The practice fields and weight rooms at Escambia High School and the University of Alabama get a lot of the credit — deservedly so — for Trent Richardson’s ascent to No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. But there’s another location on the Gulf coast that played a significant, if overlooked, role in his development.
Hazel’s Seafood Restaurant.
Richardson came to his crossroads younger than most. As a 16-year-old, he became the father of a little girl. At the same time, he was deprived of playing football for the second straight year with a second torn ankle ligament.
His life had changed forever with the birth of Taliyah. He had a lifetime responsibility and real needs like diapers and food.
“Oh, man, it was one of the toughest feelings ever,” Richardson told The Chronicle-Telegram. “What am I doing with myself? How am I going to survive for my family? How much of a dad was I going to be?”
He couldn’t rely on his beloved football to occupy his time and distract his mind. And just outside his mother’s house was a street full of vices in the tough Warrington section of Pensacola, Fla.
“It was a really bad neighborhood,” said Terrell, Trent’s older brother who played defensive end at Louisiana-Lafayette. “A lot of our friends we’ve lost in the last couple of years. A lot of people go to jail.”
But Richardson didn’t crack. He was tempted — more than once — but resisted.
He stayed around the team even though he couldn’t practice. He committed to being a father. And he got a job at Hazel’s in Orange Beach, Ala.
“There were times when I was like, man, I need some milk for my daughter, or I need something for the family. We need to eat,” Richardson said. “Do I want to (take a shortcut)? In my head, it was, ‘I’m better than that. My mom ain’t never teach me to go be no hustler or nothing like that.’
“I went and got a job. So from there, I was on the right path and it really just taught me how to slow down from going out and just being in the street all the time.
“I didn’t want to be one of those deadbeats. And to me, it was just like, I’ve got to keep my faith, keep praying and just keep fighting.”
Do the right thing.
Sounds simple, but often it isn’t. And even if one is able to resist on a specific occasion, temptation is a bulldog.
Richardson knew what he should be doing during his difficult sophomore year in high school, but it wasn’t easy to follow through. He considered taking the easy way out. Throwing his arms up and saying life is just too hard to do the right thing.
But something wouldn’t let him. Something helped him repeatedly make the hard choices.
“My family,” said Richardson, who will open training camp this afternoon with the rest of Cleveland’s rookies. “Watch my mom work two, three jobs, watch my brothers go work, try to provide for the family. It really made me just step away from it.
“At the end of the day, it was like, God’s got a plan for me and there’s much more out there than just trying to get fast money or do whatever on the street. That’s not the way to be.”
Richardson’s mother, Katrina, is the guiding light in the family. She’s battled cancer and lupus and helped Richardson raise his two daughters.
“At the same time she taught me how to be a man and taught me how to be a parent and the whole process,” he said. “She wasn’t going to do everything for me, but she made sure she helped me out just enough.”
Katrina raised three sons — Terrence, 28, Terrell, 25 and Trent, 22 — while often taking other kids into their home. Trent’s father, Johnny Hale, wasn’t around, so Katrina took on multiple roles.
“Ma is very important,” Terrell said. “We always thought she was a strong woman because she raised not only her three, but our cousins. She always had a houseful and was trying to take care of people.”
As talented as Richardson appeared to be as a youngster — he had games with six rushing touchdowns — an NFL career seemed like a fantasy when he suffered his second torn ankle ligament in his first two seasons of high school. A screw was placed in each joint, and doctors feared he wouldn’t be able to play football again.
Richardson was already packed with muscle, and he thinks his legs hadn’t matured enough to handle the upper body. He was also forced to take a pounding as the featured back in the wing-T offense.
But he refused to quit or accept that his football career might be over before it had started.
“God was probably telling me that, ‘Hey, you need to do something more, you need to stay humble,’” Richardson said. “It just opened up my eyes and told me that it could always be taken away from you any minute.”
Richardson was bowlegged — something that would’ve been fixed as a child if the family had money — but worked with Escambia High track coach and assistant football coach Derrick Boyd to fix his stride. He ran hills and on the beach, and stood in front of the mirror to perfect his technique.
“We narrowed his base a little bit to make him more symmetrical,” said Boyd, who became a father figure. “He became such a technician.”
Before he emerged on the other side stronger physically and emotionally, Richardson had to deal with the doubts. He was afraid to tell Boyd about the first pregnancy, and a second daughter, Elevera, followed when Richardson was 18.
“‘Son, you’re built for this,’” Boyd told him. “There were six or seven guys on his back and he was still moving the pile.
“His shoulders are broad for a reason. If anybody was built to overcome obstacles and accept success and not be a detriment, it’s this guy. There was no whining. He stayed to the grindstone.”
Driven to succeed
When Richardson returned to the field with a pair of healthy legs, there was no stopping him. In the opener as a junior, he ran for 407 yards. He finished the season with 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns in eight games.
As a senior he rushed for 2,090 yards, a 9.3 average and 26 touchdowns, including a school-record 419 in a game. He was rated among the best prep players in the country and was highly recruited. He ran the 100 meters in 10.5 seconds and won the state’s weightlifting championship.
He was drawing comparisons to Emmitt Smith, who graduated from Escambia in 1987. Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards.
“I always had shoes to fill,” Richardson said. “When you’ve got a guy like Emmitt Smith that’s the leading rusher and the conqueror of the big giant, and he just kept fighting through everything.
“I could be like him or I could be better than him. I always strive for the best.”
Richardson had the chance to follow in Smith’s footsteps at Florida and play for Urban Meyer, but picked Nick Saban and Alabama. The fit was perfect.
Richardson learned an NFL system, wrote his name all over the Crimson Tide record book and made himself into the third pick in the draft after the Browns traded three selections to move up one spot because president Mike Holmgren couldn’t stand the thought of losing him.
“I think his story is one of those great stories, and I don’t think there’s any way you can go through the things he went through as a young young man and emerge the way he’s emerged without being profoundly affected and have it make up who you are,” Holmgren said. “They talked about us moving up in the draft and was it too expensive. Heck, I think it’s going to be a bargain. When all is said and done, I think we’ll look back and it’ll be one of the great bargains we ever did.”
Richardson started 15 games at Alabama — he shared time with Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in 2009 and ’10 — and totaled 3,130 rushing yards, a 5.8 average and 35 touchdowns. He also caught 68 passes for seven touchdowns.
His 1,679 rushing yards as a junior in 2011 set a school record, the 35 rushing TDs rank third and the 5.8 average second. He capped the national championship win in January with a long touchdown run down the left sideline.
“He has power, he’s strong,” Saban said. “He has enough quickness to make you miss. For a guy his size, he has really deceptive speed. He’s a good pass blocker and receiver.
“It’s a rare combination to get all those things in one guy. It’s hard to shoot holes in him.”
Richardson has no intention of resting on his laurels just because he accomplished his dream of making it to the NFL. He plans on having an immediate impact and isn’t shy about discussing his goals of leading the Browns to their first Super Bowl and making it into the Hall of Fame.
“That’s just me. I’ve always been a winner, that’s all I know is how to work hard,” he said. “It don’t take talent to work hard. God gave me a talent that nobody can take from me.”
The inner confidence is part of the reason he wasn’t shaken when Jim Brown — a Hall of Fame running back and the greatest Browns player of all time — called him “ordinary” on the day of the draft.
“I’ve got a lot to prove. I haven’t did nothing yet, I haven’t shown nothing yet,” Richardson said. “College is college, just like high school is high school. I left my legacy in college, so I’m bringing my name to the NFL and show my attributes in the game and show that I’m going to separate myself from everybody else.
“Jim Brown, thank you for the comment, because it don’t do nothing but drive me. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it. So when he tells me that I look ordinary, I’m going to show you the reason why they came and got me with the third pick.”
All the tools
The Browns have a history of great backs — Marion Motley, Brown, Leroy Kelly. But since the 1,000-yard tandem of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner in the late 1980s, Cleveland has been searching for a consistent runner to carry the load, make life easier for the quarterback and excite the fans. Reuben Droughns, Jamal Lewis and Peyton Hillis had fleeting success, but couldn’t sustain it.
As the No. 3 pick, Richardson is expected to be a stud for many years, beginning with the first snap of the season Sept. 9.
He’s 5 feet, 9 inches and 224 pounds of muscle. From his calves disguised as bricks to his tree-trunk neck, he’s a package of power.
Strength is only one of his assets. He has a dancer’s feet, a gymnast’s balance and a receiver’s hands. He can also pick up the blitz, which allows him to be on the field for all three downs.
“He is a terrific runner,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “He can run with power. He can make you miss when he gets in the open. He can score. I like the fact that when he is asked to pass protect, he will do it aggressively. When you throw him the football, he catches it. Unless I am missing something, that is what runners have to do.”
He hasn’t played a down for them yet, but the Browns are counting on Richardson being the catalyst in a turnaround a decade in the making. He needs to be strong enough to run through Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, tough enough to take on Baltimore’s Ray Lewis in the hole and durable enough to do it twice a year for the foreseeable future.
“Can’t wait,” Richardson said. “I know it’s going to be a big challenge. Those guys are the best.”
Boyd said Richardson is built for Cleveland. His primary focus is football, and he won’t be at the club or looking for the hottest party. To fill a day during the offseason and get out of the house, he took batting practice and attended an Indians game.
“Cleveland is a blue-collar town, and he’s a lunch-pail guy. He’s old-school,” Boyd said. “I think Cleveland is a great city for him and his personality. He’s a big community guy.
“He’s not fancy. A lot of guys have bling. He’ll have all those cancer rubber bands. He doesn’t fit bigger markets. This is a perfect city.”
Don’t call him a diva
Richardson’s not thrilled about it, but he does have a diva personality in his Columbia Station house. No matter how strong a man is, his little girls have a way of making their own rules.
“They get anything. They’re spoiled. They wear me under. They’re divas — they get that from their mom,” he said. “We are talking all the time. Or when I’m at home, we’re together. I just spend time with my family. I might go bowling or go skating or go to a water park with them. I’m just a family man.
“They’re growing up, they’re into Justin Bieber now. My oldest girl, she likes lip gloss and I’m keeping that away from her. She sees her mom do it … man, it’s tough.”
The girls are 6 and 4, and giving dad plenty to worry about.
“TV these days, it’s kind of destructive,” he said. “You’ve got to watch what they watch. It’s crazy out there nowadays.”
Richardson learned from Boyd how to be a dad. Richardson spent tons of time at Boyd’s house as Boyd raised his kids. He saw love, discipline and a stable two-parent home.
“As a coach, me and him bumped heads the first year when I was there, because he was disciplining me,” Richardson said. “He was hard on me all the time and I had to take that and learn from it and be humble with it. Coach Boyd, I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a special guy. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I’d be half the man I am today, especially as a football player and as a father figure.”
Boyd is proud of the father Richardson has become.
“Oh my goodness. Those girls think there’s nothing like their daddy,” Boyd said. “Watching him with those girls puts tears in my eyes.
“You gotta know he missed having his dad around. He’s driven to make sure the girls don’t have financial struggles. And love. He’s a marvelous dad.”
Richardson and Boyd talk often, and Boyd accompanied him to New York for the draft. The advice hasn’t stopped.
“Stay humble, stay prayed up and don’t fumble,” Boyd told him.
Richardson has taken the words to heart. He lost only one fumble in 608 offensive touches at Alabama and is determined to keep outworking his peers. Despite running sprints after an offseason practice, he wasn’t satisfied that he had done enough.
“You’ve got to do something to separate yourself,” he said. “If it’s just me working here, I’m not doing enough. That’s why when I was in high school I used to go 20 minutes away just to run sand dunes, sand hills and I couldn’t get nobody to come out there with me. And it just separated me from everybody else.”
Richardson will rely on that philosophy to fulfill his dreams for himself, the Browns and the city of Cleveland.
“Everybody’s waiting to win, so I know they got the right pick in me,” he said. “We’re just all hungry. The whole Cleveland nation.
“I have big goals and high expectations. It’s me just being humble and knowing where I came from. At one point in time, they said I wouldn’t be able to run again. Me just fighting my whole life just brings a lot of confidence.”