Kansas stop ce­mented LB’s be­lief in Arkansas

The ninth in a se­ries pro­fil­ing new­com­ers to the Arkansas Ra­zor­backs foot­ball team.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BROOKS KUBENA

A tor­nado dropped down from the sky on Gabe Richard­son’s sec­ond day in Hutchin­son, Kan.

Richard­son, a 6-4, 255-pound out­side line­backer, wasn’t in Ge­or­gia any­more.

He had hardly un­packed his bags, and his world was al­ready tear­ing it­self apart.

Lo­cals who re­ferred to the city’s com­mu­nity col­lege as “Hutch,” knew ev­ery­thing would even­tu­ally fall back into place. Richard­son ner­vously reached for his phone.

His mother, April Steele, told him: “Take shel­ter. You can’t stop ’em.”

Richard­son, a thou­sand miles away from De­catur, a small com­mu­nity just east of At­lanta, was try­ing to rekin­dle his foot­ball ca­reer in the sum­mer of 2016. Divi­sion I re­cruit­ment fiz­zled af­ter he had failed to qual­ify aca­dem­i­cally while at South­west DeKalb High School, and this was his fi­nal chance to slow the crawl­ing cloud of doubt.

He had to take shel­ter at Hutch be­cause he couldn’t stop it.

A year later, Richard­son would ac­cept a schol­ar­ship to the Univer­sity of Arkansas, Fayet­teville.

“I was not will­ing to die in Kansas,” said Richard­son, 20, who is one of 25 mem­bers of the 2017 Ra­zor­backs re­cruit­ing class. “It got crazy out there. But it made me who I am: Men­tally tough.”

The day af­ter the tor­nado, Richard­son re­ported for mini camp at 5 a.m. Train­ing ended at 11:30 a.m., when he would have an hour off to wash up, eat and get ready for class from 1 p.m. un­til 5 p.m.

Sum­mer passed like some plague-rid­den scrip­ture, more tor­na­does and a wild­fire, un­til foot­ball sea­son ar­rived. And in­stead of us­ing the high­tech sports medicine fa­cil­i­ties Richard­son had seen on Divi­sion I re­cruit­ing trips, the re­cov­ery of the body was of­ten left up to him.

“Juco cats don’t get a lot of the love with what they’ve been do­ing,” Richard­son said. “You get an ice bath, a few man­agers. But they’re not go­ing to wine and dine you. Ev­ery­thing else is on you. Go to Wal-Mart for what you need. Get lady friends to mas­sage you.”

The phone calls home be­came dif­fer­ent. More con­fi­dent, less dis­tressed.

“He was a to­tally dif­fer­ent per­son,” said Steele, who raised Richard­son with help from her fam­ily when she and her hus­band di­vorced in 2007. “He’d al­ways been very out­go­ing and smart. But go­ing to Hutch by him­self, he

be­came more self suf­fi­cient, more in­de­pen­dent. His whole at­ti­tude changed.”

Once foot­ball sea­son started, Richard­son said he felt like he “needed to ex­cel” dur­ing Hutchin­son’s 11-game sched­ule. And he did, ty­ing for sev­enth in the Kansas Jay­hawk Com­mu­nity Col­lege Con­fer­ence with six sacks and ty­ing for sixth with 18.5 tack­les for loss.

The Hutchin­son Blue Dragons ended up 5-6, but they fin­ished with the con­fer­ence’s sec­ond-best team de­fense and most sacks.

Divi­sion I in­ter­est re­turned, and by Novem­ber, Arkansas was among the pro­grams re­cruit­ing Richard­son. For­mer Arkansas grad­u­ate as­sis­tant Al­fred Davis be­came Hutchin­son’s de­fen­sive line coach on Jan. 11, and Richard­son said Davis took him on un­of­fi­cial vis­its to Fayet­teville.

By na­tional sign­ing day, Richard­son had his heart set on Arkansas.

“He had his eye on Arkansas way be­fore I even knew he was even think­ing about it,” Steele said. “We went to visit [the Univer­sity of] Buf­falo, and I said he should go to Buf­falo. He said, ‘Nope, I’m go­ing to Arkansas.’ ”

But Arkansas didn’t have a schol­ar­ship to of­fer. It had reached its 85- schol­ar­ship limit, and Richard­son would have to be a blueshirt, which meant he would have to pay for school un­til a schol­ar­ship was avail­able for him.

Even then, there would be no com­plete cer­tainty of an even­tual schol­ar­ship, only the un­of­fi­cial prom­ise of a coach­ing staff.

Sign­ing day passed, and Richard­son did not sign a let­ter of in­tent, he said, even af­ter Louisville called with an of­fer once they heard he was think­ing of blueshirt­ing.

Richard said he un­der­stands that his de­ci­sion to pass on schol­ar­ship of­fers and wait for Arkansas to free up a schol­ar­ship might seem un­usual from the out­side.

“I kept my prayers ex­tra high,” he said. “I knew God was in con­trol, and that my de­ci­sion was go­ing to be for the best.”

He thought of Fayet­teville.

He thought of Reynolds Ra­zor­back Sta­dium. He thought of play­ing foot­ball in the SEC, the na­tion’s most suc­cess­ful foot­ball con­fer­ence.

Then, the doubts rose: “Am I strong enough? Fast enough?”

He shook them away: “This is my op­por­tu­nity. I should take it even though it’s a small win­dow.”

A month passed. Then three weeks more, and the spring se­mes­ter was com­ing to a close.

Richard­son said he was pre­par­ing to leave his tor­nado-swirling town for greener hills and val­leys, and he was ready to pay for it if need be.

Then, on March 27, a spot cleared. Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema gave Richard­son a full schol­ar­ship.

“I was go­ing to come out of pocket, and I didn’t mind,” Richard­son said. “I trusted Coach B [Bielema]. This is a man I’ve only known for a short time. When the first per­son that mes­sages you is the head coach, that was a bond that grew quick. I felt like we could trust each other.”

Richard­son ar­rived in Fayet­teville on May 30, and by the sec­ond day, he didn’t need to take shel­ter.

And why would he? He wasn’t in Kansas any­more.

Cour­tesy Hutchin­son Com­mu­nity Col­lege

Line­backer Gabe Richard­son (cen­ter) had six sacks last sea­son at Hutchin­son Com­mu­nity Col­lege. Richard­son signed with Arkansas in Fe­bru­ary with only the prom­ise of a schol­ar­ship on the ta­ble.

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