Kathy Richardson liked to tell her young son, A.J., “You’re going to be on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”
She never lost faith, even when a knee injury on the final play of his high school football career and subpar test scores combined to delay the start of his college football career by two years. She wouldn’t let him waver, either.
Now that young boy is a college graduate and senior wide receiver for the Boise State football team — and A.J. Richardson earned his spot on “SportsCenter” two weeks ago with a touchdown catch at Oklahoma State that likely will hold up as one of the best plays in college football this season.
His is a story of patience and resolve in an era of instant playing time and sudden transfers.
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“The real life route, success isn’t just going to look like a straight path,” A.J. Richardson said this week as the Broncos prepared for Saturday’s game at Wyoming. “You’re going to have to face some obstacles.”
Richardson was a star receiver and popular with the school staff at Narbonne High in Southern California, where he caught 27 touchdown passes over his last two seasons, won two Los Angeles City Section Division I titles and committed to play at Cal. But his plans went awry in late 2012, when he tore the ACL in his right knee while scoring a touchdown on the final drive of his team’s playoff loss. He stiff-armed a defender to get into the end zone, but that player fell into his legs, he said.
He also came up short on his college entrance exams and the Cal coaching staff was fired, so he lost his scholarship offer. Boise State stepped in and offered Richardson a scholarship with the stipulation that he grayshirt, which meant he wouldn’t arrive until January 2014 — six months after most of his friends left for college.
Richardson also knew he wouldn’t be academically eligible to play in 2014. He could practice but couldn’t play or travel to a bowl game — which eventually meant he had to stay home while his teammates enjoyed the Fiesta Bowl.
And just weeks before he was scheduled to move to Boise, coach Chris Petersen left for Washington. New coach Bryan Harsin knew almost nothing about Richardson — he’d heard there was an injured wide receiver scheduled to join the program and watched some video of him — but honored the scholarship offer.
“I was just happy to being going to college for free,” Richardson said.
During the yearlong stretch, from Richardson’s injury to Petersen’s departure, Kathy told her son that his religious faith would get him where he needed to go.
“Even when he didn’t want to hear it, I’d say, ‘I can have all the faith in the world, but you have to believe for yourself,’ ” Kathy said. “It took some time, but he realized, ‘I can do this and I’m going to be OK.’ ”
The challenges didn’t stop when Richardson reached college. He couldn’t play in 2014 and still was rebuilding his knee, he made 10 catches in 2015, and he added just two catches in 2016. He’d show flashes of the talent that made him a Pac-12 recruit in high school but struggled to find consistency and playing time.
He credits his mother’s positivity with keeping him focused on the personal growth that allowed him to push through to become a starter in 2017. She sends him a “good morning” text every day — reminding him “you’re great,” mixing in some scripture and adding an emoji like a smiley face or a flexed biceps.
“Whenever I was feeling down or maybe this isn’t the best route, she would always call and get me back on track,” Richardson said. “... Of course, you’re going to face those times. It’s really just how you face it. Are you going to really give into it, or are you going to find a way to change it?”
Richardson never questioned his place in the program to Harsin but they did have a meeting that included Richardson’s dad. Richardson asked what he needed to do to get on the field — then turned the answer into a personal checklist.
“Everything we talked about ... he started to do, and it showed up,” Harsin said.
Richardson started 13 games in 2017 — the fifth football season since his senior year of high school — and made 33 catches for 494 yards and two touchdowns. His most notable play was an 87-yard TD against Air Force, the longest reception by a Bronco in 15 years.
“He’s faster than people think,” senior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “I’ve known that for a long time.”
Richardson ranks third on the team with 12 catches, second with 200 yards and tied for first with two TD grabs this season. In the past two games, he has produced a 74-yard touchdown catch against UConn on which he caught the ball one-handed and stiff-armed a defender to turn a screen pass into an explosive play and that highlight-reel catch against Oklahoma State.
The 34-yard catch against the Cowboys made the plays of the day on “SportsCenter” and was No. 1 on ESPN’s compilation of the top 10 plays in college football that week.
Richardson dashed down the left sideline, overtook his defender and reached out with his left hand to corral the throw from Rypien at about the 6-yard line. He brought the ball into his body and somehow stayed in bounds for the score.
“It was great coverage, and just a great ball by Brett,” Richardson said. “The (defensive back) was on top but I was able to fight through last minute and make the grab. I knew I caught it for sure but I thought I stepped out of bounds. I thought I would be down at the 5, but I stumbled into the end zone and looked up and the referee’s arms were up.”
Kathy watched at home in Long Beach, Calif. The family chat group went bonkers.
“When he was younger, I would always tell him, ‘You’re going to be on ‘SportsCenter,’ you’re going to be on ‘College GameDay,’ Kirk Herbstreit is going to talk about you,’ ” she said. “... When he was the college No. 1 play, I said: ‘Oh, my gosh. See, it’s all coming.’ ”
One of her messages to Richardson throughout his career was this: “You’ve got to get your eyes off of what you think it’s supposed to look like. What God has for you is for you.”
And now he is spreading a similar message to his teammates, as a respected team leader. Wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau said Richardson is “leading the charge” for turning the wide receivers into an unselfish group with what coaches and players have described as special chemistry.
Richardson earned his communications degree in May and hopes to become a recruiting coordinator, building on his experience hosting recruits in Boise.
“Because of the ... adversity and what he’s gone through and where he is right now, I don’t think many things affect him,” Harsin said. “... He brings perspective to that room.”