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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Sheldon Richardson loves a good football story

By Matthew Coller

EAGAN, Minn. — Players on the Minnesota Vikings know they have it pretty good when there’s a casual lounge area connected to their spacious locker room. If you forgot from early media coverage of TCO Performance Center, has two fireplaces, multiple televisions and large pleather couches in the middle.

Inside the lounge within a lounge — which is right around the corner from the smoothie bar — is two more big TVs, more couches, some with extended cushions to allow for full relaxation. Sheldon Richardson makes himself at home on one of those, strokes his beard and starts talkin’ football.

Midway through his first sentence, wide receiver Adam Thielen walks by and shouts, “are you telling him about your days as a tight end?”

Richardson has apparently told this one before.

So indeed the Vikings’ defensive tackle explains that he played everywhere in high school and loved it.

“The only thing I didn’t play in high school was probably corner,” he says proudly. “I played safety a few plays. If they had a big guy who wasn’t fast, they’d say ‘if he comes across the middle you got him.’ Anything to do to win, I was all for it. It was fun.”

Rivals rated him as the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect and the fourth best recruit in the country. Unfortunately his days as an Alge Crumpler wannabe came to an end when he registered 19 sacks and scored six defensive touchdowns and it was clear he’d be on the defensive side of the ball for the rest of his playing career. After all, those are some Deacon Jones numbers.

We know Richardson now as a guy on a one-year deal with the Vikings fighting to prove he deserves to be named along with some of the best defensive tackles in the game a la Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Akiem Hicks — and in turn pushing to prove he deserves a long-term contract.

We know him as the player who dominated early in his career and then wore out his welcome with the New York Jets after a handful of off-field issues in a short period of time. And as the player who didn’t quite put up the same numbers you’d expect with Seattle — though the team and stat analysts will argue he was better than his sack stats suggested.

But during his days in Missouri at Gateway Institute of Technology, where he was an All-American high school football player, Richardson was an unexpected star from a magnet school of 1,200 that has rarely produced professional sports stars. At that time he was a kid who loved learning about the history of football from his dad and taking in everything he could about the superstars of the NFL on Sundays.

Kids of the 1970s might have emulated Roberto Clemente or Mickey Mantle’s battling stances. For Richardson, on any given play he would attempt to mimic a Richard Seymour pass rush move or try to read the play like Ray Lewis, stuff a run like Tony Siragusa or play with the intensity of Brian Dawkins. When he got the ball he wanted to run like Jerome Bettis. And Crumpler was his favorite tight end.

“I love the way he’d take a hit,” Richardson said. “Across the middle, safety blowing his chest up and he still holding the ball, throwing it at ‘em like ‘I’ll sign it for you next,’ stuff like that. It was just fun.”

No matter the question, Richardson has an answer that is layered with NFL player references from both back in day and when he was a teenager. The Deacon Jones shoutout came from his dad, who was a high school and a semi-pro football player.

“I never really had a favorite team, I always liked players,” he says. “You come across cats that you’ve heard about. Deacon Jones had 40 sacks in one season. They blocked different with their elbows back in the day, but still you have to go back there and get it. Dominance like that. Javon Kearse, ‘The Freak,’ Leonard Little, all those guys, I’ve been a history buff for awhile now.”

Coincidentally Richardson now plays with Kearse’s nephew, Jayron.

There’s no hesitation in the defensive lineman’s voice when he’s name dropping. He doesn’t have to look anything up on his phone or struggle to recall names, positions or backgrounds. You might bet Richardson knows more Pro Bowlers from ’02 than ’17. It’s like Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, except for a distinct period of NFL history.

“There’s all types of cats, it might be just one play and then I would research them,” Richardson said. “Just look where they came from, what schools they went to, what types of D-line coaches that coached them up and how they play the way they play.”

If you know something about a star player from the early 2000s, the soon-to-be 28-year-old wants to hear it. When he played for the Jets, the former 13th overall pick watched the moving NFL Films “A Football Life” documentary on Curtis Martin. He respected the way Laveranues Coles went over the middle. The best part was coming across factoids about how the player rose to the top of the game and some of the lore surrounding the greats.

“Ray Lewis…I heard someone say he could tell by the sound of the shoulder pads that it’s a play-action pass because he’d hear hands instead of helmets colliding with his linemen,” Richardson says. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff you’d come across.”

It was pretty wild for the Vikings’ starting three-technique when Hall of Famer Warren Sapp bristled at comparisons between the two in 2014.

“As soon as that kid gets off the ‘I think I was better and should have been drafted in a different position,’ maybe he’ll see his future,” Sapp told the Daily News. “Let’s not anoint this kid the next best thing since sliced bread yet.”

That’s like writing a hit song and then having Paul McCartney say, “what have you done?”

“Can’t take away from him though I might not like the guy he is, he had some negative things to say about me and my grind, but even still, his work shows,” said Richardson, who had tried to copy Sapp’s swim move as a teenager.

Sheldon has takes, too.

Joe Montana is the GOAT to him because back then quarterbacks had to be tough. Montana had to get up from being a crumpled ball underneath Lawrence Taylor — though he offers no disrespect to Tom Brady and his rings.

Getting fined $20,000 earlier this year for a hit on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t seem to annoy him as much as mediocre QBs putting up Montana numbers.

“[Toughness] was a big deal because you got hit!” he said. “You can be average Joe Schmo and be soft, mentally, physically and they will still try to hype you up as a dominant QB.”

There’s a joy in Richardson’s voice when he shares back-in-the-day stories that you rarely hear in an interview with an NFL player. About 15 minutes into the chat, he was supposed to wrap things up for another interview, but instead he opted to keep the conversation going.

“It’s all good, we’re done when we’re done,” he says.

It’s hard to explain the rarity of this event.

The conversation reaches a different type of place with him than questions about, say, matching up with James Daniels and Cody Whitehair of the Bears — though he might just drop Olin Kreutz’s name on you in that case. Regardless, he says his passion for the game goes back to his earliest memories.

“I first got my love for the game is when I was five,” Richardson says. “It was when I hit my first dummy bag and I was the youngest cat on the team because I started playing football even before I went to school. My birthday is in November and if your birthday isn’t before the school year starts, you have to wait until you are six. I was literally like punishing kids, like they were crying and stuff and I was like, yeah, this is something I need, this is fun.”

“It wasn’t too long after that I started being a student of the game.”

It’s a feeling still exists within Richardson, but in different ways. He doesn’t watch his peers on YouTube because those are folks he’s competing with every Sunday. That passion gets redirected into his profession.

“I’ve been really impressed with Sheldon,” head coach Mike Zimmer said in mid-October. “And not just his play, but the way he’s come in here and tried to learn the techniques we’re trying to teach him, his professionalism, (and) how he handles himself in the meetings.”

But Richardson thinks about the old days a lot. The excitement of being a highly-recruited player and young football fan. He seems to feel about football how you might feel about your first crush. He says he wants to help more kids from his area experience that type of relationship with the game as a coach or mentor when he’s done playing.

“It was a great feeling, I want other kids to experience that feeling,” he says. “Some kids don’t ever leave the city that they are in and they just see it on TV and think that’s a pipe dream. I tell them, anything in life, you can achieve it, it’s just going to be hard…. People think football players are crazy…or that they do it for money, but there’s more to it than that because there’s nothing in life that’s given. Pretty sure where you are at right now, it was hard as hell…you take that work and you appreciate it, you hold value.

Because he’s having a great season, it might be easy to say Minnesota has helped him recapture some of his football glee. Richardson picked a heckuva good situation to help re-shape his image and enjoy his time in the North — and not just because of the smoothie bar and lounges. Not only do the Vikings have Pro Bowlers across the D-line, they have a strong organizational infrastructure with a long-time GM, five-year head coach and one of the most highly respected D-line coaches in the game in Andre Patterson.

“He’s been really good with everything,” Zimmer added. “There’s been some plays that a lot of people don’t recognize that I see on tape and I’m like, ‘that’s a heck of a play.’ Everybody sees the sacks and the hits on the quarterback. But they don’t see sometimes when you split the double team and you make a tackle or you run 20 yards down the field and make a tackle. Those things are impressive to me.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Richardson ranks ninth in the NFL among interior defensive linemen in QB pressures with 32 and third in QB hits.

“Sheldon has been an ultimate pro since he’s been here, with his work habits and the things that he brings to the table with his skill set,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “He’s bought in to what we’re trying to get accomplished defensively, and he really has helped us a lot inside. Against the run game, he’s very stout against the run, you’re not going to move him off the ball. In the passing game he’s getting push in the pocket. I know his sack numbers aren’t as high as he’d like them to be right now, but I can tell you that he’s right there and the quarterback feels his push inside.”

There isn’t much debate about how good Richardson can be. The elephant in the room is whether he will continue to play at an elite level inside over the course of a long-term contract and whether he can avoid any suspension-worthy incidents like the ones that caused the Jets to move along.

Richardson, as one would, says he’s grown up and is playing for his daughter these days — and the sample size of him fulfilling potential is growing.

“I want to be great,” he says. “I want to win a ring. I want to win a ring. That’s something I really want to do. Yeah, I want to get paid but I really, really want to win a ring more. I really want to win a ring.”

So maybe now with a lot of noise removed, his focus is closer than it’s been in a long time to youthful appreciation for the game. And if he does get that ring, he might very well be one of the players whose story football-crazy kids are telling years later.

The post Sheldon Richardson loves a good football story appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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