Richardson's coach, not the record, is his dream realized
With a newspaper and a pair of scissors, Mike Richardson began clipping the story of his future at age 11. In the quiet of his Texas Hill Country home, away from his parents, the boy cut out one football article after another and stored them for study in an accordion folder. He carefully trimmed photos and added them to the file.
In sixth grade, the pre-teen became a student of a high school football team in North Texas, the Southlake Carroll Dragons. He compiled a dossier of their head coach and star quarterback, Todd and Riley Dodge, a father-son tandem like no other. The Dragons threw the ball. Almost nobody could stop them. During one five-year stretch, the Dragons won 79 out of 80 games, claimed four state championships and three national titles. The two quarterbacks who preceded Riley -- Chase Daniel and Greg McElroy -- went to the NFL. When Todd left to coach the University of North Texas and Riley joined him a year later, the accordion folder got bigger.
On a pleasant autumn night in Central Texas, three weeks after 17-year-old Mike Richardson threw for a state record 724 yards and seven touchdowns for Marble Falls (Tx.) High School, Tawny Richardson reflected on her son's preoccupation with the Dodge boys.
When Mike was in middle school, Tawny and her husband Paul drove their three sons all over Texas to see high school and college football games. The Richardsons even stopped to watch Southlake Carroll a few times. But it wasn't until this past summer, three months after moving to Marble Falls, that Tawny found that accordion folder in Mike's closet. She opened it and her eyes grew wet.
For the better part of six years, Tawny realized, her son had been tracking the man who now coaches him -- Todd Dodge -- and the man who coached his 7-on-7 football team last summer, Riley Dodge. "Mike is living his dream," Tawny said, shortly before Mike fired a 10-yard touchdown strike to start the third quarter against Cedar Park.
High school coaches are known to recruit star players. But how many players choose their own coach? Before they hit puberty? How many show up at a new school, learn a new offense, and in their fourth start -- on the road, no less -- make Texas football history?
Local townfolk are still trying to comprehend what hit them. On Sept. 20, Mike Richardson led Marble Falls to a 62-55 victory over Boerne Champion (Tx.). He completed 35 of 45 attempts without an interception. His 724 passing yards rank second in national schoolboy history. The performance made ESPN's SportsCenter. Reporters from around the country called. Marble Falls (pop. 6,100) found itself in the national spotlight for perhaps the first time since 1917 when male residents elected a female mayor, Ophelia Crosby Hardwood, three years before women had the right to vote.
Marble Falls is a sleepy outpost, a place people come to retire. The Mustangs have enjoyed one winning season this century and suffered through a 22-game losing streak. The stadium snored. Then a new coach arrived with a spread offense, season tickets sold out and a senior quarterback provided a spark.
The book on that quarterback: throws from inside the pocket well, can sprint out, possesses above average arm strength, studies video incessantly. Against Boerne Champion (Tx.), Mike passed for almost as many yards as the Mustangs did all last season (772).
"He was unbelievably accurate down the field," Todd says. "Of his 35 completions, 22 of them were for over 20 yards."
Through seven games, Mike has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,025 yards, 25 touchdowns and three interceptions for the Mustangs (3-4). Locals aren't sure which is more remarkable: that he came from nowhere or that he hasn't been offered a scholarship.
The kid is small-town Texas. He stands 6-foot-1, weighs 190 pounds, bales hay for his daddy and is more down to earth than a pair of cowboy boots. When reporters asked how it felt to set the record, he struggled to find words. Did this really happen?
"I was in denial the whole night," he says in a gentle, barely audible voice. "When I woke up the next morning reality set in because my phone had been ringing like crazy. I had 40 missed calls, about 70 texts. I didn't want to get on Facebook. It was too much to read all at one time."
It was one thing when Marble Falls' Leo Manzano won an Olympic silver medal in London. It was another when the new kid eclipsed the old record of 683 yards. Manzano's hometown got lost in stories that focused on his Hispanic heritage and breakthrough: the first U.S. Olympic medalist in the 1500 meters since 1968. Every piece about Mike Richardson put Marble Falls front and center.
Regulars at the Bluebonnet Cafe, an institution since 1929, love the sudden notoriety but remain puzzled by its origin. "How did we get Mike Richardson," one balding customer asked before heading to the Cedar Park game. A middle-aged gentleman seated at the same table followed up: "And why in the world would Todd Dodge come to Marble Falls?" The answer begins with money. In 2006, residents approved a $62.3 million bond issue. Of that, $10 million went toward a new, 5,000-seat football stadium with artificial turf and an elevator that carries coaches and media to a two-story press box.
Five years later, the head football coach took a job in the school district's central office. A local told superintendent Rob O'Connor that Todd Dodge might want to quit coaching quarterbacks at the University of Pittsburgh and return to Texas. Why? In Marble Falls, Dodge would be 45 miles from relatives in Austin. He could command a big salary and earn more through camps.
That new stadium might also appeal.
"I knew it was a long shot," O'Connor says. "But I called."
Dodge wanted to coach in a town with one high school. He wanted a populace with no divided allegiances. He wanted the school to upgrade an aging weight room. Marble Falls offered all that plus a $100,000 annual contract. Dodge arrived on Feb. 1.
Mike Richardson's journey to Marble Falls began in Visalia, Calif. Born to a hay broker (Paul) and a certified public accountant (Tawny), Mike lived on the West Coast until fifth grade when business took the family to Texas.
The Richardsons settled in Boerne, an idyllic town northwest of San Antonio, and that's where Mike began clipping newspapers.The family stayed until a second high school opened.
"We believe in a one high school town," Tawny says. "Just like Todd."
The Richardsons moved to Salado (pop. 2,126), since 1861 the home of the Stagecoach Inn, the oldest running hotel in Texas. Mike played receiver as a freshman. He switched to quarterback and threw for 2,190 yards as a junior. Paul, once a receiver at San Diego State, wanted a coach who could elevate Mike's game.
Early in the year, word of Dodge's arrival reached Salado, 63 miles northeast of Marble Falls. One Saturday at the office, Dodge heard a knock. Standing at the door were the Richardsons, all five of them.
"We moved here March 18," Tawny says, "and started spring football."
After finding the accordion folder, Tawny concluded that Mike always knew he'd play for Dodge. That the family trips to Southlake Carroll, the relocations to small towns, the visit to Dodge's office were more than chance events. They felt eerily designed, in Twilight Zone fashion, by her soft-spoken son. Mike says no, he never imagined Todd becoming his head coach or Riley, a Texas A&M graduate assistant, his 7-on-7 coach.
"I didn't think it could happen," Mike says. "But we got down here and it did. It's a blessing."
So what made him put scissors to newspaper? Someone said something about Southlake and the Dodge boys and Mike started reading. The Dragons ran the spread offense -- one running back, four receivers -- and piled up yards and points and championships. From 2002 through 2007, every boy who quarterbacked the Dragons was named the Texas High School Class 5A Player of the Year.
Some story. Now Mike is writing his own -- he set the record in his former hometown -- and kids are reading, stumbles and all.
Cedar Park sacked him nine times three weeks ago. Vandergrift held him to 131 yards passing, zero touchdowns and intercepted him once last week. The coach is unmoved.
"Mike's going to have an opportunity to play college ball," says Todd, who would know. "No doubt about it."
A framed photograph sits on a bookshelf in Todd's office. Pictured in Southlake Carroll jerseys are quarterbacks Chase Wasson, Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy and Riley Dodge, each a Texas High School Player of the Year. Todd's in the picture, too, surrounded by legends. Mike stares at the image a lot.
He remains as humble and unassuming as the boy who started clipping articles. But looking at that photo all the time got him to thinking. One day, he'd like to be in it.