will tell you a little something about fullback Tony Richardson, Football's Best Man. He got a call this summer from Larry Johnson of the Redskins, one of five running backs he has lead-blocked to a 1,000-yard season. In 2005, when he had Richardson in his ear and out in front, Johnson ran for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns with the Chiefs. That season Johnson had looked, for all the world, like a modern-day Jim Brown.
Things changed, though, after Kansas City didn't re-sign Richardson. Johnson had numerous off-the-field troubles that led to two suspensions, and he ran with less abandon. The year after Richardson left, Johnson set an NFL record for most carries ... but his rushing average dropped almost a full yard. The next year his yards per carry dropped almost another yard. Two years later he was released.
So Richardson got this call, and he thought Johnson sounded unusually nervous on the phone. He had not heard from Larry in a while and was worried about his old running mate. "Tony," Johnson said, "I need a big favor."
Uh-oh, Richardson thought. What did Larry do now?
Football's Best Man finishes his conditioning test. Tony Richardson made time again. Amazing, isn't it? Seventeenth training camp, man. Seventeen! And he can still run with the kids. Richardson puffs up with a momentary burst of pride and looks around the field at the young Jets players, the kids who take their conditioning test for the first or second or third time. They run effortlessly. Richardson knows exactly what they are thinking: The effortlessness will last forever. He remembers that feeling well. He has forgotten that feeling too.
Richardson wonders if this is a good time to take a moment and reflect. He has never done a lot of reflection, at least not before this year. He has never had the chance. For 17 years there was always some talented and hungry kid trying to take his job in the NFL. For 17 years there was always a doubting coach who wanted someone bigger, faster, stronger, younger. For 17 years, there was always a charity that needed his help, a teammate who needed advice, a linebacker to pancake, a wondrous educational opportunity that might never come again. If he stopped, he felt sure he would sink.
But lately Richardson finds himself stopping. It took him forever to pack for this camp. He's an impeccable packer anyway—folding clothes just so, placing the toiletries in just the right place. He's the son of a military man who once made him wash the family car seven times until it was deemed clean. He has turned into his father. "I know," he says with a mixture of pride and self-mockery, "that I have the best organized sock drawer in the NFL."
But this time the packing seemed endless ... or maybe final is the word. Richardson lingered. He hesitated. He paused. The end is near. He turns 39 in December. He already ranks fifth in games played by a running back, with 218—and if he makes the New York roster this season, he could move as high as second, behind Lorenzo Neal's 239. He doesn't want to say the r word, but he knows retirement is coming, as surely as the pain comes after you stub your toe. He knows, as he stands on the sideline now, breathing heavy without looking as if he's breathing heavy (a learned skill), that this probably will be the last time he tries to make time at an NFL training camp.
Richardson looks over the field in Cortland, N.Y., and starts to think about this crazy journey, from practice-squad player to special teams dynamo to three-time Pro Bowl fullback to ... no. He stops. This isn't the time. There's a job to do. There are odds to beat. There's another young player to teach how to play fullback. There are other running backs—Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson—to make look good. There are people to help. There is no time to reflect. Not now. Not yet.
Only, as he jogs off the field, toward the dorms, Football's Best Man realizes, yes, that he's kind of crying.