Growing up fatherless in a neighborhood plagued by crime, Trent Richardson could have easily fallen prey to his environment and allowed an NFL dream to shatter into pieces of wasted talent and regret.
He could have quit as a sophomore at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., when doctors told him he wouldn’t run again. He could have given up at age 16, when the first of his two daughters was born. He could have followed the same tragic path so many other young men from the neighborhood of Warrington chose.
But Richardson pressed forward with hopes of achieving greatness. He became a star running back in high school and a Heisman Trophy finalist at the University of Alabama.
Now he’s on the verge of beginning training camp with the Browns. Rookies are scheduled to report to the team’s headquarters Tuesday in Berea and start practicing Wednesday.
“I’m just another sign of hope and faith because when it comes down to it, I came from nothing,” Richardson said. “I came from the same streets these kids are going to play sandlot football in or pickup basketball games in and see these people sell drugs right in front of their faces. I’ve got a good, praying family that keeps me down to earth, and my little girls just kept me working.”
Although Richardson considers reaching the NFL a miracle, those close to him aren’t surprised he has been able to conquer adversity at virtually every turn. They realize he was determined to succeed regardless of his circumstances, even as a boy.
Born to play
A single mother raising Richardson, now 22, his two brothers, Terrance, 28, and Terrell, 25, plus several nieces, nephews and friends of her children, Katrina Richardson often worked a few jobs at a time to provide for her household. To keep Richardson busy and out of trouble, she made sure he was involved in sports and other activities, such as singing in a church choir, year-round.
Richardson started playing football at age 6. His coaches put him on the offensive line for the first two years because he was naturally stronger than his peers.
“He was always cut,” said Willie Richardson Jr., Trent’s uncle. “Have you ever seen a child with that physique? He’s always been that child. When he was in middle school, they thought he was lifting weights, but he didn’t touch a weight until he got to high school. He’s naturally cut. All he had to do was work just a little bit because he had everything already — chest, arms, legs, six pack — as a little boy.”
Once Richardson got an opportunity to carry the ball, he started turning heads. Willie Richardson still hasn’t forgotten when his nephew, at age 10, fumbled a kickoff in the end zone, turned around, scooped up the ball and returned it more than 100 yards for a touchdown.
“I would always tell him, ‘Boy, when I come see you play, it’s like watching the NFL,’ ” Willie Richardson said. “When you would go to the park — Myrtle Grove in Pensacola — they were always waiting to see what Trent was going to do next.”
By the time Richardson was in sixth grade, his brothers considered him a prodigy.
“In the summertime of my older brother’s senior year, we used to always go outside and play with the older guys,” said Terrell Richardson, who played college football at Louisiana-Lafayette. “Trent was the only younger person out there playing, hitting everybody, getting tackled and everything. He was in middle school and we were in high school, but he was out there playing.”
But shortly after Richardson started his much-anticipated high school football career at Escambia, he suffered a torn ligament in his ankle. Surgeons inserted a screw to repair the ligament, and Richardson battled back for his sophomore season, only to tear a ligament in his other ankle. He had another screw inserted, and doctors told him he wouldn’t run again.
After the second operation, Richardson’s girlfriend gave birth to their first daughter, Taliyah, now 5.
“I didn’t think I was going to be here today as far as playing football due to people saying that I was too fragile, doctors saying I wouldn’t be able to run again, and I just had my first child as a sophomore,” Richardson said. “It was hard. It was tough.”
Richardson’s coaches encouraged him to keep pushing through the obstacles, though Katrina reminded him a comeback attempt would not be acceptable unless he first took responsibility for his infant daughter.
“I had to mature fast because my mama always told me, if you’re not going to be a father to your child, you’re not going to play sports,” Richardson said. “You’ve got to be a father to your child first — she put that inside me.”
Richardson managed to balance school, training and chores at home. He used the thought of providing for Taliyah and Katrina, who suffers from cancer and lupus, as motivation while rehabilitating from surgery, and he reminded himself to avoid the easy way out.
“It was painful, but it’s just that mindset that being that I have a child, I don’t want to be out on the street doing something crazy,” Richardson said. “And really, I’ve just got to know that I’ve got a better life than being out there and being a street hustler or something like that. That’s not my style. I was brought up way better than that. So for me to have a child at an early age, it just [gave] me a lot of faith and a lot of fight.”
Richardson bounced back from the second injury, retained his status as a standout sprinter on Escambia’s track and field team and resumed his football career as a junior. In eight games, he rushed for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“He worked hard at it,” Willie Richardson said. “He overcame it. Those two years of his life were hard. I cried, but I couldn’t let him see me. I wouldn’t dare tell him, ‘You’ve got to go be a scientist. You’ve got to go be a coach now.’ My job was to encourage him.”
The next year at Escambia, he ran for 2,090 yards and 26 touchdowns on 225 carries. Richardson’s second daughter, Elevera, now 4, was born when he was a senior.
“Trent always stepped up to his obligation to those girls, and it really motivated him to excel, not only on the football field but in the classroom,” said Derrick Boyd, Richardson’s mentor, who coached him in football and track at Escambia. “So many people looked to him as a ray of hope for those that didn’t make it out.”
The 5-foot-9, 230-pound Richardson made it out of Pensacola and gave the world a glimpse of his talent at Alabama. Last season, he rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns on 283 carries, helping the Crimson Tide win the BCS National Championship.
Despite his accomplishments, Richardson insists that he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
Richardson’s father, Johnny Hale, had another family and wasn’t there for Katrina and her boys. When Richardson was in high school, he spent some time with Hale, not long before he died of lung cancer.
Richardson wants to be a better father for his daughters. Despite the fame and fortune coming his way, Richardson is convinced he’ll avoid complacency because of his family.
“I work hard when I’m sore, when I’m broken or when I’m bruised up because of my little girls,” Richardson said. “I’m going to always go hard. I’m going to always give 120 percent, not just 110, because my little girls deserve that, and they didn’t ask to be here. So it’d be childish of me to not give them everything they need and everything they want.”
Browns President Mike Holmgren believes Richardson will thrive because of his roots. In turn, Holmgren is confident the Browns won’t regret trading up from the fourth pick to draft Richardson third overall in April.
“I don’t think there’s any way you can go through the things he went through as a young man … and emerge the way he’s emerged without being profoundly affected and have it make up who you are,” Holmgren said. “[Analysts] talked about us moving up in the draft, and was it too expensive? Heck, I think it’s going to be a bargain.”
Perhaps only Richardson has higher expectations for himself.
“I want to be one of the best backs that ever played in the league and to be successful not only on the field, but off the field as far as marketing, handling business, being in the community, being a father figure, just being an icon and being at the top of my game each time I step on the field,” Richardson said. “Each time anybody mentions my name, they can say, ‘Trent Richardson, he was that man,’ or, ‘He still is that man and nobody can touch him.’ ”
So far, Richardson hasn’t been stopped.
“I always tell people when you see him out there and he’s got six guys on his back in the fourth quarter, he’s used to carrying the whole block on his shoulders,” Boyd said. “In the neighborhood he’s from, a lot of guys who could’ve made it didn’t make it. They’re dead and gone or incarcerated — drugs or what have you. Not Trent Richardson.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.