In 1956, William “The Rocket” Richardson was considered the best back in a University of Missouri freshman class that included Mel West and Norris Stevens.
A graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, “The Rocket,” averaged 17.5 yards per carry his senior year. In one game, a 42-6 win against Helias, “The Rocket” had 126 yards rushing, 141 yards receiving and 32 yards passing.
“The Rocket’s story is no athlete in this town, probably at the university ever, had the ability of William Richardson,” says Bill Clark, who covered Douglass School for the Columbia Missourian in the late 1950s.
“He was built like a Terrell Owens: athletic, powerful shoulders, big hands, forearms that were unreal.”
Unlike Stevens and West, “The Rocket’s” name is lost in obscurity. There is no Hall of Fame career at MU and no statewide recognition. He struggled academically.
The transition from an all-black high school to a predominantly white university was difficult for him, and most nights he sneaked out of his dorm and returned to Columbia’s black community.
His career ended before he could play a game for MU when he was expelled for cheating on a geology exam. It’s an act Clark says would warrant a three-game suspension by today’s standards, and it’s a burden that never seems to have lifted from “The Rocket’s” shoulders.
A few years later, during the first year of mandatory desegregation, Michael Richardson, “The Rocket’s” nephew, emerged as the first star black athlete at predominantly white Hickman High. Douglass High had closed over the summer, and although only six Douglass athletes played football for Hickman that season, Michael Richardson dominated.
“Michael was the right guy at the right time,” Clark says.
Michael Richardson was nicknamed “The Pocket Rocket” because people considered him a smaller version of his uncle, and he played football like his namesake.
In the 1960 season, he gained 818 yards on 67 carries, a 12.5 average, and he scored 15 touchdowns. The first game he played for Hickman, Richardson carried eight times for 135 yards and scored three touchdowns against the Keokuk (Iowa) Chiefs.
“He had a change of speed, and a gait, that was something else,” says Bob Redmon, Richardson’s childhood friend and teammate at Douglass and Hickman.
“When we were at Douglass, I played end position, and we had a play (29 quick-pitch) where it was a sweep, and after throwing my block I used to just lay on my belly and kind of rise up to see him hit that corner.
“To see him hit that corner was something else. He’d hit that corner with blinding speed. I mean, if you weren’t within 2 yards of him, you weren’t going to get him.”
His senior year he again played football, but he also started on Hickman’s 1962 state championship basketball team that went 28-1 and was the school’s first integrated basketball team. Richardson made the team integrated. Although 5 inches shorter than the team’s center, Dave Fearheller, who was 6 feet 4, Richardson jumped center.
“He was the go-to player,” says Dan Schuppan, who played on that team. “He would jump out of the gym and get a rebound and the other team would be morally defeated. They’d say, ‘We’re going to play against this?’”
Richardson’s stardom was unique because he starred at Hickman during a time when many former Douglass athletes stopped playing sports.
“We had good athletes, and it’s a shame that a lot of the athletes from Douglass did not participate in the athletic programs out at Hickman,” Redmon says.
“At that time there was a buzz in the air that that was forced integration, and you know, a lot of kids just gave up on that.”
There also wasn’t much room. When the schools combined, two teams became one. In the case of Hickman’s basketball team, with the exception of
Richardson and three juniors, most of the players had played together since they were in seventh grade.
Ron Bartlett, a local attorney who played on the championship team, says familiarity led to an offense where the players knew one another so well they were interchangeable.
“We ran a very patterned offense, and it was designed so that any of us could play the post,” he says. “Wherever we ended up after we started, we would run the offense. It wouldn’t matter who was on the post. You just stepped on the post and everybody else knew all the positions.”
Richardson’s athletic gifts were so great the team made room for him.
“I think Michael Richardson would have played no matter where he went (to school),” says the Rev. Raymond Hayes, who played football at Hickman in 1959.
“He was that good.”
Charles Allen, who ran track at Hickman with Richardson, says there was more to Richardson than his athletic talent; there was the history of his last name.
“The name Richardson in central Missouri conjures up images of super athletes in the sense that uncles and cousins all were extremely good athletes,” Allen says.
“So growing up in a family like that, he honed his skills extremely early and was maybe always able to live in another relative’s shadow so to speak.”
William “The Rocket” Richardson is the relative Allen speaks of, but it is impossible to know just how strong of an athletic connection they had, and whether Michael Richardson lived in the shadow of his uncle’s talents and his uncle’s experience at MU as Allen says he did.
It is impossible to know what Richardson’s stardom at Hickman was like for him or how it felt to star when many of his Douglass teammates stopped playing.
Michael Richardson died of lung cancer July 24, 2002, at 58. His friends and family say he never talked about his athletic stardom.
“Michael never talked about his football years,” says his widow, Pam Richardson.
Bob Redmon says Richardson handled his high school stardom modestly.
“He was just a regular guy,” Redmon says.
“When people (asked him about his stardom), he was quick to give a little smile and that was it.”
What is known about Richardson is that after he graduated from Hickman in 1962, he took an athletic scholarship at Northeast Missouri State University (which became Truman St. University) in Kirksville, and he is in its Hall of Fame.
His career began strong, but it faded quietly. He gained 1,036 yards his freshman year and rushed for 296 yards against defending NAIA national champion Pittsburgh State.
In his senior year, Richardson switched to defensive back after he lost his starting running back position to Sharron Washington, a younger player whom the Houston Oilers drafted in the seventh round in 1966, and he struggled academically.
Pam Richardson says by the end of his career, Richardson felt as though the program had used him. She says the athletic department often asked him to play basketball and run track even though he had signed a letter of intent to play football.
“They basically used him and discarded him, ” she says.
Washington, a lifelong friend of Richardson’s despite their competition, says the players were not given guidance counselors to select courses.
“At that time pretty much everybody majored in P.E.,” he says.
Says Allen, “He just didn’t have the complete support system and some schools, the majority of schools depending on your athletic ability, once your eligibility is up it becomes, ‘What have you done for me lately?’
“I say that he didn’t have the support system from that school to make sure that he went on to get his degree and to make sure that he pursued opportunities after that.”
Pam Richardson says her husband lived an “ordinary middle-class life,” and in some respects that is true. Richardson worked as a repairman for Chrysler-Plymouth in St. Louis. He had three children and lived to see six grandchildren, and he stayed connected to sports his entire life: He helped coach his children’s teams, and his kids say he never missed any of their games.
For two years at Hickman, though, Michael Richardson was more than a star athlete. He was an exception to the experiences of other former Douglass athletes, and perhaps more broadly, his uncle’s experience at MU.
Those stories of athletes forgotten are entwined with those athletes remembered, and if Richardson was indeed the “right guy at the right time,” as Clark says, then his stardom bridged the gap between whites and blacks and brought people closer after desegregation.
“Everybody gravitated to him,’’ Redmon says. “I don’t care who you were. White. Black. Everybody gravitated to him.”