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How Darrelle Revis became the NFL's savviest negotiator

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ESPN The Magazine: Darrelle Revis' nicknames and why he gets paid (2:33)

Darrelle Revis shares the nicknames given to him by his teammates, why he deserves to get paid a large salary and his desire to cover Jerry Rice. (2:33)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 31 NFL Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

THERE ARE CERTAIN athletes who exude celebrity; it trails them like a cloud of perfume, intoxicating everyone in their path. Darrelle Revis is not one of those athletes. As we walk through New York's SoHo neighborhood, passing an outdoor basketball court, none of the kids shooting hoops notices the All-Pro cornerback, who recently re-signed with the Jets. He's anonymous in gray sweats. (It should be noted that they're unusually soft and luxurious sweats, the kind of sweats that probably cost more than most people's dress pants.) Out of uniform, Revis, 30, looks surprisingly average, like a genial uncle who happens to work out a lot.

We duck into his favorite Japanese restaurant and sit in the front. A young couple walk by on the sidewalk and pause by the window. They lean in, and I brace for something -- a wave or a photograph -- but nothing happens. Turns out they were just looking for a menu.

Revis doesn't notice. He orders a bottle of sake, which he insists we split. "Do you like eel?" he asks. "Ugh." He pokes his finger in his mouth and pretends to gag, then grins, teeth gleaming behind his fuzzy beard. He was an hour late, and he has apologized several times for this. He can explain. He was shopping in midtown Manhattan, and he couldn't catch a cab. He stood on the street for maybe 20 minutes and found himself chatting with a stranger who was also trying to hail a ride. ("Nice dude!") Eventually, he gave up and tried to use Uber -- but his phone had died, so he walked around looking for an outlet and ended up going into an empty Indian restaurant. Once it started charging, he felt like he should thank the owners, so he decided to order an entree, and --

"I'm really sorry," he says.

Revis' gentleness can be jarring if you've heard the stories of his ferocity: how he punishes anyone who beats him to the ball, practicing with an intensity that's borderline inappropriate; how he once brawled with Jets teammate Patrick Turner because the receiver wasn't replicating then-Dolphins wideout Brandon Marshall's pass routes, jeopardizing his ability to prepare for a game. He's called his competitive fervor a sickness. But here, sitting across from me on a breezy weekday afternoon, he's so soft-spoken and serene, he's almost Zen-like- -- a monk in a warrior's body.

Our waiter returns, an anxious smile crossing his face. After pouring our water, he backs away, then stops: "I hope it tastes better than Boston tap water," he sputters. Revis rewards him with a long, generous chuckle.

He's happy to be back in New York. Not because he has a LeBron-like complex about coming home -- though there's a little of that -- but mostly because he just likes it here. Of course, the money didn't hurt. In March, the Jets signed Revis to a five-year contract with $39 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. Revis' peers, many of whom revere the presumptive Hall of Famer the way aspiring day traders worship Warren Buffett, rushed to praise him for landing the deal. Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis tweeted that he wanted to shake Revis' hand; longtime Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor wrote: "BRUH I NEED DAT REVIS DEAL."

"You have to admire what he's done," says Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald of Revis' contracts. "He's never flinched."

In the past eight years, Revis has negotiated five deals, held out of training camp twice, switched teams three times and won one Super Bowl ring. By 2017, he will have earned at least $134 million over the course of his career, cementing his legacy as one of the most successful -- and, some would argue, most cynical -- negotiators in NFL history. As he spears a piece of shrimp, I awkwardly broach the subject of his cutthroat reputation. "When you Google 'Darrelle Revis,' it says ... "

He pauses, sets down his chopsticks. "Greedy."

"Mercenary."

He rolls up one of his sleeves, laying his forearm across the table like he's waiting to have blood drawn. He jabs at his skin. "Should I get that tatted on me -- all of those names?"

When I look up, he bursts into laughter.

THE AIRING OF financial grievances is an essential part of the NFL offseason, as predictable as OTAs and minicamp. But this year's gripefest felt different somehow -- broader, more philosophical. It started in May, when Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who earned just $1.9 million as a rookie last year, argued that, given the danger of their profession, players should make more money. A few days later, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson took to Twitter to grumble about the lack of guaranteed income in football. (Two months later, he earned a favorable restructuring of his contract with the Vikings.) In July, Washington safety Duke Ihenacho marveled at the amount of cash handed out by the NBA, then asked why the NFL's minimum salary isn't $1 million. The average MLB player makes twice as much as his counterpart in the NFL ($4.2 million versus $2.1 million this year, according to Sporting Intelligence).

All were derided. "Grow up and do your job," someone told Peterson on Twitter. "How many folks in the real world would KILL for your life?"

As a rule, fans hate it when highly paid athletes complain about money. This is true of any sport, but especially of football, with its rigid salary cap. These days, we're no longer just Monday-morning quarterbacks -- we're also armchair general managers and part-time capologists, as conversant in subjects like dead money and franchise tags as we are in yards and catches. It's why we call for hometown discounts and loyalty in one breath, then urge teams to cut slumping veterans in the next. When a star player scores a new contract, we applaud -- but only after we've determined that the deal isn't a threat, the mislaid Jenga block that could send the tower crumbling.

There are structural reasons football players make less than other professional athletes. There are more of them, obviously. And they're more likely to get hurt. But Beckham et al. aren't wrong to complain. NFL contracts are stuffed with illusory figures, money that isn't real unless it's guaranteed. As a result, players live in a state of perpetual limbo; their lack of autonomy turns many of them into disposable objects, tools that can be thrown away once they're used and broken. Lose a step after a knee operation? Your team will cut you without thinking twice. Outperform your deal? Good luck getting a raise. Compared with the other leagues, the balance of power in football is tilted heavily toward teams, which is why players have begun to protest.

"Owners always take the emotion out of business," says Marshall, who was traded this offseason by the Bears to the Jets. "Players, that's where we lose. We approach it from an emotional standpoint, a personal standpoint." The strongest athletes in America are the weakest negotiators.

Darrelle Revis is the exception.

"SURF AND TURF."

A few seconds go by, and Revis, who is cradling his phone against his ear, sighs, then calmly repeats himself for the third time.

"I'll have the surf and turf."

He's so quiet, the woman taking his order can't hear him. I'm sitting a few feet away, and I can barely make out what he's saying. We're in the New Jersey apartment he's renting near the Jets' practice facility in Florham Park. The decor is standard-issue athlete bachelor pad: vast and empty, with modern furniture, a high-end entertainment system and a pyramid of unworn sneakers. Revis owns another house, a bigger place by the beach in Florida, but his lifestyle is modest for a multimillionaire. Until recently, he drove a gray Mini Cooper. Former Jets coach Rex Ryan used to make fun of it -- he told him to go buy a truck -- but Revis loved his little car. "I did a ton of research on it," he says. "It's great for parking."

He is impervious to ridicule. After he hangs up the phone and settles onto his sofa, he grabs a blanket -- it's red and black, the colors of his high school in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania -- and pulls it up to his chin so that only his face is visible. I ask him if he's cold, and he shakes his head, which peers over the blanket like a bearded periscope. "I like to snuggle."

He isn't trying to make me laugh; his tone is matter-of-fact. He likes to snuggle.

The island metaphor is a bit tired at this point, but it's also undeniably accurate, both in a football sense and a psychological one. Revis is truly a man unto himself, unfettered by the social anxieties that plague normals and celebrities alike. He dines at restaurants alone. He goes to movie theaters and museums by himself. He's single and finds dating frustrating, in part because he's wary of new people.

Revis recently flew to Toronto on a whim, gazed down at a Blue Jays game from the CN Tower and toured the aquarium next door. He didn't bring anyone on the trip. "I like my own company," he says, shrugging.

He's always been the quietest guy in a group. "Even on the field, when I've played against him, he doesn't talk -- not even a casual conversation!" says Fitzgerald, who's known Revis for years (both played for Pitt) and is one of the few NFL players Revis hangs out with during the offseason.

He's known for pulling off Irish goodbyes at parties -- leaving like a ghost, without saying a word. "I might be like, 'I'm going to the bathroom.' Then I'll get a text 15 minutes later: 'Did you leave?'" He giggles. "Yeah, I left."

There are many reasons Revis has successfully negotiated five contracts since entering the NFL -- reasons, in the words of former Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik, who traded for Revis in 2013, that "he's won every time." His agents, Jonathan Feinsod and Neil Schwartz, are shrewd, and his family is supportive. His talent is astonishing. By taking out the opponent's top receiver -- last season he was the NFL's second-least targeted cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus -- he tilts the field for the rest of the defense. Marshall says Revis plays his position like a pitcher; instead of allowing receivers to dictate plays, he takes control. "No matter what the situation is, he says, 'This is my technique,'" Marshall says.

Jets safety Rontez Miles recently told ESPN that Revis' knowledge of the game is unparalleled: "His presnap reads are amazing. He knows what he's about to get before the snap."

When it comes to negotiations, all of this matters a great deal. But as he talks about dining alone on a recent trip to Paris, a blanket draped over his body like a Snuggie, it occurs to me that his predisposition for solitude matters just as much. In an industry in which millions of people are invested in his success -- in which he's constantly being advised, praised and berated, often by total strangers -- Revis' tranquillity might be his greatest asset. He isn't just an island. He's a fortress.

Go back to 2007. The Jets traded two picks to move up in the draft and snagged Revis at No. 14, offering him his first multimillion-dollar payday. At the time, the 22-year-old had barely earned a cent, aside from a couple of summers spent working as a janitor at his high school. And yet, when the Jets insisted he sign a six-year deal, which would've slowed his timeline for free agency, he turned them down. Skipped most of training camp, even though he was competing for a starting job. Told them he would happily wait for next year's draft.

I ask him what he remembers from that summer -- if he was afraid of missing out on his first big check. He smirks. "No, I wasn't scared," he says. After skipping the beginning of camp, the rookie went to Feinsod's house in the Hamptons. "It was my first time," he says. "It was awesome." Three weeks later, he got the deal he wanted.

The next holdout was harder. When the Jets refused to pay him what he believed he was worth after the 2010 season -- the sticking point, he says, was the absence of guarantees -- he decided to use the only leverage he had, the only option any player has when management won't budge on a contract: He staged a one-man strike. Revis told the Jets he was skipping camp, then disappeared. He hung out with his kids, Deyani and Jayden, and flew to Florida, where he sat alone on the beach, watching the waves roll in. When his mother visited him, he bought an Afro wig as a jokey disguise. Told everyone to call him Rico.

Thirty-six days passed. Then, right before the season began, the team relented, throwing $32.5 million in guaranteed money at him -- including, crucially, a no-franchise clause. Feinsod says his client's patience was stunning. With Revis, there are no panicky 4 a.m. phone calls or meltdowns when he's called out by the media. "He's so unflappable," Feinsod says.

Still, it wasn't always easy to block out the world. HBO's Hard Knocks series was filming the Jets that summer, and Revis was in the news every day. He was rechristened Mevis, or Revi$, depending on which tabloid you picked up. His family received angry letters -- death threats, even. "The second time he held out, I was reading something that said, 'I hope he gets hit by a bus,'" his aunt Tamu says. She sighs. "Those are angry fans, and they don't understand the business aspect of football."

Revis told his relatives to pull the plug on sports television and stay off social media. He says he's always avoided the media as much as possible. "Once you write your story, I probably won't read it," he says with an apologetic shrug. "Somebody might show it to me. I might read a couple of sentences. Then, I'll just stop."

OF THE TENS of thousands of men who have played professional football, just a handful have staged successful holdouts. Eric Dickerson did it twice in the 1980s; Emmitt Smith skipped a couple of games in 1993. Then there was Sean Gilbert. The defensive lineman held out for an entire year in 1997, famously announcing that God had appeared in a dream and told him not to accept less than $5 million a year. Gilbert returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania, where he kept in shape by running laps near his family's house, sprinting up and down a hill at night. Whenever he reached the bottom, he would slap hands with his sister's 12-year-old son, Darrelle.

A year later, Gilbert returned to the NFL and signed a $46.5 million offer sheet with the Panthers. He stood up to the league and won, and his nephew watched.

Aliquippa is straight out of central casting -- a gritty, football-obsessed town that's been slowly rusting over since the steel mills shut down. On Friday nights, everyone stops what they're doing and descends upon Aliquippa High School's field, The Pit. The legend of "Rel Rev" was gilded when he led the Quips to a state championship, scoring every one of the team's five touchdowns while playing quarterback, wide receiver, running back and cornerback. He also returned kicks.

Revis always felt at ease with a ball in his hands. "It just came like that," he says, snapping his fingers. At his first practice, at age 7, the coach lined up the players on a baseball field and told them to race each other. Revis, ever the silent observer, noticed that the other kids were hovering around a boy named Davon, the team's star player. "I was thinking, 'OK -- I guess he's the guy. If I'm going to get into this sport, that's who I want to go up against.' That's where it really all started."

He smiles and nods, as though the story is over. A beat goes by.

"Um, what happened?" I ask.

He appears genuinely surprised by the question. "I beat everybody."

Revis and his younger sister and brother, DeAudra and Terry, were raised by their mother, Diana. She worked an assortment of jobs -- hotel maid, construction worker, prison officer -- struggling to make ends meet. After paying bills each month, she would sometimes find herself with as little as $30 in her wallet. She'd fill the car with gas, take the kids to a restaurant -- "somewhere we could share a lot," she says -- and then drive up Mount Washington, where they'd peer down at Pittsburgh through a telescope. "I wanted them to experience something different."

There's a prototype for stories like these, for athletes who grow up without money and then spend their lives chasing it. Revis, with his many millions, would seem to fit the bill. But when he talks about wealth, he sounds flat, almost bored -- there's no trace of the desperation you hear when self-made men describe what they've accomplished. He isn't driven by Gatsby-like insecurities. He isn't fueled by the struggles of his youth. "I'm not gonna sit here and pout because I grew up in the ghetto," he says.

Aliquippa didn't give him an inferiority complex. If anything, it made him confident -- proud of his self-sufficiency. Revis' mother worked double shifts, and he sometimes went days without seeing her. He started taking care of himself at a very young age: woke himself up, washed his face, got dressed for school. When he left football practice as a child, he didn't always have a ride home, so he walked through the woods, carrying his pint-sized helmet. His mother turned to him for reassurance, taking comfort in his confidence and poise. "A lot of times, when I looked at him, I felt that we were OK, even though we knew we weren't," she says.

His family can't remember the last time anyone saw him flustered. It didn't happen in 2007, when Jets coach Eric Mangini told reporters that Revis' holdout could jeopardize his playing time (he started in Week 1), or in 2012, when news leaked that he had considered skipping camp for the third time (sample Internet comment: "This guy is nothing but an ultra-greedy, self-centered dirtbag"). Revis wasn't even fazed in 2013, when he heard on TV that the Jets were trying to trade him while he was recuperating from a torn ACL.

When he landed in Tampa Bay that year, he took his biggest gamble yet, signing a six-year, $96 million contract with $0 guaranteed. "Only one player in the league will bet on himself like that," says Dominik, who orchestrated the deal. The move befuddled some analysts. But Revis believed he would come back strong from the ACL -- so strong, he thought, that Tampa wouldn't dare drop him.

He was wrong. His man-to-man style didn't mesh with the Buccaneers' zone defense, and the team cut him in the spring of 2014. For the first time in his career, he was a free agent.

When I ask Revis why he's taken so many risks -- and why he's placed so much faith in his own abilities -- he always responds the same way: "What kind of player am I?" At times, a conversation with him feels less like an interview than an exercise in the Socratic method. He has a tendency to answer questions with questions, a habit that makes it hard to pin down his beliefs but easy to understand why he holds them. At one point, I ask Revis if aging makes him nervous, and he gives me a funny look.

"Why?"

When was the last time you experienced self-doubt?

"Self-doubt about what?"

I bring up the holdouts again, ask him if he ever panicked while playing chicken with his career. His eyes narrow into slivers.

"If you don't believe in yourself, who will?"

A FEW HOURS after the Bucs cut Revis, he agreed to sign with the Patriots for a modest $12 million guaranteed, reportedly spurning more lucrative offers from a couple of lesser teams. Many took this as a sign that the NFL's biggest mercenary had changed his ways -- and they were correct, to an extent. But like all of Revis' moves, it was calculated. His jaunt to New England also afforded him the opportunity to shine on the best possible stage, like an A-list actor who takes a break from starring in blockbusters to film an Oscar-bait art-house flick. Meanwhile, the going rate for cornerbacks reset when Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman both signed new contracts, adjusting the average salary. (They now earn an average of just over $3 million a year fully guaranteed, compared with Revis' $7.8 million.)

Still, the culture of stoicism in Foxborough suited Revis. A couple of weeks before the team won the Super Bowl, a Boston Globe writer speculated that the cornerback was "a good bet to stay in New England for the long haul."

In March, Revis signed with the 4-12 Jets. More than 20 teams were interested, but Revis wanted to return to New York -- and regain his status as the NFL's highest-paid cornerback.

Tonight, at another elegant Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan, I ask him if he's pleased with his new deal. He nods, then takes a sip of a pink cocktail with a delicate flower drooping over the brim. (It goes without saying that he's not the kind of man who is embarrassed by such a visual.) "I've liked all of my deals," he says.

He calls his negotiating team -- his mother, his agents and his uncles -- Team Revis. A few years ago, Gilbert started reading up on contracts. He grew increasingly interested in the workings of the NFL, so much so that he ended up writing a book about how the 2011 collective bargaining agreement screwed players. "Right now, they're using the psychology of fear -- they're making players worry about their next check," he says. Earlier this year, he ran for president of the NFL players union and lost.

Revis doesn't see himself as an activist. But the older he gets, the more open he is about his suspicion that he's misunderstood -- that if he worked in any other field, he wouldn't be criticized for pursuing a salary that accurately reflects his worth. "Who doesn't want a raise?" he asks, throwing his hands in the air. Too many players, he says, don't understand how contracts really work. They don't see that the billboard numbers being tossed around by the media are meaningless, that money isn't real unless it's fully guaranteed. "The player believes he's making that much, and that's not really the truth," he says. "They're getting blinded. The fan is blinded as well."

In fact, Revis continues -- and this is where he'll lose some people, he knows, but he keeps going -- he's actually been generous. By pursuing the biggest payouts, he's grown the market, shown how much a star can and should earn. "Some of these contracts -- they can hurt the next guy coming up," he says. "I think some players don't see the bigger picture. Don't be selfish. Think about other people."

Still there?

"I'm just standing up for what I think is right," he says. "I'm a walking billboard for fairness."

I ask him what advice he would give to a younger player. "Maximize your worth," he says. "As soon as you step foot in the NFL, the window is closing."

This is undeniably true. But it's also true that much of what Revis has done cannot be replicated by the vast majority of players. "There are others who really appreciate what he's done because he's shown guys the way," Marshall says. "But only a few can do it. You have to be a baller. You can't make moves if you're not backing them up with your play on the field."

Most players don't have his talent. They don't have his family support, or his war chest. (Dominik, now an analyst for ESPN, says Revis' previous earnings make him an unusually powerful adversary in negotiations because, unlike most players, he can afford to walk away.) And they don't have his willpower.

But maybe Revis' journey through the NFL isn't a playbook but a promise. After eight years, five contracts and three teams, he's become living, breathing proof that the house doesn't always come out on top -- that in a league where the odds are heavily stacked against you, it's possible to bet on yourself and win. He's the one player who reached across the table and took what was his.

Revis says he doesn't think he'll go down the same path as his uncle. He sees himself as more of a businessman -- he might even join an NFL ownership group someday, work things from the other side. He's optimistic about the Jets' prospects this season, especially on defense, but he won't say whether he'll retire in New York. He will say that he plans on playing for as long as possible. "Until these wheels fall off -- until these legs can't run no more," he says.

Before Revis gets up to leave, I feel compelled to ask: What's more important, winning or getting paid?

He answers, of course, with a question: "Why not have both?"