Once-reckless Richardson on ‘straight and narrow’ with Vikings
MINNEAPOLIS -- Sheldon Richardson once was fined so much money, he said he was playing in the NFL “for free.”
Richardson, a defensive tackle in his first year with the Vikings, broke into the league with the New York Jets, playing with them from 2013-16. After being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and going to the Pro Bowl in 2014, the problems started.
He was suspended by the NFL without pay for the first four games of the 2015 season after testing positive for marijuana. In July 2015, less than two weeks after the suspension was announced, he tried to outrun police outside his native St. Louis in his 2014 Bentley Silver Spur, going at speeds up to 143 mph before being apprehended.
In the car, police found a legally registered handgun and smelled marijuana. Three other individuals were in the car, including a 12-year-old boy. Found guilty of reckless driving and resisting arrest, he was fined $1,050, sentenced to two years’ probation and ordered to do 100 hours of community service.
The NFL suspended him for the first game of the 2016 season.
Richardson estimates he lost between $1.5 and $1.8 million to various fines while with the Jets on his initial four-year, $10 million rookie contract, so it might be an exaggeration when he says he “was playing two seasons for free.” But he said the money he was docked served as a wake-up call.
And so has becoming a father. His daughter Riley Rose Richardson is 2, and the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Richardson speaks glowingly of her.
“Life happens,” said Richardson, who last March signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Vikings after one season with Seattle. “I have a daughter now. I want to be a positive impact.
“I tell people now that I’m ‘slow motion.’ I ain’t going nowhere too fast. I’m definitely on the straight and narrow now. I grab me a drink once in a blue moon, but that’s about it.”
Former Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril can attest to that. As a teammate last year in Seattle, he saw the difference Riley made in Richardson’s life.
“When his daughter was in town, Sheldon couldn’t get out of the building fast enough to catch up with her,” Avril said. “I think having his daughter changed his perspective on life and changed some of the things he was doing.”
Avril played in the NFL from 2008-17 and now hosts a radio show on Seattle station KJR. He will be on hand Monday night when the Vikings (6-5-1) play at Seattle (7-5) in a key battle for playoff positioning.
Richardson struggled to fit with Seattle after being traded there just before the season started but Avril likes the way he’s playing with the Vikings. He has 3 1/2 sacks at the three-technique spot and leads Minnesota with 50 quarterback hurries.
“You always want more sacks but, honestly, I’m doing what the coaches ask me to do, and they seem fine with it,’’ Richardson said.
They do, indeed. Head coach Mike Zimmer said Richardson has “fit into what we’re trying to do” and could be more than a one-season addition. Richardson has become a leader in the locker room, regularly mentoring young players on football and life.
“He’s just talks to us about life in general, and he gives us teaching moments,” rookie defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes said. “He’s a great leader. He helps me out every day. The other day, he helped me out with a Christmas gift idea.”
‘A lesson learned’
Richardson knows something about gifts. Jason Dulick, one of his assistant coaches at Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis, said Richardson has donated nearly $15,000 worth of uniforms and equipment to the school. “He’s never forgotten where he came from,” said Dulick, now the school’s head coach.
Richardson began playing football in St. Louis when he was 5 and weighed 70 pounds. Because he was so big for his age, he had to play on a team of mostly 7-year-olds, the Matthew Dickey Bulldogs. He was the top player on the team, and was named captain.
“I was always good at football,” Richardson said.
At Gateway, then called Gateway Tech, Richardson was one of the nation’s most highly recruited players. In addition to anchoring the defensive line, he played tight end and returned kickoffs.
“Can you imagine a guy who was then 6-foot-3, 275 pounds returning kickoffs?” Dulick said. “And there was one time on offense where he just hurdled a guy. That’s how athletic he was.”
One thing Richardson didn’t do a lot of in high school, though, was study. Dulick said he “spent a lot of time in the hallways” because he was so social.
“I was living my best life my freshman and sophomore years and some of my junior year,” Richardson said. “Girls. Not studying. Just basically not doing my homework.”
Richardson’s father, Michael, a retired truck driver, and his mother, Zelda, got on him to study. So did his four older brothers, including Shaun Richardson, a linebacker who was in training camp with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008. But Richardson got the message too late.
After signing with Missouri, he didn’t qualify academically and enrolled at College of the Sequoias, a junior college in Visalia, Calif., that didn’t provide much financial aid.
“I became a man there,” Richardson said. “I had to make it on my own. I went hungry and lost weight, and some nights the lights went out because we couldn’t pay the bills. We didn’t have dorm rooms. For a while, three of us were all sleeping on the floor in the living room of this player’s apartment.”
In Richardson’s one season at College of the Sequoias, Irv Pankey, a former NFL offensive lineman who was then an assistant at the school, said “he was a man among boys.”
“His forearms looked almost like Popeye’s,” Pankey said. “Nobody on our offensive line could block him.”
Richardson got his grades up and was able to transfer to Missouri. Then-coach Gary Pinkel called him a “difference maker,” especially when he had 116 tackles, including six sacks, in 2012.
During that season, though, Richardson was suspended for the penultimate game of his college career because he violated team rules by missing class and failing to complete work assigned as punishment. The Tigers lost 31-27 to Syracuse, costing them the chance to go to a bowl game.
“A few months later, he walked into my office and he gave me a big hug and he apologized,” Pinkel said. “It was a pretty classy thing to do. He came to me and said it was a lesson learned.”
By that time, Richardson already had declared as an early-entry candidate for the NFL draft.
“I remember a bunch of NFL teams calling me and saying, ‘Is he a bad guy?’ ” Pinkel said. “I said, ‘No he’s not a bad guy. He just made a mistake.’ ”
A good fit
The Jets, then coached by Rex Ryan, took Richardson with the No. 13 pick in the 2013 draft. After being Defensive Rookie of the Year, he had a career-high eight sacks during his Pro Bowl season of 2014.
“He had a tremendous year and his motor was always going 100 percent, and you could really see his upside,” said Marty Lyons, the Jets’ radio analyst who was a defensive end for the team from 1979-89. Lyons and Richardson became “very close” and talked often.
Lyons worried about him going back to St. Louis for the offseason.
“I told him to never forget where he came from, but if you go back to those places, and if you’re in an environment that you don’t have the strength and the discipline to say no, you just can’t do that anymore,” Lyons said. “Unfortunately, he paid the price.”
Of testing positive for marijuana, Richardson said “that was something that I was doing for a while, way before high school.” He said he no longer uses marijuana.
Of his July 2015 driving charge, Richardson said his mistake was in evading the police.
“Missouri is an open-carry state,” he said. “(The gun) was registered. I keep a gun on me everywhere I go. It’s one of the most violent cities in America. I was just racing my car. I got nervous and adrenaline kicked in and I started running away from the police, which was a dumb decision.
“I should have pulled over and took my tickets. And I should have told my organization (immediately).”
Jets officials obviously were upset when they learned of the charges, and Richardson’s play began to fall off after Todd Bowles replaced Ryan as head coach in 2015. After playing the three-technique in a 4-3 scheme, Richardson was moved to defensive end and linebacker spots in a 3-4.
It never clicked, and Richardson’s sack totals dropped to five in 2015 and 1.5 in 2016. Richardson also got into a well-publicized feud with then-Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall, calling him “drama queen-ish.”
Richardson was traded to Seattle a week before the start of last season for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick. Richardson said he believes he got an unfair rap as a selfish player. He blames himself for his off-the-field issues but said he wanted stay in New York.
“I made a name there,” he said. “I saw myself turning the organization around … (and) changing the culture there. But honestly, they didn’t want it to happen, so I just left it at that.”
Richardson returned to playing three-technique in Seattle but never found his niche after being inserted into the starting lineup a week after the trade. He had just one sack last season.
“It was an unfair situation because he didn’t get to go through training camp and they just threw him into the fire,” Avril said.
Head coach Pete Carroll said Richardson was a model citizen during his one season in Seattle. Richardson said he had an interest in re-signing with the Seahawks before he got what he called a “terrible” contract offer worth “like four or five million” a season.
His deal in Minnesota could be worth as much as $11 million with incentives. But why just a one-year contract? Zimmer acknowledged that the Vikings during free agency took Richardson’s past issues into consideration.
“Concerns were he’s been with three teams in three years, so that’s always kind of a concern,” the coach said. “I think he had some things with the Jets that weren’t positive. But since he’s been here, he’s been real good as far as studying in meetings and paying attention and trying to do everything exactly how we ask.”