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The young gun trying to take Richardson's job this time is a determined rookie from Kentucky named John Conner, and if that sounds like the hero from the Terminator movies, it should. Coaches have been sending Terminators to end Richardson's football career more or less since the day he showed up at Cowboys camp in 1994 as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn. The last Terminator of Richardson's career might as well have the name to go with it.
How many would-be Terminators have there been? Richardson cannot remember all the names. He just remembers that most were more imposing than him, more gifted. There's something about Football's Best Man that makes him seem replaceable. He's not especially big—barely 6'1" and a steady 238 pounds year after year—not especially fast, not especially elusive. What he offers, what he has always offered, are those things football coaches call "intangibles," though the truth is that the skills are really quite tangible. He runs all-out every time. He catches the ball well. He speaks up and says the right things at meetings, visits the teammate having a tough time, watches other players to see how he can help. Yes, help even those Terminators who come for his job. Also, perhaps more than anything else, Richardson accepts the violence of the position.
"You would be surprised," former Chiefs back Priest Holmes says, "how many fullbacks around the NFL don't like to hit."
Richardson likes to hit, or more accurately he acts as if he likes to hit. ("Nobody really likes to hit," he says.) Richardson's blocking is not much about technique, and it's not about the shifting of weight, and it's not about guiding a linebacker away from the play. "Tony lowers his shoulder, cracks you, drives you out there," Johnson says. "After a while linebackers are scared to get in there. And there's nothing better than running against intimidated linebackers."
At 5'11" and 245 pounds Conner plays with this sort of violence—"He took the breath out of three guys today," Jets coach Rex Ryan gushed after a practice in early August—which is one of the reasons Richardson likes him so much. He works with Conner, teases him, guides him, teaches him the tricks he's learned and talks about him the way a big brother might. "He's hitting everything that moves, just blowing things up," Richardson says with joy in his voice. "It's so much fun to watch. That's how you play fullback!"
You might find it odd that Football's Best Man works so hard to help Conner take his job, but there's nothing at all odd about it. It's in his DNA. In 2000 Richardson was given a brief chance to be Kansas City's feature back. In Week 16 he was handed the ball 23 times against the Broncos—by far the most of his career—and he ran for 156 yards and a touchdown. He looked overpowering. That off-season the Chiefs proceeded as if Richardson would be their every-down back. But they also signed a runner from the Ravens named Priest Holmes.
The idea was that Richardson would get the bulk of the carries on first and second down, and Holmes would come in on third down. It was like that for the first couple weeks of the 2001 season. Then Richardson went to talk with Holmes.
"He told me, 'It's time for me to step out of the way,' " Holmes recalls. "He said, 'You need to be getting the ball. And I'm going to do everything I can to help you.' Now, ask yourself, how many people would do that?"
Holmes went on to lead the league in rushing in 2001. The next year he had a season for the ages, running for 1,615 yards, catching 70 passes and scoring 24 touchdowns. In 2003 Holmes set the NFL record (since broken) with 27 TDs. And you know who took the most pride in all that? Tony Richardson. "He used to call me up and say 'I just saw you on SportsCenter!' " Holmes says. "He was happier for me than I was for myself."
When you ask Richardson about it, he will tell you a story about his father, Sgt. Maj. Ben Richardson. Tony spent much of his childhood in Germany, where his father was stationed. Through a series of unlikely events the family moved to Daleville, Ala., when Richardson was in high school. Until then he had played more soccer than football. But in Alabama, where football blends with religion, he blossomed. He found a sport that rewarded his willingness to endure pain, that drew out his leadership skills. He knew football was his future. And then, before his senior year at Daleville High, Ben Richardson was transferred back to Germany.