Four hours before every game, Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari sits by his locker and listens to “I’m Not a Hero” from the Dark Knight soundtrack. The man charged with protecting Aaron Rodgers’s blindside visualizes badass scenes from the movie: the opening heist; Batman being lifted from a Hong Kong skyscraper onto a plane; the Joker kicking a knife out from his boot. Then, after Bakhtiari is done picturing those moments, he imagines the badass plays he wants to manifest against his opponent that day.
The process is intense enough that he usually cries.
“It’s just me and my thoughts,” Bakhtiari says. “It’s pretty much meditation. Psychotic meditation.”
Bakhtiari’s connection to The Dark Knight isn’t a rarity in the NFL. There are a shocking number of players who love and identify with the movie—to the point that many even have Dark Knight tattoos: 49ers tight end George Kittle got an image of Heath Ledger’s Joker inked on his forearm the day before his wedding, against the wishes of his soon-to-be wife. Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has a tattoo of the Joker on his right leg (right next to tattoos of Barack Obama and Lil Wayne). Beckham’s teammate, Browns running back Nick Chubb, often wears a Batman chain and owns a Mercedes and a Dodge Charger, both with tinted windows and matte black paint, inspired by Batman’s car in the movies. Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey once wore Batman cleats during pregame warmups. Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson did the same, but with Joker cleats. Bills receiver Stevie Johnson once scored a touchdown, raised his jersey, and revealed a white T-shirt with the Joker tagline: “Why so serious?” Football’s Dark Knight obsession isn’t even limited to the NFL. In 2019, Canadian Football League defensive back Robertson Daniel intercepted a pass while wearing full Joker makeup.
The NFL has nearly two thousand players in their 20s and 30s, and in any group of men that age, you’re going to find a lot who are obsessed with The Dark Knight. But the movie seems to resonate with football players on a deeper level.
“[The Dark Knight soundtrack] helps me tap into my emotions and get that hair to spike up on my arms,” Bakhtiari says. “It gets me to mentally leave this nice person and understand that, ‘Hey, for the next three hours, you got to be someone different in between the lines.’”
Just as Ledger is playing a character in the movie, some players need help getting into character before game time—and look to The Dark Knight for inspiration. “You got to have a screw a little bit loose to play in this league,” Bakhtiari says. For many players, The Dark Knight is their screwdriver.
When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, it grossed the second-largest domestic box office figure of all time, at more than $500 million (to that point, the only movie with a higher gross was Titanic). While superhero movies are the dominant commercial and cultural force in Hollywood now, The Dark Knight was successful largely because it eschewed comic book conventions. Director Christopher Nolan essentially used Batman as window dressing for a heist movie (The Dark Knight is Heat with capes). And out of that heist movie came one of the most compelling film characters of the 21st century: Heath Ledger’s Joker.
This seems like a good place to note that the Joker is a terrorist. He kills dozens of people in The Dark Knight. He blows up a hospital (which is against the Geneva Convention). And he says he likes killing people with knives because guns don’t allow him to savor a person’s final emotions while they bleed to death. What exactly is so inspiring about this character?
Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, who has a Joker tattoo stretching down his right forearm that reads “Why So Serious?,” says that he is not taking all of the things the Joker does as inspiration. (He really hopes that is clear and obvious.) But the clown does have a couple of compelling traits. In his everyday life, Collins is a soft-spoken father of two and a proud family man. He believes that football players need to be the ultimate icons and leaders when they step outside the white lines, or as he puts it, “into the real world.” But inside the white lines, Collins says his primary job is to hit other dudes harder than they hit him.
“We’re here three, four hours on the field to be monsters,” Collins says. “I just feel like that’s some Joker shit.”
A lot of NFL players—and even coaches—agree. Legendary coach Bill Parcells once said that football “is not a game for the most well-adjusted people.” Indeed, talk to enough players and they’ll tell you that the sport requires them to tap into a different part of their personality—or just tap into a different personality, period.
Ravens safety DeShon Elliott is known throughout the Baltimore locker room as “the Joker.” He got that nickname in college at the University of Texas, when he got his first of three Joker tattoos (he also has a fourth that is Joker-inspired).
Kinda crazy that “Joker” came out on Friday and now DeShon Elliott, nicknamed The Joker, will get his first extended defensive action about a week later. Here’s DeShon’s tattoo that kicked off the nickname. pic.twitter.com/MnHdH1gJZt— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) October 10, 2019
Elliott channels the character for a simple reason. “He’ll kill you with a smile on his face,” Elliott says. “I try to take that into every day. I really do. Especially if I’m on the field. I’m bringing that violence. But at the end of day, I’m still going to smile.”
Elliott’s celebration move when he makes a big play is the “Ta-daaa!” the Joker does when he makes the pencil “disappear” in his first meeting with the mob. (Elliott plans to reenact the entire scene with his teammates when he finally scores a touchdown.) Off the field, Elliott says he feels like the Joker’s alter ego, Jack Napier. But on the field, he is all Joker energy. “Some guys are just OK with being the villain,” Elliott says. “I truly don’t care what people think. I really don’t, and I never will.”
There’s another basic reason defenders like Elliott and Collins gravitate toward the Joker: He represents anarchy. When he walks into the hospital dressed as a nurse and tells Harvey Dent, “I took your little plan and turned it on itself,” he might as well be making a mission statement for NFL defenses. In the same scene, the Joker compares himself to a dog chasing cars (an analogy Tom Brady used in jest to describe defenders on the Manning-cast of Monday Night Football this week), and says, “I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” Is this not the attitude of every defense going against Kyle Shanahan’s offense?
But it’s not just defensive players who love to create chaos. Kittle—who, it bears repeating, got a Joker tattoo the day before his wedding against the wishes of his fiancée—says his ink wasn’t just for shits and gigs. Kittle considers the Joker his alter ego. Before 49ers games, Kittle headbutts a wall to transform himself into the character.
“I don’t try to channel all the Joker, obviously, because he has some issues,” Kittle told ESPN’s Nick Wagoner in 2019. “Creating a little bit of chaos is just kind of what I try to do. I’m just trying to be the most outgoing, craziest person on the field.”
Even Kobe Bryant channeled the Joker’s energy in games. In February 2009, the Lakers had just lost center Andrew Bynum to injury, and Bryant was worried team morale was low. “I stayed up watching Batman, and watching Heath Ledger,” Bryant told the Knuckleheads podcast in September 2019. “I went and started researching about Heath Ledger, and how he got into character and how he just became all-consuming. That inspired me to go into my ‘Garden mode.’” The next day, Bryant scored 61 points, which broke the single-game scoring record at Madison Square Garden. The Lakers went on to win the NBA championship that season.
Players identify with Batman too, but for vastly different reasons than they do the Joker. Browns offensive lineman Chris Hubbard has a tattoo of Batman and the Joker and draws different inspiration from both. He says Batman’s most magnetic quality is that he has no superpowers. He isn’t from a different planet like Superman, he wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider like Spider-Man, nor is he a literal god like Thor. Yes, he’s rich beyond belief, but at his core, Batman is just a guy doing his best. That resonates with Hubbard, who was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and has defied the odds to remain in the NFL for more than eight years. “He’s just a billionaire guy trying to save his city,” Hubbard says. That inspires Hubbard in his own charity efforts, like the work he does with the Magnolia Clubhouse in Cleveland. “I kind of put myself in Batman’s shoes.”
Hubbard felt it was important to have Batman and the Joker tattooed on him: Batman for the business side, and Joker for the fun. “You definitely need both,” Hubbard says. “What’s the fun without having both?”
Combining both doesn’t always mean fun, though. Midway through the 2015 season, then-Panthers cornerback Josh Norman dubbed himself “the Dark Knight.” A few weeks later, then-Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. wore Joker gloves and cleats during a pregame warmup.
Both players kept those personas during the season—and to great effect, as Odell finished third in receiving yards per game, while Norman would eventually be named first-team All-Pro. But when the two met in the Meadowlands in late December, the game didn’t just pit the league’s hottest receiver against the league’s best cornerback: It became a Batman-Joker proxy war. Their head-to-head battle was physical, with a lot of shoving after the play was over. Eventually Beckham lost his cool and went for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Norman (Beckham was later suspended, while Norman was fined more than $26,000), and the Giants lost—in Gotham, no less. “That’s no Joker,” Norman said about Beckham after the game. “That’s Harvey Dent. That’s Two-Face.”
Later in his career, Norman kept a poster of The Dark Knight in his locker. He explained this by saying the film helped him go to his “dark place.” “I don’t go there very often,” he told reporters in 2016. “I rise from the ashes, and here comes something else. … It’s like a whole other mindset.”
Few people understand that mindset better than Robertson Daniel. Two years ago, in July 2019, Daniel was playing defensive back for the Calgary Stampeders when he made a spur-of-the-moment decision pregame: He was going to come out in full Joker makeup. He didn’t tell anybody beforehand, and he eagerly watched his opponents’ reactions when he stepped onto the field.
“It almost brought a new person out of me,” Daniel says.
With the Stampeders up 6-3 in the first quarter, Daniel hauled in an interception and made headlines across the continent when people realized what was on his face. He was accused of doing it as a publicity stunt, but he says it was anything but. “[The makeup] is not even a look thing,” Daniel says. “I don’t even think it looks great.”
Daniel sees himself in the Joker because of the odds he had to overcome to become a professional athlete. The self-confidence required to reach that level, he says, borders on a Joker-esque self-delusion. “If I was to say I had two people that thought I was going to make it, I’m probably lying,” he says. Growing up in Brooklyn, Daniel’s path seemed crazy to a lot of the people around him. A teacher told him when he was young he wouldn’t amount to anything. He responded by running hills after school. “Certain things didn’t seem like they were going to happen,” Daniel says. “Certain things seem insane, but yet seem sane to me.”
Daniel likes Bakhtiari’s quote that football players need a screw loose to play the game. But Daniel thinks that undersells it. “You don’t loosen a screw,” Daniel says. Instead, he says to imagine your mind as something mounted to a wall with four screws. “You take out the top right screw and the bottom left screw and let it shake.”
One idea that Bakhtiari tries to shake before games is that pain is a bad thing. He believes the Joker’s ability to turn pain into a strength is key to his appeal. Bakhtiari points to the scene when Batman interrogates the Joker, and the Joker makes fun of Batman’s attempts to beat him up. The Joker likes being hit, which makes Batman’s physical style pointless. Bakhtiari says when he is in a game, he wants to take the pain and make it feel good.
“There’s plenty of times I’ve inflicted pain, and I’ve gotten pain, and it almost energizes you,” Bakhtiari says. “Because at the end of the day, it’s a feeling. … You either let it define you, or you can manifest it into energy.”
Not only does Bakhtiari identify with the Joker in The Dark Knight, but also with Bane, the villain played by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises. One of Bane’s first lines in the movie is, “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” Bakhtiari loves that line. “That kind of quote, to me, is like when I put on the helmet,” Bakhtiari says. “No one gives a shit [about me] until I put on this fucking helmet. Now, the motherfucker’s going to learn.”
Bakhtiari tore his ACL on New Year’s Eve 2020. He didn’t play for Green Bay in the playoffs last season and has yet to play for them this year. But he could return as soon as Thursday night against the Arizona Cardinals. Which is good news, because the Packers need him. Rodgers is being sacked nearly twice as often this season as he was last year. And the team has had to jumble its offensive line to replace Bakhtiari: Left guard Elgton Jenkins moved to left tackle, and Green Bay has rookies at right guard and center—it’s the first time the Packers have started two rookies on the offensive line to begin a season in 15 years.
Right now, Bakhtiari is the hero that Green Bay needs. And when he returns to the lineup, he’ll also return to the ritual he’s done for a decade, one that has helped make him so successful: Four hours before the game, Bakhtiari will be listening to “I’m Not a Hero,” loosening his screws, with his hair standing up on his arms and tears flowing down his cheeks.