One punch, two lives altered: Inside story of Jets’ 2015 locker room fight

  • Longtime Jets beat writer for New York Daily News
  • Syracuse University graduate

On Aug. 11, 2015, coach Todd Bowles walked into the New York Jets’ press room — unannounced — and went directly to the podium. Reporters were summoned for an impromptu news conference. This was supposed to be a quiet day in the world of the Jets: A light practice before their first preseason game, followed by routine questions from the media.

The quiet was gone by lunchtime.

As reporters assembled, one of them asked Bowles if this was going to be something worth recording. He nodded.

“You’re going to want a tape recorder for this,” he said, managing a smile.

With that, Bowles turned serious and announced the (Cheap) Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Jets starting quarterback Geno Smith would miss at least six weeks with a fractured jaw, the result of what Bowles called a locker room “sucker punch” by teammate IK Enemkpali.

Within the hour, several news trucks had descended upon the Jets’ suburban facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. TV reporters occupied the small lawn outside the press room, delivering live standups for the 6 o’clock news. It was the biggest story in Gotham and across the NFL. The next morning, it made the front and back pages of the tabloids, with the New York Daily News taking their own swing at the polarizing Smith on page one:

“LUCK OF THE JAW! Jets fans rejoice as QB out 6-10 weeks.”

“JAW & DISORDER,” the New York Post screamed on its back page.

The safest place for a quarterback, other than his own home, is supposed to be the locker room, where he stands on a figurative pedestal as the leader of the team. Five years ago, the sanctity of the Jets’ locker room was shattered in a shocking way that transcended sports and returned the star-crossed franchise to — ahem — punchline status. As late-night, talk-show host Conan O’Brien joked in his monologue, “The Jets finally get a player who can hit, and they release him.”

Enemkpali, a 260-pound linebacker selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, was cut immediately by Bowles. Smith underwent surgery to repair his jaw, which was fractured in two places. He spent the rest of the 2015 season on the bench as the team flourished without him. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, acquired in an offseason trade, replaced Smith and led the Jets to a 10-6 record, their last winning season.

At the time, the team never spoke in detail about what happened that day other than the cause of the altercation — a dispute over $600. Call it the locker room code: Don’t snitch on teammates. It remains a sensitive subject for many, some of whom declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Can’t help you,” one former Jets player said in a text.

Smith and Enemkpali each declined interview requests, with Enemkpali telling ESPN in a Facebook message, “What’s the point of bringing it back up? What’s your motive?”

Reached later by phone, Enemkpali said, “There’s really not much for me to say. What happened is what happened.”

Professionally, Smith and Enemkpali — forever linked — never recovered from the fight. Enemkpali, 29, is out of the league. Smith, 29, is hanging on as a backup with the Seattle Seahawks. While the pair will not talk about it, others will — finally. The passage of time has loosened lips. Here’s a five-year retrospective on the fight that rocked sports:

Two days before the Jets’ preseason opener in Detroit, Smith — the presumptive starter — dressed for practice in front of his locker when Enemkpali approached from the other side of the room. Unbeknownst to most of their teammates, the two teammates had an existing beef.

Months earlier, Smith had accepted an invitation to be a guest at Enemkpali’s youth football camp in Pflugerville, Texas. Enemkpali shelled out $1,200 for plane fare and hotel. Smith didn’t show. Eventually, they agreed to split the cost, teammates said. On Aug. 11, Smith still hadn’t reimbursed him.

Trevor Reilly, Jets linebacker: “It had been building for a while. I don’t think Geno was necessarily trying to stiff him, I just think it was on the very bottom of his list of things to worry about at the time. It’s one of those things where $600 isn’t that much money when you’re at that level.”

Brandon Marshall, Jets wide receiver: “That was the issue. [Smith] kept putting him off, putting him off. For Geno, what was disrespectful was — just pay the man his $600. Just fix the situation. But to keep pressing, ‘I’ll get you, I’ll get you, I’ll get you …’ I think that was the problem.”

Reilly: “We get to training camp and IK is asking him about it. That day, he asks him. I was sitting right there; my locker was next to Geno. Geno just kind of says, ‘Just chill, man, forget about it. What are you going to do if I don’t pay you?'”

Marshall: “I remember looking to my left and seeing Geno kind of like give a look like, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ like laughing a guy off and shrugging him off. All of a sudden … Boom! Geno is in a locker.”

Reilly: “IK reaches back and clocks him — a full swing. He hit him basically with an upper cut/cross to the jaw. Geno fell into my locker and I got out of the way. Geno was probably hurt, but I give him credit. He wrapped up IK, grabbed him and just tried to get through it. Different guys tried to break them up.”

Marshall: “You see all these guys, including myself, running to the area. I was in the second wave of guys to go over there. I looked and IK is on Geno in [the] locker. You got all these guys, offensive and defensive linemen, trying to pull him off. They just couldn’t. I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ I remember Geno coming up after a while, kind of like touching his jaw, with blood on his lips.”

Bruce Speight, Jets director of public relations: “It happened so fast. Everybody was a little stunned. I remember we had an hour before practice started and we knew Geno wasn’t going to be out there with the team. Our goal was to make sure we announced the news first, before the media broke it.”

Fitzpatrick: “The quarterbacks had drug testing that day. I went to go first because I was older and when I entered the room I didn’t have my ID on me, so they wouldn’t let me test. So Geno went in and tested as I walked out to my truck to get my wallet and ID. I waited outside the room until he was done and then entered. When I walked out of the test, someone immediately said, ‘Your boy just got hit in the face.’ Then he mentioned Geno by name.”

Reilly: “It was right before the walk-through, so everyone was in [the locker room]. It just happened so fast, man. None of us knew what was going on, the situation. All of a sudden, the quarterback got punched in the face. … I was always taught by my dad and grandpa, ‘Never get between two grown men who are fighting.’ You don’t want to be collateral damage, so my first instinct was to get out of the way. So I got out of the way.”

Marshall: “The season flashed before my eyes. I really felt bad for the kid, like tears in my eyes.” (Marshall was so invested in Smith’s pro career that he became a mentor and lived with him that offseason.)

Speight: “I remember feeling sick for Geno because he was about to go into a new training camp, under a new head coach, as the incumbent. He had a bunch of weapons, and there was a lot of optimism about what he would do with those guys.”

Marshall: “[Geno] was in shock and awe. I was also pissed off to the point where I wanted to fight IK. I was like, ‘Holy s—, you just potentially put out our starting quarterback.’ Like, who does that? Like, how the hell does this happen? [Laughing]. You know I don’t always have [my wits about me], so for me, I was like, ‘I’m going to slap the s— out of this guy.’ Then I walked up to him and I saw his eyes. He had this red in his eyes. I was like, ‘This is not the guy you want to mess with.'”

Reilly: “IK was my roommate when we were rookies [in 2014], so we were pretty good friends. IK, he just grew up different. He once told me, ‘In college, if someone tried me, we’d go to fisticuffs.’ IK had a different mindset.”

Pepper Johnson, Jets defensive line coach: “You try to tell these guys how to respond and how to handle some of those situations because of experience, knowing what could happen. It’s the athlete in us. You feel like you’re a little invincible. At times, you feel like you can handle a lot of things. That was one situation where, unfortunately, it ended up with a player getting hurt.”

Marshall: “I remember talking to Geno in the hallway, and he’s like, ‘My jaw.’ He’s trying to move his jaw. I’m like, man, ‘Is your f—ing jaw broken?’ So I grabbed his mouth and was like, ‘Open up.’ I’m probably the one who broke his jaw.”

Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, fired by the Jets only seven months earlier, fueled the story by claiming Enemkpali on waivers the next day. That prompted a front-page headline in the New York Post:

“REX JAW DROPPER.”

On Nov. 12, Ryan stirred the pot again by making Enemkpali a captain in the coach’s highly anticipated return to MetLife Stadium. In doing so, Ryan, who coached Enemkpali in 2014, turned a backup linebacker into a major storyline in a prime-time game. Many perceived it as a shot at the Jets.

Ryan: “It’s funny how everybody made it a big deal, like I was some kind of villain or something. That’s bulls—.”

Reilly: “That was the best part of the story: We play Buffalo and IK is the captain. Rex Ryan, man. Love it.”

Ryan: “Everybody said I picked him up because he punched Geno. Man, that had absolutely nothing to do with it. I like both those kids. But, literally, that’s how everybody took it. Quite honestly, I never cared that people took it that way. We needed players. IK was a young kid that I thought had some talent and could develop. It had nothing to do with punching Geno. Come on. The fact that I made him captain, yeah, that was kind of an F-you thing to do, but I did it every single week whenever somebody played their former team.”

Enemkpali lasted the 2015 season with the Bills but never played another NFL game. The following year, he suffered a knee injury and was released. In 2017, he failed in a comeback attempt with the Oakland Raiders. He retired and became a real estate entrepreneur in the Austin, Texas, area. His website home page shows a picture of him in his Bills’ uniform, but there’s no mention of the Jets or his NFL career in his bio.

Smith was Wally Pipp-ed by Fitzpatrick, who set a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes and sparked the Jets to one of their best offensive seasons. Once considered a potential long-term answer at quarterback, Smith spent the next five seasons as a reserve for the Jets, New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers and Seahawks, where he once again is poised to serve as Russell Wilson’s backup.

One punch changed two careers.

Ben Ijalana, Jets offensive tackle: “Honestly, I don’t even think about it. I don’t want to. It was bad news all around. Lives were altered.”

Marshall: “I think it ruined [Smith’s] career. He was primed to have a really good year. I don’t think it would’ve been as magical as the year we had, but that would’ve been his moment to show he’s capable of being a starter. That was taken away from him. … As you see, he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to be a starter.”

Reilly: “You could almost say it was a blessing in disguise. You never want to say that about a guy getting his jaw broken. Who knows? Maybe we would’ve been just as good with Geno. To Fitz’s credit, as soon as it happened, he just took control of the team. His play from the last part of spring to the first week of training camp was a crazy improvement.”

Smith (in a 2016 interview with ESPN): “When I look back on this when I’m 40, 50 years old, I’ll ask myself, ‘What time in my life made me a man?’ I think this was that time in my life. It was so easy to say, ‘Hey, this is not my fault. I’m the victim here, and this guy should be going to jail.’ Instead, I manned up. I owned it. I took responsibility for whatever actions I had in that altercation and I chose to let that fuel me to become a better man and a better player.”

Ryan: “How many games would he have lasted as the starter? I don’t know. Geno has the ability to play quarterback in the NFL, there’s no question about it. He’s got the arm talent, he’s got the size and he has the body for it. I thought he’d have more success. I thought he’d get better. The fact that he hasn’t had the opportunity to be a starter again, that happens. … I never disliked Geno Smith. I still don’t. But, boy, he sure takes it personal — and I couldn’t give two s—s.” (Smith and Ryan have publicly swiped at each other in recent years).

Enemkpali (in a 2016 interview with NewYorkUpstate.com): “I’m guessing it’s something I’ll never live down. But it is what it is. It’s good to have that behind me.”

Marshall: “IK probably never had a career. People forget fast in the NFL if you’re talented. I think with IK, he was going to be that utility guy that can run down on kicks, do punt pro, then come in and spell a guy here and there and develop into a pass-rusher.”

Reilly: “I went to IK’s wedding a couple of years ago and we talked about the incident. He said, ‘Man, I was young and stupid at the time, I’d never do that again.’ He has regrets about it, obviously. That incident probably changed his life in different ways. It altered his football career. Personally, I think it altered his life. You can’t do that as an adult. He’s a successful guy now, and I’m sure that taught him a lot.”

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