Baylor Bears’ star lineman cherishes his blessings after Katrina

11/27/2013 5:03 PM

11/12/2014 3:24 PM

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to count our blessings while stuffing ourselves with turkey dinner and football telecasts.

The desire for reflection applies to butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and Outland Trophy finalists.

It’s especially true when the potential honoree joined legions of Hurricane Katrina refugees as a teenager, triggering a circuitous journey through three high schools in two different states that made him invisible to most recruiters.

Because the player spent a month in limbo as a high school freshman, with no school and no football team during the early stages of the family’s evacuation from New Orleans, he found himself scrambling past his scheduled graduation day to meet NCAA academic requirements and accept his lone offer of a college scholarship.

Without question, Baylor offensive guard Cyril Richardson will reflect on many of those thoughts Thursday. And the North Crowley High School graduate, who was not allowed to accept his diploma with fellow seniors in his class because he did not complete all academic requirements until later in summer school, will reach the same conclusion he shared the other day when breaking down his remarkable journey.

“I’m just a true, blessed person. That’s how I feel,” Richardson said, citing the family’s 2006 move to Fort Worth as a sojourn that offered “a lot more opportunity” for him to develop as a football player. “I was just put in the right position at the right time. It’s a blessing that I got in this position. I’m not going to question it. I’m just going to keep going with it and make the best of it.”

Richardson (6-foot-5, 340 pounds), a fifth-year senior, returns to Fort Worth for Saturday’s game against TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium (2:30 p.m., ESPN2). It will offer another opportunity to remind Outland and All-America voters that Richardson is a vital cog in the success of an attack that leads the nation in scoring (56.8 avg.) and total offense (661.6 yards per game).

How does Richardson, who recalled reporting to Baylor carrying “70 pounds of bad weight” as a pudgy freshman, embrace the fact he’s gone from a three-star signee in the 2009 recruiting class to one of the final three candidates to win the 2013 Outland Trophy, given to college football’s top interior lineman?

“I’m speechless, to be honest,” Richardson said. “In my head, it’s not over yet. We still have to finish it. And I’m going to finish it. That’s what’s going through my head now.”

It is worth noting that, while No. 9 Baylor (9-1, 6-1 in Big 12) is on pace to set multiple team-related milestones, Richardson is the lone Bear up for one of the nine individual honors to be presented Dec. 12 at The Home Depot College Football Awards show in Orlando, Fla. Most scouts project him as a first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Contrast that to Richardson’s situation in August 2005, when he was a freshman on the junior-varsity team at Landry High School in New Orleans. With Katrina approaching, school officials canceled his game shortly before kickoff. City officials declared a mandatory evacuation.

Richardson left New Orleans with his parents, Albert Joseph and Anita Richardson, with plans to ride out the storm in Baker, La., a Baton Rouge suburb. Weeks later, the family returned to a house with broken water pipes and rampant black mold.

“We had to get rid of all the furniture, the refrigerator. Everything had to go,” said Richardson, who wound up enrolling at Baker High School after a month in limbo.

A late-season addition to the Baker football team, Richardson rarely played before the family moved to Fort Worth in October 2006. He enrolled at North Crowley but did not play football that season. As a junior, he joined the team but missed multiple games because of UIL grade-related issues. Richardson said he “got my grades right for my senior year” and sought to hone his skills at a Baylor summer camp.

While there, he caught the eye of Bears offensive line coach Randy Clements. Baylor offered a scholarship. A stunned Richardson accepted.

“I really was surprised,” Richardson said. “Nobody knew me. Baylor … took a chance on me. But the minute that door opened for me, I said ‘I’m going to college’ even though I was still in deep water with high school [academics].”

Richardson, still behind on core classes from his semester in limbo in Louisiana, crossed that finish line during summer school after missing out on North Crowley’s graduation ceremony.

“By then, I’d made some close friends. But I didn’t get to walk across the stage with them,” Richardson said. “That hurt me.”

After swapping some fat for muscle while redshirting in his first year on campus, Richardson has dished out his share of pain to opponents.

“He’s an individual who came in here without much fanfare. Zero, actually,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “And he’s earned everything he’s getting now in terms of accolades. He deserves everything that’s coming his way with the way he’s handled himself on and off the field.”

For Richardson, the moral of his story is a simple one.

“If an opportunity shows itself, you’ve got to take it,” Richardson said. “Even if opportunity really isn’t there, there’s something in any situation that you can make an opportunity of. I’m going to take my blessings, but I’m going to run with them when I get them.”

Sounds like good advice for all Americans on Thanksgiving Day.

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