'Lifelong fight' for NFL exec Troy Vincent could help NFL amid domestic violence crisis

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'Lifelong fight' for NFL exec Troy Vincent could help NFL amid domestic violence crisis
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Troy Vincent has a booming voice, the kind preachers use to wake up the guy in the last row of pews. The former NFL cornerback uses that voice when he cares about something, which is pretty often.

When he talks about his childhood, though, Vincent speaks slightly above a whisper.

"You're a young boy, you're 10, 11, 12, 14," he says. "The sounds, the visuals, they never leave."

Troy Vincent says he grew up in a house where domestic violence was common. (AP)
Troy Vincent says he grew up in a house where domestic violence was common. (AP)

Vincent grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Trenton, N.J. He and his younger brother, Sam, slept in one room and their mom, Alma, slept in the other. Between the two rooms there were "8 inches of sheet rock," Vincent says, and through that wall he heard things that terrified him.

"You ball up, get under a bed, go hide in the closet," Vincent says. "You hear the rumblings, the screams. You're helpless."

Vincent says his mother's boyfriend beat her "countless" times over several years when the family lived in the now-defunct Dolly Homes projects. He has spoken about his past before, but he wants to tell his story again now because it matters more than ever. As the NFL's vice president of operations, Vincent is a close adviser to commissioner Roger Goodell. At the owners meetings, which started Wednesday in New York, there is no topic more pressing than the league’s domestic violence problem. Vincent’s private world and his public profession have merged amid the league's crisis. Goodell has brought in several domestic violence experts in the last several weeks, but Vincent, a former player, has a unique awareness that has shadowed him as long as he can remember.

"This has been a lifelong fight for me," he says. "This issue can't get any closer. I've experienced it firsthand, as a survivor."

Some of the questions being asked on social media now are questions Vincent himself asked as a child. Namely: "Why doesn't she leave him?"

That weighed on Vincent for years, as there were times when the beatings were so awful that he says it was hard to recognize his mom. "I have no photos of my mother as a teenager during that time period," he says.

His voice gets soft again.

There wasn't an explanation for what was happening on the other side of that sheet rock. Vincent's mother would apologize to her sons, even though it wasn't her fault, and the three of them would hug.

Then, not long afterward, it would all start again: The screaming, the fear, the hiding under the bed, and then the sprint to the neighbor's door for help.

"Victims don't know how to leave," he says.

The family moved to the Pennsylvania border, where Vincent starred in high school on his way to a long and successful NFL career. It was an escape from his mother's tormenter, who is now deceased, and a new start. But the memories are still present for the family.

Troy worked as a guardian angel during his teen years, and he took the mission to help even farther as an adult. He says he has hosted several domestic violence victims in his own home, during his playing career and since.

Yet there is still a lot left unspoken. Asked if he ever sat down with his brother to discuss what they went through together as boys, Vincent paused.

"I don't ever recall having that discussion with him," he says. "It was kind of, you just run for cover."

Troy Vincent, pictured with Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, in 2003. (Getty Images)
Troy Vincent, pictured with Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, in 2003. (Getty Images)

So there's a blend of pride at his mother being a survivor and a "champion" and reluctance to share too much out of fear of victimizing her again. Vincent's feelings mirror those of the NFL and society as a whole – private problems remain private, until they become public dangers. By then, it's often too late.

The video of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice punching his fiancée, Janay Palmer, and the ensuing maelstrom about who in the league office may have seen the tape, brought new questions about a sadly familiar topic.

"I didn't need to see a second video," Vincent says. "Just didn't need to see it. The scab was off again."

"How can a guy do this?" is something Vincent has wondered for many years. It's made him a hawk on player conduct, even though he was formerly a leader for the union. Months before the Rice incident, Vincent began developing an "early intervention program" to communicate standards to pre-draft players who have had issues with "firearms, domestic violence, felony arrests, or DUIs."

"The NFL is not for everyone," he says, "nor should it be."

Yet while Vincent has been ahead on this issue, his office is lagging behind. It's tough to convince anyone that the NFL has handled the domestic violence crisis appropriately, either now or when Jovan Belcher killed girlfriend Kasandra Perkins in 2012, or when Rae Carruth was implicated in the murder of girlfriend Cherica Adams in 1999. A flat-footed response to a long-developing problem has made the NFL look tone-deaf and tin-eared. Vincent, like Goodell, has to prove himself from scratch. The whole sport does.

That kind of wakeup call isn't new to Vincent. In 2007, when he and his wife, Tommi, owned a spa in New Jersey, one of their massage therapists was accused of assaulting a client. Vincent vividly remembers getting his wife's call when she found out about the allegation.

"Get his ass out of there," he told her.

Vincent was later named in a civil suit. He and his wife sold the salon. The legal process unfolded in the local papers, while Vincent was the president of the NFL players' union. Looking back, it was a lesson in when to let the facts play out and when to act immediately.

"I heard enough," Vincent says. "He was the one who needed to deal with facts."

The masseuse, Joseph Jones, was convicted of sexual assault four years after the incident. Letting the facts play out would have been a terrible mistake.

So Vincent has seen more than one side of this issue. Now he's at the side of the NFL commissioner, traveling to Austin last week to meet with former NFL players and Texas head coach Charlie Strong about his zero-tolerance policy for mistreatment of women. The listening tour is necessary, but it must give way to a reliable course of action. Everything Vincent has learned will be needed over the coming months.

"How you resolve conflict is how you will be measured as a partner, and as a leader," he says. "That applies at home, at business, on the field and in the classroom. This is the dialogue the nation has been waiting for. We accept that challenge."

And now again, Vincent's voice is booming.