Maybe this is what relief sounds like. Trent Richardson is calling from an office in Legion Field, home of the Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham Iron. On his off-day, he answers questions about the first three games of his new life and career as a running back for the Iron, a franchise in the startup AAF. He’s leading the league in carries (59) and touchdowns (6) by a substantial margin, though he’s sixth in yards (145). His team is 3-0 and, for the first time in a while, those around him seem to think he’s happy. He’s loving football again.
He laughs about the teammates who say they were in high school watching him tear apart the SEC as an Alabama running back, where he finished third in the 2011 Heisman Trophy voting (behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III). In the NFL Richardson was around people who cared for him—Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Joe Thomas—and wants to return the favor. Dispensing advice from the perspective of someone who tumbled from No. 3 overall pick, to trade bait, to summer roster cut to kind-of, sort-of running back for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, has proven to be cathartic.
His four kids, ranging in age from 12 to 3, get to see him play and are decked out in Iron gear. His youngest son told him: “Daddy, I want to play on your team.”
You don’t want to play in the NFL?
“I want to be on your team.”
It’s a strange place to feel, all at once, exactly where you are meant to be and just short of where you think you’ll wind up. Richardson said fellow Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, recently direct messaged him on Instagram after a game to say that he couldn’t wait to tackle Richardson in the NFL. He hears from NFL players all the time—Dre Kirkpatrick, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram. But, the Alliance gave him a chance and he’d like to see it through first.
He makes clear that he’s not here to talk about the NFL, and doesn’t refer to it by name. He considers himself no different than the horde of players who poured into the latest spring league in the hopes of arriving on some general manager’s radar, touting the fact that they’re already going to be in game shape by the time training camp rolls around.
“In a few months, hopefully I’ll be getting a phone call [from the NFL] after we leave Vegas, where we have us a nice championship” Richardson says. “But you know, in a few months, I definitely hope I’ll be getting a phone call from the big show. And if that opportunity comes, I’ll do everything I can to be that guy. Be the one they talk about having the greatest comeback or, you know, who has the greatest story in football. That’s where I want to be.”
When asked to describe the difference between Richardson now, and the 22-year-old who arrived in Cleveland in 2012, he said: “Smarter. A player that doesn’t take as many shots as I used to.” But also, a player who “loves blocking. Loves catching the ball.”
“When people come back to evaluate me, I want them to say that this guy has improved all the way around. Not just one thing. All the way around. There’s a tremendous maturity in his game.”
His film so far has contained both flashes of a more well-rounded player, and a back still searching for his home run swing. In a win over the Salt Lake Stallions, almost all his yards came after first contact. Last week against Atlanta, he was adept at getting the Iron out of some bad field position, and displayed some physicality on three touchdown runs.
It’s hard to avoid the morbid fascination with someone crudely labeled a “draft bust,” which is something Richardson and the league he plays in seem to understand. Players often bear the psychological weight, while those who evaluate, draft and implement the player incorrectly are given the chance to glide onto another gig and learn from their mistakes. Richardson’s defection from the NFL wasn’t just of his own doing, even if trouble off the field could have potentially curbed teams’ appetite to continue bringing him in for training camp tryouts. (Richardson was sued by two women for assault in 2013, though there were no criminal charges and the civil suit was dismissed. In 2017 he was arrested on a domestic violence charge after an alleged physical altercation with the mother of his four children, but charges were dismissed.)
The sound of relief doesn’t really ever change to bitterness or desperation, even if Richardson will turn 29 just before the start of NFL training camps in July. He avoids the well-worn trope of playing with a chip on one’s shoulder. The mental side effects of his professional career are well documented. At least for now, he says he’s narrowed the list of people who he wants to impress to himself and his kids.
“Other than that, I’m just another hungry man out there, trying to do everything I can to get back to the big show, and to get that W at the end of the day,” he says. “I don’t look at it as having a chip. I look at it as, I’m playing good football.”
When asked if he had to wager on what he’d be doing in September, Richardson says: “I’m not a betting man, but you know, if the opportunity comes around, I’ll definitely be in the best shape I can be. My mindset would definitely be there, focused on nothing but football. Making that team.”
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