COLUMBIA — It’s difficult to imagine someone wanting out of sunny southern California, but Sheldon Richardson can’t wait to return to Missouri.
“I’m homesick as it is,” he said in a telephone interview. “I talk to my folks a lot, every day. If not every day, if I miss a day, we talk three hours the next day. My mom worries about my academics. She mainly talks about that. She knows the football will be there.”
Academics and football. The combination took Richardson more than 1,900 miles from home, and it’s also the combination that may bring him back to Missouri.
Richardson finished Gateway High School in St. Louis last spring as the No. 1 football recruit in the state of Missouri and the No. 4 defensive tackle in the country, as ranked by scouting service Scout.com.
He verbally committed to Missouri the summer before his junior year, but he wasn’t eligible to compete because of academics. That forced a detour to the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif.
“I signed with Mizzou, and they shipped me out there after they saw I didn’t qualify,” Richardson said. “They had a place in Kansas and out there and Chicago. I didn’t want to go to Chicago or Kansas.”
Sequoias became an option for Richardson because its coach Curtis Allen has built a relationship with Missouri. He sent defensive lineman Andy Maples to the Tigers, while former defensive lineman Jason Townson committed to Missouri before going to Sequoias. He graduated two years later and joined the Tigers.
“I just have a pretty good relationship with some of the people there,” Allen said in a phone interview. “It was built up over time. You come out and talk to people at the school. They ask, 'Are our guys academically sound?' They looked at what we had in terms of academic support and basically they chose us.”
Richardson went to Sequoias a few weeks after graduating high school and began classes and working out. It was a bit different than what he expected.
“When I first got here, it looked like a stadium in high school,” he said. “I went from top-flight, All-American, first-10 this, first-10 that, and then I ended up in with a scrappy old locker and worn down jerseys. It humbles you, brings you down to earth. It brings you back in action.”
Richardson had to buy his own equipment, including size 14 cleats, jockstrap, girdle, ankle braces, socks, workout shirts and shorts and a mouthpiece. He went through four pairs of gloves this season.
“That’s $40-60,” Richardson said. “It makes you appreciate what you get. I wasn’t blessed with Nike contracts, and my team wasn’t blessed.
“Your cleats get worn down at Missouri and you say that, and you get another pair. Brand new, fresh out of the box, free of charge. You’re going to remember that, going to the Nike outlet store and trying to buy you some good cleats for cheap. You’re going to remember that. That’s something that’s going to stick with you.”
The move has helped Richardson physically. He’s added 15 pounds of muscle and dropped his time in the 40-yard dash.
“I’ve gotten stronger, a lot stronger,” Richardson said. “In high school, I was barely benching over 300. When I lift, I lift 385. That was today. I got a lot faster. I clocked a 4.6.”
His on-field talent has improved, too.
“He was just a raw player,” Allen said. “He’s got a chance to learn, how to use his hands, get more than one or two moves, learn how to put his knees together, learn how to set guys up around him. He could dominate games. He’s such a great talent that if he stays away from career-ending injuries, Sheldon could be in the NFL. When he goes back to Mizzou, he’ll compete for a position.”
But for that to happen, it comes back to academics. The football will be there, as his mother knows. He needs to qualify academically first.
Richardson is working toward an Associates of Arts degree in journalism and said his grades are improving.
He took 12 credits during the summer and 15 during the fall. The plan is to take 15 this spring and nine next fall. That would allow him to graduate in December 2010.
Richardson could join Missouri for its spring workouts in 2011.
“In 2011, I’m going to be on the sideline, at Mizzou,” he said. “I’m working towards it, but you never know what happens. The rules change all the time. They might say I need two math and two English classes or one math and two English or something. Ain’t no telling. They change the rules up a lot.”
Richardson will redshirt – meaning he won’t play in any games, only practice with the team – next fall, which would give him three years of eligibility should he go to Missouri.
“It’s not about games,” Allen said. “You play one game on Saturday, but you have four practices over the week. How do you get your skills better? You practice. He’ll work to get better and continue to do everything with the team, strength training, conditioning. He’ll be fine.”