“It’s just so quiet and peaceful here,” DeAndre Levy says, gesturing at the painting-lined corridors of the Detroit Institute of Arts. “You can sit and be with your thoughts.” It’s certainly a far cry from the feral din of Levy’s day job as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions, but in some ways he fits in perfectly. As he walks by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, a massive tribute to Motor City labor and machinery, the strapping Levy — 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, with muscles rippling through his slate-gray T-shirt — looks as if he just stepped out of one of Rivera’s heroic frescoes.
Wandering the museum’s galleries, he browses an exhibition on the history of the American road trip, with images by iconic photographers like Robert Frank. Over the past few years, Levy has produced some travel photography of his own, using Instagram to document his off-season adventures — sledding down an active volcano in Nicaragua; flying in an ultralight over Chile’s Death Valley; skinny-dipping in the Amazon. (“No candiru dared swim up my pee hole,” he posted.) While traveling in South Africa, Levy even came face-to-face with his team’s namesake beast. “It was early in the morning,” Levy says, “the sun was just coming up, and this lioness is out with a fresh buffalo kill, calling for her cubs. We were 15 yards away, and I’m just looking at it like, ‘This is why I play football.’ ”
Such worldly sentiment is rare among his fellow players. “When I first started traveling, everybody was like, ‘Oh, it’s weird, dude. Why are you out there doing this?’ I think it’s weird that you have endless resources and the only place you go is Las Vegas or South Beach. To me, that’s asinine.”
Levy chalks up his teammates’ quizzical reactions to the hard-driving, highly regimented world of pro football. “You’re expected to be one way,” he says. “And if you’re outside of that, they think something’s wrong with you.” When the Lions flew to London in November 2015 to play the Chiefs, his attempt to get teammates to join him on a trip to Stonehenge was met with stony indifference. “It was like, ‘What the fuck you wanna go look at rocks in a field for?’ ” he says.
The 29-year-old’s globe-trotting tendencies aren’t the only way he stands out. Before Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman made headlines, Levy had become one of the league’s most vocal players, an activist who speaks out for human rights and against domestic violence, and he has even taken on the NFL itself through social media and a weekly column in the Detroit Free Press. “He doesn’t fit the mold,” says Levy’s friend and former University of Wisconsin teammate Brad Thorson. “I think that’s jarring for guys who expect him to be buying Bentleys.”
Much like suggesting an art museum as a rendezvous spot for an interview, it’s all pretty unique for an NFL jock. But maybe the question shouldn’t be, Why isn’t DeAndre Levy like other football players? but rather, Why aren’t more football players like DeAndre Levy?
Born and raised in Milwaukee, where his mother is an assistant at a medical office and his father works on the line in a steel factory, Levy was a star linebacker at Wisconsin. He was most famous for a 2006 play against Penn State, a sideline tackle that accidentally drove him into coach Joe Paterno, breaking JoePa’s left leg. Ten years later, Levy now calls that incident “my proudest moment in college,” as history has since revealed Happy Valley’s sad secrets. “That dirtbag, man,” says Levy of Paterno, who was recently implicated as being aware of child sexual abuse committed by his assistant Jerry Sandusky as early as 1976. “We’ve gotta stop prioritizing sports over humanity,” says Levy. “Just because somebody can throw a football or coach football, they’re excluded from their wicked acts.”
In 2009, Levy was drafted by the Lions in the third round. He’s since earned a rep as one of the league’s top defenders, notching one of the highest tackle-frequency ratings in the game. But hip surgery cost him virtually the entire 2015 season, while quad and knee injuries have taken him out of the 2016 lineup.
While frustrating, this extended time off has presented an unexpected silver lining. Before the injures, Levy was your standard NFL player: He kept his head down, hit the weight room hard, and worried about the day he might get blindsided on the field and forced out of the game for good. That was a “small life,” he says. “I felt like I was in this position I always dreamed of, but I wasn’t a complete person, wasn’t fully maximizing my time.” Being sidelined allowed him to highlight areas in which he felt he was lacking. “I’ve been playing since I was six, and it consumes so much of my existence,” he says. “It prompted a lot of personal growth, being away from it, and seeing what matters and what doesn’t.”
Four years ago, Levy began using the weeks before the start of organized team activities in April as an opportunity to put some distance between himself and football. His first trip was to the jungles of Peru. “That was terrifying to me. Not being able to speak the language, never hiking, never camping — I had to force myself out of my comfort zone.”
He found he liked it there. Now he draws inspiration for his destinations from magazines, blogs, National Geographic docs, and Instagram feeds, and he doesn’t shy away from the extreme: In the Peruvian Amazon, he skewered jungle rats with a pitchfork he made from a tree branch. “You catch as many as you can at night, put them over the fire, scrape all their fur off, cut them open, take their insides out, and you pretty much just eat it like that,” says Levy. “It tastes as bad as it sounds.” Another trip found him wing-walking on a biplane flying over Sequim, Washington. Levy had to crawl out of the cockpit, climb onto the wing, and then maneuver his feet into stirrups, all while soaring at 140 miles per hour several thousand feet over the Olympic Peninsula. “Looking at the videos, I still get chills,” he says. (Despite the seeming danger, Levy insists that his adventures are safe, though he takes the precaution of not mentioning them to Lions brass until after the fact.)
Embracing new experiences all over the world has given him a feeling of control and the confidence to take a stance on issues back home. “He’s still a guy who likes to joke, and he’s gonna rib guys when they deserve to get ribbed,” says Thorson. “But he expects his teammates to be more grown up now.” Thorson, who two years ago revealed to Levy that he was gay, recalls how his friend supported him, even asking how he could help combat some of the homophobic views in the Lions’ locker room.
Levy’s new priorities also include an increased focus on the Detroit community. After encountering two shoeless men who were begging at a stoplight, Levy, a former sneakerhead, sold his collection of 150 pairs and donated the proceeds to two of the city’s homeless charities. And while most NFL stars support worthy though usually conventional charities, Levy has thrown his weight behind smaller organizations that typically don’t get the pro-athlete treatment. This past July he organized a “Regenerate Detroit” benefit dinner, which brought in enough money to give a Detroit student a full scholarship to culinary college. And in October, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, he sold shirts bearing the message Our Issue. to benefit Enough Said, a Detroit-area organization that raises money to help process some of the city’s 11,000 backlogged rape kits.
This has all been part of what Thorson sees as Levy’s “slow transformation,” a shedding of the stereotype of the NFL athlete. “That’s hard for guys who find their identity being a professional football player,” he says. “He’s always been a man on an island, but his comfort in standing up and saying, ‘OK, this is the way I think things should be, and I’m not gonna change who I am’ — that’s powerful. He’s a quiet champion of good.”
Lately levy has begun speaking out in louder ways. In April he wrote an editorial for The Players’ Tribune titled “Man Up,” decrying macho athletic culture and its tacit condoning of sexual assault. “Some of my peers needed a man in their position to challenge their ideals directly,” he says. “Just because you see it as a women’s issue doesn’t mean that we, as men, can’t say something.”
But his most provocative activism may be the shots he’s been taking at the league itself. He wrote an impassioned statement for the Detroit Free Press about the link between football and concussions, and the NFL’s questionable handling of head injuries. Over the last two years, Levy has experienced some potential symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), including trouble remembering things and slowing down and stuttering while reading aloud. “It’s frustrating,” he says, “because you put your body on the line, and the people that you’re working to make money for, they prioritize profit over the health of their greatest assets, and as a player that’s troubling.”
Levy admits he’s at a point where the damage is potentially already done, so now it’s about the next generation. “If I have kids, I’m damn sure not signing them up for football,” he says. “They need to know that it’s more than just bad shoulders, bad backs, and bad knees — something could be catastrophic.”
His understanding of his own limited time is why Levy says he’ll never regret his daredevil deeds, and why he continues to look for more ways to use his platform as an athlete to highlight social issues. “Your world has to be bigger than just doing football forever, because you never know when it can end.”
In fact, he’s already begun looking past the gridiron. He could be a sommelier, he says, or lead a foundation, or start up a training facility or even a gallery or restaurant.
A combination restaurant-gallery-training facility, maybe? “Let’s do it,” Levy says, laughing. “There aren’t too many of those around.”