Commentary

Inside the brain of Antrel Rolle

The Giants safety wasn't always outspoken, but his family taught him to be a leader

Updated: January 20, 2012, 4:08 PM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com

NORTH BERGEN, N.J. -- Antrel Rolle can still remember the popping sound of nails being sucked out of the walls as the home he grew up in was disintegrating all around him.

On Aug. 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew and its unforgiving 145 mph winds flattened and shredded seemingly everything in its path in small cities south of Miami, including Rolle's hometown of Homestead, Fla.

Rolle and his family were in their 1,500-square-foot home when Andrew hit. A then-9-year-old Rolle remembers darting from room to room with his father, mother, older brother and sister until they found themselves huddled in the last room still standing in the house.

"You didn't know what to expect, running room to room to room never knowing if this was going to be the last room," Rolle recalled. "There was only one room left standing.

"Then we ran out to the rest of the house and there was no rest of the house. It was gone."

The roof had been ripped off, and the Rolle home was one of 126,000 homes Andrew destroyed.

"It seemed like forever," Rolle said of the terror he and his family experienced. "But it was probably only, maybe, 5-10 minutes. Everything was gone. I think our lawnmower was maybe five blocks away. It was crazy."

This was Rolle's first memory of survival and the importance of teamwork. He and his family were forced to live in a two-bedroom trailer in their backyard for a year and a half until their home was rebuilt. But the Rolles and their neighbors made the best out of a horrendous situation and helped rebuild their neighborhood.

"We made it work," Rolle said. "That was our family motto. We could make anything work. You want to come home after school and play, but your play time was actually nailing down wood."

Nearly two decades later, Rolle still applies that family motto to everything he does, and he's been working hard at building a successful foundation for himself with the New York Giants.

The outspoken safety has played a major role in helping the Giants reach the NFC Championship Game. He has been praised by teammates and former Giants leaders such as Antonio Pierce and Michael Strahan for helping the team turn the season around with his actions on and off the field.

After mentally accepting his primary role of being the team's nickelback to cover slot receivers this season, Rolle has played his best football with the Giants during the team's current four-game winning streak. He helped spark the Giants' run to the conference title game with his plea for teammates to put aches and pains aside, practice and give everything they had prior to the game against the Jets on Christmas Eve. The Giants haven't lost since and are headed to San Francisco, one win away from the Super Bowl.

After a first season with the Giants and coach Tom Coughlin that Rolle concedes was frustrating and full of adjustments, Rolle has matured, become a Coughlin convert and is settling into the role of being a vocal leader.

"He is the [vocal] guy," said Pierce, the team's former defensive captain, now an ESPN analyst. "The thing I like about him is he has swagger. His confidence oozes onto other players. Back in the secondary, the one guy that is constantly getting them going is Antrel Rolle."

'The New York version'

While sitting in his New Jersey living room Thursday night, in front of a balcony that features a stunning ninth-floor view of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline, Rolle flipped on his flat-screen television and tried to find the Lakers-Heat game.

Antrel Rolle family
Courtesy of the Rolle FamilyHere, from left to right, are Antrel Rolle's sister Alexia, his mother, Armelia, his father, Al, and brother Antuan.

He was rooting for his hometown Heat but chuckled when told how his mother, Armelia, refers to him as "the New York version of Antrel" now.

"I am shocked to see him as this outspoken person, because he has never done this before," Armelia said via phone Thursday. "Never. He would run from the media, and you know, there is just a fraction of [the amount of New York media] in Arizona. I think some of it now comes with maturity."

Since signing a five-year, $37 million deal in 2010, Rolle has created his share of back-page headlines with his comments.

Whether it is suggesting Coughlin could lighten up and create a more fun atmosphere early in his New York tenure or boasting that the Giants could beat the Redskins 99 out of 100 times, Rolle doesn't hold his tongue often.

The safety has become the most vocal Giants player because he'd rather say something and have nothing left unsaid if it helps the team win. It's something, as Pierce said, the Giants sorely needed when things were going bad.

"A lot of times people may have this perception of me, 'Antrel, he's a big mouth, he is always talking,'" Rolle said. "If you go back and you listen to some of the things I say, it is never me just talking. Everything I say, it definitely has some meaning behind it. And nothing I say is to ever ruin or cause any kind of controversy or anything of that sort within the Giants organization."

'The Huxtables'

Armelia says Antrel, the youngest, isn't even the most talkative Rolle in the family. That honor belongs to his older sister, Alexia.

Antrel, 29, comes from a family that believes in speaking the truth at all times.

"We don't say that much but when somebody asks us something, we give them the truth, and they may not like it but they respect our opinion," said Al Rolle, the safety's father. "We are not going to sugarcoat anything. We are not trying to hurt anyone's feelings."

Al is the first African-American police chief in Homestead's history and has been in the position since 1998. Armelia, who is a career counselor at Homestead Senior High School, remembers how some business and city leaders said her husband wouldn't last very long in his position.

"They went behind his back [saying], 'We'll give him six months,'" she said. "That was 1998. [Antrel] witnessed his father going through that type of criticism, and not only that but still establish a rapport with people down here.

"What made him is ... the five of us in this home, he has never ever seen us lay down."

Antrel's older brother, Antuan, and half-brother, Alexander III, are also police officers in Homestead. Alexia is a counselor like her mother.

When the Rolle kids played sports -- Antrel started playing football at 6 with another future star safety, the late Sean Taylor -- Al and Armelia attended every game and practice that they could. They worked hard to provide for their children and made education the greatest priority.

"We grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood," Antrel said. "I spent most of my time in a predominantly black neighborhood where my grandmother lives in Florida City. We weren't dirt poor but we weren't rich, either. My family definitely had their fair share of struggles, more so before I was born.

"A lot of times we got looked at as the Huxtables," he added, referring to the affluent African-American family on "The Cosby Show." "There were times I wanted to do things that other kids did, but my parents wouldn't allow it. We had to go home and get homework done. It wasn't a strict household but it was very well-disciplined. My family is a family of fighters. I picked up on those traits."

Rolle's revelations

Rolle leaned on his family and friends this past summer, when he did some soul searching after his first season with the Giants. While he says he's always had a great relationship with Coughlin, Rolle admits he had to go through an adjustment period regarding the old-school coach's methods, much the same way Strahan and others had to do.

He realized his frustrations were "very minor" compared to the big picture. Like Strahan years before, Rolle began to see eye to eye with Coughlin, to the point the safety said a major source of motivation was playing for the head coach's job.

[+] EnlargeAntrel Rolle
Andrew Mills/US PresswireAntrel Rolle sounded off on the Giants' lack of toughness, and Jason Pierre-Paul agrees.

"My relationship with Antrel is very good," Coughlin said. "We have always been straight up and up front with each other. I am very pleased with his attitude. He is a very bubbly, smiley guy and he has really fit very well with our other players."

After the Giants' stunning 23-10 loss to the Redskins on Dec. 18, dropping their record to 7-7, Coughlin and the Giants were in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight season.

A frustrated Rolle said players had to put aside injuries and focus everything on the last two games of the season. He said he wasn't calling out anybody in particular. That Wednesday, the first day of practice of the week, several nicked-up Giants worked out.

"As crazy as it may sound, my ultimate reason was Coach Coughlin," Rolle said of his motivation to help the Giants turn things around. "I don't like hearing the speculation about, 'Do you think your coach will be here next year?'"

Defensive end Justin Tuck, who battled injuries all season, said Rolle's comments "struck a chord" in the locker room, and he had two sacks in the next two games. Thus began the Giants' winning streak.

"Everything that Trel has said has been something that he thought was to the benefit for the team," safety Deon Grant said. "A lot of people looked at it that he was making selfish statements. He was really making statements that the team thought but was scared to say. He was making statements that he felt the team would appreciate."

But Rolle needed his own spark, and it came from Grant, who called Rolle and had a 15-minute, heart-to-heart conversation with him on the Tuesday before the Jets game. He told Rolle that he had been trying too hard to fix the Giants, who had lost five of six after starting 6-2.

Rolle was so consumed with trying to clean up the defense's breakdowns that he would often open up his laptop, even on Sunday mornings before games, and show defensive teammates specific things to look for against that week's opponent, for any added advantage the Giants could gain. Rolle also wanted to be a good leader, talking to guys like Pierce and studying Eli Manning's fourth-quarter makeup, wondering, "What is going through his mind? I try to steal bits and pieces of things like that."

"He was overloading himself with trying to make everything right with everybody else," Grant said. "So I had to stop him and tell him, 'Don't kill yourself trying to make something that you can't control work.'"

Immediately after that talk, Rolle sat in his car outside his building, contemplating Grant's advice to concentrate on himself.

Since then, Rolle has averaged eight tackles in the Giants' four straight victories, plus an interception against the Cowboys.

He had eight tackles, knocked down a pass and had a fumble recovery during the Giants' 37-20 upset over the Packers last Sunday, his best game of the season.

Rolle is one win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in his career, but he has a greater appreciation this time around.

"We have seen Antrel participate in the national championship with the University of Miami, we've seen him be a part of an NFC Championship with the Arizona Cardinals and we saw him at the Super Bowl and two Pro Bowls," Armelia said. "We have never seen him celebrate the way he celebrated the other night after they beat the Green Bay Packers."

Rolle has also noticed how much Coughlin is enjoying this.

"His approach is so relaxed," Rolle said. "You would probably think of him to be an uptight guy during the postseason, but he has actually been more calm and more relaxed than ever. He is trusting us that we will get the job done. He says it and we do it."

Like his family's home that has been rebuilt in Homestead, Rolle is looking forward to building something long-lasting in New York.

"I definitely want to retire as a Giant," he said. "I don't want to go anywhere else. No matter what I have gone through or what has been said, I would really love to stay in New York."

Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
Follow him on Twitter »  Ohm's chat archive »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • That's Gotta Sting
    The Yankees turned an early 4-run lead to a late Rays blowout in St. Petersburg.
  • That Was Close
    David Wright's eighth-inning single broke up a Braves no-hit bid at Citi.
  • Bracing For The Worst
    Mike Woodson's fate will likely be announced next week -- and he's expecting bad news.
  • You Gotta Be Kidding
    Jason Kidd bristled over speculation the Nets tanked to face the Raptors.
  • Complete Control
    The Rangers dominated the Flyers in Game 1 thanks to superior stickhandling and skill.

MORE NFL HEADLINES