Aug. 26, 2007
Green Bay - -
Courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By LORI NICKEL
Posted: Aug. 25, 2007
They wanted him to cut his hair. And that was a deal breaker.
Atari Bigby was a standout athlete for a Florida high school football powerhouse and he wanted nothing more than to stay in his hometown and play for the mighty Miami Hurricanes.
But a few years ago, the Miami football program had an unofficial policy that was strictly reinforced. All incoming freshmen had to shave their heads.
Bigby is a Jamaican born Rastafarian who moved to Miami as a preschooler. He began growing his dreadlocks at the age of 15. Some who share Bigby's religious faith of Rasta believe that hair is a source of strength.
So Bigby never seriously pursued Miami. His hair meant that much to him.
"Yes," said Bigby firmly. "It meant that much."
By doing so, he just might have also taken a roundabout way to the NFL, first through Central Florida and then through two NFL teams as a non-drafted free agent. He tried out at safety, cornerback and even linebacker but was cut.
With explosive speed and retina-rattling tackles, Bigby finally got his big break - a deal with the Packers, who sent him to Amsterdam, where he turned heads.
Dreadlocks colored brown and cinnamon now flow down his shoulders and back after the Packers third exhibition game where he once again played solid. Bigby has found his way to the NFL, but now that he's here, he still has a lot to prove.
"All I want is the respect of my teammates," said Bigby. "And to prove I am a starter."
The talent and instincts are there. At Central Florida, Bigby recorded his first big hit as a redshirt freshman. Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler threw to a receiver and Bigby made the open-field tackle with momentum. The hit told him he would forever have to play the game a certain way. Borderline crazy.
"I just found out, a lot of guys don't like to get hit. And that's a good way of getting the respect of my teammates," said Bigby.
But that didn't transfer over right away in his first two NFL auditions. In the summer of 2005, the Miami Dolphins signed him but cut him before training camp began. The New York Jets put him at corner in their camp, but he didn't make the team.
"I don't know what happened with the Dolphins. I think they made a big mistake," Bigby said. "I thought I was the best safety on the team at the time. I was second-team nickel and third-team safety, but they cut me before training camp. And then the Jets picked me up, and they put me at corner.
"So when I first got there, I didn't even think it would work out because I was playing out of position. I had to play the whole preseason at corner for the Jets. But then it came down to numbers and they let me go."
The Packers liked Bigby, though, and brought him along in 2005 to the practice squad. But they put him at linebacker. Linebacker? It still makes Al Harris laugh a little. At 5-foot-11 and 211 pounds, he is a big strong safety but he felt out of place at linebacker.
The Packers saw enough in him to offer shot at NFL Europe and he was assigned to the Amsterdam Admirals for 2006 basically to make or break himself.
"When players came to Europe, a lot of times, they lost their focus, even if they had NFL talent," said Admirals defensive coordinator Richard Kent, who coached in the league for nine years. "They would get into a new culture and kind of wander off. Bigby was not like that. He was focused. I am not sure how a guy like that falls through the cracks, undrafted and all, but Green Bay had Reggie McKenzie, who saw him on tape, really liked him and wrote up a good report on him. That was a good indication that he had a lot of upside."
In Europe, Bigby led the team with 61 tackles on the way to the World Bowl.
"Coaches from other teams would say, hey, who's No. 20, for about three, four games in a row," said Kent. "He always flashed. He'd make a spectacular hit or break on a ball. He was a pretty consistent guy, too, he didn't bust a lot of assignments."
NFL Europe was disbanded this summer. Bigby is grateful he got to play there before it did.
"I went over there and got a chance to play safety, in the pads, in the games, making the checks," Bigby said. "That's what got me to where I am today."
In Green Bay, Bigby hasn't always played a perfect camp but he's been downright stunning on some plays. One of his biggest fans is the very man he might unseat at strong safety - Marquand Manuel. They went to Miami Senior High School together and through all of camp, when Bigby started getting the attention, still workout together, talk and visit. Manuel has been a stand-up guy to Bigby even though it probably hasn't been easy.
Bigby is fun for fans to watch because of his boundless energy. He may start on one hash mark and end up on the opposite sideline if that's where the ball is.
"I was taught if a guy has the ball go get him, no matter if he's your responsibility or not," said Bigby.
And then there's the hits. Bigby can chop down running backs. When Packers teammate Desmond Bishop made a big tackle Thursday in a defensive hit rarely seen these days, Bigby was envious.
"That's a great hit. That's the kind of hit I would like to make. I lit up like a Christmas tree. I loved it," Bigby said. "That charged up the whole stadium."
Bigby's contract is up after this season and with such career instability, his wife and two daughters, ages 6 and 3, remain back in Miami. He hopes that will change. Now that he's in his second full year with the Packers, Bigby said he is comfortable playing any type of coverage. (That wasn't the case last year where he would say to himself, 'Please don't call this play.' If he had to choose, he'd enjoy free safety more than his current role at strong safety because it allows the back to freelance more and use his own judgment. Still, he is working on playing consistent, reliable football.
"Everybody thinks I am this big safety that just wants to go in the box and get down and dirty," Bigby said. "Sometimes I get overexcited. I try to kill the guy. What I have been trying to do is just let it happen, just get the guy on the ground, not really trying to get a big hit."