Trent Richardson makes girl's dream come true
This is a story borne out of good. Good people doing good things for other good people. There were no public relations managers or marketing directors or a high-powered agent. There was no agenda except to make a 17-year-old girl's dream come true.
Agnew Hall walked into his office at Ezell's Catfish Cabin, the Bessemer, Ala., restaurant his family has owned for more than 50 years, and saw a hand-scribbled note on his desk.
"It was a name and a number," Hall said, "And my general manager said something about leukemia."
A few months earlier, the woman who left the note had been in the restaurant celebrating her mother's 90th birthday. Several Alabama football players had been there as well and happily posed for pictures and signed autographs.
Hall dialed the woman's number and listened.
"She said she knew of a young woman who had leukemia and had been too sick to go to her junior prom," Hall recalled. "And now, it's time for her senior prom, and nobody had asked her to go. She wanted to know if maybe I could get someone from the Alabama team to be her date."
Hall had gone to school at Alabama and has run his grandfather's restaurant ever since he graduated. One day in 2009, Trina Richardson walked in and applied for a job in the kitchen. Hall hired her as a prep cook and met her son, Trent, who was headed to Alabama on a football scholarship later that fall.
"I had no idea who Trent was or what he'd become," Hall said, "but I knew there was something special about him. And Trina. It wasn't the easiest job. She couldn't move so well because she had lupus. But she gave it her all. She pressed on."
Hall and the Richardsons became fast friends, almost like family, as Trent would sit and watch his mother peel and devein shrimp and flour the catfish that made the restaurant an Alabama institution.
"My family is that restaurant," Hall said. "I don't have any other family in this area, and I saw something in Trent that made me like him as a person, and we developed a true friendship. It happens with a lot of my workers and their families. I care about them."
But none of Hall's other employees had a son who would go on to become one of the best running backs in the country. Hall and Trina Richardson worked at the restaurant every day during the week but spent as many Saturday afternoons as they could watching Trent run for the Crimson Tide, marveling as he grew as a player and a man. They had no idea he would become a likely top-10 pick in Thursday's NFL draft. But he is, and that made it debatable for Hall to bring up the idea of the prom.
"Trent's schedule was crazy," Hall said. "He was flying all over the country working out for various teams, so I didn't think there was any way he could commit to a night in April. So I sent out a couple of texts to other players, but didn't really get much enthusiasm back. So I said, what the heck, and sent a text to Trent."
It said: "Girl with leukemia can't get a date to the prom. Will you help?"
Within seconds, Richardson responded: "Yes I will."
And he did. Hours after immortalizing his career for the Crimson Tide by laying his hands in cement on the Alabama Walk of Champions, he was telling people he had to leave because, "I have a big date to the prom tonight."
A day earlier he was fitted for his white tuxedo and pink vest and tie. He had seen a picture of his date's dress -- hot pink -- and knew enough to match, even though he did not go to his senior prom because he was running track. As he was getting dressed at Hall's house, he talked about his mother fighting lupus -- she is starting chemotherapy soon -- and two aunts who died from cancer.
"This is important to me," he said. "This is big."
The big night
Miles away, 17-year-old Courtney Alvis was having extensions put into her hair and having her makeup carefully applied. When she slipped into her dress -- ordered online months ago with the hope someone would escort her -- her father, Dave, cried.
"All you've been through, and this is what makes me cry," her father said.
Alvis learned she had leukemia after complaining of chest pain during her junior year. It was an aggressive cancer, and she spent most of the year in chemotherapy and out of school. She missed her junior prom because the doctor told her she'd have to wear a mask and gloves and stay away from people and germs.
She cried when she began losing her hair; her parents shaved her head in the backyard. She bought a wig. She endured sickness after sickness with her immune system unable to fight off even a cold; it would always turn into something worse.
But Alvis fought the disease with a smile and an attitude that lifted her parents and the community, which rallied around her. She read about the disease, made lifelong friends with her nurses and doctors, and stoically worked her way back to being cancer-free.
When she found out that she had a date and who it was, Alvis, a lifelong Alabama football fan, could hardly believe it was really true. For a minute, Hall was worried that Richardson's NFL travels would cause him to cancel.
"And then I remembered it was Trent," Hall said. "When he puts his mind to do something, he's going to do it."
"My mom took in a lot of kids she didn't need to," Richardson said, explaining why he felt compelled to take Alvis. "My mom was so giving, and it just rubbed off on me. I watched her, and then, Courtney deserved every bit of it; she was fighting for so long. She never gave up and she won."
Trent arrived at the Alvis home, flowers in hand. With all his Southern charm and gentlemanly upbringing, he knew he needed to ask Courtney's father whether he could escort her to the prom.
"That was Trina's doing," Hall said. "She raised him right. She is the rock in that family, an impeccable woman."
Dave Alvis said, "I would very much appreciate you taking my daughter to the prom."
Cameras flashed, and Courtney's 16-year-old brother, Caleb, stood in awe. Then in walked Trent's mother and his girlfriend and their two daughters -- all wearing bright-orange "Team Courtney" T-shirts that Hall had specially made for that night. After rounds of photos, Trent walked Courtney to one of two SUVs provided by the Birmingham police department and opened the door for his date.
In the car, and at dinner, Trent was attentive and invested. His family came to dinner, too, and sat at a large table just off where Trent, Courtney and two of her friends were sitting. Hall was there, too -- it was at his restaurant, naturally -- where Trent's mother once worked and where on this night, they were dining with linens on the usually bare tables.
"There was a lot of joy in that room," Trent said later.
Trent and Courtney talked about food and clothes and hair. And they talked about football.
"What's it like playing for Nick?" Courtney asked, referring to Alabama coach Nick Saban.
"We love him," Trent said. "What I have learned from him and being there; life is so much easier now. I'm not worried about the next level. I know how to push myself and I'm focused. He means a lot to me and my family."
"I just like the way he makes you guys carry yourself," Courtney said. "Even after winning the first national championship you guys just go out and fight just as hard. I really like that about him."
And they talked about cancer.
"My mom is fighting her cancer," Trent said. "Her hands get numb, they turn purple, get paralyzed for a second."
"It got really bad for me," Courtney said. "I got really weak; my parents had to help me up the stairs. I have drop foot from the medicine, damaged nerves. My feet turn purple, too."
"You're a strong girl," he said. "I know you can beat it."
"Thank you," she replied.
Then, this from Trent as they left dinner and headed for the dance: "We're going to have a lot of fun tonight. I'm not going to sign nothing, not taking no pictures. Ain't got to tonight; it's all about you. Whatever you want me to do."
"Thank you," she said again.
Hall notified ESPN two days before the prom. He Googled ESPN and came up with an email address for customer care.
"I thought it would be neat for Courtney," Hall said. "But it was a wild shot in the dark."
"There is a magic moment about to happen Saturday night in Birmingham al. A young lady with childhood leukemia is being escorted to her prom by Trent Richardson. It was her dream to attend her senior prom and no one ask her because of the affect the cancer has had on her body. She could not attend her junior prom because she was too sick. I was contacted because I'm a close friend of Trent and I told them it was possible but not probable because of the upcoming draft and his busy schedule. Well, it is a true story: A young girl's fight with cancer and her dream to go to her senior prom. Trent, being the quality guy he is has flown in and is attending the prom with her and will walk her out at lead out. He doesn't know that we are sending in this feedback because he is doing it for the right reasons. I think it is a newsworthy story and i thought i would share it with y'all. If you are interested in the story please contact me. My name is Agnew Hall.
"I pushed send and said a little prayer, 'God, take this story where it's supposed to go.'"
The email made it to producers in Charlotte, N.C., and Bristol, Conn., who mobilized ESPN staff and camera crews. By the end of Saturday night, after Courtney was named prom queen and she and Trent danced alongside her classmates, the story was finished and ready to air Sunday morning.
"I had a good time," Courtney said. "It was special being with Trent. It was all I thought a senior prom would be."
Said Trent: "It was a special night. Big for me. Big for Courtney, who deserved it all."
Richardson will walk across the stage at the NFL draft in New York on Thursday, but walking across the stage at the Hueytown High School prom with Alvis, he said, meant just as much.
Alvis will graduate from high school this spring -- on time because she had been ahead in credits when she got sick. She is in the maintenance portion of her cancer, meaning she has monthly treatments and still takes medication. She hopes to start community college in the fall, then transfer to the University of Alabama. She wants to become a nurse.
Hall, who calls himself "just a catfish peddler," continues to field calls for interview requests. He sends them all to Alvis, who is still reveling in the magic of that night and is eager to share what she has learned about the goodness in people. Hall keeps Richardson abreast of everything, and they say they are best friends. He will be with Richardson and his family in New York for the draft.
And they will call Alvis.