Bow down to Washington. Go Cougs! Let’s go Seahawks. Many of us will be watching football this weekend, yelling and cheering as though we’re part of the teams.
We’re not. In the end, football is just a game for most of us. For Kevin James Richardson, it was an obsession.
“I lived it. I was part of it. It almost killed me,” he says.
The former University of Washington defensive lineman talks about his experience playing for the Huskies as if he was on the field last season.
“Our first two games were Virginia and Colorado and I had exceptional games. Got the big hit award in the Virginia game. I cracked the ribs of the quarterback, put him out of the game. The next game we played Colorado and I was so effective they started running away from me after the first quarter,” Richardson recalls.
“The Minnesota game, against Tony Dungy, I had four tackles and three assists. I had two quarterback sacks of him back to back.”
Those games were almost 40 years ago.
I met the former UW number 69 after writing about the suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau. Richardson struggled with depression and his own thoughts of killing himself after not being able to fulfill his dream of playing in the National Football League.
Have you ever wanted something so badly, it drove you crazy?
The odds are against any young man who grows up thinking he’ll be the next Keith Price playing for the Washington Huskies or Russell Wilson, the rookie starting quarterback with our Seattle Seahawks.
Only one in 16 high school senior football players will end up on a college team, according to the NCAA, and one in 50 college players are drafted for an NFL team.
“In the beginning it was a childhood dream, then it steps into a phase of ‘all that glitters’ when you’re chasing that dream and your expectations are high. You can see it, you can feel it, you can trust it. It’s so real that you’ve got it in your hand,” says Richardson. “Life becomes a fight after that, to maintain that dream.”
Jim Lambright recruited Richardson to play for the Huskies in 1972. He played for UW coaching legends Jim Owens and Don James too. Jim Mora was his defensive line coach.
“My senior year I had everything in line to play in the NFL. It was pretty much evident that would happen. My teammates believed it. Don James figured I’d be drafted by at least the fifth round,” he says.
After the third game of his senior year, he had some injuries and health issues and was put on the second team behind freshmen for five games in a row. That demotion, though temporary, “ate the inside of me out,” he says.
A few months before the NFL draft, he went to the house he shared with teammates and took a long shower. He thought that would be his last.
He went to his room and looked around at all the motivational posters he had on the walls of the players he admired – Merlin Olsen, Alan Page and Jack Youngblood.
“I had all these letters from NFL teams that I had taped to the wall, even the envelopes. My goals and dreams swirling around me. I stood up to get my shotgun,” he says with his words beginning to crack.
“I heard this voice and it was a soft voice that said, ‘You can’t do this. Just think about all the people who love you.'”
He pushed on, and was ready for NFL draft day in May of 1977.
He received a phone call that morning from Bob Ferguson who was with the Seahawks, but not yet the general manager.
“That morning he called me and said, ‘You stay by the phone. Somebody’s going to call you.’ The first day, no phone calls. The second day, nobody called,” he says.
The third day, the San Francisco 49ers called for a tryout with the team. By that time, Richardson was angry and offended. He yelled an expletive, slammed the phone and was done with football.
He went into another downward spiral that would last for decades.
Years later, Richardson talked with former teammates, many of whom were feeling the same way, and he turned to writing as a form of therapy to deal with his emotions.
He made progress. He put the past behind him, as everyone advised him to do, but occasional reminders of his “failure” set him back. He chokes up when he tells me about catching up with an old friend at a class reunion.
“He goes, ‘I know you went to Washington on a football scholarship, but did you ever play any pro ball afterwards?’ And, there it was again. That question,” Richardson says. “When, when is this football thing going to go away?”
Today, Richardson lives in Southern California and wants to find a way to teach young people that there are more important things than “all consuming” sports, such as personal development and community service.
“I probably wouldn’t have listened to that kind of message when I was playing,” he says, “but I wish someone would have told me I needed to think about life beyond weekend win-at-all-costs football games.”
Photos courtesy Kevin James Richardson
By LINDA THOMAS