COLUMBIA — The smile never leaves Sheldon Richardson's face for long.
When he concentrates on something — be it an unfortunate offensive lineman in his path or a question posed by a reporter — his brow contracts and his dimples disappear behind his ever-growing beard. Then, the defensive tackle's smile returns, first as a slight smirk that grows into a grin reminiscent of the goofy big kid on the back of the school bus.
Miami (Ohio) 10-4, 7-1 MAC in 2010
at Missouri 10-3, 6-2 Big 12 in 2010
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM, KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: Fox Sports
NOTE: Missouri coach Gary Pinkel went 3-3-1 in seven appearances against the Redhawks during his 10-year tenure as head coach at Toledo (1991-2000)
You remember — the one always getting in trouble for small indiscretions, like constantly switching seats or leaving Twinkie wrappers in the aisle, but who everybody knew always had good intentions.
That's Richardson. In the three weeks since he finally began practicing with the Missouri football team after a two-and-a-half-year odyssey, he's endeared himself with his teammates and is beginning to reveal Richardson the person, rather than Richardson the reputation.
He's not the prima donna ignoring commitments or skipping classes. He's not the Chuck Norris of college football or "the Messiah," a nickname fellow tackle Dominique Hamilton gave him.
Richardson is a second-stringer who will get considerable playing time when Missouri opens its season against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. To Richardson, that is something to smile about.
"It's been a long time coming, and I'm just waiting for Saturday now," he said. "It's going to be crazy — I promise you, it's going to be crazy. I'm going to enjoy every minute of it."
Richardson is listed behind Terrell Resonno, a senior and returning starter. But head coach Gary Pinkel indicated that Richardson would be on the field at least a quarter of the time. Depending on how well Richardson plays, Pinkel might rotate Resonna, Hamilton and Richardson, as he did last year with defensive ends Aldon Smith, Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison.
"With all three of those guys, it felt like they were starters, but they earned that," Pinkel said. "It's based on how they play and how they practice."
Hamilton and Resonno made sure to send that same message to Richardson when he arrived. When someone mentioned the supposed end of the world in 2012, Hamilton responded, "But the Messiah is already here."
They waited to see how he would react to the nickname. Richardson shook his head and smiled.
"He don't like it, but he takes it," Resonno said. "We're goofy guys, so of course we're going to mess with him. He's a funny guy too, though. He's one of us.
"I'm glad he didn't come in with the cockiness. He came in to play football. He knows what it takes, and I'm proud of him."
After all the waiting Richardson has endured, he has acquired the virtue of patience. He wants to live up to the expectations, but he doesn't seem to buy into the hype himself. Asked not if, but when, he will rise to the top of the depth chart, Richardson looked genuinely surprised. He said he is happy to go out there and get a chance.
"You earn your stripes," he said. "Dom Hamilton and Terrell Resonno have been here a long time, and they earned their stripes a long time ago. It’s hard to go in and take their spot like that, especially when they're proven Big 12 players."
Richardson's biggest adjustment at preseason practice was the speed of the game. Linemen didn't move that quickly at College of the Sequoias — the California junior college where Richardson played previously — and practices were less regimented. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said that like every other newcomer, Richardson had to learn to hustle better and adapt to a more physical game.
"For the most part, I adjusted well," Richardson said. "It's a grind, but it's going well. And as far as school, I'm maintaining my grades."
He paused, and then grinned.
"It's only been a week, but..."
His coaches trust him. The cocky kid always making the news? They don't know that guy. They know a humble young man who happens to not shy away from publicity. They met that young man when they first recruited him. His reputation, they say, was built by others. He's human.
But the time for character judgment is over. Soon, Richardson will be assessed on other measurements. And then, at least to some degree, he will just be another one of the boys.
That wouldn't be enough for Sheldon Richardson the myth. But for this Sheldon Richardson, just the thought of running through the tunnel and onto Faurot Field fills his face with boyish glee. It's what he has wanted for a very long time.
"I'm playing football," he said. "You see a smile on my face every day. Even when I'm sore or ready to go to sleep, I'm smiling. It's a blessing to be here."