After a Super Bowl nightmare, then a career-ending injury, retired Seahawk Ricardo Lockette says powerful moments have shown him what really matters.
Part 1: Life, October 2016
Lights off. A video screen glows in the background. Former Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette strains to turn around and watch himself, slipping back in time.
The outcomes never change. Russell Wilson’s pass to him in the Super Bowl is always intercepted with 20 seconds left. He always leaves the field in Dallas on a cart, his helmet strapped in place so his head can’t move.
Lockette, 30, used to avoid watching those plays. He’d stare at his phone or turn his head. But now he understands what they mean: The reason people want to hear from him. A hook to latch on to.
He has watched the plays before, but when the lights come up and the church crowd in Black Diamond on a recent Sunday morning murmurs in anticipation, he lingers on the blank screen before turning around. As if he must let his past breathe a moment before resuming in the present.
“I see myself as being just a regular, average, everyday guy,” he said that Sunday. “And I just wonder, ‘Why do all these things keep happening to me?’ ”
Part 2: Drifting, 2007-08
A car. A few dollars. His thoughts. That’s all he allows himself.
He could go home. Back to Albany, Ga., back to his parents. But he is too embarrassed. He thinks he let them down, a feeling he would experience again in just a few years.
He took a year off from college in 2007-08 to train for the Olympics. Didn’t go to school. Didn’t work. Just trained. He always had amazing speed, speed he thought he could harness for the Olympics.
His parents paid for his trainers, food, transportation and housing. Ricardo was their family vacation, their miscellaneous expenses, their dinners out.
His parents never complained. They believed in him the way only parents can believe in someone. He had told them ever since he was young that he wanted to be great. Never said what he would be great in. Just that he wanted to be great.
Until that point, football had provided his best opportunity. Schools such as Auburn saw his muscular, 6-foot-2 body and track-star speed and showed interest.
But his body, his talent, was also the thing that kept him from going to those schools. He leaned on it, relied on it, let his effort slip in school. His grades weren’t good enough for the big time.
He ran track at a community college in Alabama for a year. Then he decided to dedicate himself fully to his dream, the Olympics.
He runs times fast enough to make most sprinters jealous, but not fast enough for the Olympics. After not qualifying at a pre-qualifying meet, he drifts.
He doesn’t have enough money for a hotel, so he turns his car into one. Two or three nights in vacant parking lots, in neighborhoods, quiet places where no one disturbs him.
During the day, he doesn’t have enough gas to drive around or enough money to buy more gas. He reclines the seat, shields the sun with his hat and crawls inside his thoughts. A white room with no doors.
I did not plan for my life to be like this, he says to himself.
At some point he receives a phone call. From a football coach at Fort Valley State, a Division II school. A second chance.
Part 3: Cut, 2011-12
His phone rings. A 425 area code.
The Seahawks just played their final preseason game of 2011, and the team is trimming the roster to 53 players. Lockette answers. A voice asks him to come to the team’s headquarters in Renton with his playbook.
He stays in bed at the Hilton and tries to think of an escape. Maybe if he doesn’t get up, if he just stays in bed, the Seahawks will change their mind.
He walks into general manager John Schneider’s office to meet with him and Pete Carroll. They say he’s a good player, great athlete, but he’s raw and unfocused. He thanks them. Before he leaves, he tells them if they see him again, he will be a different player.
Lockette was always a longshot to make the roster. An undrafted free agent out of Fort Valley State, he had a nomadic and choppy college career. He attended three schools and was suspended in 2009 for testing positive for high levels of testosterone.
“Just trying to achieve greatness by taking the wrong path,” he says.
When the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011, he thought he had made it. He flew to Seattle first class. He started hanging with Sidney Rice and Mike Williams and Marshawn Lynch. Partied and had fun. Showed up late to meetings. Cared about jewelry, women, money and cars.
“He just didn’t have that mindset,” says Doug Baldwin, his roommate at the Hilton and another undrafted free agent that year. “He just didn’t truly realize how fleeting that moment was.”
The walk from Schneider’s office to the parking lot is the longest of his life.
He gets cut again before the 2012 season and again in 2013. By now, they all run together. One of those times, he gets in a van and packs his clothes and heads to the airport.
He sits in the last row of the plane, by the toilet. The day’s events start to register, twisting inside of him: the opportunity, the moment missed, another setback.
Man, he thinks to himself, I probably just messed my life up.
His parents meet him at the airport. They try to tell him that the Seahawks made a mistake. How could they let him go? He can’t bring himself to explain the truth: It was his fault.
He tells his parents he’s OK, but a mom can always tell. The sadness in her son’s eyes, the pain. So helpless. A look she would recognize a few years later.
Part 4: The Super Bowl, February 2015
If he closes his eyes, he is back: The smell of the grass. The rumble of the crowd as he breaks the huddle and jogs to the 1-yard line. Brandon Browner. Malcolm Butler. The ball spinning toward him. The shocked explosion of the crowd. Lying on the ground. Tom Brady jumping up and down. Browner jawing at the Seahawks’ sideline.
His parents are there. Great seats. But the play is near the other end zone, on the other side of the field. His mom, Felita, is the first to spot him: He’s in, he’s in! she yells.
And then: silence.
In the locker room after the game, Lockette paces, hands on his hips, mouthpiece still in his mouth.
He started playing football for his dad when he was 7, and everything he had done, everything he had been through, led to that moment in the Super Bowl. After the Seahawks cut him, he joined the 49ers’ practice squad. He returned to the Seahawks a year later and became a key special-teams player. A roadrunner in shoulder pads, always hunting for his next big hit. More focused. More disciplined. He even caught a 19-yard pass in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win against the Broncos. But on the field in Glendale, Ariz., on his knees after Wilson’s pass is intercepted, he is left with the familiar feeling that it is his fault. That he let people down.
“Football was my life,” he says. “That was my only way out, my only way to make money, my only way to do anything. And I got to the biggest point, and I (messed) it up.”
His family leaves the stadium immediately. On the way out, a street preacher with one of those “Jesus Saves” signs stops them: Russell Wilson messed up because he wasn’t right with Jesus, and Ricardo Lockette didn’t catch the pass because his soul wasn’t right.
Lockette’s dad, Earl Lockette Sr., is furious. He wants to knock the guy’s hat off. But he looks at his granddaughter, Ricardo’s daughter, and at the police nearby and decides to demonstrate restraint.
His family returns to their hotel room. No one touches the food. No one turns on the TV.
“It was like a funeral,” his mom says. “Like somebody just passed away.”
All week his dad and mom had looked forward to hearing Snoop Dogg perform the song “Beautiful,” and from their room, they can hear the song pulsing below. It sounds nothing like they’d anticipated.
They still haven’t seen Ricardo.
Lockette stands in front of a mirror after the game. He can see the hurt on his face, in his eyes. He knows from his family’s texts that they are worried about him. So he looks in the mirror and practices smiling, over and over and over. A mask for his heartbreak. A maturity he didn’t have in the airport a few years earlier.
He walks into the hotel room, beaming, cracking jokes and hugging everyone. Like nothing happened.
“He did it for us,” his mom says. “He did all of that so we wouldn’t be sad.”
Part 5: Dallas, November 2015
It sounds like a fork hitting glass: Diiiiiiiiiing. That’s what he remembers. No other sound. No feeling. He’s on his back, looking up at the underbelly of the Dallas Cowboys’ giant video screen.
From their seats, his family tries to figure out what happened. His dad usually watches the play, which means following the ball. But his mom always watches her son. She knows right away something is wrong.
Then the texts from people watching on TV: He’s not moving. How is he? Are you guys at the game?
They watch their son get carted off the field. They watch him hold up an “L” with his fingers, to let his teammates know he is OK.
His dad’s phone buzzes: Rico 83. But it isn’t Ricardo. It’s a doctor calling from Ricardo’s phone to let his parents know their son is undergoing tests.
They ride to the hospital, answering texts and trying to understand what is happening. The longest ride of their lives.
Ricardo is in a hospital room, but the doctor wants to talk to them in a separate room first. Earl Lockette’s mind races. He thinks of his own uncle, who recently had a heart attack. When Earl got to the hospital, the staff had pulled him into a room and told him his uncle had died.
The doctor in Dallas explains the severity of Ricardo’s injury. He needs emergency surgery. His family would later hear how close he came to death.
His parents walk into the hospital room and see Ricardo in bed, immobilized. Tears roll down his cheeks. It bothers his father to see his son like that. Ricardo, always so independent, and now he is so vulnerable. His mom can see the helplessness in her son’s eyes. The same look she saw in the airport after the Seahawks cut him.
Everyone knows his football career is over.
Part 6: Life re-imagined, 2016
Everything changed. It changed on the field in Dallas. He thought about death, his life: his family, his kids, the things he wanted to do and say.
He drilled in on the ordinary, the mundane. He wanted to breathe again. To walk. To play with his kids. And then the things he once cared about, the cars and jewelry and shoes, all those things lost weight. He still likes them. Still wants them. But they don’t matter.
“After you break your neck and after you’re that close to death,” he says, “your life changes, and the things that really mean a lot to you become more visual.”
His father sees an almost cruel irony to the trajectory of his son’s career. For years Lockette wanted to be relevant. He was with the 49ers’ practice squad when they played in the Super Bowl in 2012, but he wasn’t on the field, wasn’t playing, wasn’t relevant.
Now, today, he is more relevant than ever because of a failed play in the Super Bowl and a horrific injury that ended his career. What Lockette has embraced is the power of those moments, the importance of reliving them. They cracked open a hatch he had been searching for.
He is launching his foundation on Tuesday, a year to the day when his career ended in Dallas. His ambitions are still big: to pair with medical experts and make the wheelchair irrelevant. To help women and families of domestic abuse.
He doesn’t know what he will do for a career. Or even what he wants to do. Other than this: He wants to use the story of his life to relate to people. The poster child for adversity.
The day after the surgery in Dallas, his dad recorded a video. Two nurses stood on either side of Ricardo. His family was behind him in case he fell. He took a few small steps. Slowly. Carefully. Then he walked faster, taking bigger steps, sending a jolt of nervousness through everyone in the room.
“I have to do this,” Lockette told them. “I’m not just going to lie in this bed and feel sorry for myself. I have to get up.”