Sometimes dirt leaves a stain that can't be washed away. Despite facing a fresh wave of controversy, Miami Dolphins offensive guard Richie Incognito strives to manage the personal demons that almost ended his career.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The big, angry man was willing to try anything, which is what led him here, to a locker on the other side of the room, inquiring with a teammate he'd just recently met. Miami Dolphins offensive guard Richie Incognito's search for answers continued.

"Hey, Rick," said Incognito, cornering Ricky Williams during a day of work in 2010. "Can I ... can you ... can you, like ... teach me how to meditate? Can you ... can you tell me what this is all about?"

Williams, known as a spiritual seeker, obliged. He made a copy of an introductory meditation CD and gave it to Incognito -- the running back remaining, perhaps to this day, unaware of the backstory to that exchange.

Of course, in that respect, Williams wouldn't be alone. Very few know how deep and dark it got for Richie Incognito, a man once voted by his peers as the NFL's dirtiest player, who couldn't manage his temper, who turned to marijuana for comfort, who had no idea how to find balance, on or off the field.

"I got the CD," said Incognito, a 313-pound veteran now entering his ninth NFL season. "I went home. I popped it in. And I'm sitting there and, you know, I'm going through these breathing exercises. I'm doing these chants. And I'm thinking to myself, I look like a fruit loop. You know, I've lost it!"

The truth is, after a decade of anger management issues and substance abuse nearly cost him his job in football, Incognito was actually on his way to finding it.

On the Sunday morning after Miami’s recent preseason game against the Houston Texans, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin pulled his players into the team's main auditorium and started a meeting by projecting a play onto the big screen in the front of the room.

The play has since drawn national headlines: Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, apparently antagonized by Incognito’s relentless needling, ripped off Incognito’s helmet and swung it at his head.

“This is how you respond to this situation,” said Philbin, rewinding and replaying the moment over and over to show Incognito’s passive reaction. “We have to keep our composure and not retaliate.”

Multiple players say Philbin was fired up during that meeting, proud of Incognito and center Mike Pouncey for walking away from a provocative situation that later resulted in a three-game suspension for Smith.

In a watershed sense, this was validation of Incognito’s turnaround: He walked away from something that, in the past, would have surely sucked him in. But has he truly changed? If so, how does Incognito explain a report last week citing anonymous sources that said he punched a bouncer at a South Florida nightclub in June?

“I don’t want to get into details,” Incognito said. “But I’ll set the record straight -- I didn’t punch anyone.”

Instead, three people who witnessed the encounter told NFL Media that Incognito was trying to defuse a situation at Liv nightclub after attending a Miami Heat playoff game; that he was actually the one who called 911 to report an assault; and that he absolutely did not hit anyone.

Here’s the thing about Incognito: He is not an angel, nor does he claim to be. Yet compared to where Incognito's wild life has taken him in the past, the current path is far less twisted than ever before.

For years, Incognito just lied. When the never-ending string of therapists asked him how he was feeling, if he was sleeping enough or whether he was still smoking weed, he would answer in whatever way would make those sessions end easiest.

They didn't know, for instance, that while he was rehabilitating an ankle injury during training camp with the St. Louis Rams in 2007, he was partying every night. They didn't know he was confused about life, about his rage, about his constant fights with teammates and coaches.

"I mean, we'd have practice the next morning, and I'm out until all hours of the night, running the town," Incognito said. "Drinking. Doing drugs. I was doing everything that a professional athlete should not be doing."

Incognito faces the media in July 2006 at the start of Rams training camp.

On the field, it wasn't much different. As a member of the Rams from 2006 to 2009 (his first four seasons of pro action), Incognito committed 38 penalties, drawing more flags for unnecessary roughness (seven) than anyone else in that span. His promising college career at the University of Nebraska ended as a result of anger (fights with teammates, opponents and random students led to suspension), and his pro career was on that same bulldozed path.

So perhaps it was no surprise that in 2009, a Sporting News survey of 99 players tagged Incognito as the NFL's dirtiest.

"He was on a crash course toward being completely out of the league," said current Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who held the same title in St. Louis in 2006 and '07. "You'd watch him on tape and you'd say, 'He's completely lost control.' No teams wanted to touch him, which was very understandable."

And yet, in 2012, three seasons after the Sporting News gave him that distinction, Incognito's peers voted him into his first Pro Bowl. He also received a share of the "Good Guy" award -- splitting it with Reggie Bush -- given to the Dolphins' most cooperative player, as voted on by members of the local media. Since 2010, he has committed just two unnecessary roughness penalties -- tied for 19th with 37 other players.

So what the hell happened to Richie Incognito?

From the beginning, Incognito's toughness was rewarded as often as it was reprimanded. As an oversized sixth-grade kid in Glendale, Ariz., he was accustomed to ridicule, but football suddenly transformed his size from a punch line into an asset.

"Richie started his career on defense, as a nose tackle," said his father, Richie Incognito Sr. "So he'd always be lined up across from the center. Not one single time -- literally, not one time -- did the kid going up against Richie last beyond halftime. Not one time. Those kids were physically and mentally beaten. They would either get hurt or tap out.

"I'd always tell Richie, 'You don't take no s--- from anyone. If you let anyone give you s--- now, you're going to take s--- your entire life.' "

To understand Incognito, you must first understand his father. He is a sweet man, a kind and loving dad who literally cries with pride when he talks about his two sons. In a recent text message, Richie Sr. wrote that he'd "lay in front of a bus for one of my sons." At this year's Pro Bowl in Hawaii, AFC coach John Fox unofficially dubbed him "the father of the week."

Incognito with his mother, Donna, and his father, “Big” Richie Sr.

He is also loyal and tough, a Vietnam veteran who put in a year as a combat infantry soldier, then spent the 1980s as a truck driver. When Richie Sr. felt like his son was getting overshadowed in youth league football because he wasn't one of the coaches' kids, the dad reminded Richie Jr. that he'd get his chance someday.

"I'd try to cheer him up," said Richie Sr., who is now a custom pool builder in Arizona. "I'd tell him, 'Payback is going to come, Richie. When it's time for you to have your payback, you open up the gates of hell and make them stare at the devil.'

"And when that day came, man, he made them stare at the devil."

Inside his small beachfront apartment in August, Incognito sipped an Arpeggio-flavored Nespresso while the soft, orchestral sounds of Lana Del Rey filled the background. The head of a 350-pound hog hung on one wall. Nearby, a massive mounted sailfish stretched across another wall. He shot the hog in Florida; he hooked the sailfish in Cabo.

Incognito's place is a paradox, peaceful yet macho. Hell, these days, he, too, is a paradox, all the way down to a surname that so poorly personifies a 313-pound loudmouth. If you were to hang out with him, you'd likely love everything about this blue-collared badass -- unless, of course, at some point in his career, he spat on you, clawed at you or punched you in the junk.

"I'm definitely not a choir boy," Incognito said. "You know, I'm definitely not healed, and I'm not saying that I don't make mistakes. But from where I was to where I am now, I mean, it's night and day. And it's something that, you know, I hope people can respect about me."

No, Incognito has not lost his identity. Just last year, against the Tennessee Titans, Joe Philbin benched Incognito for committing what Incognito later called a “bone-headed” late hit. Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, a longtime Incognito hater, said Incognito tried to “break his ankles” – even though Incognito later showed reporters, on his iPad in the locker room, that Smith’s claims were flawed.

Incognito has, however, drastically altered his life's path. He undoubtedly still give his opponents hell during the regular season -- but he's spending more time on the right side of a very blurry line. He'll still enjoy a cold one with the boys during the offseason -- but his days of marijuana use are four years behind him.

As Incognito said, "Now, there's a method to the madness. In the old days, it was just madness."

It was 2009, and Incognito was depressed. For the first time in his life, he found himself on the wrong end of a mental beatdown, unable to leave his house for weeks as he dealt with the revelation that his misdeeds might have ruined his career.

All along, he loved this game. He didn't commit those penalties because he wanted to hurt people; he did it because he wanted to win. Or, at least, that's what he'd convinced himself: This wasn't my fault.

"Pretty much every facet of my life was in turmoil, and I was basically waging war against myself at that time," Incognito said. "I didn't realize that the battle was within me. It was a lot easier to blame everybody else. And it was a lot easier to be mad at everybody else and not be mad at myself.

"I placed blame anywhere blame could be placed. It was a coward's way out."

With three weeks left in the 2009 campaign, the Rams cut Incognito after he committed two personal fouls in the same game, a pair of head-butts that cost him a $50,000 league-imposed fine. The Bills picked up the troubled player on the waiver wire, but they decided not to keep him when the season ended.

Incognito played three games for the Bills in 2009 after the Rams cut him for excessive penalties.

Incognito came to an odd realization: Despite his ability to block with the best of them, two of the NFL's worst teams at the time wanted nothing to do with him. In that moment, the dirtiest player in the NFL was ready to come clean.

"I felt like I had lost control of the situation," Incognito said. "And that's when I really started taking the therapy seriously."

Incognito's doctor would soon prescribe him Paxil, a medication used to treat a range of disorders, from depression to general anxiety. And while, to this day, Incognito has never been formally diagnosed with any specific mental illness, he knows the medicine has helped change his life.

"Throughout my career, people had mentioned, 'Maybe you need to start some medication, just to kind of get things balanced out, because you're so far out of whack,' " Incognito said. "I kept saying, 'I don't want to live like that. I don't want to have to depend on medicine to balance me out.' I just wouldn't give up the power.

"And at that point, when I got down here to Miami and I realized it was my last opportunity, that's when I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to do whatever it takes to make me right.' I put my trust in the doctors and I put the trust in people around me.

"So I started taking it. And, I mean, it was a life changer. It was a game changer."

Incognito also said he has been free of marijuana for four years (confidentiality requirements prevent him from discussing or confirming any potential participation in the league's substance abuse policy).

"That whole time, I realized I was self-medicating," Incognito said. "I had so much going on in my head -- emotional stress and physical stress. I had so much going on that I was using marijuana to just put it all away. You know, I'd get high and I'd forget about everything. You know what I mean?

"I lost total control of the situation. I let the substances take over my life."

At many points along the way -- even as recently as 2010, when the Dolphins rescued him from a future of obscurity -- it has made some kind of strange sense that his mind would be plagued with confusion.

For his entire football career, his tough-guy ways were what made him a coveted prospect, first out of high school, then at the University of Nebraska and, ultimately, as a third-round pick by the St. Louis Rams (a lofty investment considering his off-field red flags and an injury during the NFL Scouting Combine that would sideline him for his rookie year).

Two months ago, Incognito got a tattoo of a phoenix hand drawn on his arm.

As an offensive guard, Incognito lives in the trenches, where life isn't clean or soft or anything like what you think you're seeing on TV broadcasts of games. And his take-no-prisoners style is what has led him to start each of the 94 NFL games in which he has played.

"I always liked what he brought to the table -- even when he was nuts," Olson said. "It's a physical position to play. And when you're trying to establish yourself as a tough team, he sets the tempo for that room, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."

It becomes a "bad thing," Olson said, when a player costs the team in terms of penalties, which are often simply the result of a player getting caught. That's the brutal balance for any offensive lineman: How much is too much?

"I would never use the term 'dirty' to describe Richie," said Steve Spagnuolo, the former Rams head coach who is now an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. "The good coaches say to play to the echo of the whistle, and Richie was the epitome of that.

"He was so passionate. He wanted to do so well for the football team. He wants to make the extra block. And he wants that big knockdown. There's nothing wrong with that, but some people saw it as too extreme."

Ultimately, Spagnuolo found himself in that group, making the decision to cut Incognito after his behavior outweighed his blocking ability. That, for all of these years, is the world Incognito has been trying to balance, captured by this statement: Spagnuolo still calls Incognito "one of my favorites."

"Releasing Richie was one of the hardest things I did when I was (in St. Louis), because I really liked having him on our football team," Spagnuolo said.

Even as Incognito and those around him recognized that he clearly needed to change his behavior, he was constantly praised for his ability to block, all the way until the very day he signed with the Dolphins.

"Miami made it very clear, 'We want you to be you,' " Incognito said. " 'We want you to get out there and get after people. That's why we brought you in.' So, you know, it was tough, because my first season down here, I'm thinking, 'Well, I've got to be violent, but I can't be getting penalties.' So it was an inner battle."

So Incognito's search -- a search for peace away from the field and balance on it -- continues. Of course, it continues down a road that is now far more enjoyable, as evidenced by the way it led him to this small apartment just a few steps from a quiet end of Fort Lauderdale Beach.

It also continues with the exploration of anything that might ultimately help him combat his dying inner demons.

Earlier this year, Incognito even completed the Deepak Chopra 21-Day Meditation Challenge, endorsed by Oprah Winfrey's Lifeclass. He uses another form of meditation called "visualization" to prepare himself for moments that might require patience or willpower. He says he benefited from Ricky Williams' recommendations, as well as many other mind-easing practices. Ultimately, Incognito says, he is motivated to find the answers, whatever they might be.

Massages at his beachfront apartment have become a weekly part of Incognito’s schedule.

"That's what drives me every day," Incognito said. "And I think that's what keeps pushing me to stay on this path. I had a decade that was just a complete mess, and now I have four years of clarity. And I wake up every day just striving to keep going.

"I know where the path is now. I see the path. And it's my job to stay on that path. There are so many people who have really helped get me here. I don't want to disappoint them. And I don't want to disappoint myself."

Where will his path take him next? Will it lead him to another Pro Bowl? Will it result in more accusations of dirty play -- maybe even an occasional penalty?

Is it possible that he might encounter all of the above before the end of his career? Sure. But as Incognito enters the final year of his contract with the Dolphins, he is focused on making certain this search for answers leads him down a path much more mentally peaceful than the one he leaves behind.

"I made a lot of mistakes," Incognito said. "I made a ton of mistakes. And I was really hard on myself, and I've learned from them. I've used those mistakes to motivate me and to take me to new heights."

Jeff Darlington is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow him on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

NFL - Logo
© 2012 NFL Enterprises LLC. NFL and the NFL shield design are registered trademarks of the National Football League.The team names, logos and uniform designs are registered trademarks of the teams indicated. All other NFL-related trademarks are trademarks of the National Football League. NFL footage © NFL Productions LLC.