Commentary

Tony Richardson mentors his successor

Jets' 38-year-old fullback has no problem helping the man who may take his job

Updated: September 1, 2010, 9:24 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When Tony Richardson watched rookie John Conner in two-a-days, trying to blow up linebackers on every play, it reminded him of another young fullback he once knew.

[+] EnlargeTony Richardson
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRichardson doesn't carry the ball often, but he's a big part of the Jets' team.

This fullback played with the same reckless abandon as Conner, an attitude born of rejection. Not one NFL team deemed the fullback worthy of a draft pick, so he had to make it the hard way -- as an undrafted free agent. Conner was similarly snubbed out of high school, going to Kentucky as a walk-on.

You show them a cold shoulder, and they respond by lowering one.

"I came in the same exact way as John," said Richardson, his mind drifting back to 1994, when he was that uncontrollable young colt, trying to win a spot on the Dallas Cowboys. "I was trying to hit anything that moved. The veteran guys had to come to me and say, 'Look, bro, you're not going to have a long shelf-life if you keep running into people like that.' I had no regard for my body."

The wonderful irony is that Richardson's body, which has withstood 15 seasons at one of the most violent positions in the NFL, belongs in the Smithsonian. He learned the art of self-preservation while excelling in a job that is following the path of newspapers -- heading slowly toward extinction. The NFL is turning into a passing league, and guys like Richardson -- throwback fullbacks -- are becoming harder to find.

The New York Jets have two, and Richardson is doing everything he can to impart his wisdom to Conner. It's an extraordinary dynamic, to be sure. Richardson, 38, knows one day he will lose his job to Conner, yet he has no problem sharing his trade secrets with the kid. It's a pay-it-forward ritual that started for Richardson in '94, when the Cowboys' Daryl Johnston did the same for him.

"I told John and Rex [Ryan] the same thing: I'd be doing that young man a disservice if I can't impart some wisdom and things I've learned over the years," said Richardson, who will open the season as the starter. "That's what it's all about. When you leave this league, you want to leave a legacy."

Richardson's legacy is secure. He has played in 218 games, fifth-most for a running back. He went from the Dallas practice squad to Kansas City to Minnesota to New York, helping five different backs to 1,000-yard seasons -- Thomas Jones, Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes.

[+] EnlargeJohn Conner
AP Photo/Mel EvansJohn Conner, aka The Terminator.

Some players crave the spotlight. Richardson is the guy in the shadows, and he's OK with that. He acquired that disciplined, team-oriented approach from his father, Sgt. Major Ben Richardson, who was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. Tony was born in Germany and lived there until the seventh grade, when he moved to Alabama.

Richardson was 15 when Conner was born. That's a serious generation gap in the NFL, where the average career is three years, but Richardson has embraced Conner -- aka The Terminator. It's the ideal nickname because he has the same name as the lead character in the "Terminator" movies and because & let's bring in Rex Ryan for a description.

"The Terminator hits people," the Jets coach said. "That's what he does."

In training camp, Conner knocked out linebacker Josh Mauga -- a teammate -- on an isolation block. Knocked him cold. Ryan, who has been around football his entire life, said he'd never seen anything like that before. Mauga is still feeling the effects of the concussion.

"It's hard to find a fullback that wants to go in there and smack people," Richardson said, "but he's always going full freakin' speed."

Richardson has seen this before, an impressive young player competing for his job. When you enter the league as an undrafted free agent, it's a never-ending battle. As he said, "I've always looked over my shoulder." It's what drives him. It's what makes him want to throw his 238-pound body into a charging, 300-pound lineman, defying the laws of physics and challenging the bounds of sanity.

"It's amazing. I'm still shocked at how good he is at his age," said Conner, who lasted until the fifth round.

Check out the Jets' sideline during a game, and there's a good chance you will see them together, Richardson mentoring his new pupil. A year ago, Richardson was a huge help to quarterback Mark Sanchez, but now he has a pet project at his own position.

Richardson always is offering advice. Take last Friday night, for instance. Richardson noticed the Washington Redskins' linebackers were filling gaps with a "box" technique, dropping a shoulder instead of playing downhill with both shoulders square. Richardson shared that with Conner on the sideline, a helpful tip in the fullback world.

It means there's less body to hit, making it harder to deliver a block.

Other times, Richardson's wisdom is less technical, like reminding the rookie to take a cold tub after a physical practice. Preserve your body, he tells Conner. The kid nods. The old man's legacy grows.

In Richardson's locker, there's a photo from a newspaper, a picture of an actual road sign that says, "Slow … Geezer Crossing." One of the trainers put it there a couple of years ago -- a ton of blocks and countless life lessons ago.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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ESPN New York Jets reporter

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