ANYONE WHO HAS WATCHED TRENT RICHARDSON run has a favorite moment. LSU coach Les Miles, who'd tried to recruit Richardson out of Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., cites a highlight of recent vintage—the Alabama tailback's 76-yard touchdown against Ole Miss on Oct. 15. It was Richardson's fourth score of the day, and it involved, in order: a broken tackle in the backfield; two more broken tackles at the line of scrimmage; an all-out sprint through traffic that suddenly veered right, over the O in the cursive OLE MISS at midfield; and, finally, an inhumane step-back 15 yards from the end zone that caused Rebels defensive back Senquez Golson's knees to buckle so sharply he appeared to genuflect. "That," Miles said of Richardson's juke, "would have thrown my hip out of its joint."
Miles has also seen the 5' 11", 224-pound Richardson inflict some indignity upon LSU itself, notably in a Nov. 5 collision with the Tigers' Tyrann Mathieu, the nation's top defensive player and a cornerback famed for big hits. Mathieu not only surrendered a first down to Richardson—who piled up 169 total yards in the game—but was also knocked backward 10 feet, limbs flailing, until he landed like a trout atop a boat deck.
Press Richardson for his own choice moment, though, and he points to a run from his days as a backup to eventual NFL draft first-rounder Mark Ingram. On Sept. 26, 2009, against Arkansas, Richardson, then a freshman, had no fewer than five Razorbacks defenders lay hands on him before bolting 50 yards for a TD. No jukes, no spins. Just straight locomotion. "But I didn't do anything special," Richardson notes, attempting to credit Alabama's offensive line. And then there is a pause, as if the 2011 Doak Walker Award winner has suddenly remembered what is now evident on YouTube. "Well," Richardson allows, "I probably broke a few tackles."
Indeed. During the 2011 regular season there may have been players with more rushing touchdowns (Richardson's 20 ranked fifth in the country) and rushing yards (his 1,583 was good for sixth), but the sheer variety of jaw-dropping highlights elevates the CV of a runner who is not only better than his Heisman-winning predecessor but also more entertaining. Richardson is a battering ram who pirouettes, a jackrabbit who can bench-press more than 475 pounds and shrug off the toughest defenders in the SEC. "Bruising back would be an insult to what he is," Alabama coach Nick Saban said this year. "Though he does that pretty well too."
LONG BEFORE RICHARDSON BEGAN BRUISING IN COLLEGE, he had his mettle tested. In 2005 he arrived at Escambia and became the first freshman to start in the backfield since the school's most famous alum, Emmitt Smith, more than two decades earlier. Three games into his high school career Richardson tore ligaments in his left ankle, forcing surgery and ending his season. He was back for '06, but in the third game he again tore ligaments, this time in his right ankle. Doctors looked at the scared sophomore, who was on crutches, and told him he might never play football again.
Around that time an even bigger bombshell dropped, courtesy of his then girlfriend: He was going to be a father. Richardson was 17 when his daughter was born. "It all really humbled me," he recalls, his voice low. "I could have easily just given up. But I'm glad it worked out like it did. I probably wouldn't have worked as hard as I do now."
He plunged into the weight room, determined to build a physique able to weather high-level Panhandle football. Once subject to dressing-downs by Escambia coach Jimmy Nichols for a lack of discipline, the tailback became the team's hardest, most responsible worker: always practicing in the summer and always checking the team's sign-in book to see who was on hand and who needed an extra phone call for motivation.
Trent and his older brother Terrell—who went on to play defensive end at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2007 through '10—would run sprints up the dunes by the train tracks near their humble Pensacola home. Turn one way and you'd see the shimmering waters of the bay; turn another and you'd see the brothers pounding the sand into even finer dust. When the boxcars rattled past, a teammate once joked, it looked like Trent was "fixing to race the train."
If the results on the gridiron are any indication, such a race might have gotten interesting. In a game at the start of his junior year Richardson broke loose for 407 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Almost overnight he went from being an overlooked player on the injury list to being courted by what seemed like every major-college coach in the country. Richardson would finish the season with 1,490 rushing yards and 15 TDs in seven games and was named second team all-state.