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In June 2008 Richardson assessed his suitors, more than 25 in all (including LSU and Florida), and chose Saban and Alabama. By the time he finished his senior season at Escambia, with 26 rushing touchdowns and 2,090 yards on 225 carries, his future seemed secure.
But even as comparisons with Emmitt Smith cropped up, Richardson only needed to look around the hardscrabble projects of Pensacola to know better than to pretend that he was out of harm's way. "It would've been really easy to go down the wrong path," Richardson says now. "I have friends today who are either in prison or gone or shot. ... My mama kept me in the sports scene, and my brother stayed on top of me. I learned from close friends' mistakes."
In fact, Richardson continues, when he goes home to visit, friends will warn him: We got something goin' on, you can't hang with us now. We don't want to put you in a bad situation. We don't want to get in a car with you. "I could've easily been that guy on the corner, selling drugs," Richardson says. "I could've easily been the guy robbing a store."
INSTEAD, ON A CHILLY DECEMBER DAY IN MIDTOWN MANHATTAN, Richardson was the guy sitting inside a ballroom in the Marriott Marquis. He was a Heisman finalist, and while the best running back in the nation did not win the big trophy (he finished third in the voting), he issued no complaints. "I'm still waiting for the moment when I wake up," Richardson said with a smile during his visit to New York. "When it's like, Oh, this is just a dream. ... It's like I've got a movie playing in my head right now."
Though he might have raced trains as a teenager, the tailback was floored by New York's bus and car traffic, by Times Square and all the tall buildings, everything moving faster and faster. Leading up to those memorable days in New York City, Pensacola's favorite son heard from his hometown heroes: Smith, former NFL linebacker Derrick Brooks, Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin, boxer Roy Jones Jr.
Yet the people whose encouragement he values most are those in his family. He was never close with his father, but Trent's mother, Katrina Richardson, was a stable, hardworking presence, who cleaned houses and worked at seafood restaurants and day-care centers to provide for Trent and six of his siblings, five of them adopted. His grandmother Gloria Richardson is a bus driver. And then there are his most burning sources of motivation: his two daughters, five-year-old Taliyah and three-year-old Elevera, both of whose names are tattooed on his right arm. "If I don't do good, man, they can't eat," says Richardson, who recalls dinners of peanut butter sandwiches with syrup and ramen noodles growing up. "I gotta make sure I'm doing what I can. I can't be complacent."
His tenure at Alabama shows that. Richardson never squawked while sitting behind Ingram for his first two years, even as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a freshman (on 145 attempts) and 6.3 as a sophomore (on 112). Instead, the business major who is now the nation's top running back prospect simply worked hard—so hard, actually, that his coaches restricted his weightlifting for fear that Richardson might hurt himself. As Saban put it: "He's a great leader. He sets a great example. ... He's probably been as good a player as I've had the opportunity to coach."
An opportunity is what Richardson has cherished—the chance to play after Ingram left, the chance that now awaits him to make his mark in the NFL and the chance he had to mingle for a couple of special days in December with the most accomplished of his NCAA peers. "I'm overwhelmed right now," he said in New York, echoing so many who watched him run. "I just know that I'm here."