Anthony Hargrove, the Brooklyn-born NFL defensive end who's knee-deep in the New Orleans Saints’ ongoing “Bountygate” scandal, has been in tougher spots.
Like the time he watched his East New York tenement on Alabama Avenue go up in flames when he was only 5 years old, forcing his family to move into one of our borough’s homeless shelters.
Or when he lost his mother, Rosa, at age 9 and was subsequently moved down to Port Charlotte, Fla., where he lived with his aunt and uncle while developing into a highly touted high school gridiron prospect.
Even after receiving a scholarship to play defensive line at Georgia Tech, Hargrove found himself working as a baggage man at an Atlanta airport, having squandered his free ride with the Yellow Jackets due to failing grades.
And after impressing NFL scouts enough to earn a third-round selection in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams despite his troubled past, the hulking sack machine nearly threw his dreams of becoming a pro football star away with cocaine, marijuana and several admitted suicide attempts.
In 2009, following a troubled stint with the Buffalo Bills due to a failed drug test that resulted in a four-game suspension during the 2007 season, Hargrove finally appeared to be on the path toward success in New Orleans.
He flourished in Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme, emerging as a key member of New Orleans’ first-ever Super Bowl championship team and celebrating the 31-17 victory over Indianapolis in Miami just miles away from a rehab center where he’d spent 10 months on his journey back to the NFL.
His teammates even awarded him the coveted Ed Block Courage Award following the season for his “inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage” in coming all the way back from his previous trials and transgressions.
"To mess up now, at this point, would be crazy," Hargrove said while drowning in the confetti falling on the newly crowned world champions that night at Sun Life Stadium.
But even his greatest reward, a glittering championship ring earned during that Super Bowl XLIV triumph in South Beach, has now been tarnished by the ever-deepening scandal that implicated himself, three other Saints players, Williams, head coach Sean Payton and assistant Joe Vitt in the Saints' well-chronicled “pay-for-performance” tactic.
Hargrove, who left The Big Easy following the 2010 campaign and split last season playing for Philadelphia and Seattle before signing with the Packers in March, will serve an eight-game suspension without pay this coming year in Green Bay for his part in Bountygate.
In an official document acquired by the Associated Press earlier this week, Hargrove revealed that he was specifically instructed by Williams and Vitt to “just play dumb” when NFL investigators came around to inquire about the Saints’ bounties in 2010.
Williams, known for his no-holds-barred defensive style, allegedly dangled additional cash payments to any player who could knock Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
Neither Hargrove nor any of his teammates ever collected on the bounty, as Favre survived the contest, a thrilling 31-28 Saints overtime victory at the Superdome.
But in his sworn statement to NFL investigators, the soon-to-be 30-year-old lineman provided the league with the smoking gun it felt it needed to dole out unprecedented suspensions to the New Orleans organization, including an indefinite one for Williams.
In describing Hargrove's statement last week, Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney hired by the NFL to review its investigation, said that he ''acknowledges the nature of the [bounty] program and his participation in it. … He was told to lie about it, and he did when he was asked about it in 2010 by the NFL investigators.”
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma received a season-long suspension without pay, while defensive end Will Smith got four games and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was hit for three games.
Williams, who left New Orleans following last season and was set to start coordinating the defense in St. Louis this year, allegedly told Hargrove that the league “has been trying to get me for years,'' and ''if we all stay on the same page, this will blow over.''
It blew up instead.
Vitt, who will assume head-coaching duties for Payton after serving his own six-game suspension to start this coming season, categorically denied Hargrove’s statements.
“At no time did I ever tell Anthony Hargrove to lie or deny the existence [of the alleged bounty program],” Vitt told the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week. “He can say whatever he wants to say. It just didn't happen.”
All four players implicated have already appealed their suspensions and the players’ union is fully behind them, claiming that Hargrove's statement does not reveal that a bounty program existed nor that he was asked to lie about it.
The NFL clearly doesn’t see it that way, and a closer look at Hargrove’s statement reveals why.
In describing the now-infamous 30-minute meeting with Vitt and Williams on or about Feb. 24, 2010, Hargrove states:
“Both coach Williams and coach Vitt told me that I should deny the existence of any bounty or bounty program to the NFL. Williams and Vitt repeatedly stated that, ‘they care about me, and … if we all stay on the same page about this, it will blow over.’ They told me that when the NFL asked me about any bounty or bounty program, I should ‘just play dumb.'"
Hargrove goes on to say: “Approximately a week after I had been questioned by NFL Security, Gregg Williams asked me about the interview; he asked, ‘Did you stick to the story?’ I told him that I responded to all of the NFL’s questions as he and coach Vitt had instructed me: I denied any knowledge of a bounty program.”
Why would Vitt and Williams target Hargrove as their go-to guy in the clutch against the NFL? Perhaps because they both played pivotal roles in his success in the league.
Vitt was the Rams’ assistant head coach when St. Louis took a chance on Hargrove back in 2004. Williams was the one most responsible for Hargrove’s emergence as a key cog in New Orleans’ championship defense.
Hargrove’s statement sheds some light on this aspect of the scandal as well.
“[Coach Vitt] told me to remember that he was the person who ‘brought me into the league and brought me to the Saints.'”
And the carrot that the two coaches dangled in front of Hargrove for “just following orders"?
“When I arrived in his office, coach Williams was working on his depth chart, and he said to me, ‘I’ve got you penciled in at left end, Tony.' Coach Williams knew that defensive end was my preferred position. It wasn’t until later that I realized the presentation coach Williams gave me regarding my opportunity to start at defensive end might have had something to do with what he was about to tell me to do.”
It appears Vitt and Williams had a player they could lean on in Hargrove, not just for his ferocious play along the defensive line, but due to his vulnerability as a player with a troubled past they had helped resurrect.
As the undisputed ringleader of Bountygate, Williams is unlikely to find work in the NFL anytime soon, if ever again.
Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowler, who allegedly helped Williams start the program in New Orleans, continues to spearhead the appeals process he hopes will clear himself and his fellow suspended teammates.
And perhaps most importantly, clear their sullied reputations.
Hargrove has continued to remain mum as the fallout from his recently unearthed statement threatens to tear his career apart yet again. He’s picked up the pieces before, and one can only hope that he can find a way to do so again.
After all, he’s seen significantly more trying times than these.