henry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of a city ordinance commonly referred to as a “keg law.” He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with all but two of those days being suspended. 

Henry was pulled over on Interstate 275 in Ohio on June 3, 2006 at 1:18 a.m. by Ohio Highway Patrol trooper Michael Shimko for suspected drunk driving. He voluntarily submitted to a breathalyzer test at 2:06 A.M. at the Milford Police Department and registered a .092 blood-alcohol level, .012 above the level permitted in the state of Ohio. 

On October 6, 2006 Henry was suspended by the NFL for two games for violating the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. NFL policies forbade Henry from taking part in practices; however, he was allowed to attend any team meetings. Henry missed the Bengals’ October 15, 2006 game at Tampa Bay and their October 22, 2006 home game versus Carolina. 

In April 2007, Henry was suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 NFL season for violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.  His suspension on the 10th came with a stern warning that future misconduct may result in the end of his career with the NFL. Henry was given permission by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to begin practicing fully. 

On March 31, 2008, Henry punched a man named Gregory Meyer, 18, and threw a beer bottle through the window of his car. Henry claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and that he thought it was somebody else that owed him money.  Henry was waived by the Bengals a day after this arrest and was then served a house arrest sentence.

Henry’s mother donated his body for medical research, and he was famously discovered to have CTE. It is reasonable to think this may have been a factor in his off-field problems. The very disquieting aspect of this was, he never had a concussion, as far as anyone knows.

I could go on for hours, but you get the idea. It’s so easy to forget that these men have the same struggles as any of the rest of us, and possibly a lot more. We ignore the reality that football is a violent game played by angry men. Personality changes due to CTE are possibly an issue for some. The upbringing of many NFL players leaves a lot to be desired. They may have been forced out of their home, abandoned by their father, abused, or a host of other things we wouldn’t wish on any child.

Many people in other walks of life also have these sorts of backgrounds, and a lot of them overcome it. Most of them don’t, however, have to deal with the sort of unsavory (or just immature and ultimately harmful) “friends” who gather around a young man who is getting an NFL-type payday. Nor do they have to get their lives in order under constant scrutiny, and with the temptations which come with too much money and public adulation.

Antonio Brown, who knows a lot about such things, sent a message to Bryant, as reported on ESPN:

“You have to be professional on and off the field,” Bryant said. “You have to take care of your business. You’ve got to make right decisions. I tell Martavis all the time, ‘it’s all about who you have around you.’ You want to have people around you who bring you up and put you in the right position.”

Brown didn’t say it was easy. And, depending on how Bryant is wired, it either won’t be easy or perhaps will be scarcely possible to get beyond this. But I’m very happy the team is united behind him to give him the most help and the best chance possible.

Many of the struggles players contend with are far less public than Bryant’s have been. Only people like Ivan who have actually played football at a high level will understand what these guys go through, day after day, and how strong the desire must be to medicate the physical and psychological pain.

I chose the picture of Bryant very deliberately. Most of the ones I found were what you would expect—Bryant making an athletic catch, running in for a touchdown, talking animatedly after a big game. But what will define his career, or lack thereof, is how he handles the “bigger than football” issues he is facing and the vulnerability he lives with.

Whatever happens, in his case or the many others throughout the league, I hope we as fans can have compassion on these young men. They are, after all, young ones, many of them still maturing after being in the cocoon of the college experience. To whom much is given, from him much will be required. But until we can understand the full breadth of the man, apart from his talent and promise, it will be difficult to fathom the possible depths of his failings.

23 comments

  • Your comments in relation to fantasy are the best I have seen and in a better world would be required reading for fans of the game. It also connects to the later issues of how so many have and are living in less than enviable circumstances. How does our reducing them to commodities contribute to devalued lives, especially after their football utility is exhausted? And then comes the same tired and weak justifications ‘They’re being paid enough money’, as if prostitution is fine as long as you’re a $1,000 hooker as opposed to a $20 dollar whore.

    And yes, this is why I have come to despise fantasy; precisely because it completely severs our connection with these athletes as people. It represents the complete capitulation of any relationship with football as sport. It becomes like (and I admit this is a low blow, but needs to be said) betting on dogs.

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    • You’re not wrong. Fantasy sports certainly inflate the self-gratification that many need. Many people try to find ways to make themselves feel better or to be considered above-average in something compared to their peers. We all fall into these traps. Fantasy sports make it easy. I used to be in several leagues years ago, and I remember feeling ridiculously proud and smarmy anytime a player I picked exceeded expectations…as if I was some savant that could see something my opponent couldn’t.

      Money isn’t the cure for all ills, though we often think that it is. Certainly having a bit more would allow us to live a less stressful life if you don’t have to worry about bills, etc. But there’s always something else – and there are many issues that aren’t material in nature.

      I enjoy football more now that I stopped being in fantasy leagues. And I think I have a much easier time viewing athletes as people than I used to.

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    • Thanks Ivan. I think it’s safe to say Fan Duel isn’t going to come calling anytime soon to advertise on our site : )

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    • Who did you play for Ivan if you don’t mind sharing? I didn’t know you had played football at a high level. Not playing Fantasy Football is something I have never regretted, heck, I can’t even play office pick-em pools because I would have to pick teams to win that I don’t like.

      Another excellent article, Rebecca. Thank you!

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      • Rebecca has a generous definition of ‘high’. A couple of years with a Division 1 program (Temple). Come from a family of athletes and have had a Forrest Gump type relationship with some of this that informs some of my thinking

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        • It isn’t like you are Mean Joe Greene in disguise or anything, but being good enough to play college football at a D1 school is still impressive. I wonder at BTSC if some of the Steelers players don’t become users to mix it up with the fans. If I was a player I would…

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  • I despise fantasy football. Add this to the list of why.

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  • Toronto Steeler Fan

    This caught my eye:

    “I tell Martavis all the time, ‘it’s all about who you have around you.”

    Great advice from a great football player, and it’s applicable in all walks of life.

    In my professional travels I’ve worked in a number of settings and have been at both ends of the hiring/recruiting process. In my younger days, my decisions around where to work and who to hire prioritized professional opportunities, skills, compensation, etc. – the usual checklist you’d get from an HR department. After spending a number of years running a mid-sized business (50 professionals), I eventually came to understand the importance of character and integrity in the people you hire and the people you work with (i.e., “who you have around you”).

    When I hire people now, this is absolutely the first thing I look for and I value it higher than the precise skill set, experience, and education that a candidate brings to the table. I’ve found it’s a great way to build teams.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I think for a lot of people they believe that money trumps everything. Every time a professional athlete’s substance abuse problem is made public you get a chorus of commentary that focuses on how much the athlete is making and comments asking how could they jeopardize such a salary. How many times have we heard or read, “If I was making that type of money I would…” I think a lot of people do not understand what addiction is and how an addict’s addiction trumps everything, even money. Fans commoditize these athletes as much as any owner and in my opinion that’s fine for an owner, athletes affect their business and their bottom line, but as fans I wish more of us showed a higher level of understanding that these athletes are real people, who deal with the same real world problems everyone else deals with. Money and talent don’t prevent a person from making bad decisions, it isn’t a shield against addiction. If anything it can contribute to those issues especially when so many of these individuals are introduced to wealth for the first time at such a young age when they’re not mature and have no concept of financial responsibility.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Bleed-black&gold

    Great article! I definitely have fair in Martavis that he can put this behind him and stay sober (enough not to fail drug tests) if he heeds brown’s advice and keep a small but supportive circle around him. Friends who don’t share your best interest aren’t friends. Martavis is hopefully is learning that and make us forget about this suspension weeks from now as he makes a case for the pro bowl. Kid has superstar potential!

    PS – I came over from BTSC by way of Fever’s tag. Really enjoy the quality articles here which blows BTSC out of the water. Hopefully that site can get back to what made me join in the first place so I can have 2 great sites to go to for my steelers addiction.

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  • Great read. I agree that, for many fans, character issues don’t matter. This is true with both the bad characters (and there definitely are some) who are tolerated and even celebrated as long as they produce on the field and the basically good people who are fighting demons we can’t even imagine. Many fans want wins and don’t really care about other issues.

    That said, I’m unsure of the link between fantasy football and this type of attitude. I say that because I care deeply about character issues and the lives of the players. The stories and struggles of the young men who play the game and I never get tired of hearing the triumphs of a Wiiliam Gay, Baron Batch, Le’veon Bell or Sammy Coates.

    I have been in one ore more fantasy leagues for at least fifteen years. I enjoy it immensely. I will say all the leagues I’ve been in were not money leagues. I was in one once and hated it. People get stupid when there is money on the line. Also, they were not leagues where a money value is assigned to the players. I have no interest in those. You could not get me to go to a Fan Duel type site for love or money. Maybe there’s a difference between a social league which is done as an amusement and the money leagues.

    Does fantasy football drive the attitude or are those who see players as commodities attracted to it? I obviously have no idea. I don’t know whether the money league players care a whit about Martavis’s struggles or the personal troubles of any player, except perhaps maybe players on their favorite teams and maybe not even then. From reading the comments for years over at BTSC, I know there are a lot of fans who looks only at wins and losses. Fire the coach, cut Troy, Ike, Willie Gay, Jarvis Jones, Shazier, Gilbert, Mitchell, Blake. Trade Pouncey, Ben, Blah, blah, blah.

    Anyway, I love my “social” fantasy league and see nothing inconsistent with caring about players. Of course, I’m not a typical fantasy owner. I pick Steelers if I can, I refuse to pitch certain players, no matter how much they would help my team, all Brady, Randy Moss, Jamal Lewis are some l remember. I like to win, but I like to root for my players, so I try to get players I like. I would have no fun winning a league with Brady as my QB.

    Well, this is long winded. Sorry. My gut is that money players care less about players, but I don’t think it’s a cause and effect.

    I’ll take one more small exception with Rebecca’s article. I don’t believe that someone who smokes dope or takes anything he knows will get him suspended is an addict. Now, I don’t pretend to know what would go through the mind of, let’s say Le’veon to smoke dope in a car while driving. He said in the ESPN show Wednesday that it was his first time. Sorry, kid, can’t but that. I can’t pretend to know what was in his head if it was his first or 39th time. The decision to do so is so reckless in light of the risks, I can’t fathom the thought process, if there was any. Somehow, though, I don’t believe every NFL player who smokes weed is addicted. I’m not sure anybody is addicted to pot, but I’m not qualified to even begin that determination.

    The remainder of the article is fantastic. I agree totally. I, growing up with two parents who held me accountable, expected me to behave and achieve and kept me safe from the outside world, cannot truly understand how any of these kids manage to survive environments which probably would have destroyed me, and go on to achieve great things, even with bumps in the road. I do admit of having been judgmental at times on certain behaviors. Even so, I believe in redemption and those who stumble, fall and get up deserve our admiration. Many of those who stumble, fall and can’t get up at least deserve some compassion.

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    • Thanks for your many thoughts. I do want to address the “addict” comment. I’m not a fan of pot, but that’s not why I made the comment, and why I threw in a couple of other substances without the baggage attached to pot. I had a friend about 20 years ago who had an 8-month-old son who had continual ear infections, to the point where he was going to have to have tubes put in. My elder two kids had also had this issue, which can eventually lead to hearing loss, and after researching the issue I decided to try eliminating dairy from their diets. They didn’t have any more ear infections. The theory is, some kids are intolerant of dairy and it messes with their immune systems.

      I mentioned this to the friend, and she said she didn’t give him any dairy. She was breast-feeding, and intended to continue to do so for at least another six months or so. I pointed out that she would need to give up dairy as well, because the protein is delivered through the breast milk. Her response really startled me, because it was so different from most anything else I knew about her. She said “If that means I would have to give up cheese, he’ll just have to keep having ear infections!”

      She was a very loving mother who I would have assumed would do whatever was needed for her kids. But this was different. Can an adult live without dairy products for six months, or six years, or sixty? Of course. They are a delicious delivery system for various nutrients, but you can easily get those in other ways. But she wouldn’t even consider the possibility this might help her son, because she would have to give them up for a relatively short period of time. In my mind, she was addicted to dairy products. Not perhaps in the classic sense of someone who is addicted to heroin, but addicted nonetheless.

      And I still contend that if, knowing he could lose everything he has worked towards for the better part of his life (a job in the NFL and, presumably, the money that goes with it,) Bryant can’t stop smoking pot (or whatever his ingestion method of choice is,) he is addicted. I suppose you could contend that he is merely unable to forego present reward for future benefit, as demonstrated in the famous experiments conducted with preschool age children about delayed gratification, but there are a lot of things he has to forego presently for future benefits—eating more than his caloric needs (yes, that makes me a food addict : ), sleeping in and consequently being late to team meetings, working out instead of playing an additional round of Call of Duty, what have you. He’s in terrific shape, so he’s been clearly able to make those calculations. This says that something else is at work.

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    • Sorry – I clearly can’t be brief either : ) I wanted to also note that what you say about paying vs. fun fantasy leagues may well have something to do with it. I think the paying leagues are also probably a lot of the source of the anger fans display towards players they think have done them wrong. (This would also go for betting on game outcomes as well.) It would be interesting to find out if you are correct…

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    • Le’Veon said he had smoked the night before on the ESPN show, not sure where you are getting he said he smoked in the car while driving. Somebody likely was smoking in the car or the police officer wouldn’t have smelled it, but that is not what LeVeon said.

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      • I’m pretty sure that he told the officer he’d been smoking in the car, according to the police report, and told the officer he didn’t know it was a DUI when it was pot…

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        • He also said he had just started smoking which I don’t believe. I can’t blame the kid for covering his butt, here is to hoping he is smart enough not to smoke again during his NFL career. I don’t feel smoking pot is any worse than having a beer but the NFL and the laws obviously disagree for the time being.

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  • Toronto fan assesses character when hiring. This is smart. Keep good people around you in business and in life too. Don’t chase after these wrong people when suddenly they are removed from your life or inner circle. If you believe in God then maybe your circumstances were adjusted by a higher power to protect you from them. I believe this.

    I just think things like fantasy football and especially the internet has just made everyone ruder. It’s so easy to demonize each other from a distance. Yes we need money to survive but please remember that you can have a lot to live on but nothing to live for.

    I know that Martavis has his football band of brothers to help him and I hope someone outside of that circle is helping him too.

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