I was told I would meet Rashard Mendenhall at his dojo, but when I show up at the given address, I find myself outside his home, a four-bedroom Spanish-style hacienda in Northridge, California, some 20 freewayed miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. It’s definitely not Hollywood.
Mendenhall’s house is on the same compound, but in the garage where Pryor kept a fleet of fancy cars, Mendenhall has built himself a sanctuary that he calls Karate City.
Palms and bougainvillea envelop the grounds, and the fragrance of fruit trees lingers in the air. His dojo is just beyond a bamboo gate, through which you can see a worn yellow tetherball hanging from a slack line on a metal pole. Inside, the walls are lined with large succulents, scented candles, and a kaleidoscopic array of crystals. A large scroll with “Crescent Moon Dojo” written in Japanese script is framed on the far wall. Two woodblock paintings of pastoral Japan are framed on either side. A Dragon Ball Z action figure keeps watch from the soap grooves of an old work sink. The entire place is decorated in the bric-a-brac of Zen.
Mendenhall still looks the part of an NFL running back, but there’s a tenderness to him that belies his former life. He cuts the imposing figure of a superhero, yet acts more like an alter ego. He has a gentle, rolling laugh, and his eyes glimmer with a childlike curiosity. He’s wearing a crimson tunic and black harem pants, with a clear crystal the size of a thumb dangling from his neck. A mala bracelet encircles his left wrist, inches from a crooked pinkie finger that, as far as I can tell, is his only visible scar from football. He makes his way to a cross-legged meditation seat that helps bend his knees and his hulking frame into place. Then he begins to explain how he discovered Crescent Moon, a ritual he invented that is equal parts therapy, meditation, and philosophy.
It came to him about two years ago as he stood on his Santa Monica rooftop and stared out across the Pacific, whirling a pair of nunchaku and grappling with an overwhelming desire to change his life. He had retired from football but still wore the massive bulk of an NFL body-a body that now weighed him down like an anchor in a bottomless sea. The clarity of the gridiron was gone, and he found himself alone, paralyzed by a future as vast and unknowable as the open ocean before him.
By all rights, Mendenhall should’ve been happy. He had already lived the dreams of most men. By 20, he was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, led the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl, and was chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL draft. By 21, he was a Super Bowl champion. By 23, he was one of the best running backs in the league and playing for his second Super Bowl ring. By 26, he had walked away from football in his prime and, almost immediately, leaped into a new career as a writer for the HBO show Ballers, starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. But there he was, under 30, asking questions of the universe up on his roof.
“All right, nature, sky, God, whatever, show me the way.”
As he moved around, he breathed deeply. The negative energy coiled inside his body, screaming for release. He could feel his old injuries: his fractured shoulder, his torn ACL. He could feel his frustrations with the world: the arguments on social media, the identities thrust upon him. He put the nunchaku down, and lights began to appear against the evening sky-lights that only Mendenhall could see. Frequencies, he calls them, energy lines.He struck the first with his dominant right hand. Another light appeared. He struck that one with his weaker left hand. Another light appeared, right hand, and then another, left hand. He started to think of his right hand as the full moon and his left hand as the new moon. The right was what he knew: fight, ego, achievement. The left was what he hadn’t yet mastered: feelings, intuition, all that he wanted to become. Right, left, right, left. He kept going as the pattern waxed and waned.
“I’m not a terribly sensitive person,” Mendenhall had written upon retiring from the NFL. Yet there he was, being ripped apart by feelings he could no longer stiff-arm or outrun. He had parachuted from one dream job to another with little more than a shrug. From the outside, it all looked so easy. But he was a man made of gunpowder in a world that wouldn’t let him explode. He was 30 pounds heavier than his 210-pound playing weight. He’d become listless and despondent. He wouldn’t leave his house for days at a time, often not feeling any desire to move or do anything at all. He calls it his Warrior Woes, but those of us who have never rushed for 1,273 yards in a season, or heard the roar of a crowd while dancing in the end zone, might call it depression.
“When you hear the word, you think of sadness,” Mendenhall, now 31, says. “Depression, after playing football, was feeling like you don’t have a fight, you don’t have a cause. Who you are, what your purpose is . . . everything can feel like nothing.”
A warrior and a poet, Mendenhall is something of a contradiction-a duality that might be understood in an Eastern culture, but not here. In America, you are either an athlete or an artist, not both. In America, you don’t walk away from fame or leave untold millions on the table. In America, you’re not supposed to be depressed while living out your dreams. But Mendenhall has never fit perfectly into one of America’s constructs, certainly not as a black man.
He was a quiet kid who grew up in the suburbs just north of Chicago as Michael Jordan’s Bulls reigned over the NBA. But he never wanted to be like Mike. “I’d be on the basketball court trying to throw a football through the hoop, and they’d be like, ‘Get that out of here!’ ” he says with a laugh. He carried that Wilson football everywhere: to church, to school, underneath his gown during his middle-school graduation. “Football was my comfort zone,” he says.
But his mother, Sibyl, constantly pushed him beyond it. She was (and still is) a youth minister who put a premium on her children’s education, keeping Rashard from practice if his grades fell below a B. His weeks were packed with schoolwork, the arts, and athletics. Every Sunday, he and his siblings went to church and the Shule Ya Watoto, which means School for Children in Swahili. That’s where they learned about African history, the Middle Passage, and the civil-rights movement.
“Growing up and being a black boy in America, if your only understanding of yourself and your people is just back to slavery, or looking at the world now,” Mendenhall says, “if it’s just entertainers and rappers, if that’s the only thing you know and see, then that’s the only thing you believe you can be.”
Sibyl taught her children to believe they could achieve anything. Her message was “You are destined for greatness. The only one who can stop you is you.” Under her guidance, Rashard explored art, science, math, history, writing, church, football, golf, track, soccer, basketball, and even the clarinet, which he played from the fourth grade through high school. (“The clarinet was groovy,” the band geek in him says with a smile.)
When Sibyl’s low salary forced her to move, she kept Rashard and his brother in the good schools of Skokie, Illinois, by sending them to live with their youth-football (and then high school) coach, a Hungarian man from Chicago named Joe Galambos. “When I was becoming a standout in high school and everyone would tell me how great I was, Coach Joe constantly challenged me and showed me where I could be better,” Mendenhall says. “That search for improvement never left.”
Football allowed Mendenhall to be literally seen, but he used the page to fully express himself. He began writing in high school, first songs and then short stories in college. In just his second year at Illinois, he wrote a song called “A Battle with Myself.”
Arms crossed as I walk through the crowdScreams from inside and outside get loud
Which once was applause
Now turns into growls
So now I look to the clouds
Instead of down from the bows
Beings in the arena are reaching
Seeking a part
Things that once seemed clear
Now gleam dark
At this instance I sense fear
This time in my own heart
All walls and barriers are now falling apart. . .
As a hyped first-rounder in the 2008 draft, Mendenhall felt the heavy expectations of the NFL machine. “That ball went very quickly from peace to weight,” he says. At the NFL combine, Mendenhall says, one team expressed concern over how much he read. Once, he told a PR flack that his favorite book was The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was flatly “asked” to choose something else. When he coughed up two fumbles in a preseason game, veteran wideout Hines Ward put a $100 bounty on his ball. Knock it out of his hands, anytime, anywhere, and a crisp C-note would be yours. Then Mendenhall saw how coldly impermanent the game was. “I got drafted and people are telling me, ‘Oh, you’re way better than Willie Parker and you do this and that.’ And I was like, ‘This dude is a two-time Pro Bowler and they’ve already replaced him. . . . They rip that identity away from you, when you’re told to chase it your whole life.”
Three games into his rookie season, Mendenhall did replace Parker. His first start came against Pittsburgh’s bitter rival, the Baltimore Ravens, on Monday Night Football. When he took the ball up the middle at the start of the third quarter, linebacker Ray Lewis “welcomed” him to the NFL by shattering his left scapula. “You’re done!” the Ravens’ jubilant captain screamed as Mendenhall quietly trotted toward the sideline. His season was over, and he sought refuge where he could, taking hip-hop dance classes taught by Sandy Romah, a friend and a former Steelers TV reporter.
“I met him when he was 20. On his 21st birthday, I bought him chocolate-chip cookies and milk to celebrate because he didn’t drink alcohol,” Romah, now Mendenhall’s wife, says. “Everyone was shocked to see the Steelers’ first-round pick in the lobby of the dance studio. But he told me he was serious about wanting to try another form of rehab. He was in two hip-hop classes, advanced teen and adult. He had a bit of stage fright, so I would stay after class and work with him until he got comfortable performing in front of people.”
Over the ensuing seasons, even as he delivered the greatness that Pittsburgh demanded, Mendenhall found himself most at peace away from the field. “The Steelers are just everything to that town,” he says. “You can’t get away from it, even in the off-season, and not be Rashard Mendenhall, number 34, running back. When I was in the league, my comfort zone became my rooftop, where I’d write and read books.”
In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay led the Steelers 21–17, but Pittsburgh was pushing into Packers territory and threatening to take the lead. With momentum on their side, Steelers fans whipped thousands of Terrible Towels around like golden tornadoes in the Texas night. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and turned to hand off the ball. But as soon as Mendenhall touched it, linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle Ryan Pickett sandwiched him, popping the ball loose. Green Bay recovered the fumble and cruised to victory. Mendenhall, who rushed for a game-high 63 yards and a touchdown, was forever branded with the mistake. “It’s funny, because that’s what lasts,” he says. “To go to the Super Bowl, to have the game that I was having up to that last play-the only thing that’s remembered is that fumble.”
More than winning, our idea of greatness demands singularity, the ability to be one thing fully. On and off the field, the promise of Rashard Mendenhall was quickly diminishing. He fashioned himself as a conversationalist and a professional athlete, but he caused more controversy than anything else just a few months after the Super Bowl by tweeting support when Adrian Peterson equated the NFL with slavery.
“Slaves were respected for their physical prowess,” Mendenhall explains now. “However, they weren’t respected as human beings. They weren’t respected as men. After spending six years in the NFL, and looking at the way it is now, I wouldn’t say my views have changed much.” His stance didn’t mesh with that of Pittsburgh’s blue-collar fans, and the “conversation” descended into chaos.
Things got even worse when he questioned the rationale of celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death, or any death. It didn’t help that he also questioned the events of 9/11, saying, “We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition-style.”
This time, he was out of step with fans, advertisers, and the team owners. Steelers president Art Rooney II weighed in, saying, “It is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments.” After that, Mendenhall lost his endorsement deal with Champion. He sued the company for breaking the contract, settling out of court when he proved that its parent company, Hanes, had no problem with Charlie Sheen spouting off his own 9/11 commentary. Clearly, there was a double standard.
“For a lot of the black athletes, are you given that same space, even if you’re not causing trouble, to be true to who you are?” Mendenhall asks. “No matter what your experience is, or your community’s, or your family’s-there’s a weight and a burden to carry someone else’s beliefs over your own. The trade-off, they tell you, is that you’ll be great, you’ll be Hall of Fame, you’ll be remembered. But at the same time, anything outside of the box, anything outside of this playoff chase, there’s not as much space for life in that.”
While recovering from a torn ACL in his final season in Pittsburgh, in 2012, Mendenhall discovered a space to express himself through TheHuffington Post. His first piece was titled “Having an Open Mind.” His second was “My Comfort Zone,” in which he said, “Football is no longer my safe place.” His next article, “Simplicity,” found him on a new team in Arizona. “If you are holding on to something that you no longer need to hold on to, I encourage you to let go,” he wrote. “It may be that very thing that is keeping you from what you really want deep down inside.”
Less than a year later, he was out of the game. He’d battled turf toe all season, and his reps had been cut in half by a promising rookie. The same thing that had happened to Willie Parker had now happened to him. In “Why I Retired at 26,” he wrote: “I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city.”
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That article caught the eye of the producers of a new HBO show that hoped to capture the authenticity of players’ lives, especially in retirement. Mendenhall was brought onto the set of Ballers on a three-week contract, initially to advise just as a doctor would be consulted about medical jargon on Grey’s Anatomy. One of the first things they had him take a look at was a strip-club scene in which two black players talked about a dancer’s breasts. “That doesn’t feel natural,” he told the all-white writers’ room. “They’d be talking about her butt.” At the end of his three weeks, he was brought on full-time.
Gifted but green, Mendenhall faced a steep learning curve. When the show’s creator, Stephen Levinson, asked him to do an outline, he had no clue how. When he turned in his best effort, Levinson tore into him, calling it crap while almost balling up the outline to throw at him. “The most at home I’d ever felt since football,” Mendenhall says. “After my meeting with Lev, I learned everything I needed to know in one shot.” Levinson gave him another key piece of advice: He needed to learn how to jog instead of sprint; to be an artist required vulnerability.
“As an athlete, as a warrior, and even as a black man, being vulnerable is one of the hardest things you can do. Being black in this country, it’s hard to allow yourself to feel and be vulnerable. . . . Society doesn’t leave much room for the expression of your personal truths if they differ much from the way we all would like to see things. As a black man in America, you scrap vulnerability early, learning that you must do anything to bring some form of respect to yourself, which means value to your life.”
Crescent Moon has enabled Mendenhall to be vulnerable, to bridge the gap between his two lives, to overcome his depression and view himself as an Ascended Warrior. “That energy still needs to go somewhere,” he says. “That’s what Karate City is. It’s the ultimate creative space.”
His sanctuary and his time are sacred. He goes there and shuts out the world every day for hours on end to write. This year, he’s added a producer credit on Ballers, and he’s appearing on the show as a fictional version of himself-a Crescent Moon therapist. Earlier this year, he married Romah in Bermuda. The night they chose was the tenth anniversary of the day the Steelers drafted him, a night that also happened to coincide with a full moon. Together they own a nascent production company called Nappy Rose. Their first project is The Hustler, a documentary about Mendenhall’s former Steelers teammate Baron Batch. He’s an artist who, Mendenhall says, “hustled his way from a dirt patch, trading drawings for food, to the NFL, single-handedly creating a renaissance with his art in Pittsburgh.”
As I sit next to Mendenhall and listen to his life story, Karate City is quiet and peaceful. Birdsong and beams of light spill in through the doorway. I ask him what advice he would give to kids- to other guys, even-who worshiped his football exploits but never knew that he played the clarinet. He ponders the question for a few moments. “Be true to who you are,” he says finally. “Create a life worth walking in. One that’s in your passion, your person, your voice, your being. Whatever happens and comes from that will be worthwhile and be fulfilling.”
He then invites me outside to watch him practice Energy Ball, an evolution of Crescent Moon using that worn yellow tetherball hanging outside. He roots his gladiator frame to the ground, then sends the ball careering around the pole with a quick extension of his fist and a sharp exhale to punctuate the movement. He stalks around the ball, striking again and again. Right, left-the old and the new-right, left, over and over.
It’s not lost on me that we are in the heart of Richard Pryor’s former compound, a place that has been reinvented by someone new, someone younger. Hollywood is a different game, but it can be just as unforgiving and fleeting as the NFL. I wonder how long Mendenhall can remain this light, this balanced, this unburdened. As he moves around the pole with the power and grace of a professional athlete, I ask him what keeps the weight of the world away.
“It’s knowing that I have something that can’t be measured in yards, or in touchdowns,” he says without missing a beat. “It’s just my continuous course. It’s just the phases of the moon.”