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Total commitment

By Chad Bonham

Tony Richardson has a secret. He’s been keeping it from his Kansas City Chiefs teammates for years now. It’s not one of those secrets that could wreck a politician’s bid for the presidency, but more of the embarrassing type that might create an awkward moment in the locker room.

“I have a passion for fresh-cut flowers,” Richardson admits. “I like to wake up in the morning and have them in the bedroom and the bathroom. I have them in the kitchen and my basement.”

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine Richardson making regular trips to the local flower shop (he visits every two weeks). The burly 6-foot-2-inch, 232-pound veteran known as “T-Rich” is one of the toughest fullbacks in the NFL. But Richardson is so well respected for his legendary work ethic and his steadfast faith in Christ that even his quirky love of botany won’t likely sway the opinions of his teammates.

“It’s important that people know that I play a very physical position at fullback … but my foundation is built on my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Richardson says. “Everyone in this organization knows that and they respect me. I’ve never had a problem expressing that here.”

Richardson’s confident attitude took hold long before he accepted Christ. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in a military family. His father, retired Sgt. Maj. Ben Richardson, sent his family off to church most every Sunday, but the younger Richardson admits he did as he pleased from Monday to Saturday and never took his faith too seriously.

His family eventually landed in Daleville, Ala., where Richardson was a three-sport star athlete and reluctant Fellowship of Christian Athletes president. He went on to star for Auburn University before getting his first shot at the NFL in 1994 when he signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent rookie. Richardson was released and then added to the practice squad where he was tutored by Emmitt Smith and Daryl Johnston.

The next season, Richardson signed with the Chiefs and worked his way onto the field for some significant playing time. He only carried the ball eight times during the season, but served as a valuable run blocker and helped make Marcus Allen’s 100th career rushing touchdown possible. In 2000, Richardson had a breakout year leading the team in rushing, but the arrival of Priest Holmes a year later required him to take the thankless fullback position.

“I was at a point in my career where it wasn’t about money,” Richardson says. “It wasn’t about fame or fortune or anything like that. It was about wanting to win. So we came in with a new offense and brought Priest in and things started to blow up. I just wanted to be a part of it.”

In 2001, Richardson paved the way for Holmes to lead the league in rushing. The star tailback rushed for a franchise-record 1,615 yards in 2002 and set a new NFL standard with 27 touchdowns in 2003. Richardson’s efforts were rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl.

As a younger player off the field, Richardson had continued with a noncommittal brand of Christianity. But a budding friendship with former teammate Dave Szott slowly turned his heart towards a more serious commitment.

“That was probably the first time I ever saw what a true man of God was all about,” Richardson says. “Dave was the type of guy who walked around with a Bible in his hand. That was the way he lived his life. I spent so much time with him and his wife and I saw him living as a godly husband and a godly father. He was different. He knew there were some things in my life that weren’t lining up the way they needed to be.”

Richardson had attended church several times since moving to Kansas City. There were even times when he felt convicted to take a trip to the altar, but pride always arrested his spirit. That all changed the night Szott and his wife invited Richardson to church for a revival service.

“I remember the preacher was up there preaching,” Richardson says. “He was talking about how he had all of these things. He had his college degree. He had the money. But he didn’t have that peace inside. And I was sitting there with 5,000 people in the church and I was thinking, Man, with all of these people sitting here, why is this man picking on me?”

Richardson finally came to grips with his weakness and decided it was the time to take that belated trip down the aisle. “God just really came into my life and took over and like Paul says, he took off the old man and put on a new man,” he says.

When Szott (now retired) left the team for the New York Jets, Richardson suddenly found himself filling another important role — spiritual leader. After growing in his faith under Szott’s watchful eye, Richardson was ready to provide counsel and comfort to teammates in need.

“Anytime a guy has a situation, they know they can come to me and I’ll be there to pray with them or talk to them,” Richardson says. “It’s really awesome how God has placed me in this position of leadership.”

Richardson, 32, is single and takes advantage of the freedom by making numerous appearances every year and taking part in a wide array of charity events. He established the “Rich in Spirit” Foundation in 2000 in an effort to work with such organizations as Special Olympics and Athletes in Action. Richardson has also partnered with fellow Christian athlete Mike Sweeney of the Kansas City Royals.

One of his favorite charitable efforts is spent working on education-related projects. In 2003, T-Rich put more than $20,000 into “The Dictionary Project,” ensuring that all third-grade students in the five-county Kansas City-area received a dictionary. He recently ran into a man at the grocery store whose daughter had benefited from the program.

Richardson became emotional when the man told “T-Rich” the story of walking into her room one night and seeing her sleeping with the dictionary. “We were in the frozen food section and we were both in tears,” Richardson laughs.

Richardson stays even busier by hosting a local talk show every week. Chief Cornerstone, originally hosted by Szott, airs on Christian station KLJC (88.5 FM). In the past five years, Richardson has completed his degree in education from Auburn (2000) and earned his MBA from Webster University.

The forward-thinking athlete also works an internship each off-season in preparation for life after football. Richardson has interned at a local NBC affiliate and within the sales and marketing departments of the Chiefs and Kansas City Wizards. Richardson hopes to stay connected to the NFL when his career is over but says he is open to whatever God calls him to do whether it’s in education, business … or perhaps the flower industry.

“I play football for a living, but that’s not who I am,” Richardson says. “I’m a man of God first. Football’s going to be over one day and I’m still going to serve God. I’m still going to walk in the steps that He’s already laid out for me.”

Chad Bonham is a freelance writer and television producer living in Tulsa, Okla.

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