For 16 bone-crunching years fullback Tony Richardson has been plowing paths for rushing leaders and record breakers. He knows one day he'll lose his job ... to someone he's trained to take it from him
This is an article from the Aug. 23, 2010 issue
Thiswill tell you a little something about fullback Tony Richardson, Football's Best Man. He got a call this summer from Larry Johnson of the Redskins, one of five running backs he has lead-blocked to a 1,000-yard season. In 2005, when he had Richardson in his ear and out in front, Johnson ran for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns with the Chiefs. That season Johnson had looked, for all the world, like a modern-day Jim Brown.
Things changed, though, after Kansas City didn't re-sign Richardson. Johnson had numerous off-the-field troubles that led to two suspensions, and he ran with less abandon. The year after Richardson left, Johnson set an NFL record for most carries ... but his rushing average dropped almost a full yard. The next year his yards per carry dropped almost another yard. Two years later he was released.
So Richardson got this call, and he thought Johnson sounded unusually nervous on the phone. He had not heard from Larry in a while and was worried about his old running mate. "Tony," Johnson said, "I need a big favor."
Uh-oh, Richardson thought. What did Larry do now?
Football's Best Man finishes his conditioning test. Tony Richardson made time again. Amazing, isn't it? Seventeenth training camp, man. Seventeen! And he can still run with the kids. Richardson puffs up with a momentary burst of pride and looks around the field at the young Jets players, the kids who take their conditioning test for the first or second or third time. They run effortlessly. Richardson knows exactly what they are thinking: The effortlessness will last forever. He remembers that feeling well. He has forgotten that feeling too.
Richardson wonders if this is a good time to take a moment and reflect. He has never done a lot of reflection, at least not before this year. He has never had the chance. For 17 years there was always some talented and hungry kid trying to take his job in the NFL. For 17 years there was always a doubting coach who wanted someone bigger, faster, stronger, younger. For 17 years, there was always a charity that needed his help, a teammate who needed advice, a linebacker to pancake, a wondrous educational opportunity that might never come again. If he stopped, he felt sure he would sink.
But lately Richardson finds himself stopping. It took him forever to pack for this camp. He's an impeccable packer anyway—folding clothes just so, placing the toiletries in just the right place. He's the son of a military man who once made him wash the family car seven times until it was deemed clean. He has turned into his father. "I know," he says with a mixture of pride and self-mockery, "that I have the best organized sock drawer in the NFL."
But this time the packing seemed endless ... or maybe final is the word. Richardson lingered. He hesitated. He paused. The end is near. He turns 39 in December. He already ranks fifth in games played by a running back, with 218—and if he makes the New York roster this season, he could move as high as second, behind Lorenzo Neal's 239. He doesn't want to say the r word, but he knows retirement is coming, as surely as the pain comes after you stub your toe. He knows, as he stands on the sideline now, breathing heavy without looking as if he's breathing heavy (a learned skill), that this probably will be the last time he tries to make time at an NFL training camp.
Richardson looks over the field in Cortland, N.Y., and starts to think about this crazy journey, from practice-squad player to special teams dynamo to three-time Pro Bowl fullback to ... no. He stops. This isn't the time. There's a job to do. There are odds to beat. There's another young player to teach how to play fullback. There are other running backs—Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson—to make look good. There are people to help. There is no time to reflect. Not now. Not yet.
Only, as he jogs off the field, toward the dorms, Football's Best Man realizes, yes, that he's kind of crying.
The young gun trying to take Richardson's job this time is a determined rookie from Kentucky named John Conner, and if that sounds like the hero from the Terminator movies, it should. Coaches have been sending Terminators to end Richardson's football career more or less since the day he showed up at Cowboys camp in 1994 as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn. The last Terminator of Richardson's career might as well have the name to go with it.
How many would-be Terminators have there been? Richardson cannot remember all the names. He just remembers that most were more imposing than him, more gifted. There's something about Football's Best Man that makes him seem replaceable. He's not especially big—barely 6'1" and a steady 238 pounds year after year—not especially fast, not especially elusive. What he offers, what he has always offered, are those things football coaches call "intangibles," though the truth is that the skills are really quite tangible. He runs all-out every time. He catches the ball well. He speaks up and says the right things at meetings, visits the teammate having a tough time, watches other players to see how he can help. Yes, help even those Terminators who come for his job. Also, perhaps more than anything else, Richardson accepts the violence of the position.
"You would be surprised," former Chiefs back Priest Holmes says, "how many fullbacks around the NFL don't like to hit."
Richardson likes to hit, or more accurately he acts as if he likes to hit. ("Nobody really likes to hit," he says.) Richardson's blocking is not much about technique, and it's not about the shifting of weight, and it's not about guiding a linebacker away from the play. "Tony lowers his shoulder, cracks you, drives you out there," Johnson says. "After a while linebackers are scared to get in there. And there's nothing better than running against intimidated linebackers."
At 5'11" and 245 pounds Conner plays with this sort of violence—"He took the breath out of three guys today," Jets coach Rex Ryan gushed after a practice in early August—which is one of the reasons Richardson likes him so much. He works with Conner, teases him, guides him, teaches him the tricks he's learned and talks about him the way a big brother might. "He's hitting everything that moves, just blowing things up," Richardson says with joy in his voice. "It's so much fun to watch. That's how you play fullback!"
You might find it odd that Football's Best Man works so hard to help Conner take his job, but there's nothing at all odd about it. It's in his DNA. In 2000 Richardson was given a brief chance to be Kansas City's feature back. In Week 16 he was handed the ball 23 times against the Broncos—by far the most of his career—and he ran for 156 yards and a touchdown. He looked overpowering. That off-season the Chiefs proceeded as if Richardson would be their every-down back. But they also signed a runner from the Ravens named Priest Holmes.
The idea was that Richardson would get the bulk of the carries on first and second down, and Holmes would come in on third down. It was like that for the first couple weeks of the 2001 season. Then Richardson went to talk with Holmes.
"He told me, 'It's time for me to step out of the way,' " Holmes recalls. "He said, 'You need to be getting the ball. And I'm going to do everything I can to help you.' Now, ask yourself, how many people would do that?"
Holmes went on to lead the league in rushing in 2001. The next year he had a season for the ages, running for 1,615 yards, catching 70 passes and scoring 24 touchdowns. In 2003 Holmes set the NFL record (since broken) with 27 TDs. And you know who took the most pride in all that? Tony Richardson. "He used to call me up and say 'I just saw you on SportsCenter!' " Holmes says. "He was happier for me than I was for myself."
When you ask Richardson about it, he will tell you a story about his father, Sgt. Maj. Ben Richardson. Tony spent much of his childhood in Germany, where his father was stationed. Through a series of unlikely events the family moved to Daleville, Ala., when Richardson was in high school. Until then he had played more soccer than football. But in Alabama, where football blends with religion, he blossomed. He found a sport that rewarded his willingness to endure pain, that drew out his leadership skills. He knew football was his future. And then, before his senior year at Daleville High, Ben Richardson was transferred back to Germany.
"He could have taken us with him," Tony says, "but he didn't. He knew how much football meant to me."
While his father went to Germany, Tony and his mother, Patrica, stayed in Alabama. Ben missed his son's high school graduation, and he couldn't be there when Richardson became the first freshman running back since Bo Jackson to start his first game at Auburn. He couldn't be there much later, when his son received his college diploma in 2000. "It was such a great sacrifice—going alone so that I could be my best," Tony says. "But that's what life is all about. Life is sacrifice."
Joe Namath comes to Jets camp, which, of course, gives the players one more excuse to remind Richardson just how long he has been in the league.
"Hey, Tony, what was it like to catch passes from Broadway Joe?"
"Hey, Tony, remember when I used to give you the ball in Tecmo Bowl?"
"Hey, Tony, what was it like to play in those leather helmets?"
The funny thing is that Richardson is not even the oldest player on the Jets. Backup quarterback Mark Brunell, who'll turn 40 in September, is more than a year older. "And let's be honest," Richardson says. "The guy looks like he's 50, at least."
But it's more fun to needle Richardson. After all, you can be an old quarterback in the NFL. You can be an old kicker or an old punter. You can even be an old offensive or defensive lineman, once you've learned all the secrets of hand-to-hand combat. But there are very few old running backs. Blocking a linebacker, as Richardson was told many years ago, is like running full force into a garage door. He believes it. And Football's Best Man has hit a lot of garage doors.
It has been worth it, Richardson will tell you, because of all those players he helped have spectacular seasons. That's what makes him Football's Best Man. The tailbacks are the grooms. In Richardson's rookie season with the Chiefs in 1995, he blocked on Marcus Allen's 100th NFL touchdown—and came away from the game with a broken wrist. ("It was worth it," Richardson says.) He blocked for Holmes's three monster seasons and for Larry Johnson's best year. After the 2005 season Richardson moved to Minnesota, where he first blocked for Chester Taylor's only 1,000-yard season, then for Adrian Peterson's spectacular rookie year. He also helped groom his replacement on the Vikings, Naufahu Tahi.
The past two seasons with the Jets, Richardson blocked for Thomas Jones, who ran for a total of 2,714 yards and 27 touchdowns. "Tony is the best fullback I've ever seen," Jones has said repeatedly.
"I can't really explain it," Richardson says. "But it just means more to me to help someone else achieve glory. There's something about it that feels right to me."
Every one of those backs will tell you Richardson's role went far beyond his crushing blocks. He would talk to them constantly throughout games, advising them, pushing them, inspiring them. "He always knew exactly what to say to get you through," Holmes says. " 'We need you Priest, one more play, let's go. This is the touchdown play.' "
Richardson: "I would just say, 'O.K., this next play is going all the way. They're tired. They're about to break. Just one more run.' I think it helps that I [had been] a tailback too, so I understand the mind-set."
Larry Johnson: "Whenever I started to feel frustrated, I would go over to Tony's house. He was never too busy to talk to me. We would just shoot the breeze. But I always left feeling better about stuff."
This year at the ESPYs, Richardson ran into Peterson who, as usual, talked on and on about how much he missed Tony's blocking and guidance. It was the sort of thing Richardson hears from a lot of players. What made this unusual was that shortly afterward, Peterson's parents went up to Richardson to say how much they missed him and all that he did for their son.
"Adrian's parents love me," Richardson says, smiling. "I guess that probably says something about me. I'm not sure what."
The Jets, like the Vikings and Chiefs before, try not to bother Football's Best Man with every charity request they get. This is why: He will never say no. He might say he has a conflict (probably another charity event). But no? Never. It's hard to imagine that any NFL player has made more charity appearances than Richardson. The number is well over 1,000; the people he has worked with figure it's probably more than 1,500. In Kansas City, when he was younger, he would always make more than 100 a year. He has cut back, but only because people have tried to protect him by asking him less.
Richardson, through the Dictionary Project, has raised enough money to deliver more than 130,000 dictionaries to more than 1,500 schools. (He himself has donated more than $1 million to the cause.) He has been heavily involved in Punt, Pass & Kick for the Special Olympics. But those are his programs; what makes him different is that he is there for everyone else's. "If something is important to my teammate, then it has to be important to me," Richardson says, and that's that.
The Richardson stories are legendary: The day after he played in the 2005 Pro Bowl, he flew from Hawaii to Sri Lanka to distribute food to tsunami victims. One year, when Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez was holding his annual Christmas shopping program for kids, Richardson flew across the country (from another charity event) to be there before it ended. "I'm sorry I'm late," he told the kids when he arrived.
"You have to go after every opportunity," Richardson says. "If I have a chance to help someone, how can I say no after all I've been given?"
Richardson has also worked to help himself. The NFL has offered four elite entrepreneurship programs to players—one at Stanford, one at Harvard, one at the Wharton School and one at the Kellogg School of Management—and Richardson has attended them all. He received a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in business while playing in the NFL. The latter, from Webster University, was an especially proud moment because Ben Richardson was there, finally, to see his son receive a diploma. "I don't think I've ever been around a player," his old coach Dick Vermeil said after that, "who worked harder to be a better man."
Football's Best Man knows that sooner or later one of the Terminators is going to get him. He has worked with Conner enough to sense that the kid has that combination of talent and will that leads to NFL stardom. This guy will be New York's fullback at some point. Maybe now. Maybe next year. Every day Richardson tries to help Conner get a little bit better. It wouldn't mean anything otherwise.
"I know I can still play this game, and I know I can help the Jets win a championship," Richardson says. "I'm here to win the job, no question about it. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that football is bigger than one person."
While he's talking, Richardson is eating chicken in the Jets' cafeteria. He has eaten a lot of training camp meals, endured a lot of two-a-day practices, spent a lot of July and August nights sleeping on dorm cots. More than anything, he has spent countless hours in meeting rooms listening to coaches drone on about the same plays and the same techniques and the same schemes. What can they teach him about football? His running backs coach, Anthony Lynn, played in Denver when Richardson was with the Chiefs. His offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, is the son of his first NFL coach, Marty Schottenheimer.
Here's the thing about Football's Best Man, though. Even now, when he goes into those meetings, he brings a notebook. And though he's heard these things a hundred times, a thousand times, he takes meticulous and preposterously neat notes. Why? There's always another lesson to be learned.
Richardson looked down at his phone and a photo appeared, a picture of a little girl. He studied it for a moment, then heard Larry Johnson say, "Tony, will you be her godfather?" Richardson smiled as he thought about how much he meant to a former teammate.
"Of course I will, Larry," he said. And Football's Best Man realized, yes, that he was kind of crying.