Trent Richardson's Long Journey Back to the NFL Might Not Be Over Yet

Gerald Narciso@@geraldnarcisoFreelance contributorDecember 19, 2017

REGINA, SK - OCTOBER 27: Trent Richardson #33 of the Saskatchewan Roughriders on the sideline during the game between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on October 27, 2017 in Regina, Canada. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)
Brent Just/Getty Images

Inside a packed Canadian stadium far away from the NFL, Trent Richardson, a man once considered a can't-miss prospect and a favorable comparison to Adrian Peterson, looked like he still might be.  

Granted, it was only four games, but donning No. 33 for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, he danced around CFL defenders, and at times, opted to bulldoze over them. Back was the power, the speed, the swagger that made him a star in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

Two months in rural and freezing Regina, Saskatchewan—where the average temperature is 36.7 degrees—gave Richardson more joy on a football field than he had experienced in more than five years. 

"It was too much fun, man," Richardson, 27, told Bleacher Report in a phone interview in late November. "I appreciate the CFL. I appreciate Saskatchewan. The whole team, man, for what they did for me, I can't never repay them back." 

Anyone who has followed Richardson's tumultuous professional career can understand how he can find gratitude and humility in a situation most would consider a step back. 

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

"I have not seen him so excited about football since he was playing for Escambia or when he got drafted," says Derrick Boyd, Richardson's coach at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Florida, who has remained his mentor. "They say you never miss your water until the well comes dry." 

In Canada, gone was the pressure to live up to the high expectations of being a top-three draft pick. Gone was the constant media scrutiny and the "bust" labels assigned to his name every time he was cut by another NFL team. And gone were the friends and family back home in Alabama and Florida looking for handouts. 

This time it was just football. This time it was just Trent.  

"A big thing for me going to Canada was to get back on the field with a fresh start," Richardson said. "Not a lot of people around me ... just being not distracted and playing football like I usually play football." 

But even in isolation, Richardson eventually drew a crowd. In a game against the Montreal Alouettes in late October, he rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns.  

The home fans cheered, and teammates were quick to pat him on the back. 

Inside his shiny green Roughriders helmet, where his signature dreadlocks spilled out the back, you could catch this typically reserved man flashing a smile. He was back.  

"It was almost like it was a rebirth," Richardson said. 

      

Where it all began 

It was Trent's older brother Terrell who first informed Boyd about his junior high, man-child of a sibling. 

"He said, 'My brother is scoring five to six touchdowns a game,'" says Boyd before joking. "I said, 'The competition must not be that good.'" 

But Terrell's tip was credible. When Boyd finally did see Trent perform, he witnessed a 14-year-old with the frame and skill set equal to or greater than anyone on his varsity squad. However, once Richardson enrolled at Escambia—the same high school that produced Emmitt Smith—the player-coach marriage got off to a rocky start.   

"We bumped heads the first few years," Boyd says. "Trent was kind of used to doing what Trent wants to do. But for some reason, when he showed back up in 11th grade, he bought in to everything we were expecting of him." 

With structure and discipline, Richardson blossomed into an all-everything running back.  

"There was nothing Trent Richardson couldn't do for us in high school—he kicked field goals and he could play defense," Boyd said. "He was far more than just a great running back." 

It wasn't long before high-profile college football coaches such as Les Miles and Urban Meyer started to make recruiting visits to Pensacola. In the end, though, Richardson chose the Crimson Tide. In his three years at Alabama, the team went 36-4, winning two national championships. Richardson was the team's standout, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist and averaging 129.2 rushing yards and scoring 24 touchdowns his junior season.   

Coach Nick Saban became Richardson's mentor Alabama, sheltering him from as many external distractions as possible. 

"They protect us to where we don't have to worry about nothing," Richardson says. "Somebody tells you you've got to do this and do that. You got people checking your classrooms. You got people making sure you eat. We don't have to worry about our family. We don't have to worry about people just coming up." 

Dave Martin/Associated Press

But while that approach put Richardson on the fast track to the NFL (he was picked third overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2012 NFL draft), he initially lacked the focus and business acumen to succeed and stay there. His home in Cleveland was constantly filled with visitors from Florida. He was inundated with requests for his time, and he ignored his finances—granting certain family and friends access to his accounts. 

"You just got a million dollars overnight, you know, what do you expect?" Richardson says of initially being overwhelmed. "You feel like you done made it a little bit. Man, I knew my biggest test was going to be telling people no." 

Boyd says, "Maybe he got upset with me, but I always said, 'Hey, Trent, you got to say no, man.' Sleeping, eating, hydrating is paramount in being able to perform with those you play against or with on Sundays. He knew, but he just has a big heart." 

On the field, he seemed in over his head as well. He struggled with the different playbooks and offensive styles. He often played hurt and never developed a comfortable rhythm on Sundays. Two games into his second season with the Browns, Richardson went from franchise player to expendable, getting traded to the Colts. After the 2014 season, he was waived by Indianapolis.      

"He didn't realize the NFL required a whole bunch of time; I'm sure he's aware of that now," says Boyd, who is now a behavior and track and field coach at Escambia High School. "It's a grind. It's a job." 

With his career in decline, his ego and his once untouchable popularity also took a hit. Fans became increasingly critical, attacking his attitude and commitment. The media, who once put Richardson on a pedestal when he dominated the SEC, now paired him alongside first-round quarterback Ryan Leaf for the title of the biggest bust in NFL history.  

"Oh yeah, my confidence level, man," Richardson says. "After I got traded, man, that was the biggest thing because I felt like football wasn't fun anymore. I've never been in a situation where, you know, I wasn't one of the best guys on the field." 

He felt defeated.

"For me to not like the game no more, man. I would go home and I wouldn't even watch SportsCenter. I wouldn't even look. I didn't want nothing to do with sports at the time unless it was Alabama football ... I was young-minded. I didn't know how to handle it on a professional team." 

      

The end of an NFL career? 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Richardson's career the last three years has been on an indefinite pause. Between failed training camp stints and near-missed contract opportunities, he's been living a recurring nightmare of almosts, what-ifs and where-nows. 

Injuries played a role. A two-year partially guaranteed contract with the Oakland Raiders in 2015 ended during his first preseason after missing action with a bout of pneumonia. He tried again with the Baltimore Ravens the following season, getting in phenomenal shape after intense offseason workouts at Alabama. But he got the same result. This time it was his knee that required surgery. He has not taken a single handoff in an NFL regular-season game since he was with the Colts in 2014. 

As the NFL checks ran dry, Richardson's family and friends continued to spend his money, going through $1.6 million in 2015, according to this E:60 documentary

While blindsided and hurt, Richardson accepts responsibility for enabling his inner circle.

"I put a lot of that blame on me," he says. "But at the time, I don't think they thought they was hurting me. I told them 'yes.' I have made that mistake. I sheltered them a lot."

Boyd says Richardson's kindness has always been both his greatest strength and weakness. He recalls the time after Richardson, a father of four, was cut by Indianapolis, when he covered the entire $35,000 cost of a kids' summer football camp in Pensacola despite not being under contract. 

"I was against it because he hadn't signed with the Raiders as of yet," Boyd says. "He said, 'Coach, when I was growing up, I wish we had camps with NFL players. I could sacrifice this for these kids.' So he had a group of guys put on the camp for about 600 kids for free. He did it out of pocket. He had coaches, provided food, T-shirts and everything. It speaks to the guy he is. Even at his lowest, without a real guaranteed contract, he took it upon himself to take care of others." 

But by 2017, it was time for Richardson to put himself first. It was time to play football again. 

REGINA, SK - OCTOBER 13: Trent Richardson #33 of the Saskatchewan Roughriders during pregame warmup for the game against  the Ottawa Redblacks  at Mosaic Stadium on October 13, 2017 in Regina, Canada. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)
Brent Just/Getty Images

After recovering from knee surgery, he returned to Tuscaloosa to train with former Alabama wide receiver Mike McCoy at his Warehouse Performance Institute. He re-engineered his diet, only drinking water and cutting out junk food and late-night eating. He filtered out the noise, only associating with his trainers, workout partners and his kids. After a month of intense training, he had dropped 20 pounds and was back at his Alabama playing weight of 225 pounds. 

Despite getting himself into the best shape of his career, Richardson did not generate much interest from the NFL. Concerns about his surgically repaired knee had NFL GMs hesitant to offer a contract. 

"I got a call from a couple teams, and I thought they were going to bring me in," Richardson says. "They were sitting there telling me, 'We want to see you back on the field, and if you're looking good, there will be an offer.'" 

The Roughriders, who held Richardson's CFL negotiation rights, had reached out to him over the summer. He balked on the first offer, refusing to leave his kids for a country he didn't know and a league he didn't want to play in. But as the 2017 NFL season began and progressed, Richardson was still on the outside looking in. 

He told Boyd, "Coach, I have a lot of football left in me." To which Boyd said, "Well, what are you going to do, then?"

Boyd says he talked to Richardson and his agent about the CFL.

"A lot of people don't understand why he was initially reluctant to go. I think he still felt the NFL would come knocking. I said, 'Listen, they're not calling. It has been six or seven games and you love football and you look like you can play right now. Go over [to the CFL] and give it a shot and don't worry about anything other than playing a game that you love.'" 

In September, Richardson said yes. And this time it was all about him. He left his family, friends and the NFL. He boarded a plane to Canada by himself.     

      

A new start

If Canada had a heartland, it would be Saskatchewan. A two-hour drive from the U.S./Montana border, Regina is a quaint and rural city (population of approximately 215,000) surrounded by prairies, Wascana Lake and magnificent bright blue skies year-round. 

Like the Packers in Green Bay, the Roughriders are the only show in town. They led the CFL in attendance this season, averaging 32,762 fans per contest (98.2 percent capacity). When the city hosted the Grey Cup (the CFL's championship game) in 2013, there weren't enough hotels in the area to accommodate the influx of visitors. 

From his first day in Regina, Richardson spent nearly every moment at Mosaic Stadium, getting extra reps, watching film and lifting weights. It got to the point that team staff had to tell him to "just go home already."   

REGINA, SK - OCTOBER 13: Trent Richardson #33 of the Saskatchewan Roughriders looks to avoid Serderius Bryant #10 of the Ottawa Redblacks during a run in the first of the game between the Ottawa Redblacks and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on
Brent Just/Getty Images

"It didn't matter where I was, I was just trying to get better," Richardson says. "I want to play ball. I'm playing ball for myself and I'm happy playing it. I'm not ready to be done with it yet. I know I still got a lot of talent in me. I'm going to keep on trucking." 

Richardson lived in a small apartment about six miles from the stadium. When he was home, he was FaceTiming his kids. He caught up with friends, too, who were curious about his new Canadian life. 

"The first thing everybody asks me, 'How is Canada? Do you go hunting?'" Richardson says. "I was like, 'Man, it's too cold to do any of that!'" 

"But I tell them, 'Man, this situation is a great fit for me because I don't have to be around all of y'all,'" he says with a laugh. 

The solitude of his new daily life was a breath of fresh air. He meditated, enjoyed walks by himself around town and marveled at the friendliness of Canadians. Strangers every day would tell him how much they appreciated having him play for the Riders. 

"That's one of the biggest things with people here—they love their team, they love their green," he said. 

"Ever since he's been in Canada, his tone has been different," Boyd says. "You could just tell he's at peace, he's relaxed. When you have a conversation, he doesn't seem distracted." 

Because he didn't arrive until midseason, Richardson, who was reunited with his friend and former teammate at Alabama, Christion Jones, on the Roughriders, only played a total of four games. By his fourth game, his breakout performance against the Alouettes, he was the dominant running back that people have been waiting to see for the past half-decade. He rushed for 127 yards on 20 carries and scored twice. 

"Once he gets his shoulder pads turned north and south and doesn't dance in the hole, he's tough to do business with," Roughriders head coach and GM Chris Jones told reporters after the Montreal game. "He's a great big, strong guy. They don't really look forward to getting up in the morning and tackling somebody that big." 

Saskatchewan went 3-1 with Richardson in the lineup, and he helped the team clinch a playoff spot. He injured his knee after that and was sidelined for the team's final three games. The Riders lost in the Eastern Finals to the Toronto Argonauts. For the season, Richardson averaged 5.4 yards per carry. 

"Being in Canada has rekindled the fire," Boyd says. "Maybe the next step is some of the things we've seen historically from the Canadian Football League. Guys go over there and then become the next Warren Moon or Doug Flutie in the NFL. Ultimately, you want to be on the biggest and best stage." 

Two days after the Riders were eliminated, Richardson returned to the U.S. Time will tell whether his flashes of brilliance in the CFL translate into a path back into the NFL. Second chances are rare in pro sports, and Richardson knows that. 

"With the NFL, I hope somebody gives me a chance," Richardson says. "I pray that they do. If they do, man, they going to get the hardest-working guy in the NFL, on the field and off the field."

Richardson says he would like to return to the CFL but just not yet. He found his soul, his peace, his game in Saskatchewan. He just wants to prove it to everyone else now.

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