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Issue Date: September 2012


Strength Test

Browns rookie Trent Richardson had surgery on both ankles by age 16, became a father twice before graduating high school and was dubbed "ordinary" by all-time great Jim Brown. Now the No. 1 draft pick must shoulder the weight of a franchise.
Tony Grossi

"Eyes up!"

At the firm command of Don Huber, the camp director shouting very much like a U.S. Army veteran and lifetime football coach, 220 kids spring to attention and kneel on their right knees. They form near-perfect lines on the lush grass of a football field not yet worn. Their eyes are glued on the short, wide mass of muscle standing in front of them.

For the next two days, Trent Richardson, the Cleveland Browns' No. 1 draft pick and new hope at running back, will take these 7- to 14-year-olds into his extended family. The inner circle of that family includes his brother Terrell, uncle Willie Richardson and former high school coach and life mentor Derrick Boyd. Richardson has brought them all with him after agreeing to be a last-minute fill-in for Colt McCoy and host the ProCamps Worldwide youth football camp at Strongsville High School in July.

Three weeks before the widely promoted event, McCoy backed out. Richardson agreed to replace him even though he was already booked to appear at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles two days before, and was in the midst of situating his mom, Katrina; his brothers; his girlfriend, Sevina; and their two daughters in new homes in Columbia Station. Oh, and by the way, he was celebrating his 22nd birthday the same week.

Most rookies save the last free days before their first NFL training camp to prepare themselves mentally for the stresses that lie ahead. But Richardson is savoring the opportunity to work with kids in the community where he hopes to make an impact on and off the field. "I wish I could have stuff like this when I was a kid," he confides later.

For two days, Richardson gives the campers everything he has. When Huber barks out orders, Richardson demonstrates walking lunges, slide lunges and high kicks in warm-ups. He shows them how to line up in a three-point stance, how to accept a handoff, how to release and go out for a pass.

He shares stories about how he got started as a football player in Pensacola, Fla., ("My first three years, I played offensive line. Nobody knows that.") and the scoop on escorting a 17-year-old cancer survivor in Hueytown, Ala., to her high school prom ("The best part was, all the attention resulted in her getting a full-ride scholarship from the college she wanted to attend").

Richardson begins every one of his talks by instructing the campers to clap for their parents sitting in the stands. Each day, his message is the same: "Take care of your grades and listen to your coaches and parents."

"I've been to a lot of these camps," offers one of the youth coaches in attendance. "A lot of these guys just go through the motions. I've been to some where they don't even show up on the second day."

On his second day, Richardson arrives early. He mingles with parents in the stands and poses for pictures. When Huber introduces "Coach Richardson" for his closing comments, it is hard to tell who has had more fun, the campers or Richardson.

"This was the first camp I ever did," Richardson says to the kids. "I can't wait to do it again next year. It's been the funnest thing of my whole offseason.

"It's a big honor for me," he continues. "If you got only one thing out of this camp, make sure you always reach for the stars, as far as your dreams, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't make it."

His words are sincere and convincing, because he's lived it.

Richardson grew up without a father in a crowded home of little means, and then became a teenage father himself. He had little reason to expect that he would some day become the highest draft pick the Browns ever used on a running back, especially after two ankle surgeries in high school nearly left him unable to play sports again.

His life has not been easy, and this next chapter shouldn't be either. The NFL eats up running backs like nachos on game day. And if that's not enough, Jim Brown, the sport's most iconic running back and the Browns greatest player, threw him a chop block and labelled him "ordinary" on the same day he was drafted.

Yet that's not the player the young campers have seen up close for these two days. Richardson concludes his exit speech with a surprise.

"If you ever need anything or anyone to talk to, I'm gonna give you the number of my brother, and he will get in touch with me and I will call you," Richardson says.

Huber can hardly believe what he just heard. "Wow! I've been doing this a long time and I never heard a player say to call him."

"My mom always told me never to let anybody tell me what I can't do."
— Trent Richardson

Trent Richardson delights in telling the story of a seventh-grade teacher scolding him for falling asleep in her class.

"She told me I was never going to be nothing. I was always going to be a failure in life," Richardson says. "And look at me now. When I'm told I can't do something, I'm going to go do it."

Given his challenges, it would have been easy for Richardson to accept failure.

Richardson's father, Johnny Hale, an aspiring boxer trying to follow the path of Olympic champion and hometown hero Roy Jones Jr., left his home in the Warrington housing projects before Trent knew him.

Located on the southwestern edge of Pensacola about six miles from the Alabama border, Warrington has its problems. Despite the presence of Naval Air Station Pensacola, more than 20 percent of its 15,000 residents live in poverty. Drugs, violence and vacant, boarded-up homes are common.

Richardson's mother, Katrina, and grandmother, Gloria, raised the family of three boys — Trent, 22, Terrell, 25, and Terrence, 28. For a time, they lived in block-O shaped low-income housing tucked behind a Wal-Mart. Addicts and dealers were so prevalent, the area earned the nickname Crack Alley.

Katrina worked at multiple jobs — at restaurants, cleaning houses and baby-sitting. Along the way, a few children that Katrina cared for to earn money were left unwanted by their mothers. Over time, she took in four boys and a girl.

"A lot of times they didn't have a lot to eat," says Willie Richardson, Katrina's brother and a Christian minister. "We all would pull together some change, get some hot dogs, peanut butter, to make sure they ate. It was rough on my sister."

Still, she'd travel more than a half-hour each way to Hazel's Seafood Restaurant in Orange Beach, Ala., where she worked in the kitchen.

"She was being a mom and dad when she got home," Richardson told ESPN.com last year. "I knew it was tough on her."

Katrina engaged the boys in her odd jobs whenever she could, turning the delivery of phone books and newspapers from her dilapidated Chevy van into fun adventures. "She'd drop us off at school and phone books would fall out with us," Richardson says.

She also pushed the boys into sports to keep them out of trouble when they weren't attending church. Beginning at age 6, Richardson sang in the church choir. But it was on the field where Richardson really excelled. He has a simple, playful explanation of how he got started in football and track. "I was always the shortest," he says. "My brothers used to beat up on me in the house, and I had to run."

By junior high school, that didn't seem to be a problem. He had become somewhat of a local legend known as "the Beast." Richardson's brother Terrell was in high school at the time and kept pushing Derrick Boyd to go watch Richardson play. "He said, 'Coach, trust me, he's bigger than the running backs in high school,' " Boyd recalls. "He was scoring six touchdowns a game."

At 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, the bow-legged Richardson was already drawing comparisons to Escambia High School legend and Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. But there was a problem: Richardson bought into the hype. And as the best athlete and strongest player on his team, he was spoiled, says Boyd. He'd show up late for games, hold everybody up.

"The Little League coaches knew he was the best thing since Emmitt Smith," says Boyd. "They let him do whatever he wanted."

"We're not going to put up with this nonsense."
— Derrick Boyd

Derrick Boyd's father worked in law enforcement for 25 years.

So the Escambia High School assistant football coach and head track coach believed in doing things a certain way — the right way.

It was going to be no different for Richardson, no matter how talented he might be. When the freshman arrived late for practice, Boyd told him to go home and come back on time the next day.

"My high school coaches were strict on me all the time," Richardson says. "They made sure I learned the game, made sure I was the leader, made sure I paid attention to everything I did."

Yet Boyd and Richardson sparred for two years before Richardson bought in to the discipline.

"You have to have accountability," adds Boyd. "Trent not having his dad in-house, it's a different situation."

Boyd came into Richardson's life at a pivotal time. In his fourth game as a freshman at Escambia, Richardson tore a ligament in his left ankle and missed the rest of the season after surgery. The next year, he tore a ligament in his right ankle in the first game and had another surgery to end his season.

"I had two screws in both my ankles," he says. "I didn't know where my life was going to be."

He was 16, still on crutches from his second surgery and was being told by doctors that he might not be able to play football again.

"We cried together. We prayed together," says his Uncle Willie. "He said he wouldn't throw in the towel."

And then, at 5:05 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2006, his girlfriend Sevina Fatu gave birth to their daughter Taliyah, changing his life forever.

"It was real scary," says Richardson. "I was a child trying to raise a child. But I have learned it really humbled me and made me who I am today."

His mom told him that before he could return to football, he had to be a dad to his daughter. So Richardson went to work at Hazel's Seafood. Other days, he'd tag along with Willie and do odd jobs detailing cars, raking yards and power-washing houses.

"Once the baby came, that's been his life," says Willie.

"I had to grow up fast," Richardson says. "I had to be a man fast. "I never had a father in my life, so as far as being a father, I had a lot to learn."

Six months after Taliyah was born, Richardson took her to see his father, who was still in the area, dying of lung cancer. Richardson spent more time with his father in his final weeks than he had in his whole life.

"At the end of the day, he's still my dad," Richardson says. "People have made mistakes and had their problems.

"I don't blame him or hold nothing against him," he adds.

Richardson's second daughter, Elevara, arrived his senior year in high school.

Sevina, the girls' mother, says they got through those difficult years without dropping out of school because of the unconditional support they received from their families, and because of Richardson's unbroken resolve.

She took time off of school. Her mom, her dad, their grandmothers and Katrina all pitched in. Richardson came home directly after practice and helped with feedings and diaper changing.

"We just kept having faith, kept praying, and just stuck to the plan," she says. "He's a very dedicated person. Once he commits to something, he's doing it."

That dedication kept him from running with the wrong crowd. But Richardson admits that he was tempted by his surroundings, the lure of fast money that didn't come from working at Hazel's. He says of the "six or seven" friends he hung around with as a teenager, three are now dead and two "are lost on the street."

According to one NFL general manager, about 70 percent of incoming NFL rookies nowadays grow up without their natural father in their lives. Richardson did not want that to happen to his children. "I wanted to be a dad," he says. "I wanted to see the smiles on their faces at the end of the day."

After his second ankle surgery, word spread that Richardson was "too fragile" to make it in football.

The more people said he wouldn't finish school or wouldn't resume his football career, the harder he worked to prove them wrong.

"This is the amazing thing," Boyd says, as he ticks off how Richardson became more dedicated with each setback, working on his strength in the weight room and his speed by running sandy beach hills nearby.

Less than eight months after the first surgery, he won the city 100-meter championship as a freshman. After the second, he won the regional championship in the same event in Tallahassee.

In Richardson's first football game back from injury his junior season, he rushed for 407 yards and four touchdowns. From that point on, he was one of the most sought-after recruits in the history of Florida prep football. His senior year included a 419-yard, six-touchdown game en route to 2,090 yards and 26 touchdowns in 10 games.

And just before he graduated, he took home the state Class 2A weightlifting title by bench pressing 380 pounds and raising 325 pounds in the clean and jerk.

"Telling him he can't do something motivates him," says Boyd. "You wouldn't believe."

"The day Trent put on the houndstooth cap is the day the Alabama program changed."
— Phil Savage

Richardson's college choices came down to Southeastern Conference powers Louisiana State, Florida and Alabama.

His mother preferred LSU so that he could be closer to older brother Terrell, who was playing defensive end at Louisiana-Lafayette. Florida was coming off coach Urban Meyer's second national championship. The shadow of hometown hero Emmitt Smith, one of the most famous Gators, loomed at Florida. Alabama already had a future Heisman Trophy winner in Mark Ingram.

Richardson took to heart the advice of his mentor, Boyd. "I said, 'Go where you're going to feel most comfortable if you can't play football,' " Boyd recalls.

On the day of his announcement, Richardson endeared himself to the Crimson Tide faithful by wearing the houndstooth hat made famous by legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Richardson played an integral backup role in Alabama's national championship season as a true freshman, rushing for nearly 800 yards. He scored two touchdowns in the championship victory over Texas. At the same time, Ingram became Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner, cementing Richardson to the bench and special teams for his second season.

"There's not a selfish bone in the kid's body," says Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager and an analyst on Alabama radio broadcasts, who saw Richardson play every game of his college career. "I don't know if he recognized or realized that he was more talented than Mark Ingram, but he always accepted that Mark was No. 1 and he was No. 2 without any problem at all."

That meant Richardson was on kick coverage as a freshman. "He'd score a touchdown and cover the next kickoff and make the tackle," says Savage. "No job was too small for Trent."

While Richardson was at Alabama, his mom and his daughters moved to Birmingham, Ala., about one hour from the school's campus, so that he could see them on weekends. "I couldn't stand being without my girls," he says. "I couldn't focus without them."

After Ingram left for the NFL as a No. 1 draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, Richardson broke his former teammate's single-season rushing record with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games. He secured Alabama's second national title in three years with 96 yards rushing, including a 34-yard touchdown run, in a 21-0 win over LSU in the championship game.

"Next to my daughters being born, this is the best moment of my life," Richardson said after the game.

"I think he's ordinary. I think the kid is a good working back, and if you've got everything else around him he can play his role. But when it comes to outstanding, I don't see anything outstanding about him."
— Jim Brown

Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and 'Bama-red shorts, Trent Richardson barely comes up to the sepia-toned No. 32 on the oversized icon.

In a display honoring the game's greatest backs, Jim Brown's left hand cups the football as he glares downfield. On a league-sponsored tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Richardson gets close to Brown's image, holding up his iPhone for a picture, as the all-time great seems to cut right past the NFL rookie.

Forty-seven years after he retired, Jim Brown, 76, remains the conscience of the position. Legendarily outspoken, Brown's comments on Richardson before and after the NFL draft came off as cruel and unusual nonetheless. Many believe Brown was simply speaking from bitterness over being fired as a Browns executive adviser by club president Mike Holmgren two years earlier. He denies that.

The comments found their way into almost every interview of Richardson after he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Browns earlier this year. Richardson never questioned Brown's motives or his point.

"I don't dislike Jim Brown for the comments," Richardson says. "He's pushed me to the limit, made sure I'm gonna work and made sure he gets everything he can out of me."

Richardson says he would "most definitely" like to meet Brown some day. "Just to be in his presence would be an honor," he says. "He is a legend. I have to get on my high horse if I'm going to live up to Jim Brown's expectations."

Ordinary or not, there isn't another back in the NFL built like Richardson. His neck and shoulders are layered in muscle. His arms are pythons. His lower body is all thighs as wide as tree stumps and calves the size of cantaloupes. He has the height of a scatback, the speed of a halfback and the strength of a fullback. He can hide behind blockers, scoot through openings and run over linebackers.

"He might be the strongest human being on the planet," proclaimed ESPN's Jon Gruden before the draft. In fact, Richardson really has no idea how much he can actually lift. At Alabama, he once bench pressed 475 pounds with ease, but the team trainers refused to let him add more weight.

"I look at those pictures [from the Hall of Fame] every day," Richardson says. "It shows where I want to be."

Brown's biting comments — and Richardson's refusal to strike back — have only enhanced Richardson's high standing with his new fan base. But those who know him best believe the comments will bubble inside Richardson as his Browns career begins.

"He's been challenged all his life. This is just one more challenge. He needs that," Willie says.

"If you say he's ordinary, he will show you he is extraordinary," Boyd adds. "Jim pushed the right button. The relationship I have with Trent kind of started the way of Jim Brown's statements. Maybe Jim Brown is a lot smarter than people think."

"There's only one thing you can take to the grave with you — your last name, how your name is remembered. That's on me. Whatever I do on that field, that's going to be on me. When it comes down to it, I have two little girls that have to eat and have to have smiles on their face."
— Trent Richardson

Richardson wears his faith and his love for his family, not on his sleeve, but on his body. He is a mosaic of tattoos devoted to both.

"I've got an angel, my mom, my gramma, Jesus on a cross," he says. "I've got Philippians 4:13. I've got turtle doves, praying hands, my daughters' names. ... There's a lot of beautiful things on my body."

Taliyah turns 6 in October. Elevara is 4. Soon they will have a brother. Sevina says she is expecting a boy this fall. Richardson won't talk about the prospect of having a son to throw footballs to. That's not unusual for him.

Nobody in the media at Alabama knew he had kids until he said in a post-game interview that he was happy he scored a touchdown for his daughter's birthday. That was in his second season. "Turns out he had two," says Izzy Gould, who covered Richardson's career at Alabama.

Before the girls joined him in their new home in Northeast Ohio, Richardson, unbeknownst to Sevina, decorated their rooms.

"He got the girls new beds," Sevina says. "When we came in, they ran into their rooms and were so excited. They are so happy. They've never had their own rooms before."

Katrina, who is undergoing treatment for cancer and lupus, has good days and bad days. She is now situated to receive some of the best medical care in the country. She still takes care of her adopted kids, who are all younger than Trent.

Everything Richardson has worked for is right in front of him. His first pro contract brought him a guaranteed $20.5 million.

"Getting paid for this, this is a dream come true," Richardson says. "I'm just a guy that loves to play the game of football. If not for football, I don't know where I'd be today."

But the game has also been painful. In addition to his ankle surgeries, Richardson had knee surgery before the NFL draft. In August, it required another procedure, causing him to miss part of the preseason.

"I'm always gonna be the guy that didn't have much. I'm always gonna work hard," he adds. "When I'm out there, I'll always make sure where I came from and how I got there."

But Richardson believes he is only halfway through. He speaks of winning Super Bowls, of bringing joy to the city of Cleveland, of being remembered as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.

So go ahead and tell him he can't do it. Please, tell him that.

Comments:
Friday, September 21, 2012 12:00:16 PM by Adam
What a great man. I wish we had 53 just like him...
Friday, September 21, 2012 12:29:35 PM by Anonymous
This is an absolutely phenomenal human being. He is total freak of nature, and has the right kind of work ethic to make it in a city like Cleveland. Love this kid.
Friday, September 21, 2012 11:22:37 PM by Dennis P.
Absolutely unbelievable article about an absolutely unbelievable person.

I've been following this kid since his junior year at Escambia high, and there was NO doubt he was going to be a Pro. But there is so much more that he brings to the table of life, and you nailed it all. I totally envy Cleveland Brown fans. I was hoping the Jets would get him. But now, I'm a Brown's fan - by way of New York and Pensacola. So there goes my envy out the window. I always loved dogs (Dawgs?) anyway.

Trust me - Trent is no LeBron, so fall in love with no fear...because he's a Brown until they don't want him. And why would they ever not?
Saturday, September 22, 2012 10:57:51 AM by rld77
As a six year old whose father was a browns fan, I remember Jim Brown's rookie year, and those that followed. I look forward to seeing Trent Richardson follow in his footsteps. May God watch over you and yours Trent.
Sunday, September 23, 2012 1:40:14 PM by Anonymous
Way to go, cuz.. You make Pensacola Fl. proud.
Sunday, December 02, 2012 3:16:13 PM by Sylvia
I have never met Trent or his wonderful family but I feel like he is part of mine. I learned to love him through watching his performances while playing for the Tide.
He brought such joy to my life and put a smile on my face when I'd see him plow his way through that herd and score those touchdowns. He means so much to me and I am so proud of him. There is only one Trent
and I wish him the very best always. I will gladly be his adopted Grandmother and give him my support.
Tuesday, October 08, 2013 11:34:39 PM by Anonymous
He is an awesome guy & this family story is as well. I witnessed the family all taking great care of one another :) I hope Don & all of you are well~ Cherie:)

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