The last time that Sheldon Richardson stood before the media in a setting like this, the New York Jets third-year star defensive end said all the right things. Training camp was to start the very next day and Richardson spoke for the first time about his league-mandated four-game suspension for substance abuse. He sounded all the right notes then as he did today.
But as we all know, his talk was cheap then and it remains so now until he steps up and starts doing what he’s saying.
He talked then, 10 weeks ago, about not letting his offseason infraction define him, how he had let down his family and infamously stated: “I ain’t no dope fiend.”
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Literally an hour later, news came out of a July arrest near Richardson’s home. In this incident unrelated to his suspension, marijuana was found in the car he drove, a car coincidentally which led police in a high-speed police chase. All this was done with a minor in the back seat.
His comments that July day rang hollow in light of the news that was leaking out. This news, of course, coming just an hour after Richardson had vowed publicly to be a better man when asked about his original four-game suspension.
Monday he returned to practice after spending the last four weeks away from the fields with his teammates. The Jets are 3-1 and off to a strong start during his suspension, his return will be a welcome boon to the league’s best defense. He admits to a “rust factor” but physically, he can and will get back to being one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers.
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But that isn’t the concern about this player.
Richardson is not the first professional athlete to lead a lifestyle that saw him tip-toe along the line and then tip over. But now he has a chance to pick himself up, dust himself over and focus on being the best man he can be.
“It challenged me mentally more than physically,” Richardson said on Monday. “Other than that, I have my own issues to deal with so I was just really focusing on that and just cheering on my teammates from behind the scenes.”
The key to this young man’s successful return to the NFL has little to do with what he’ll do this Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium and everything with what he does when he isn’t in helmet and pads. For three hours a week, Richardson follows orders from coaches, from teammates. Every eye is on him for those three hours of the game.
But when the lights turn to black, it is there that Richardson must make the important calls, not in the game of football but in the game of life.
No amount of soundbites and anecdotes will be the answer for Richardson’s struggles, for the snare that so easily entraps. He isn’t the first baller to love to party, to enjoy a dalliance with fame, fortune and everything that goes with it. But he can be one of the few, truly elite, who decides it is better to be a man of conviction than a person of interest.
In his choices over this past year and perhaps longer, Richardson showed the same penchant for sensationalism that has made him an NFL star. On the field, he is an unpredictable maverick, pulling out double moves and stunts that blow past guards and tackles, getting him into the backfield at a rate that made him a Pro Bowl selection this last season. But it must now be his backbone, his desire to turn his back on a lifestyle that will only take away from his natural giftings, that must now step forward.
For as good as Richardson was on Monday in resolutely standing up, acknowledging that he must be a different man now that the four-game suspension is over, the far more difficult task is ahead. And it will take place away from the microphones, the recorders and the lights of the cameras gathered around his locker on Monday.
He already had a chance this offseason to turn his life around and he chose not to. A high-speed police chase, the presence of marijuana and a firearm in his car all point to someone who will have to learn the hard way. Richardson is a good kid, a liability perhaps based on the past few months, but a good kid with a big heart. He can overcome this thing.
He’ll just have to decide he wants to. Perhaps time away from a game he loves so much will show him just how much he stands to lose if he doesn’t start making the right choices off the field as well as on it.
“Yeah, it was strange. Once again, that was something mentally I had to deal with. Going from team MVP to not playing, so that was a lot,” Richardson said. “Pro Bowl season to not playing, that was a lot to deal with. Down on myself, but I’m alright now; just deal with it one day at a time.”