Part II: Patrick Laird and why football is a force of good
Our conversation at Cigar City Brewing continues with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB detailing how this sport taps into human biology. Also, that time a fan got his stat line tatted on his thigh.
TAMPA, Fla. — Book to book, he’s constantly pushing his mind in new directions. I’m not sure there’s anyone in the NFL this downright curious. In Part I, Patrick Laird explained the value of reading in the Twitter age, how he beat the odds as a fifth-year pro running back and dove (very) deep into the idea of free will.
Our conversation at Cigar City Brewing continues with Part II.
Here’s the introspective Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back on the sacred nature of an NFL locker room, how the sport’s inherent “tribalism” taps into our human biology, that time a fan got Laird’s final stat line tattooed on his thigh, the origins of his “Intern” nickname and where he sees his football career (and life) going from here.
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You’re into the cold plunges, too? And saunas? You do all kinds of stuff physically to help your body.
Laird: I always did cold plunges after practice. I did it in college a good amount. Mainly for anti-inflammation. Miami, it was the best. They had a cold tub outside and it went up to your waist. After practice, your whole upper body would be warm in the humidity. So, it felt amazing. I got addicted to cold plunges. This past season, I started doing it in the mornings. I’d get to the facility around 6 a.m. It was funny. Me and Blaine Gabbert were the ones in there at like 6:10 a.m. We’d always meet in the cold plunge, hot tub room. I don’t know why, but I started doing it up to my neck and would sit there for five minutes, seven minutes. One, it felt good recovery-wise on the body for the next two hours of blood flow. It was coming back to the muscles. Two, something really hard to do in the morning helped build a mental discipline. Three, it was a mood-booster. It’s an extended dopamine release over the next two to three hours. So when I’m sitting in those morning meetings that are monotonous — toward November and December and the same things happen every single week in an NFL season — I was in an elevated mood when I felt better.
It really helps your day-to-day mood?
Laird: I think so. It’s a hard thing to do. But if you wake up early and get your whole body in the ice bath, I don’t know, it’s a trendy thing on Instagram. People like to make fun of it. I’m not one of those people who says, “You have to do cold plunges.” But it’s worked for me.
You’re a sauna guy, too.
Laird: The sauna’s something you start doing and you push your body to where it feels, “I’m about to die.” You push and push it and all of a sudden you get out. It’s similar. It’s a mood boost. A lot of guys say it helps with sleep, which I’ve experienced a little bit. People talk about the best conversations. The sauna is attached to our locker room. Some of the best conversations after practice are in the sauna. There will be 12 guys in the sauna talking about whatever. Could be stuff that happened at practice or it could be debates about life.
That’s what’s special about an NFL locker room. You’ve got dudes from every possible socioeconomical background. Every race, every creed, every political belief.
Laird: That’s one of the biggest blessings. Because I grew up in a small-town area where most people grew up how I grew up. And then I went to Cal and Berkeley which isn’t as crazy as everybody thinks but there’s a lot of different types of people there. On the football team, you get people from all over the country. Most people are from California but even different parts of California are culturally different. They come to the NFL and it’s even more. Midwest. Northeast. A lot of dudes from the South. A lot of guys from California. It’s interesting to see how everybody interacts. It’s such a special place. I try to appreciate it as much as I can.
You have all of these different interests and you want to push your mind in all these unique ways, so why do you play football? You’re really good at it and will make a lot of money. But I imagine that locker room is part of it, too. The fact that you can be around all these different people every day.
Laird: My best friend got married last weekend and I was the best man, so I gave a speech. He joined the football team a week into the season. We lost 42-0, and then he joined the team. We needed more athletes and he was an athletic guy. We were friends before. But we became best friends that senior season of high school and my best memories were — every day there was a local convenience store — and we’d get energy drinks. I can’t believe I drank energy drinks at 3:30 in the afternoon. I don’t do that now. My best memories were sitting in the car talking for 30, 45 minutes. I remember some games. But I remember way more of those conversations. Hanging out in his car before football practice. So, it’s the same thing. The best memories in the NFL have been the plane rides home after an away game — hanging out with all the guys, talking about the game but talking about other stuff.
Guys who’ve played in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, so many who are dealing with brain trauma or knees beat up or a back falling apart. And it’s no exaggeration: When I ask if they’d do it all again, every single player says absolutely. And the No. 1 reason is usually all of that: Camaraderie, the locker room, friendships built. Football can be such a force of good. I’m guessing you’d like to play as long as you can.
Laird: I want to play as long as I’m still enjoying it and as long as I can be healthy and still do it at a high level. Those two things are still happening for me now. I don’t know if there will ever be a point where I’m not enjoying it. I feel like the health thing would go first. And then the third thing, which is most common for people, is no other team calls. So, I’ll play it until I’m not enjoying it, I’m not healthy enough to play or no team calls me. The health thing is a scary thing that a lot of guys contemplate. Some people just push it aside. I think most people at some point confront that. There are scary things that can happen. Luckily, we’re in an era now where it’s a topic of conversation. People are talking about that: “How do we make the game more safe?” Helmet companies are developing better technologies. I hope I’m in an era where me and my teammates are in our 60s, 70s, 80s and still mentally sharp. The way we were taught to tackle was so much different in fifth grade to how it is now. Throw your head across. Now, people teach the “gator tackle:” Head behind and roll. So, I’m hopeful. For me, I’ve been lucky without any huge head injuries. Obviously, there’s the contact, and some studies show it’s the short, repetitive, subconcussive hits.
That’s what Tua Tagovailoa was saying at his presser this spring. He said his doctor told him there’s little risk of CTE because they see it in the subconcussive hits — the linemen, the linebackers. But I also just did a series on Kevin Kolb and he had four concussions. He’s driving down Southwestern Boulevard in Western New York, goes hazy, drifts into the other lane and almost kills himself. And he’s a quarterback. So, the science is still so new.
Laird: It’s very new. And brain science is not a definitive thing because a lot of times you can’t diagnose things until someone has passed away. You can’t take out the brain of a human. Hopefully it gets better.
You can keep your brain active in the day-to-day. Jamal Lewis, Kolb, so many of these guys say that if they pull up their iCalendar and stay busy every day — and if they’re a Dad running their kids around, if they’re running all these businesses, if they’re always staying active — there is science to this. You push those symptoms down the road.
Laird: People who work late into their life are a lot sharper. I enjoy doing crossword puzzles. I like them just to learn. I like words. That’s fun for me, but in the back of my mind, I’m fighting off any sort of brain injury that I’ve experienced. Luckily, I haven’t experienced anything crazy. The force-for-good thing, I really believe in. I like to think about — this is another far-out thought — but evolutionary biology, why humans act the way they do, we’ve evolved a certain way. We all used to be in these 150-person tribes that worked together and lived. And then we saw these other tribes and maybe we’re competing for the same resources. Football is a proxy for that old biological feeling that a lot of human beings experience: “My side, I want to win. The other side, I want them to lose.” But it’s healthy in the sense that you’re not actually going out to kill the other tribe. You’re rooting for your team. To go back to the hunter-gatherer thing, you want your team to kill the local game so you can eat that week.
Laird: It’s primitive and football wasn’t always this healthy game. Back in the day, there’s all these stories of injuries and head stuff. Obviously, fans don’t always act in a healthy way. There’s fights in the stadiums every year. But there’s other things in society where it’s become primitive and combative where it’s very negative — like we were talking about earlier, in politics. It becomes my side vs. your side and there’s no room for agreement. Football is a healthy outlet. Or basketball. Root for your team. Root for that team. But then when it comes to other things where we should really work together, we should all be on the same team. Running a government for a country, that’s where we shouldn’t be my tribe vs. your tribe. We should be one tribe. One idea might be better than the other. Let’s debate ideas, and not call the other side evil. Football in that sense can be a force for good. Let’s get our outlet of the old tribalism out in sports, rather than things like politics that have real-life consequences. Another one is religion, too, with my tribe vs. your tribe. Let everybody have their own beliefs but let’s have the common ideas and love. Every religion has some sort of love in it. Let’s agree on the love part and believe what you want to believe. Don’t fight over that. Fight over your favorite football team winning a game on Sundays. Not physically. But root for one side or the other. Healthy tribalism is what I think could be the force for good. Just don’t act physically on it. Let the guys on the field do the physical part in a safe way.
That’s why we love football.
Laird: It is. It goes back to the most primitive parts of our biology. You want your tribe to win vs. the other tribe.
Players are getting bigger, faster, stronger than ever and that’s dangerous because now they’re hitting each other at all these crazy angles. I think that’s the NFL’s worry. But you can’t turn it into flag football, or something it’s not, because nobody will watch. Nobody will care. And everything you’re talking about here will be lost. We all want to watch the modern-day gladiators doing something we can’t wrap our minds around on the field. I just wish the NFL would own its violence. You can’t change the kickoff rule out of one side of your mouth and then have Thursday Night Football Games. And add a regular season game. And have meaningless preseason games. If you owned your violence — and worked around that reality — I feel like everyone would be better for it. Be honest. Be up front. I feel like the owners aren’t. If Jeff Bezos throws enough money at you, hey, Thursday Night Football! Oh, you got the shit beat out of you on Sunday? There might be a flex on Thursday. The players know what they’re signing up for, at least way more than they ever did before. That owning of the violence needs to be a reality for the owners, but correct me if I’m wrong. As players, do you really feel like you know what you’re getting into?
Laird: I think you should reframe the message. It’s a physicality. We call it a “violent game.” But there’s a physicality to the game that can be appreciated and if we teach people from a young age how to do it the right way — you’ll never completely mitigate the risk of the game — but it can be done in a way that’s the most safe for everybody’s long-term health. Me personally, I’d never take out the physicality of the game. It wouldn’t be as entertaining to watch. That’s a big part of it. We talk about it all the time: “Who’s going to be the more physically imposing team?” Physicality, people think of it in the sense of size and strength. A lot of it’s mental. I think that’s what people appreciate. You’ll see a small safety like Budda Baker deliver a blow on a running back. He’ll take on offensive linemen that are pulling. That’s entertaining, but it’s also impressive and courageous. That’s why we love the game. I’d never take the physicality out of the game. But there’s safer ways to do things. I don’t want to make a false analogy but every time you step into a car, there’s a risk. Every time you step onto the football field, there’s a risk. Stepping onto the football field is probably more of a risk in terms of injury. But if we can design the game in a way and develop technology in a way that protects people, but still allows the physicality part of it? “Good” is a weird word. But it’s best for everybody. Because I enjoy the physical part of the game. Even though I’m not a bruiser, I appreciate that part of the game. I’ve been hit really hard and been completely fine. I got the air knocked out of me. But that’s what you sign up for. I didn’t sign up to have brain injuries when I’m 70. No one wants that. We’re all fine with adapting the game with the new science that comes out. Everybody’s happy about that. Very few people want the head-down guys that run into people and use their head as a weapon. No one wants that anymore. But I don’t think anyone wants touch football.
Because what makes football special is that moment in Pop Warner when you’re lining up in a hitting drill and you’re deciding: “Is this for me? Is this not for me?” To your point on Budda Baker — at 5-10, 170 — he’s making that decision to throw himself into that mess. And he’s one of the best safeties in the NFL. Those old hitting drills were nerve-racking, but that’s what’s special about football. These are guys you’re going to go to class with the next day and there you are hitting each other.
Laird: What’s funny is we still get those nerves in the NFL. The first day of pads, there’s this heightened sense of energy. Like, “Alright, guys. We’re going to be hitting each other today.” And in the NFL, we don’t really do much tackling in practice. It’s all tag-off from the side and thud from the front. There are some live periods but it’s pretty rare. Some guys, the first time they get tackled is in the preseason game or maybe the first game of the season. Receivers? Their first time getting tackled might be in the first game of the season. Running backs, we get tackled a bit more. Quarterbacks, for sure, don’t get tackled until the first game of the season.
Where do you see your career going from here?
Laird: I’d like to keep playing. Last year, was my first year only being on the practice squad. My goal was to stay ready if they ever needed to call me up. The main thing I was focused on was being the best teammate I could be. That’s all I focus on: I want to be a great teammate. I studied the gameplan like I was going to play. Thursday, Friday rolls around, there’s no injuries so I know I’m not going to play, so I’m going to help the guys who are going to play and I help the defense get ready. I definitely want to play this year. If I’m playing or not, I want to be the best teammate I can be. I’m never going to be the fastest running back in the NFL. I’m probably never going to rush for the most yards. But what can I be the best at? I can always be the best teammate in the NFL. The best running back teammate I can be in the NFL. On a personal note, I’d love to play as long as I can while I’m enjoying it. If that’s 10 years, which sounds crazy, because running backs don’t play 10 years anymore. Giovani Bernard just played his 10th year last year. I love that dude. It’s really hard for me to do that. But I never thought I’d play at Cal, so why not? Why sell myself short? I want to play on Sundays again. It’s so fun. Being one of the guys who helped the team win, it feels so good. That’s my goal. Be on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Help us win games. Be a great teammate.
There’s not many players out there, though, who’ve prompted fans to get tattoos.
Laird: (laughs) He had that on his own volition.
The final stat line was amazing: 10-5-1.
Laird: That go-ahead touchdown vs. the Eagles my first season.
With Laird Willin’ tatted.
Laird: He probably looks at that and regrets it. I don’t know why he did that, but it’s pretty funny. It’s a story that my friends or people who know me bring up because you can’t bring that up at a dinner party. You’ll just sound like an asshole: “You know, someone got a tattoo of me.” That guy got hooked up with some tickets and a jersey. I never met him, but we DM’ed and the Dolphins hooked him up with some gear. It’s on his thigh so no one’s going to see it.
His wife will.
Laird: So, she didn’t know about it before.
She wanted him to get a tattoo of her name, right? And he wouldn’t?
Laird: And then he got that.
People thought you were an intern in Miami?
Laird: Not technically. I was sitting down with some operations guys and their interns. I was asking them questions and one of the interns turned to me and said, “So, what do you do here?” I remember looking at the operations guys because they went silent. They’re looking at me to see what my reaction was. I didn’t care. I said, “Oh, I’m on the team. Didn’t take any offense.” I told that story to the team and that’s when the coaches started calling “Intern.” Fitz told the media, the media ran with it and mistakenly said that I was mistaken for an intern. But the story’s still good regardless. Ko Kieft, the tight end I hang out with now, he calls me The Intern now. Which I like it. I like that nickname.
Did you like playing in Miami?
Laird: Fitz was awesome. Tua was awesome. No complaints. It was a great situation for me because “Flo” was hired as the new coach. He wanted a young team that was willing to learn, be hungry. The first seven games of the season, we really struggled. I remember it was Monday Night Football. We were 0-6. We go to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, play them, I think we were up at halftime and they came back to beat us. I’m jogging off the field. We had just lost our seventh game in a row. A Steelers fan had a sign that said, “Knock, Knock. Who’s there. Owen. Owen who. Owen Seven.” I was like, “That’s a good sign.” The next week, we won. We started putting a string of games together. We ended up 5-11. The next year, still a young team. We played Fitz and Tua. Almost made the playoffs. And then my third year, we were in the playoff hunt again. It was interesting to go from a team that was rebuilding to almost making it. Being young. Learning what it’s like to be in the NFL, it was an awesome experience. Obviously, everybody wants to be on a playoff team right when they come into the NFL. Sometimes, it’s interesting. You learn a lot on a team that’s not playing well. It was fun to be on a team last year where we won the division, went to the playoffs. Obviously, we didn’t accomplish everything in Tom’s last season. For me, going to the playoffs — not that I played — but it was a cool experience.
Miami was strange because it seemed like it was a team openly tanking. Trying to lose. Then, you had the run at the end. That had to be strange as a player to be in the middle of all that?
Laird: I can say this — 2019 was Flo’s first year. I wouldn’t have been able to tell that we were trying to tank. Flo wanted to win every game that year. He pushed all players to win every single game. We worked really hard that season. We had a couple close games early on. We lost against Washington on a botched two-point conversion. We had another close game against the Jets. If you were in the building, you didn’t feel like we were trying to lose.
Tom Brady had two lockers (the summer you signed in Tampa) and you took one of those lockers? Then, he came back from his training camp exile and you got moved?
Laird: The same day. My locker was put right next to Tom’s and then at 4 p.m. that day they cut five guys from the team because they had to go from 90 to 85. The same day my locker was moved to a different part of the locker room. If anyone’s going to have two lockers, Tom deserves two lockers.
What does it feel like in the locker room right now when he’s no longer there? The entire country was talking about Tom Brady from July to August to the end of the season nonstop, 24/7. It’s on every TV. If you’re thinking about Tampa Bay, you’re thinking about Tom Brady. To now, he is retired and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to forge a new identity. I know it’s May. But is it refreshing?
Laird: I wouldn’t know how to answer the question without having been here before him. There are guys on the team who experienced Tampa before him, experienced it with him, and are now about to experience it without him again. All I know is when Tom came, there was a heightened interest. Which makes a ton of sense. I came here for joint practices in 2019 my rookie year when I was with Miami. And then I came here again in 2021 with the Dolphins. We landed at the airport and we’re on the bus on our way to the stadium and I saw two murals of Tom painted on the sides of buildings. He’s still around the city. But that’s the type of impact he has. It’ll be interesting to see. No one’s glad he’s gone. But everybody’s competitors. We enjoy playing football. So, we’re like, “Alright. He’s not our teammate anymore. He’s not on our team now. Let’s go out with these guys. Let’s go win.” That’s how most guys feel. Everybody who’s been teammates with Tom — because when I was in Miami we signed a bunch of guys who were in New England — one of the questions you ask is, “What’s it like being teammates with Tom?” I was probably the annoying guy asking guys who came over from New England. I remember them telling me, “He’s a great teammate. He’s so nice. He knew everybody. He talked to everybody.” And then when I was teammates with him, Tom’s awesome. Super nice guy. Competitive. Intense. But a great teammate.
We still have our veterans. Mike Evans is back. Chris Godwin is back. But overall, it’s a younger offense than it was last year. Then, we have a new offensive coordinator. Every team’s different. Whether there’s a new quarterback or not, quarterback is the most visible thing. But even when a quarterback stays, it’s still a completely new offense because there’s going to be new guys plugged into different places.
Ten, fifteen years from now, where do you see your life? Where do you want to be? Because of course free will is at play here. You can choose your destiny.
Laird: In 15 years, I hope free will exists so I can choose where I’m at. I’d like to be happily married to my fiancé Bryce. I’ll probably be somewhere in the business world. I studied business in college and was into business growing up. Maybe I’ll be working for a great company or have started a business. I’m kicking around this idea. I read a book recently about buying a small business. I’m kicking around that idea. Maybe I’ll buy a small business and run it. My fiancé is going to be a lawyer in a couple months. She graduated from law school and she’s taking the bar in July. So wherever she wants to work, I’m going to find a job where she’s at when I’m done playing football. I’ve done some investing already so I’ll be managing those investments. I’ll figure it out after that. I enjoy the competitive aspect of my job currently. I think the business world will be a great competitive outlet for me. I thought for a long time that I wanted to go into banking and private equity. I may still do that. We’ll see.
It depends how long I’m playing football. If I play for three more years, and I’m 30 years old, do I want to be an analyst or an associate at a private equity firm? Who knows. Or could I buy a small business, run it, make it better, increase revenue, sell it for a higher multiple or keep the business and enjoy running it? Somewhere where I’m with my fiancé. My dog will still be alive. He’s going to live forever. And then I’m doing something in the business world. Maybe running a business.
Isn’t that the truth? We just told our dog, Edmund, there’s no choice.
Laird: My dog’s going to live forever. He’s going to be the oldest English bulldog of all-time.
He reads the Wall Street Journal with you.
Laird: He does. He’s smart.
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Prefer these Q&A-style conversations? You can surf through that archive right here to read past chats with Tiki Barber, Juwan Johnson, Jamaal Williams, Terence Newman, Jim Kelly, Quincy Carter and others.
One year ago, Go Long sat down with two running backs in Patrick Laird’s Bucs running back room. Here are those features, icymi: