Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
It’s been a long and bumpy road back to organized football for Trent Richardson, the Alabama rushing legend-turned-Browns top draft pick-turned-NFL bust.
He was the NFL’s No. 3 overall draft pick in 2012. Summarily trashed by Browns legend Jim Brown, who was publicly feuding at the time with then-Browns President Mike Holmgren, Richardson proceeded to break Brown’s rookie rushing record while playing through broken ribs.
Then came a shocking trade to the Indianapolis Colts in the third week of his second season. It sent Richardson down a rabbit hole of despair, personally and professionally. He slogged through Indianapolis, Oakland, Baltimore, and finally, Saskatchewan, Canada. Playing in the CFL would have cost him custody of his three kids. He chose family over football.
Now the centerpiece of the Birmingham franchise in the upstart Alliance of American Football, playing in the friendly confines of his college football fame, Richardson has his personal life together and is happy to be back on the football field.
His three touchdowns in two Birmingham games equal the total output of his last NFL season – five years ago. The joy of the game has returned for him.
“It’s helped me a lot being back in Alabama,” Richardson said on the Really Big Show on 850 WKNR. “The fan base, the chemistry everybody has here. I’ve always been close to Coach [Nick] Saban. We actually probably talk too much. There’s a lot of stuff Coach Saban taught me that I’m teaching my kids. We have gotten closer. Coach Saban told me about this league.”
A bombshell: The trade of Richardson to Indianapolis in Week 3 of the 2013 season sent shockwaves through the Browns’ locker room and coaches offices. Despite Richardson’s impressive rookie season – 950 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and 51 receptions -- CEO Joe Banner agreed with Jim Brown. He felt Richardson was nothing special.
Banner had sights on a quarterback in the 2014 draft, and Indianapolis’ No. 1 pick would be the ticket to get him.
Then 23, Richardson was blindsided by the trade. He found out from a friend who heard of the trade on radio.
“That really affected me a lot,” Richardson said. “People don’t realize I had two knee surgeries before the second season started. I had one knee surgery in the preseason. They told me I would be back Week 2 or 3 and I worked my tail off to get back for Week 1. [My first year], I played 12 weeks with broken ribs. I gave Cleveland my all.
“That [trade] really hurt me emotionally. I know I’m a big football player and all, but we have feelings, too. It really hurt me. I didn’t take the business part of it when I was young. That scared me away from football. Football wasn’t the same for me.”
The trade wasn’t consummated until Wednesday of the work week prior to a game against the Minnesota Vikings. Richardson was looking forward to playing against one of his football heroes, running back Adrian Peterson.
“That whole day was like a maze,” Richardson said. “I [had] bought me a house, bought my mom a house. My whole life was in Cleveland at that point.
“It happened late on a Wednesday and I was on a jet that night and then practicing with Indy [the next day]. When I got to Indy, it was like I was going through the motions trying to figure out. ‘Why am I not in Cleveland? Why am I here?’ I felt I was one of the best players on the football field. I loved Cleveland. I gave it my all and was having fun out there. I never complained about anything.”
The trade made sense to the Colts, who needed a running back to help take pressure off quarterback Andrew Luck.
The trade made sense to Banner, who was thinking long-term with sights on a quarterback – Derek Carr – in the next season’s draft. (Banner was fired after the season and the Browns ended up using the Colts' first-round pick to move up and select Johnny Manziel.)
The trade made no sense to Richardson.
He averaged 2.9 yards a rush in 14 games with the Colts. And when they needed him most in the AFC playoffs, he was still in a fog and little help.
He was no better the following season. And when the playoffs rolled around again, Richardson’s family problems kept him away for a walk-through and resulted in a team suspension. The Colts released him after his second season with them.
Trying to take care of extended family and friends eventually overwhelmed Richardson and burned through almost $2 million of his rookie signing bonus.
“What would I do differently? I wouldn’t be so nice,” Richardson said. “I would take more precaution of not being so open-hearted to a lot of different things that didn’t have anything to do with me.
“That’s one thing Coach Saban said about me in interviews. He’d say, ‘The only thing that scares me about Trent, he’s so big-hearted he doesn’t know how to say no.’ That’s me.”
The joy is back: Richardson is 28. The youngest of his three children, Trent Jr., aka T.J., is 6. He accompanies Richardson to early-morning workouts and, according to Richardson’s older brothers, T.J. “will be way better” than him.
I asked Richardson what kept him going? What drove him back to the field?
“My kids,” he said. “I’ll always be a great father, but win, lose or draw, my kids are always smiling at me and always keep my motivated.
“It wasn’t about the football or what the naysayers are saying, that you should have stayed in Cleveland or that I shouldn’t have been traded. It was a drought I went through. I was upset. I was hurt by the game, but you live and you learn. I learned the business part of it. What kept my pushing forward was my kids. When I look up every morning and had a chance to be a house dad, take them to school, be able to go to plays and gymnastic meets and football, and see my kids playing sports, that too motivated me.”
Richardson said he feels a strong loyalty to the AAF and the Birmingham Iron to help the team to the first championship game in Las Vegas in April. They are 2-0 and Richardson is a big reason why.
He also is motivated to play his way back into the NFL.
“I definitely feel I want to play in NFL again,” Richardson said. “When that opportunity presents itself, I’m going to do everything I can, give 120 percent.”
He remains fond of Cleveland and has a positive outlook for the Browns. He knows new coach Freddie Kitchens, a former Alabama quarterback, and is a fan of quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“Ya’ll keep watching,” Richardson said. “We’re going to do great things in this Alliance league. And hopefully one day I’ll get that phone call and hopefully I’ll be jumping in that Dawg Pound one day.”