INDIANAPOLIS — Trent Richardson is done dancing in the holes. It’s now one cut and a decision to make: either sprint by a defender or bowl him over. The Browns’ second-year running back proved it last Saturday night against the Colts by producing for 32 yards on four consecutive touches (three runs and a short pass from Brandon Weeden) to open Cleveland’s first drive.
The last man to run this way in a Browns uniform was Jamal Lewis, whose career ended after the 2009 season due to concussions. His advice to young running backs is to get out of bounds when you can—the pain isn’t worth an extra inch. It’s the advice Lewis gave to Richardson when he first met him as a 13-year-old visiting a Florida prison.
In 2005, Lewis was four seasons into an NFL career that had been interrupted by his arrest for using a cell phone to facilitate a drug deal several years earlier. He was serving four months in the Federal Prison Camp at Saufley Field in Pensacola, Richardson’s hometown. At the time, Richardson’s mother was regularly visiting a friend who was imprisoned there and brought Trent, the youngest of her nine children.
“I went up there to visit her friend with her in this big room,” Richardson, now 22, recalls. “I noticed this man in the room, and I was like, That’s Jamal Lewis! I went up to him and introduced myself and that’s how it started. I used to go down there and see him when I saw her friend.”
Lewis says he doesn’t remember Richardson specifically—numerous inmates often invited their children to come speak with him about life experiences. Both Richardson and Lewis were dealing with ankle injuries back then: Lewis had ankle surgery before he was incarcerated, and Richardson, entering high school, would miss his freshman and sophomore seasons after ankle surgery. It was especially frustrating for Richardson, who viewed football as a way out of poverty for his family. Lewis had advice.
“I’d vent to him, and he would tell me what I needed to work on to stay in shape,” Richardson says. “He told me stuff like, ‘Take care of your body and be smart.’ ”
Lewis, however, had a hard time following his own advice during his subsequent five seasons in football, two with the Ravens and three with the Browns. He says he would mock players who dipped out of bounds at the end of runs instead of initiating contact. But now, he says, “they were the smart ones.”
Richardson says he now feels like a new man after playing most of last season with broken ribs; the 5-9, 227-pound Alabama product still rushed for 950 yards and pulled down 367 receiving yards. Thanks to Lewis’ jailhouse advice—and after experiencing the pain himself—he’s altering his approach this season. “I’m starting to learn now how to be smarter and go down when I need to,” he says.
But with the game on the line, he adds, “the feeling comes back into me like I’ve got to fight for each inch. That’s what great players do. And at the end of the day that inch—when it comes to fourth down, to a playoff game—is going to make a difference for all of us.”