The question hung in the air like a bomber on approach, seconds away from delivering its payload.
Blessed with a 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame in a recruiting hotbed, Bobby Richardson had just been kicked off the Tampa Bay Tech football team, his junior year of high school washed out by a dispute with the coach. Grades cost Richardson his sophomore season; the football program at his first high school hadn’t fit what Richardson wanted as a freshman, either.
Three seasons into his high school career, and Richardson still hadn’t played a down of high school football. Frustrated by his son’s lack of focus, Bobby Jr. — Richardson is the third Bobby in his family — asked his son a question.
Richardson felt the full weight of the question immediately.
“I realized, this is not the life I’m supposed to be living,” Richardson said. “I had one year left to get it all together.”
Richardson needed a new team. He chose Plant High, a Florida state power coming off of three state titles in four seasons. When he met his new coaches, Richardson’s frame immediately had their attention, but his lack of reputation after coming over from a frequent opponent left Richardson something of a mystery.
“It’s not like he was a big-name guy in the county or anything like that,” Plant High coach Robert Weiner said. “We knew he was a good-looking kid, but we hadn’t seen him on any film or anything like that, or really knew anything about him. We really didn’t know what to expect.”
Weiner realized what had dropped into his hands as soon as Richardson took the practice field. Plant immediately placed Richardson in the starting lineup, and the senior starred as a key cog on the defensive line to help the Panthers reach the state final, the kind of season that normally draws major-college attention.
But Richardson barely made a blip on most recruiting radars. Weiner, who has sent dozens of Panthers to Power Five schools over the years, pitched Richardson to every recruiter who walked through his door.
The response was always the same. Without any highlight reels on Richardson or any football camp evaluations — he hadn’t attended a camp until Plant took him that summer — college football teams weren’t going to buy into an unknown.
“An assistant coach goes back to his head coach and says, ‘Well, the Bobby Richardson kid is interesting, but here’s this other kid who’s already got film to prove it.’ That’s what they look for,” Weiner said. “It wasn’t a mistake the recruiters were making, it’s not like they overlooked him. There was nothing to overlook.”
A Big Ten assistant coach with ties to Tampa finally listened to Weiner. Indiana, putting together its first recruiting class under new coach Kevin Wilson, saw the potential in Richardson and a chance to land a player who was probably undervalued.
Richardson chose the Hoosiers over Ball State and Florida Atlantic.
“He showed up good enough to play as a freshman,” Wilson said. “He was raw, and he needed to develop, but he had the skill set.”
Indiana landed a gem. Richardson started all four seasons for the Hoosiers and blossomed into one of the Big Ten’s better defensive linemen.
Richardson also proved he’d learned from his mistakes. A bright student whose father had always stressed the importance of grades, Richardson was a model student for Weiner at Plant as a senior, and according to Wilson, it carried into college. Richardson graduated in four years with a degree in African-American and African Diaspora studies.
Then the NFL draft arrived. No longer unknown, Richardson had to shake another kind of adversity. A ’tweener who measured in at 6-foot-3, 283 pounds at the NFL Combine, Richardson’s 5.16 seconds in the 40-yard dash made him too slow for a traditional 4-3 defensive end and smaller than the 300-pounders who play the interior.
Despite draft experts predicting a potential midround selection, Richardson went undrafted.
“It’s just the hand I was dealt,” Richardson said early in training camp. “I can’t live in the past. I’ve got to make the best of what I’ve got.”
New Orleans put the full-court press on Richardson after the draft. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called. So did defensive line coach Bill Johnson. Richardson felt like the Saints wanted him more than most, and the reasons were clear right from the start. Richardson’s lateral quickness and relentless style made him a playmaker early in camp.
He also found himself in one of the tightest position battles in camp. Three other undrafted defensive linemen made strong pushes too. And during the third preseason game, against the Texans, broadcaster Troy Aikman said the Saints planned to keep two of the four.
Richardson responded by making six tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in the preseason finale, a tour de force performance that has earned him a spot on the Saints’ 53-man roster.
Richardson’s improbable rise might not have happened without his father’s influence. The elder Bobby Richardson was a football player too; Richardson said his dad had to give up hopes of a college career when his son came along.
“He had to stay home and take care of me,” Richardson said. “I try to do my best, so he can live his football life through me.”
And he’s answered his father’s long-ago, life-altering question better than anybody could have expected.