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When we set out this summer to look back at past recruitments, there was one that everyone was waiting for. Because in the annals of covering Mizzou recruiting, there simply has never been anything like the path Sheldon Richardson took from Gateway Tech to Columbia.
The first time I saw Richardson was June 4, 2007. He had just finished his sophomore year at Gateway Tech, a pretty-much never recruited high school in St. Louis. Missouri had more than 500 players at its one-day camp at Washington University.
I have long said I do not claim to be a talent scout. In general, I'm not going to pick out a kid that is a Division One prospect and tell you what makes him a Division One prospect. Big Sheldon was an exception.
He weighed in at 281 pounds that day. He clocked a 4.9 in the 40-yard dash. I first saw him running pass patterns with the tight ends. I thought, "I don't know who that kid is, but I know I'd better find out."
After the camp, I grabbed Richardson for an interview. He told me he was hearing from Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee. I walked away thinking, "Yeah, sure you are."
Eight days later, Richardson ended his recruitment...for the first time.
"I called coach Pinkel and coach Pinkel was like, 'When you're a senior, you have a scholarship waiting for you,'" Richardson said. "He said, let me know when you decide to become a Tiger.
"I can decide right now. I want to be a Tiger."
Oh, if only it were that simple.
Things were quiet for Richardson over the next year or so. In March of 2008, still nearly a year from being able to sign a National Letter of Intent, he took an unofficial visit to Columbia.
"It's weird for me because schools are still coming after me," he said. "I've been committed to Missouri for a long time, but they still recruit me. I know Missouri's going to take care of me. I love talking to the coaches and I know Missouri's the right place for me."
Following the one-day camp in St. Louis in 2008, we made Richardson the top player in our state rankings, ahead of the likes of Ronnie Wingo, Nathan Scheelhaase and Montee Ball. Everyone else would catch up quickly. Richardson's rise through the rankings was meteoric. Every time someone saw him work out, he moved up. Eventually, he was rated as the No. 4 player in the country in the Class of 2009.
A month later, the whispers began that Richardson was entertaining other offers.
"I wouldn't say I'm looking around," Richardson said in July of 2008. "I mean, I'm still committed, but I like Miami, though. That might be one of my official visits."
Richardson also mentioned Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas State as potential destinations. Throughout the summer, Richardson maintained he would visit Coral Gables officially.
By November, Richardson was unofficially on the market.
I'm still a Missouri commitment somewhat," Richardson said. "The schools at the top of my list are all basically even."
Those schools were Missouri, Miami, Arkansas and Minnesota.
On December 17th, Rivals.com ran a story in which Richardson said he might visit Florida. Four days later, he told PowerMizzou.com his recruiting was finished...again.
"Well, just long story short, I'm done with my recruiting. Put that out there," said the nation's number four player. "Sheldon Richardson is done with recruiting. I want that to be the quote for the article."
That lasted nearly four whole weeks. On January 15, he told CaneSport.com: "They are still recruiting me, so we'll see. I'm down to two - Miami and Missouri.
"I said I was done for a minute, and then I saw they're still coming after me. We'll see if I visit. I'm talking to my father about that. We'll see."
Richardson did visit Miami, on the final weekend before National Signing Day. He said after the trip, "You'll see what I do on Wednesday."
Wednesday was National Signing Day. Richardson had an announcement set at Gateway Tech that day around noon.
"They can stop pulling hairs out of their heads," Richardson said. "I'd like to say I will be attending the University of Missouri."
In reality, Richardson's LOI had been one of the first faxed in to Mizzou coaches that morning. He had made it official by about 8:00 a.m. But, as we would come to understand, real or manufactured, there was always a bit of drama with Sheldon Richardson.
"He was taking a beating for taking additional trips after saying what he wanted to do. But we're talking about an 18-year-old making a decision that adults would have trouble making," Michael Richardson, Sheldon's father, said. "He got up there and he got excited and they showed him some great things. But in the long run, Sheldon decided he would be better off with the Mizzou program."
"Miami made it pretty tough on me. I keep saying that's a great school. That's a great school," Richardson said. "But I love my home town. I love the state of Missouri because the state of Missouri loves me."
Unfortunately for the Tigers, that marked the halfway point of Richardson's recruitment. He would take a detour to the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Ca., after failing to qualify academically.
The offers kept coming as Richardson was back on the market, despite saying he was still committed to Mizzou. "Everything I had coming out of high school, just add the Pac 10 to it," Richardson said of his offer list during his freshman year of junior college.
California made some waves. So did USC, where Richardson visited in November of 2010.
"I'm still taking these visits to make sure Missouri is really the home for me," Richardson told USCFootball.com. "It came down to Missouri and Miami before. Missouri had a rough season the year I was supposed to be there.
"They ended up 8-4 or 8-5 and lost a bowl game to Navy. That rocky start made me wonder if it was a good fit. Then I started looking at the players they sent to the NFL. I mean, USC produces even more of those players and they have more tradition.
"Missouri has a building tradition, I feel. They don't have the tradition of national championships and Heisman Trophy winners USC has. I want to see that. I feel like if you have strong traditions as a university, then I'm most definitely interested."
The next week, citing his relationship with Ed Orgeron and USC's penchant for putting players in the NFL, Richardson switched his commitment to the Trojans.
"The relationship I feel with Mizzou, it will always be home. Hopefully I can keep my relationship with the coaches and it's still a great school," Richardson said. "But USC is where I need to be. That's just how I felt."
Richardson then went into unprecedented silence for the next month. Officially, he was a USC commitment. But nobody knew what he was going to do on National Signing Day for junior college players on December 15, 2010. When that day came, he signed with Missouri...for the second time.
"It was a long decision, but I've been thinking about this since I committed to USC," said the nation's No. 3 junior college prospect. "Just like I did with Miami and Mizzou two years ago, it was the same thing. We weight the pros and cons and it always ended up to coming back home. USC is a great school, the academics are top-notch and USC is going to be back to being USC when they get rid of their sanctions. But Mizzou is the best place for me.
"I know people say I'm cocky and I'm arrogant, but I've been playing football since I was six years old, this is all I know how to do. It's welcome home. I'm back. I never went nowhere."
There was now no doubt that if Richardson was to play college football, it would be at Mizzou. Of course, as was by then par for the course, more drama awaited.
Richardson had planned to graduate in December and arrive for spring football. He did not. Fall camp started, no Sheldon. Daily, reporters asked Gary Pinkel for updates. Eventually, midway through camp, Richardson arrived at Mizzou.
He put together a solid first season, playing in 13 games, starting two, making 37 tackles including eight for a loss. He weighed entering the NFL Draft, but came back for another season. That season was one of the most dominant in Mizzou history. In 11 games (missing one due to a suspension for a violation of team rules...the drama again), he made 75 tackles, ranking third on the team. Richardson had 10.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and seven hurries. He was a first-team all-SEC pick.
In December of 2012, some 54 months after he committed to Missouri for the first time, Richardson's time in Columbia was done. He declared a year early for the NFL Draft, where he was selected with the 13th overall pick by the New York Jets.
Gone, but never forgotten. There haven't been many recruiting sagas quite like this one.
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