Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy looks over a mountain range in Peru during his offseason getaway from the rigors of football. (Photos courtesy of DeAndre Levy)
Allen Park — The dry-erase board in the middle of the Lions locker room lays out the daily schedule for the hired help, from meetings to meals to the most menial of tasks for an NFL player. Right next to it is a large scale and another bulletin board where players check and record their weight each morning after workouts and practices.
This is training camp, and this is what structure looks like, with every last pound and minute accounted for. The workday starts at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t officially end until 8 p.m., with an 11 p.m. curfew in place just to remind everyone summer vacation’s over.
All the more reason, then, to escape when you can, which is what so many players do in the offseason, hitting South Beach or Las Vegas or the Caribbean.
DeAndre Levy isn’t one to follow the herd, though. And when the Lions’ eclectic linebacker talks about getting away from it all, he genuinely means it.
Last summer, that meant swimming with great white sharks in South Africa and bushwhacking his way through Botswana. This summer, he headed for Peru, spending five days hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu and then another week slogging through a remote area of the Amazon rainforest in Peru’s Loreto province. Five hours from the nearest town, it was just Levy and a couple local guides, living off the land. And for Levy, this was paradise found.
“Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to go to the Amazon,” said Levy, a 26-year-old Milwaukee native who says Mount Kilimanjaro and Kenya are next on his to-do list. “And the way I went about it — I didn’t want to go on a cruise or to a resort or anything like that — I was just out there.”
He’s out there, all right. That’s what some of his teammates tell him — good naturedly, of course — whether it’s his beard that has grown to biblical proportions since last October (“They’re just jealous they can’t grow one this beautiful,” Levy says) or his dry wit and fiercely independent thought. Or his travel itinerary.
“Most of them think it’s crazy,” said Levy, a 2009 third-round pick out of Wisconsin who has been a four-year starter at outside linebacker. “They found out I went skydiving and they thought that was crazy. They thought the Amazon was nuts, eating frogs and rats and piranha and stuff like that.”
Frogs? OK, fine. But … rats?
“Yeah,” Levy said, “there’s a little jungle rodent we had to catch with a spear.”
That’s only a taste, but you get the idea. This is hardcore adventure travel — hunting for food, building his own sleeping hut, and so on — only without a Discovery Channel crew in tow.
“It’s a little intimidating at first,” Levy said. “Swarms of bugs buzzing. You constantly hear stuff moving. The night is alive.”
Good to decompress
And so is Levy, though he slept with his machete — wouldn’t you? — and couldn’t help but wonder what else was alive and, well, hungry on the other side of that mosquito netting. He woke up to the sound of bushes rustling a few feet away, but couldn’t see in the pitch black. So who knows? It could’ve been anything.
“I mean, the spiders are so big there, they can make the bushes move,” Levy said, laughing. “But it was fun. It was definitely worth it. It was the experience that I wanted.”
More than that, he says, it was the experience he needed, both to decompress after two months of “voluntary” offseason workouts and to brace for the six months of mental and physical punishment to come.
“You need that balance, absolutely,” Levy said. “And when you go by yourself, you don’t have to worry about anything — no schedule, no planning around other people. You just get up and go. And that’s kind of part of it for me, to get away for a little bit, unplug and come back feeling refreshed.”
It’s a refreshing perspective, really. Personal growth and introspection aren’t exactly buzzwords in an NFL locker room. And it’s an outlook that’s shared by his position coach, Matt Burke, a notorious thrill-seeker and fellow offseason adventurer. Burke’s been to Peru, too, among dozens of far-flung destinations over the last several years — scuba diving in Belize, ice climbing in New Zealand, hiking the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand. In July, while Levy was in the Amazon, Burke was somewhere in the middle of Mongolia.
“There’s getting away,” Burke says, “and then there’s getting away. I head to Mongolia with my backpack and I’m 500 miles from civilization. It kind of clears my mind. And I think for him, there’s a little bit of that, too.”
Out of comfort zone
A lot of it, actually. And while football’s a sport girded by groupthink, Levy, a smart, versatile player re-signed to a three-year, $9.75 million deal this spring, certainly isn’t afraid to go another route when he steps off the football field.
“Some people maybe misunderstand him a little bit,” said Burke, 37, a Dartmouth grad with a psychology degree. “And I don’t want to use the word ‘Renaissance Man,’ but there are guys whose whole identity is football, basically. With Lev, he’s obviously got a lot of other interests outside the realm. But the thing is, he’s a strong enough personality, strong enough in his identity, that it doesn’t affect him.”
For Levy, it’s not about shattering any stereotypes, though.
“It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone,” he said. “And not really worrying about, ‘Oh, is this OK? Is that OK? Should I check in with this person or that person?’ … There’s something rewarding about that.”
It’s not for everyone, obviously. Just ask his teammates.
“I don’t really do the crazy trips, man,” fellow linebacker Ashlee Palmer said. “I’m not with that kind of thing. That’s just him. That’s not me.”
Asked what’d qualify as a crazy trip for him, Palmer, who grew up in south Los Angeles, paused before answering, “Hawaii, maybe?”
But to each his own, right? And besides, Palmer adds with a laugh, “I do enjoy hearing his stories when he gets back.”