Saving Alexandria: For Jalen Richard, NFL Stardom Is a Means to the Ultimate EndSeptember 8, 2017
NAPA, Calif. — This is not the slogan Roger Goodell wants your son to hear and, no, NFL Network will not be airing such blasphemy any time soon.
But these words are a painful truth, and no rule change, no nonsensical filibustering from the commish can change it. Jalen Richard has lived it.
Football, the Raiders running back proclaims, "is a legal fight."
"You can go out there," Richard says, "and basically whup somebody's ass and not go to jail for it. It's a legal-ass fight."
Then the 23-year-old details all of his ass whuppings. The torn ACL that robbed him of his senior year in high school. The torn thumb ligament his sophomore year at Southern Miss that sidelined him for a month. The torn labrum. The two meniscus surgeries on his right knee. The one meniscus surgery on his left. The separated AC joint he played through during his final year in college.
The concussion in high school that knocked him unconscious. The two minor concussions he had in college. The many more he'll have in the pros.
And, oh, his Harvey Dent moment. While facing Middle Tennessee as a sophomore, Richard's helmet slipped off mid-tackle, and his face violently crashed into the turf. He spit up blood and couldn't feel his face. When Richard looked at a Southern Miss trainer, the trainer shot back a horrified glare.
"Holy s--t," he told Richard. "We've got to go."
Richard's gums had split wide open. They were completely flapped over. The trainer could see Richard's teeth right down to their roots.
More whuppings are coming, too—he's sure of it.
This is a sport perpetually (and justifiably) under attack. Your limbs twist at angles they were never intended to twist. Your joints bend. Your bones break. Your brain rattles in your skull, bruising and potentially changing who you inherently are. The facts keep getting worse. A July study revealed CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 retired NFL players. As intel grows and grows, the risk of playing football will continue to gain ground on the reward.
No wonder the words "Play Football" are painted on NFL fields instead of "Legal-Ass Fight."
In spite of the mounting evidence, the reward will forever overwhelm any risk for Richard. He is a living, breathing, ankle-breaking reminder of the good that a flawed game brings. And he knows the reward can spread far beyond his own life.
Underneath the shade of the Raiders' outdoor weight room in training camp, he speaks like he runs. Quickly. With purpose. He's playing for something bigger than his own health. Something bigger than him entirely.
His city. Alexandria, Louisiana.
Richard plans on changing lives in this poverty-stricken, gang-infested pit of hopelessness.
All along, the thought has been on his mind. Maybe, just maybe, he could serve as a symbol of hope for one of the country's darkest cities. Then, on his first NFL carry in New Orleans last season, Richard shimmied through the line, hit the accelerator, exploded upfield for a 75-yard touchdown and was overcome with an instant epiphany.
His parents were sitting in the left corner of the stands. He knew this game was being televised three hours away in Alexandria.
At this precise moment, it hit him: Richard will create change.
So many athletes hail from troubled neighborhoods, never to step a foot in that neighborhood again. Richard is different.
"I'm really trying," he says, "to put the city on my back."
He has a plan, too.
When Richard brought his little brother and cousin out to the West Coast, they couldn't stop asking questions in his car.
There are houses…on hills?
Is that water…blue water? Not bayou water?
Is that a…beach?
That's because the best way to describe Alexandria, he explains, is that it's a "force field." Rarely can anyone escape this bio-dome of gangs, drugs, jail and death. Alexandria isn't that large of a city, with only 47,889 residents, but it is one of the deadliest. With a crime rate of 105.12 per 1,000 residents, per Neighborhood Scout, it is the third-most dangerous city in the nation. Ahead of Detroit. Ahead of St. Louis.
Richard has genuine sympathy for his peers because so many are "good people" for whom drug dealing and gangs are the only means of survival, he says. They have zero alternative. The result is a city he describes as a borderline war zone in which bullets fly over drugs, women and territory. If you're from one street and cross over to another street, you may be confronted.
Retaliation is common, too. Unless you up and leave the city, Richard explains, you're prey.
"There's guys I played football with in high school dead," Richard says. "It's crazy. It's like all the people we grew up with are killing each other. ... Everybody knows where everybody lives. If you make somebody mad or do something that somebody doesn't like, where are you going to go? They're going to catch you eventually. They're going to see you going down the road or peeking out of your car.
"Coming from that environment, man, it's different."
Where does Richard even begin? He could go on for hours.
Take the "Triple M Murder Team" gang that was arrested in April 2016 for more than 50 crimes dating back to 2010—crimes that ranged from criminal racketeering to attempted first-degree murder. Ten were initially arrested, with warrants out for four others, and Richard knew so many of them.
They weren't names; they were high school classmates.
He vividly remembers being in the streets with a few who'd sense trouble brewing and nudge him to say, "J, you need to go home."
To this day, some in that group have reached out to Richard from prison.
It didn't have to be this way, either. One of his friends from that gang who was arrested, Tyrin Boyd, was one of the best basketball players Richard ever saw live.
So many of his family members—in Alexandria and Baton Rouge—are locked up. One cousin is doing a life sentence for a rape charge.
"They locked him up when I was in high school," Richard says. "There was some discrepancy because he said he didn't do it."
One cousin recently got out on an attempted murder charge. "He was with somebody, walked up on somebody and, from what I know, shot him in the head."
One more cousin is locked up on a crime Richard cannot remember. They blur together.
His grandfather's brother was recently released from prison after about 20 years. He stole a car that had a baby in the back seat.
Another kid Richard went to school with was shot in the back of the head at the city park by 15-year-olds for no reason whatsoever, as far as Richard knows.
Then there's his friend, Tru. Richard and Tru were especially tight. They used to smoke weed together in the morning before high school. Tru (like so many others) sold weed in the streets to get by. He was also an athlete at Peabody High and used to dream of NFL glory with Richard.
Unlike Richard, who earned a scholarship to Southern Miss, Tru wasn't able to bust out of the force field. And not too long ago, he nearly died.
In the wrong part of town, he was fresh meat. Strangers spotted him on the street and tried to rob him. Rather than concede, he ran to his car, slammed the door and turned the ignition as they fired a round of shots at his vehicle. He caught three bullets in all—one in his foot, one in his calf, one in his hamstring—but he lived. He was on crutches for a while. From what Richard heard, Tru is out of the game and looking for a 9-to-5. But he's also heard Tru is traumatized from nearly losing his life.
"I need to check up on him," Richard thinks aloud. "He's a little paranoid. You get shot three times? You know what I'm saying?"
"I really feel like people don't know how we're living in the South."
Richard remembers the eerie silence before something "pops off." He's taken off in all-out sprints to the buzzing of bullets. He's learned that if he's at a club, he better leave by 1:30 a.m. because "somebody's going to get into it." He's fully aware that he could catch a bullet just like anybody else.
So, why would he want anything to do with Alexandria? Every touchdown, every camera zoom-in on national TV could put a target on his back. If random gang members would jump Tru, they damn sure could hold a gun to Richard's temple.
But to him, the answer is simple. He can't live with another entire generation of kids entering this way of life.
He knows the precious steps that led him here, the landmines he tiptoed around.
Like the time he considered selling drugs. In need of money—and too prideful to ask his parents for dough—Richard gave a friend money to buy marijuana to sell to keep his own hands clean. But the friend wouldn't let him do it.
Or the time he wanted to go a Nike football camp and stood on a corner near Peabody High asking for donations. When Richard asked managers at local businesses, they'd shout "Get the f--k out!" and wouldn't let him leave fliers behind.
Or the many times a friend would tap him on the hip with a pistol as a warning to leave, ASAP, because something was about to go down.
"Life is a game of choices," Richard says. "I knew football was my way out."
So his heart broke during one conversation with a local principal. Teachers, he was told, recently asked fourth-graders where they'd go if they could travel anywhere in the world. The answers hurt. The South Side! North Side! The Quarters! Lower Third!
They didn't realize a life existed outside of these streets.
Like their parents. And their parents' parents.
"It's so poverty-stricken," Richard says, "that people have nowhere to go and they're not motivated."
It's Richard's destiny to create that motivation.
When Richard was seven years old, maybe eight, his dad took him for a drive through his old neighborhood in Alexandria. It wasn't the best area, nor the worst, but it devoured talent just the same.
Look, James Richard told young Jalen. See that guy right there?
A 6'7" man stood on a corner.
That guy right there was one of the best basketball players in the whole state. He should be in the NBA. But there he is, standing on a corner.
Moments like this resonated to Jalen Richard.
He'd be different. He'd fight through any slight, any injury, any defeat, because he knew doing so could eventually help him erase doom in Alexandria. Maybe he could never physically see that light at the end of the tunnel—which today is pristine Napa, the site of Raiders training camp—but Richard could absolutely imagine it.
"I just thought it in my head," he says.
So at 6 a.m. on Saturdays, he was on a field with his dad pulling a sled, running cones, toe-tapping through a ladder.
He volunteered at a soup kitchen. He earned about 20 hours of college credit before setting a foot on a college campus.
Each morning, Richard even helped his dad get dressed. When James Richard was a kid, he needed hip surgery to stunt his growth. As those artificial hips wore down, he needed Jalen to put on his socks and shoes. All along, Richard told Dad he'd play Division I football.
"He's ready to take over the world," James says today. "That's the mentality he's always had."
Always cutting, juking, reversing direction and evading trouble, Richard's running style became a reflection of his life.
There's no thinking. Only reaction.
"My body just kind of does," Richard says. "So sometimes, I make a cut that might not be traditional for my body."
Hence, the collateral damage: his body. After buckling a knee at Ole Miss' football camp before his senior year of high school—a non-contact injury while running through bags—all of the D-I powerhouses interested in Richard backed off. Ole Miss, LSU and Arizona all moved on. But, hey, so what? Richard returned for track his senior year, proved his speed wasn't gone and headed to Southern Miss.
Of course, his team then went 0-12 and 1-11 and, geez, he didn't even play in that lone win.
When Richard shredded his gums, the doctor couldn't numb or sedate him, so the pain was excruciating. And once his gums were sewed up, he couldn't eat for a week. Richard was put on a Smoothie King plan. He couldn't speak, either. Richard mumbled.
But ironically, the greatest obstacle wasn't an injury.
Before his senior year at Southern Miss—his last chance to make this sport his profession, his last chance to save Alexandria—Richard was kicked off the team. Pledging for a fraternity, he kept dozing off in class and was impossible to miss in the first row. Richard failed his first test and, looking to make a statement, then-head coach Todd Monken gave him the boot.
Instead of getting reps in spring as the No. 1, Richard was working with a strength coach at the school's rec center.
He admits he gave up on the NFL "for a second."
Richard went on to finish with a B in that class, was back on the field in the fall, and who cares that his shoulder was throbbing? This was his chance, and he knew it. What started as a sprain became a separated AC joint, and Richard rushed for 1,098 yards and 14 touchdowns regardless. When the Raiders offered him a rookie tryout with a flight in and a flight out booked, one thought consumed Richard: "Make them keep me."
He did. He gritted through a knee scope that preseason. He took Kam Chancellor's best shot.
He took off on that 75-yard run in New Orleans.
No injury ever weakened Richard.
"It's almost like you get broken," he says, "to make you stronger."
No, Richard cannot wave a magic wand and morph Alexandria into utopia, but he can plant new thoughts inside the minds of those fourth-graders.
After his breakout rookie season, Richard did a lot of thinking. He has specific plans.
He'll start his own camp, for one, so no kids have to beg on the streets for money. He'll hold a "family weekend" in the city park, the same park where one of his friends was shot in the head, where kids can eat BBQ and burgers. He'll orchestrate a period of the day that demands zero violence in the entire city. He'll drive kids to Six Flags, to New Orleans, to Miami as a reward for good grades so they can see a world outside the force field.
Throughout August, Richard often spoke with Marshawn Lynch about how to implement ideas into action.
"I have to put a lot of this in motion," Richard says. "But everything is about to be put in motion. Right now, I'll focus on football and have fun. Somebody in my position could feel the weight of that, but I love playing football.
"I know what I'm able to do with it."
Because Richard also realizes that before he does anything at all, people need to know who he is. He needs to inspire on Sundays before returning next offseason and inspiring in person.
He must detonate on the field. And he plans on doing precisely that.
The clock read 11:30 p.m. inside his trainer's San Diego condo. Richard should've been fast asleep, or at least sprawled out like a manatee after another grueling three-a-day.
But as Kyle Jakobe walked down a hallway, he heard a noise inside the guest bedroom.
Richard wasn't asleep. He had plugged in the TV Jakobe never used and hooked it up to the internet. Wide awake, he was watching highlights of the greatest running backs ever. Emmitt. Barry. Faulk. Sweetness. His enthusiasm was bursting. He couldn't get enough.
Watch this, Kyle! he yelled. Look at how he drops his weight!
"How many guys are doing that, man?" Jakobe says. "I'm sitting there thinking that 70 percent of the league is out at a club about six bottles deep partying their faces off, and this dude is sitting in my condo. He doesn't have a bed to sleep in, sleeping on my sofa, training four hours a day, watching videos of freakin' Marshall Faulk until 1 in the morning."
This is the norm, too. Whenever the two catch an Uber anywhere, Richard is studying Hall of Famers.
So now comes the hard part in Operation: Alexandria. Bringing it on the field.
Richard introduced himself to the world last year in bursts. His 5.9 yards per carry led all running backs with at least 80 carries. But to install real, palpable hope in his city, he must do more. He must star.
On the walls of wherever they trained all offseason—Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, San Diego—Jakobe wrote "1,500 or Bust." A total of 1,500 rushing and receiving yards is 100 percent realistic to them.
Jakobe trained ex-Ravens back Ray Rice extensively and believes Richard can have the same production. Rice told Richard he reminds him of himself as a back.
Except Richard is armed with more explosion.
"Jalen is a ticking time bomb every time he touches the ball," Jakobe says. "Anything can happen. There's three, maybe four, running backs in the league you can even say that about. I think there's a handful of receivers you can say that about. That puts you in a class of 15-20 guys in the league where you're like, 'Any play, anything can happen.' While he may not have the recognition those other guys have yet, he will.
"It is not a matter of if that is going to happen. It's when and how often? That guy is going to blow up."
He studies the game, Jakobe adds, to the point of "insanity."
Richard doesn't lack confidence, either. He compares himself to Brian Westbrook.
"I consider myself one of the backs in the league who can do everything," he says. "I can run between the tackles. I can make people miss. I can do things in the slot. On top of that, I can return. How many running backs can do that effectively?"
Richard has a sixth sense to him. He knows how a play will unfold—where linemen will block, where linebackers will step—before the ball is snapped.
And when he's not watching those old video clips, he's in the ear of Jakobe, of Dad, of anyone who'll listen about Alexandria. Richard gets emotional and explains to Jakobe that he's not even one of the 10 best football players in his own city.
"There were dudes," he tells Jakobe, "straight up better than me."
Corner to corner, talent dissolves. Talent dies off. Talent rots in prison. And since Richard is here, he tells everyone it's his duty to "create change...to give them a path out."
He's never afraid to see old friends back home. He says that locals always knew he was never into dealing or gangs, so he's left alone.
Still, the sights are depressing. Just as Dad pointed at that 6'7" guy on the curb, Richard spots what-could-have-beens everywhere.
"There are people who were better than me in football in the city," he says, "doing nothing."
He can't undo the mistakes of his generation or the generations before it, but he can guide the next generation. As he walks off the practice field, Richard stops and looks ahead.
The legal fight now begins.
There's so much wrong with football. As long as it's a contact sport, the concussion crisis will rage. Nobody knows what the NFL will resemble a decade from now. But this sport, Richard knows, can change lives.
He'll tear his gums open. He'll get knocked out. Whatever. Any sacrifice is worth knowing he's broadcasting a better life to everyone in Alexandria.
He still gets phone calls from old friends locked away in prison. His mission now is to prevent future kids from ending up behind bars.
They don't need to play football. They just need to know there's life outside of Alexandria. Once that reality, that hope grows, life is bound to improve for all in his city.
"Now I see it," he says. "I'm supposed to be here. For me and for the city."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.