COLUMBIA — Aside from students waiting to get picked up and the occasional passer-by, there aren't usually many people watching a Hickman football practice. But you can almost always count on at least two.
Mike Richardson and Terry Alexander, both proud Hickman parents with sons on the team, come every day with bleacher seatbacks in hand to watch the Kewpies toil through the daily grind.
Hickman wide receiver Wesley Leftwich might have gone to school in his pajamas on Monday as part of the school's Homecoming week, but he's going to be wide awake when the Kewpies take the field on Friday night.
Hickman defends its home turf for just the second time this season against the Jaguars of Gateway IT (4-2). Hickman's Homecoming week culminates in a parade through downtown Columbia followed by the game, which Leftwich hopes will please the Kewpies' faithful.
"People are excited with the Homecoming parade and then being able to come out here and watch us win, hopefully. We want to make our crowd happy," Leftwich said.
In order to do so, the Kewpies will have to rebound from a loss against Rockhurst, one of the state's top teams. Leftwich said last week's game has given the Kewpies an idea of the effort they will need on Friday.
"They're a fast, physical team," Leftwich said. "We can't overlook them. We've got to come out here and play like we're playing Rockhurst again."
Hickman head coach Jason Wright won't be overlooking Gateway IT, but he's also reluctant to buy into the hype surrounding Homecoming.
"If our guys can settle down and make plays, our crowd will feed off of that," Wright said. "Any game is pressure. You want to play better at home because you're in front of your home crowd, but our guys have to learn how to feed off that."
Before suffering a stroke at the age of 35, Richardson had a job that paid well and the amenities that accompanied it. His hobbies included flying airplanes and driving fast cars. Now, eight years after the left side of his body went numb one night, he's learned the importance of family and the riches of providing to others.
At first, Richardson wasn't sure if his presence at practice would burden his son, Mike Jr., who is a starter at guard this year.
"I don't want to be an overbearing parent," Mike Richardson Sr. said. "I asked him if he wanted me to be here and he told me he did."
Although the main point of conversation between the fathers during the two-and-a-half hour practices is Kewpies football, topics range from the importance of education to the nostalgia of classic cars, for which both have a passion. Through their involvement with the team, the parents of Hickman have developed a bond that Mike Richardson Sr. thinks of as a second family.
"When Terry came here, I helped him and showed him the things that a Hickman parent does," Richardson Sr. said. "He'll do that for the next guy, and he'll do that for the next guy after him. It really is another family."
A Vietnam veteran who came to know a number of politicians during his 12 years as Sullivan County clerk, Alexander now spends his days with students in the government class he teaches at Frederick Douglass High School. He too sees the football team as more than just an athletic endeavor for his son.
"It's about the kids, it really is," Alexander said. "They're learning so much, so many life lessons, that they won't realize until later."
Both Alexander and Richardson Sr. said that being actively involved with the team is an important role. As part of that involvement, Richardson Sr. and his wife, Beth Richardson, work with sponsors and other parents to put on a Feed the Team dinner in the Hickman cafeteria the day before games.
The dedicated parents don't stop there. Alexander's wife takes hundreds of photos during games that later end up on the team's Web site. Richardson Sr. has gotten Gatorade supplied to the team through connections at Pepsi. In addition, the Richardson family gives their son's teammates and friends a ride to church on Sundays.
"I'm not a Bible-thumper by any means," Richardson Sr. says, "but I believe kids should have a moral guide of some kind."
"Football is a family sport," for Richardson Sr.'s wife, who he says, "couldn't tell first down from 12th" before their son started playing.
When it comes to his own family, Richardson Sr. is a stay-at-home dad, and he's not afraid to admit it. He lost nearly everything after the stroke, and it could have been worse. The doctors weren't sure he would regain all of his motor functions, but after 18 months of rehabilitation with his wife steadfast at his side, Richardson Sr. was able to do just that.
"I'll stay home and fold the towels and underwear, I just don't get brought home flowers or go dancing at night," he said of his role within the family. "She's the breadwinner, and that's fine by me."
Spending his afternoons and evenings with the Hickman football team, Richardson Sr. and Alexander have come to appreciate the work ethic of Hickman's coaches. Both hope Jason Wright and his staff get the recognition they deserve.
"These coaches work hard. They have families. I don't think they get nearly enough recognition for the hours they put in," Richardson Sr. said emphatically.
Alexander shares his sentiments.
"They take the time to teach these boys," he said. "We're very enthused about the team and, win or lose, I think they've already shown a lot this season."