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For Justin Rohrwasser, the controversy about his tattoo started soon after being drafted by Patriots

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/3/2020 Ben Volin
a football player holding a football ball: Justin Rohrwasser was hand-picked by Bill Belichick to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri. © Sholten Singer Justin Rohrwasser was hand-picked by Bill Belichick to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri.

Justin Rohrwasser was driving across New York state last Sunday, from Buffalo to his home outside of Albany, when his emotions overwhelmed him.

“He just broke down crying in the car,” said John Barber, Rohrwasser’s high school football coach. “My first reaction was, ‘Where are you? I’ll come get you.’ He said, ‘No, I’m fine, I’m driving home.’ ”

They were supposed to be tears of joy for Rohrwasser, who last Saturday realized his dream of getting drafted into the NFL. After a college career that took him from the University of Rhode Island to Erie (N.Y.) Community College to Marshall University, Rohrwasser was the first kicker drafted into the NFL this year, taken in the fifth round by the Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick handpicked Rohrwasser to be the possible successor to Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri.

Instead, Rohrwasser was crying tears of pain. And fear. And disappointment.

Not long after Rohrwasser was drafted, one of his tattoos caught the attention of social media.

On his left forearm is the Roman numeral “III” encircled by 13 stars — a logo of a group called the Three Percenters.

The organization is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-government group." Anti-government groups, according to the center, “advocate or adhere to extreme anti-government doctrines,” but do not necessarily advocate for violence or racism.

Members of the Three Percenters have made news in recent years for harassing Muslims and Mexicans; for planning to detonate a car bomb in Oklahoma City; for occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge for five weeks in 2016; and for having a presence at the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacy rally in 2017.

The group says on its website that it is “very pro-government, so long as the government abides by the Constitution." Its members view themselves as defenders of the Constitution, who fight for small government, free speech, and gun ownership rights, according to previous reporting on the subject.

The Three Percenters got national notice when some of their members traveled to Charlottesville in 2017 intending to help keep the peace and defend both the white supremacists and their counter-protesters’ right to free speech. After the bloody clash, the Three Percenters’ national council ordered a stand-down order, saying, “We will not align ourselves with any type of racist group.”

Rohrwasser got the tattoo when he was in college. A review of photographs on his social-media profiles suggests that he had it as early as December 2015, when he was a freshman at Rhode Island.

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A post shared by Justin Rohrwasser (@xjrowex16) on Dec 12, 2015 at 8:48pm PST

He said after being drafted last week that he didn’t fully understand what the group represented to the public.

“I have a lot of family in the military," he said. "I thought it stood for a military support symbol at the time. Obviously, it’s evolved into something that I do not want to represent.

"When I look back on it, I should have done way more research before I put any mark or symbol like that on my body, and it’s not something I ever want to represent. It will be covered.”

Rohrwasser told WBZ the next day that he will completely remove the tattoo instead of covering it up.

Exactly when and why Rohrwasser got the tattoo could not be determined. The Patriots did not let Rohrwasser and his family be interviewed for this story. Belichick was not asked about the tattoo during his post-draft media availability and was not made available for this story.

Rohrwasser’s world came crashing down last Saturday. His Twitter and Instagram feeds were scoured, turning up tweets and “likes” of Rohrwasser supporting President Donald Trump, controversial right-wing figures such as author Ayn Rand, and anti-political correctness psychologist Jordan Peterson.

“For him to be called a racist thug and a Nazi and Hitler, it just turns my stomach, because that’s not who he is,” said Barber. “What should’ve been the best day of his life … people that — I’m trying to be polite — they don’t understand the full story of who he is, just want to take something out of context and destroy a kid, which wasn’t called for.”

Kicking his ticket

Rohrwasser, 23, grew up in Clifton Park, N.Y., about 20 miles north of Albany. Listed now at 6 feet 3 inches and 230 pounds, he was a standout soccer and football player who attended Catholic Central in Troy, and played for a co-op team called Holy Trinity. He was the starting quarterback, kicker, and punter during his senior season, and led the Crusaders to a 5-3 record. In one game, he quarterbacked his team down the field in the closing seconds, then kicked the winning 37-yard field goal.

Rohrwasser knew that kicking was his ticket. In the winter, he kicked in the school’s indoor batting cage. In the summer, his father and coach shagged balls for him.

“Every kickoff was through the end zone,” Barber said. “His extra points and field goals were just automatic. He had that pop on the ball.”

It all led to a partial scholarship at Rhode Island, where he kicked in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

“He was tremendous, a great kid in the program,” Rhode Island head coach Jim Fleming said. “I thought he was an intelligent, well-spoken, good dude. Kids liked him. He wasn’t a normal introverted kicker. He had some personality to him.”

Fleming said he never noticed the “III” tattoo, but said he would often engage in political discussions with Rohrwasser, who wasn’t shy about his conservative beliefs. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Rohrwasser often wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat, according to Fleming.

“He was an interesting cat to talk to,” Fleming said. “We don’t let the hats in meetings, but he’d wear it in the hallway, on campus. I’d joke, ‘You take that freakin’ hat off,’ and then we’d have conversations about it.

“And he was a very mature kid. We had some interesting conversations about what he thought and why he liked Trump and those kinds of things. As I remember it, he always came back to the economic component; that made him jump on the Trump bandwagon more than anything else.

"I was not concerned whatsoever about him dividing the team. So I feel bad for the kid right now. He’ll weather the storm, hopefully.”

Rohrwasser connected on 15 of 20 field goal attempts in his two seasons, with a long of 42, but the Rams won just three games and Rohrwasser wasn’t getting many opportunities.

He transferred to a community college near Buffalo, then received a scholarship offer at Marshall for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Rohrwasser thrived at Marshall. He hit on 15 of 21 field goal attempts as a junior, then 18 of 21 his senior year, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors and drawing buzz as an NFL prospect. Rohrwasser’s finest moment came at the end of a win over Western Kentucky last season when he lined up for a winning 53-yard kick. He wound up attempting the kick three times because WKU iced him twice with timeouts, and he nailed all three.

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“I was probably more nervous than he was,” holder Jackson White said. “I remember I looked back at him on the third kick, he gave me the nod and he just smiled at me. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to crush this kick.’ It was amazing.”

Several of Rohrwasser’s Marshall teammates said they never heard him speak about his tattoo or make uncomfortable political statements.

“We have lockers next to each other," long snapper Matt Beardall said. "I’ve seen the tattoo a thousand times and had no idea what it stood for or what it meant.

"Justin did love to talk politics and stuff, but it was never to this extent or what the tattoo stands for. If something happened in D.C., you could go to Justin and he would tell you what happened because he would follow the politics from both sides of things. It was never left or right, he was always in the middle and he just wanted to understand everyone’s point of view.

“He’s not an extremist like everyone is calling him to be, and it’s really sad that some people who don’t know him are calling him names and making judgments.”

Among Rohrwasser’s other tattoos are an American flag, one stating “Liberty or death,” and another that states, “Don’t tread on me.” He also has tattoos of the all-seeing eye, the Dave Matthews Band, and one with a black spade that reads, “Born to lose, Live to win,” a symbol and motto often attributed to heavy metal singer Lemmy of Motorhead. Rohrwasser previously told the Marshall website that the tattoos are “all random.”

Marshall running back Brenden Knox, who is Black, said he and Rohrwasser became close friends while attending community events together, like speaking at local elementary schools and visiting the hospital before the Gasparilla Bowl. Knox said he never felt threatened by Rohrwasser’s political views.

“We sat together a lot on buses, and when I first saw [the tattoo] I honestly did not think twice about it. I thought it was Illuminati stuff or something like that,” Knox said. “A lot of times we’re around our teammates more than our friends and family back home and you really get to know a guy. And I never got any type of vibe that set me off on edge. A guy like that, you want to stand up for him when everybody else is saying things that aren’t true.”

Best foot forward

Rohrwasser was fortunate that Marshall held its Pro Day on March 11, before the NFL shut down all travel because of COVID-19. Performing in front of about 16 NFL teams, Rohrwasser nailed 12 of 13 kicks, with a long of 58. The only kick he missed was from 66 yards, but it had the distance and barely missed.

Patriots special teams coordinator Cameron Achord was in attendance, intently taking notes and speaking with Rohrwasser after the event.

“Only the people that were at Pro Day knew the interest the Patriots had in Justin,” Beardall said. “I was like, ‘This guy really, really wants him.’ He was their sleeper, and they knew he wasn’t a sleeper.”

Rohrwasser wasn’t ranked highly by most scouting analysts, and ESPN didn’t have any footage of him for its broadcast. But Beardall had a hunch the Patriots would draft him on Day 3.

“He’s like, ‘I’ll probably just sign an undrafted rookie contract with the Patriots,’ ” Beardall said. “Then when the fifth round came around, I was sitting on the couch talking to my brother. I was like, ‘What if they pull the trigger on Justin right here?’ And the next thing you know, they did.”

But Rohrwasser’s celebration quickly turned to a nightmare as his social media accounts (since locked) were scoured and his name became associated with the alt-right and white nationalism.

“It was very hard, just to see that and things that are being said about him and some of the backlash came at me also,” said Barber, the high school coach. “His senior year, he dated my niece for five to six months. He’s a good kid. When we talked on Sunday, he broke right down crying. So it was difficult.”

Some of Rohrwasser’s ex-teammates and coaches came to his defense this past week. Marshall junior defensive end Koby Cumberlander, who is Black, said on Twitter, “I’m going to keep defending my dawg, crazy how people are quick to judge someone they don’t even know.”

White, the holder, said he believes Rohrwasser that he didn’t fully understand the associations made with the Three Percenters.

“I believe in him. I don’t think he’s part of anything,” White said. “I know for a fact that he’s very passionate about supporting the military. He’s a conservative guy, he’ll tell you that. But I was looking on Twitter and people were ragging on him about the tweets that he liked about Trump. I think it’s crazy they’re trying to destroy his career.”

His friends believe that the controversy will eventually subside, and Rohrwasser will be a benefit to the Patriots.

“All of the Patriots fans have only heard the untrue stories about Justin,” said Beardall. “There’s so many true, great stories about him that they’re going to see once he starts. He’s going to interact in the community, he’s going to read to elementary schools — that’s what we did on Wednesdays. He’s a stand up dude.”

“I totally know he’ll be fine once he puts his pads on. He’ll go out there and kick and make the Patriots fans super happy.”

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