Tattoos of the NFL, and the Stories Behind the Ink

Behind every tattoo is a good story. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has a cartoon lion tattooed on his left shoulder. Bills guard Richie Incognito has a phoenix rising from the flames on his forearm. A large ship at sea covers Eagles defensive end Chris Long's forearm. Veteran Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, 34, still has to ask his mom for permission before he gets a new tattoo. Cowboys rookie receiver Ryan Switzer wasn't allowed to get a tattoo, so he covertly got one done on the inside of his lower lip. It's difficult to catch the detail of these tattoos while watching the games on TV, so The MMQB took a closer look and asked players from all 32 teams during training camp to explain the backstory of their ink.

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Richie Incognito, G, Bills. “I got this before the 2013 season. I got it because, at that point in my career, I had been kind of reinventing myself every year. Like, a knock down rebuild, trying to figure out who I was as a person, who I was as a player. I had been through kind of a tumultuous time. I thought the Phoenix symbolized me. I saw a big part of myself in the Phoenix. Something that kind of re-creates itself. It’s like a new beginning. At that time in my life, I felt like I had gotten over several humps and was getting ready to take the next step forward. I had just made the Pro Bowl, in 2012, and I was really starting to lay the groundwork for where I saw my career going. Little did I know that I was going to have much more adversity coming up in that 2013 season. A very trying 2013, a very trying 2014. And then the Phoenix kind of held true. In 2015, I burned it all down and rebuilt it again. I think everything happens for a reason. There’s a reason I got [the tattoo] at that time. It’s a pretty cool deal to embody that, have that in the back of my mind. And just keep growing, keep growing as a person, growing as a player, and keep taking steps every day.”

Andre Branch, DE , Miami. “No matter what people say or do, you have to do what’s best for you and you have to break down and step outside your comfort zone to set things up for the future. These are things we face on a day-to-day basis being young African-Americans, but you can’t let that stop you. No matter what you want to do in your life, the only thing that can stop you is you.”

Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England. “I’m the oldest of six kids—so I got my mom, my dad, and all our names on it. I got four sisters and one brother, so I had to be the big brother, help raise them, and do whatever I can to help them be good in life.”

Brian Winters, G, New York Jets. “This is the latitude and my wife has the longitude, and it's our first home that we bought together in Wadsworth, Ohio. We decided it was a good idea. We've seen people do the tattoos like this, but we really wanted us to each have one of the coordinates so when we are together, we know where it is at. It's a small farm town. It's not where I'm from, I'm like maybe 30 minutes from there, but we found a house there that we fell in love with. This one took like five minutes to get done, it was a breeze.”

Brian Winters, G, New York Jets.

Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore. “I got this S for Suggs when I was 19. My mom let me get it. I have to ask my mom for permission for all my ink. Every single one. She don't like me marking up my body. She don't, because that's not how she had her babies. Then I got the tribal design around it in 2008. I put the "Chosen One" on there because I come from a family of athletes, but I was the only one to ever make it professionally.”

Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore.

Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati. “Terrance was my favorite cousin, he was the one that showed me the ropes at a young age. He died from cancer at the age of 17, and he had a son and a daughter. He never really got to see his kids. And I always had a soft spot for him. He taught me a lot, and I just wanted to remember him by putting his name on my skin.”

Christian Kirksey, LB, Cleveland. “My dad, Elmer Kirksey Sr., passed when I was 17. I got this tattoo I went to Iowa for college; it was the summer of my freshman year. Just getting a tattoo of my dad means a lot. He helped me through life growing up as a man. For me to have him leave me when I'm 17, going through manhood, things like that, I cherish the moments that I was with him. The “wisdom” goes with that because he shared a lot of wisdom with me, especially from his childhood and his mistakes that he made—and to form into the person that he was when he was raising me. He taught me wisdom, how to grow up and become a man ... I put it on my bicep because it is easy to see, so whenever I am going through something, trials and tribulation or hard time, it just reminds me of my upbringing with my dad.”

Christian Kirksey, LB, Cleveland.

Arthur Moats, OLB, Pittsburgh. “The Don’t Cross the Moats thing came after my rookie year. It was a catchphrase that started in Buffalo, and after the whole Brett Favre thing happened, it blew up even bigger. Favre started like 20 years ago and the consecutive games streak was 297. So we played them in Minnesota and on my first play of the game, third play overall, I hit him and he ended up getting hurt and doesn’t start the next week on Monday night. Streak over after 20 years. From there I was like, you know what, I’m going to make that my thing and I got a nice little tattoo on my back. It took, man, nine or 10 hours in one session. It hurt like heck, too.”

Kareem Jackson, CB, Houston. Footprints of his daughter, Kaylen Daisy Jackson. “I want to be able to see her little footprints every day. It’s an inspiration to me—reminds me to come out here every day and work hard. I got ‘em when she was a couple of months old. One day when she sees that, I hope she’s excited, and she realizes what her dad does, and why I did it, and who I did it for. It’s for her, to show her I’ll always be there for her.”

Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis. “I got my daughter’s name, Malayna, on the backside of it, and I always wanted to be a hero to my daughter, so I got Superman opposite my daughter’s name. It took about six hours, six hours of pain to get it done.”

Malik Jackson, DT, Jacksonville. “The story about my tat is that it is tally marks of all the sacks I have gotten in the past five years of my career. I was sitting on the couch one day and wanted to commemorate the heart, sweat and blood that I have put in this game. I wanted to not only let myself know the accomplishments I have made, but for the world to know too. I got the tally marks to signify what I was able to do and make sure I can tell myself who I am when I look back [at my career] as a pass rusher. It makes me want to earn and get more.”

Taylor Lewan, OT, Tennessee. “He’s my right hand man. My little buddy. I wanted tattoos since I was 8.”

Charcandrick West, RB, Kansas City. “Dante,” commemorating his mentor in life, Dante Coleman, from Cullen, La., who died two years ago. “Dante and my stepfather basically put a football in my hands. I was playing baseball, and they wanted me to play football. Dante basically showed me how to live, and how to be a good kid. Raised me right. Kept me humble. When I get up in the morning, I see Dante’s name, and “My Brother’s Keeper,” and I feel like he’s living with me.”

Bruce Irvin, defensive end, Oakland. The “WVU” logo of his college, West Virginia. “I am proud to be a Mountaineer. I talk about West Virginia, I tweet about West Virginia. They’ve stuck by me, I’ve stuck by them. I had other offers to go to school and play, but I felt like they needed me and I needed them. I could have gone to LSU or Tennessee or USC, but I’d have been just another guy. West Virginia, they told me I could be a big fish in a smaller pond. I liked that. My rookie year, I donated money to the school for the weight room, and they named the weight room after me. That was cool.’’

Denzel Perryman, LB, Los Angeles Chargers. His two daughters’ names—Ella and Evee—on each upper arm “Ella’s 3, Evee’s 1. It was important to me to have them with me. Ella knows this side, the right side, is her side. So when we sleep, sometimes they get in our bed, and Ella lays on her side and Evee lays on her side. It’s pretty cool.’’

Denzel Perryman, LB, Los Angeles Chargers His two daughters’ names—Ella and Evee—on each upper arm “Ella’s 3, Evee’s 1. It was important to me to have them with me. Ella knows this side, the right side, is her side. So when we sleep, sometimes they get in our bed, and Ella lays on her side and Evee lays on her side. It’s pretty cool.’’

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas. "My mother always drew this cartoon lion. Took her like three seconds. Her whole life she'd just scribble it real quick for me. So our last Easter together I asked her to draw it. A bunch of lions is a pride, so that's why I put 'pride' there. It's not just a tattoo of a lion. It's her drawing of a tattoo, from our last Easter. It really means something every time I see it." His mother, Peggy, died of colon cancer in 2013.

Ryan Switzer, WR, Dallas. “I had just turned 18. My mom does not like tattoos, and I wasn’t a very rebellious kid, sort of always on the straight and narrow, but I wanted to get one and not make her too mad. So I got a tattoo on the inside of my lip. How did she find out? Well, as any kid would, I told a few of my buddies about it. I showed them. They told their parents. And so I was out with my mom eating dinner one night and one of those parents comes up and says, ‘Let me see your tattoo!’ Right in front of my mom. Well, she wasn’t too happy. It was tough sledding for me for a while. What does she think now? Well, she loves her baby boy. So I think she’s forgiven me.”

Brad Wing, P, New York Giants. “I have eight tattoos. All but one of them are faith-based, with some kind of religious background. This one here is the archangel Michael. He’s the angel who ultimately defeated Satan and sent him to hell. That is, in my opinion, one of the pivotal points in the history of the Bible. He’s my favorite archangel. And then the Lion here—people always ask me if I’m a Leo. That’s not what that is. It’s to kind of represent God. You know, everyone has a different vision of what God looks like. No one is certain of what he looks like. I used the Lion to represent him there. Top of the food chain, that’s why he’s on the highest point of my arm. I won’t get anything above that.”

Chris Long, DE, Philadelphia. “This is the culmination of the last 10 years in the league. The ups and downs, and the struggling to stay above water, and sometimes how it feels playing pro ball and the challenges of life. My moon up here, that’s my wife and my son. I’ve got the M and the W for Meg and Waylon. They are kind of my guiding light. I got it when I was about to join the Patriots. Got cut by the Rams, taking that chance. Every now and again you look at it, and it just reminds you to keep afloat and stay above water.”

Su’a Cravens, S, Washington. “I got the Coliseum on my arm my freshman year, just because I am a die-hard USC fan. Playing in the Coliseum was a lifelong dream of mine, so it was just something I wanted to have on me forever. I got it when I was 17 years old, my true freshman year. I always wanted to get a tattoo and I wanted to get something that meant a lot to me, so I didn't want to get something that everybody else has. It was either going to be the Coliseum or Tommy Trojan on me, so I got the Coliseum. This took about seven hours.”

Su’a Cravens, S, Washington.

Josh Bellamy, WR, Chicago. The Bluetooth logo in front of his ear. "Stay connected. In everything you do. Family, work, God, it's important to stay connected."

Matt Asiata, former RB for Detroit. "I've been in the league for seven years, and there's no better way to go out and represent your name. And my dad passed away a couple years ago, and I just want to continue his legacy and carry his last name the right way. Family's all I know, family's all I need, they've been here with me through my whole time in the NFL . . . It represents my culture. I'm Samoan, and I carry that to the fullest, the whole Polynesian culture. I try my best to represent it well. I just love the culture. We love to eat, we're all about family, we respect each other. Whenever we see one another, we're cousins."

Mike Daniels, DE, Green Bay. “This is my sixth tattoo. I was always told you represent the name on the back of your jersey, and everybody sees the Daniels name—great family tree I come from there, my grandfather was an excellent patriarch for our family, he had a very high standard. When he told me I exceeded that standard, it was the greatest compliment anyone’s ever given me. But nobody gets to see the other name, and that’s Smith. I wanted to put it bold where everyone could see it. I have a lot of pride in the Smiths. My grandmother went on 100-mile bike ride competitions while she was fighting cancer, very strong woman. And my mom grew up on a farm, very tough lady. She holds a tough standard, you weren’t allowed to miss practice growing up. She didn’t care how you felt. She said, ‘Nothing’s gonna get you out of work.’ She demanded perfect attendance in school. Now, my brother and I would find ways to screw that up, we were idiots. But she holds us accountable. I’ll be eating, and she’ll say, ‘Is that right for your diet?’ She’s on you ... If it’s late, ‘Are you getting to bed? Are you getting eight hours sleep?’ I’ve got three kids, I’m married, I’m 28 years old, six years in the NFL, my mom is still hammering down on me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s just the way we’re built over there. I’m grateful to have that. My sister still maintains that last name, Smith, she’s much like my mom. She holds me accountable almost to the point of frustration, like ‘get off my back.’ But I’m thankful for it. She just retired from the Air Force, another very strong woman, definitely exemplifies the name. Very hard workers. Tough, blue-collar people. I’m really thankful to come from that family tree.”

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota. “I got it going into my sophomore year. I won the job my freshman year, ran for 1,000 yards and I was like, ‘yeah.’ People’ll get tattoos and they’ll leave the program and be like, ‘Why’d I get this tattoo? I knew I was locked in, and my first year I experienced a lot, and it was like, ‘I love Florida State.’ It’s a program I’ll love forever, and it was a tattoo I needed to get.”

Levine Toilolo, TE, Atlanta. “For me it was kind of something that me, my brother, some of my cousins all did to represent our family. We have some of our grandparents' names. Obviously it represents our culture, family and our beliefs and religion. That was something big for us in our culture. My grandparents are from Samoa. I was born in California ... There are different symbols, and a lot of it represents—whether it's shark teeth or spearheads—it represents strength and ferocity and a warrior spirit, which is obviously big in our culture. When you think of Polynesia culture, you think bigger, and that warrior spirit has been around from our ancestors. And any Polynesian takes pride in that.”

Captain Munnerlyn, defensive back, Carolina. “It’s the one of my mom. I got it when I was 18 years old. I kind of snuck and got it. My mom is a preacher, so she didn’t know I had tattoos. I never had any below my elbows. I used to hide it when I was in high school. I had my initials on the back of my arm and my mom never knew—even though I played football and ran track. I’m sitting there like I know she sees them, but she never said anything to me. One day my sister told on me. I had come home from college and had just gotten some on my leg and my sister saw it and she said, “Momma you need to tell Captain to stop getting all these tattoos.” She said TATTOOS?! By that time I probably had 20. I had to take off my clothes and show my mom my tattoos. She saw the one of herself and said, 'Oh my God that looks just like me!' ”

Kenny Vaccaro, S, Saints. “This was my first tattoo. My dad passed away when I was 15. The inscription says, ‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.’ I mean, anytime I’m going through something, any type of adversity, it’s a reminder that my dad is watching me. Anytime I’m going through anything, I talk to him spiritually. Especially during the football season, week in and week out, it reminds me of what I’m playing for. Before he passed, he told me to always take care of the family. That was when I was like 15. We come from nothing. We were dead broke. But he always told me I would be the key to getting us out of poverty. Anytime I want to quit, anytime I want to not work as hard as I need to, I always think about what my dad told me. It’s kept me going all these years. I support my whole family. Putting both of my sisters through college, taking care of my brother, taking care of my mom. Basically the whole family rides on my back.”

Kwon Alexander, LB, Tampa Bay. “It’s for my little brother—for memories. I know he will always have my back so that’s the reason why I put him on my back. It’s just to let me know that he is still there with me. With him I can do anything.”

Antoine Bethea, S, Arizona. A ribbon on his stomach to honor his mother’s fight against breast cancer. “My mom, Verina, was going through her battle with breast cancer in 2015. I did it to honor her battle. This isn’t the only medical battle she’s been through. It was kind of crazy when she saw the tattoo. She lives in Virginia—Newport News, Va., where I grew up. She saw it and she got kind of emotional. It was nice. She’s doing great now. But all my tattoos, they tell my story, the story of me and my family. They’re important to me.”

Cassius Marsh, former Seattle DE, current New England DE. A polar bear head, surrounded by native American symbols and the name Lee. “My dad has called me ‘Polar Bear,’ basically, since the day I was born. My parents are mixed, and I came out, obviously, very, very, very light-skinned. So my dad called me ‘Polar Bear,’ and they’re the most vicious bears on the planet. So that’s what I’ve attached myself to, the polar bear. The Native American headdress is—my mom is Creole, my Dad has Native in him. The bear’s got the crosses over the eyes; I wear that in games. ‘Lee’ is my grandfather’s name, sort of a tribute to him, and my middle name. The tattoo is like me, a representation of who I am in tattoo form.”

Navorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco. “I got it when I was 17 years old. ‘Faith.’ That word means everything to me. It goes all through me. I am committed in everything I do. It’s God, but it’s more than just God. When you’re down, have faith that you will get back up. My work ethic—faith. When people see that tattoo, they think how big it is. The size of it, to me, shows how important faith is in every aspect of my life.”

Hunter Sharp, WR, Denver. Daughter's name, Maya, with a diamond. "My daughter was born April 10, 2015. I just recently got this tattoo back in OTAs. It was just something I talked about getting because her birthstone is a diamond, so we share the same birthstone, and I thought that was a cool idea. I got it in this position right here because I'll look down at it. We'll be going to get lined up and I'll look down and it gives me some extra motivation."