Friday, January 15, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Realizing his dream takes unique drive

Leader sports editor

In his third year of college, redshirt sophomore Kevin Richardson had a dream season for the Arkansas Razorbacks. The 2013 Jacksonville High School graduate turned down several football scholarships to smaller colleges in order to walk on at Arkansas and pursue a lifelong dream of being a Razorback.

He always possessed SEC speed, but was only 155 pounds as a senior in high school, which is not SEC size. So he walked away from a free ride in college, and with his family’s support, went to work to become a starter.

He toiled as a redshirt his first year, not getting on the field at all. He played regularly on special teams his redshirt freshman season and sparingly on defense.

Then, this year, his first dream came true right before the season started when it was announced, to thunderous applause in the locker room, that Richardson had earned a scholarship. A couple months later and a little more than halfway through the season, he started for the first time at Ole Miss. The game plan for the potent Rebel passing game required an extra defensive back, and Richardson’s name was called. He responded in a big way and earned the coaches’ defensive player of the game award.

He’s been a starter ever since, and still almost can’t believe it.

“I started against Ole Miss and going forward, it’s been like, wow,” said Richardson. “I’m going against SEC teams; teams I used to just watch all the time, and now I’m out there playing against them. And it’s my job to stop them.”

He’s 6-feet tall and now listed at 175 pounds, which is still on the small side for an SEC defensive back, but his speed, work ethic and dedication to knowing his job makes up for his slight stature.

After recording 10 tackles against the Rebels, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of praise for the defense that gave up 52 points in that miraculous victory, but he did single out Richardson for the way he played in his first start, as well as how he played the week after when the Razorbacks went to Baton Rouge and beat the No. 9 ranked LSU Tigers 31-14.

“Kevin Richardson is a kid that has been unbelievable since coming here as a walk-on,” said Bielema after the LSU game. “He has earned himself a starting role and is one of our steadiest performers and one of our best disciplined athletes on the team as far as film study. What you see in practice is what you get.”

Richardson recorded six tackles against LSU, and defensive backs coach Clay Jennings was impressed with one play in particular.

“He made a play where he was on the opposite flat,” said Jennings. “He went from the boundary hook and he made a play in the strong flat. What Kevin brings is energy, fanatical energy.”

Jennings’ respect for Richardson is mutual.

“Coach Jennings is like a third father to me,” Richardson said. “I like to think of my grandfather as a second father. Coach Jennings believes in growing a bond among players and makes that a priority for us. Relationships have a real meaning to him and our unit is like a brotherhood.”

Having that kind of respect for your positions coach helps motivate Richardson to do his job, but he admits the work to get to where he’s at now has been difficult.

“The whole time has been hard work, non-stop,” Richardson said. “It hasn’t been easy. You’re going to go to work every day because everybody there is good and everybody is there to work.

“Coach (Barry) Lunney (who recruited Richardson) told me going in it’s going to be expensive, but he said if you really want this, you can work towards it and achieve it because I’ve seen what you can do and you have the talent.”

While wowed by the position he finds himself in, looking back, he realizes he never doubted he’d get to this point.

“I wouldn’t have went there and turned down those other scholarships if I didn’t have the confidence that I could do it,” Richardson said. “I said in my mind that I was going to do it and I went to work to make it happen.”

Richardson couldn’t afford tuition at the state’s largest university by himself, and the fact that he could not have achieved so much on his own is not lost on him.

“The support was amazing from my family,” Richardson said. “My dad took out a loan to cover my freshman year, and it was still a hassle to pay off my sophomore year as well, but it ended up being handled.”

It’s a family affair on campus as well. Richardson’s younger siblings Sacha and Kielen also attend the University of Arkansas. Sacha is a sophomore and Kielen is a freshman who landed a gig as the Razorback football team’s equipment manager.

“It’s been great having little bro out there,” Richardson said. “He’s at every practice and almost every game, keeping my mind on what I have to do. The staff and my teammates love him. He’s 2-Rich to all of them. It’s really fun having him there.”

Richardson reported back to campus on Wednesday, and will begin preparing for spring ball and hopefully an even bigger role as a junior.

“It’s already been a dream come true,” Richardson said. “But I want to keep increasing my role and continue to improve.”