INDIANAPOLIS – When defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was looking to make his decision on where to play college football coming out of Gateway Tech High in St. Louis, he ultimately opted for the University of Missouri.
Despite offers from the top college programs around the country, programs like Miami and Southern California, Richardson chose Mizzou because it was the closest to home.
As Richardson prepares for the next step in his football career, he no longer has any say in where he plays next. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t mind the chance to come home and play for the Rams.
“That's something that I'll leave up to draft day,” Richardson said. “But if it does happen, I mean, that's a blessing just to stay in my hometown, never leaving the state of Missouri playing football except when I went to junior college. “
For Richardson, St. Louis represents far more than home cooked meals, family and friends. In many ways, it represents the struggle that took him from a rough inner city neighborhood to the verge of reaching football’s highest level.
Growing up in one of the roughest parts of St. Louis, Richardson found himself surrounded by temptations that could have drawn him in and ruined the football dreams he’d harbored since he first started liking football at 5 years old.
Instead, Richardson leaned on his family, looking up to his two older brothers no matter how often they’d beat up on their younger sibling.
Reaching the NFL isn’t just a realization of a lifelong dream for Richardson; it’s a chance to embody all things possible for kids from similar circumstances and to make his family proud.
It’s why when Richardson arrived here for this scouting combine late at night and went sleep deprived to medical evaluations, his megawatt grin never faded.
“Honestly, I'm from the part in St. Louis that nobody wants to be a part of,” Richardson said. “I represent what a lot of kids don't want to represent. I'm just happy to be here. It's a blessing and it's a privilege, and I'm proud of myself and having my family supporting me _ my father and my mother and my brothers, my cousins, aunties, everybody.
“They're always coming to my football games and telling me to stay on it. They see a lot in me. And it's finally coming together. I'm here doing something I've been dreaming about since I was 5 years old. I haven't lost this smile since I got here.”
In reality, the chances of Richardson getting to return home to play in the NFL is a bit of a longshot. Not necessarily because the Rams are uninterested in him – general manager Les Snead acknowledged that he’d be open to drafting a defensive tackle despite the team’s personnel there - but because he’s likely played his way out of their reach.
After a dominant redshirt junior season at Missouri in which he posted 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles, Richardson decided the time was right to declare early for the NFL Draft though he says leaving his team behind was the hardest thing he’s had to do.
Having gone through the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., Richardson’s path to the NFL had taken a detour he’d hoped he could avoid.
When he finally arrived in Columbia for his first season as a Tiger, Richardson had a chip on his shoulder always playing with something to prove and was out of shape, playing at 315 pounds in 2011.
Richardson worked hard to shed the weight, trimming down to around 290 pounds. With a leaner frame, Richardson became more explosive and the Tigers used him in a variety of ways, even using him as a stand up linebacker and pass rusher in certain situations.
Richardson became the explosive, relentless leader of a much-improved Missouri defense and shot up the draft boards in the opinions of analysts.
“The Richardson kid is exciting,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “At 300 pounds, to me, he had movement skills of a 250‑pound linebacker. Missouri actually stood him up. How often do you see a defensive tackle standing up and playing a linebacker position at 30 pounds? So, obviously, Missouri and Dave Steckel were highly impressed with this kid's athletic ability. He's really gifted.”
Those gifts have Richardson firmly in the top 15 players in this year’s draft according to many pundits.
In some cases, Richardson is even viewed as the best defensive tackle in a class that includes Florida’s Sharrif Floyd and Utah’s Star Lotulelei. When Richardson and the rest of the defensive linemen work out Monday morning at Lucas Oil Stadium, many expect him to put on quite a display of athleticism.
After all, Richardson is the same player who once lined up all over the field as a 260-pound high schooler, even returning punts and kicks for Gateway Tech. Combine those skills with his supreme confidence and you have a player who believes he’s more than just the best defensive tackle in the draft.
“I see myself (as) a top pick,” Richardson said. “Not a top 10 pick. I don't come in this draft to be second to anyone, so if they see what they like, they'll draft me. I'm gonna be myself at all times, and you're gonna get a helluva ballplayer.”
Even with that said, Richardson expressed plenty of respect for players like Floyd and Lotulelei, saying that they each bring a different style and it’s up to the teams to determine which style they prefer.
Considering there aren’t likely to be many questions about Richardson’s physical skills, one of the things that will follow him is his outspoken nature. Some draft analysts believe Richardson’s propensity for speaking his mind equates to character problems.
During the season, Richardson was limited in media access after he said some inflammatory things about some opponents. For his part, Richardson says he’s learned his lesson but doesn’t plan to stop being his usual, gregarious self.
“Just watch what I say,” Richardson said. “They can make a little bit of anything and make something out of it. I'm still myself, so I'm still having fun even when I'm in the media today. So you still see a smile on my face. “
Richardson likely will ultimately end up in the top 10 of this year’s draft particularly with new questions coming up about a heart issue for Lotulelei. Considering his track record of versatility, he could play in just about any defensive scheme but most see him as a pure pass rushing three-technique defensive tackle.
“I think his natural position is the three-technique, which is that defensive tackle in the four‑man front,” Mayock said. “But it's not the only position he can play. You can move him around and I think just about all 32 teams in the league could find a way to utilize his skill set. He's really exciting. He's got a ton of upside, and he's as physically gifted a defensive player as there is in this draft.”
For a team like the Rams, the thought of an athletic, high motor player like Richardson pushing the pocket could be the final piece of an absolutely terrifying defensive front should the hometown boy fall in their laps at No. 16.
And if, as expected, Richardson is long gone before the Rams come on the clock, it’s safe to assume that his hometown won’t be forgotten even as his career begins anew elsewhere.
“When I got my notoriety, it felt like I really didn't have it because I was from an inner-city school and we didn't get a lot of publicity like that,” Richardson said. “So when I did get it, it was just a happy experience for me. I just had to prove everybody wrong because they still believe that inner-city kids don't stand a chance coming out of St. Louis. And I'm a testament to that (being untrue).