BELLEVILLE, N.J. — The New York Giants’ second-round draft pick grew up on a farm in Bushland, Texas, where his family raised 500 cows, roughly half the number of the town’s human population (1,084). The best week of Weston Richburg’s life was February, 2009. He signed a letter of intent to become his high school’s first Division I football player… then, a few days later, showed his pig at the Southwestern Expo, winning Grand Champion in Market Swine.
After inking a four-year, $4.8 million contract this spring, the center from Colorado State made only one splurge: a $40,000 Chevy pickup truck.
So on the night Richburg arrives in New Jersey, two days before his first NFL training camp, it seems only fitting to take him to a quintessential local establishment: the Belmont Tavern in Belleville.
“You could definitely imagine Tony Soprano hanging out here,” Richburg says, when he walks in on Friday night. The wood-paneled walls are crammed with photos of Jersey favorites: Frank Sinatra, Joe Piscopo and a bunch of guys who could have been contenders. Chicken Savoy is served family style, and red wine, chilled, in juice cups. Clint Eastwood and the “Jersey Boys” production crew dined here several times during filming in nearby Newark. “We opened in the 1960s,” Belmont’s bartender, Jimmy, says. “And we haven’t changed much since.”
I took Richburg to the Belmont Tavern for two reasons. The first: as a cultural introduction to the Garden State. The Giants brought their rookies to Yankee Stadium during OTAs, and Richburg has had a handful of phone conversations with a real estate agent. Other than that, the 23-year-old hasn’t explored much in the metropolitan area. He’ll stay at a hotel across from MetLife Stadium until he moves into a Secaucus condo.
I also wanted to find out what it’s like for a rookie on the brink of being big time. Over the past four months Richburg has straddled two worlds, preparing for the transition from Mountain West student-athlete to professional football player. A few weeks ago he was the guy who grubbed on pizza in the dining halls and tended to his family’s cattle on school breaks. In a month he might be the man snapping the ball to Eli Manning on national television.
What is it like to be on that tipping point, on the verge of a completely new life? Much of this is revealed within five minutes of sitting down, as the waitress comes by for drink orders.
* * *
For dinner, Richburg brought along 21-year-old Garrad Richburg, an early front-runner for Brother of the Year after driving Weston’s beloved new Chevy 28 hours from Bushland to Jersey. Garrad, a soon-to-be correctional officer, is an inch or two shorter than Weston, just as burly, and makes the mistake of asking the waitress for a sweet tea.
“Sweet tea?” the waitress scoffs, with a bit of Jersey attitude. “We don’t have that here.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Garrad replies. “We’re from Texas.”
“Texas!?” Her eyes light up. “What on Earth are you doing here from Texas?”
“My brother is moving here,” Garrad says.
The waitress shifts her attention to Weston, who’s wearing a black baseball hat and hasn’t made much eye contact. He’s a bit shy, but it’s in his Richburg DNA to be polite, so he smiles.
“Why are you moving here?” the waitress asks.
“Uh, for a job,” Weston replies.
“What job?” she asks.
“Uh,” Weston stalls. “A job in East Rutherford.”
“Oh, are you doing construction? In one of those office buildings?” she presses. “What job?”
It’s clear she will not give up, so Weston—who later admits he’s not a very good liar—acquiesces.
“I’m a football player for the New York Giants,” he says.
“Oh … my … God,” the waitress says with a gasp, placing her hand on Weston’s broad shoulder. “Of course you are! Look at you! Oh my god! What’s your name?”
Within seconds she has summoned another waitress, and then Jimmy, the bartender/owner. Soon, Weston is posing for an iPhone picture with Jimmy, and Waitress One is ticking off a list of other Giants who have dined here and Waitress Two has scurried off to the kitchen to place an order for a dish not on the menu.
A group of men at the adjacent table crane their necks to eavesdrop on the commotion. Weston smiles and nods, dropping “yes ma’ams,” and “yes, sirs,” and not much else.
When they leave, he sighs. “See? That’s what I was afraid of. Did I do OK? I’m not really used to all this attention yet.”
* * *
If Richburg hadn’t torn his ACL when he was 16, he wouldn’t be in the NFL. “It’s strange to think of it like that,” he says. “But it’s true. It’s why I don’t take anything for granted.”
Richburg began high school as a quarterback, but suffered the ACL injury during his freshman year and sat out two seasons recovering. By the time he returned, he’d sprouted from 5’9”, 180 pounds to 6’3”, 240, and coach Dave Flowers insisted he shift to the O-line. “I mean, he had to,” Flowers says. “The next biggest guy we had was 6-foot, maybe 200.”
TCU showed some interest in Richburg, but Colorado State was the only true scholarship offer. He liked the fact they had a strong agriculture program, so that was that. (An animal sciences major, Richburg says his favorite college assignment was a field trip to the local farm during which students investigated a dead cow and her stillborn calf. “It was cool to learn the science behind stuff I grew up doing,” Richburg says.)
At Colorado State, Richburg aced Tom Coughlin’s test for all-around excellence: A team captain with a 3.2 GPA, Richburg never missed a start in four years—even playing with a broken hand in 2011. “But to be honest, I was pretty surprised when the Giants drafted me,” Richburg says. “There were other teams who had much more contact.”
He met with Coughlin, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and O-line coach Pat Flaherty at the scouting combine. They talked for 30 minutes and dissected game tape, then Richburg didn’t hear from the Giants again until he was drafted. Manning called a few days later to offer congrats, but Richburg missed the call. “I was getting so many calls and texts,” Richburg says. “But Eli left a voicemail. That was really cool.”
The Giants need Richburg right away. Last season Manning had one of his worst years as a pro. The offensive line was a debacle. Ravaged by injuries, the patchwork unit sank to new lows each week. Guard Chris Snee, who won two Super Bowls with New York, retired on Monday, and a revamped group returns for 2014 with a new offensive coordinator (McAdoo), new playbook and several new faces—including up to four new starters. “There’s a tradition here we need to uphold,” Richburg says. “I guess that’s my responsibility now too.”
At center, Richburg is in competition with veteran J.D. Walton, a fellow Texan and the only other Giant who drives a pickup truck.
“They have me all over the place, and they say for a younger guy like me, that’s the best way to learn,” Richburg says. “Especially if I want to be center, I have to know what the guards are doing, the tackles are doing, really everything. In [McAdoo’s] offense you need to think, you’re thinking all the time.
But I do want to be center. That’s the goal and that’s what I’m working toward.”
Learning the playbook hasn’t been too difficult—“As long as you study, you can get it, Richburg says”—and adjusting to a new schedule has been bearable. To meet Coughlin’s infamous demand for punctuality, Richburg set his watch six minutes fast. “He’s actually been real cool with me,” Richburg says of the 67-year-old coach. “But I haven’t screwed up too bad yet.”
Then there’s the adjustment to the size and phsyicality he’ll face in the NFL. “Lining up against Cullen Jenkins in practice— he’s bigger and faster than anyone I ever faced,” says Richburgh, “but that’s expected.”
The biggest suprise so far: “They just throw you in there. All of the sudden you’re part of the team. Like my first day of OTAs, they had me snapping the ball to Eli Manning. I didn’t even know some of the stuff. My first day. My first practice. That’s crazy.”
* * *
The cultural change from rural Texas to Northern Jersey is still a novelty, and over dinner we have fun comparing. Garrad says in the 20-minute drive to the restaurant he heard more car horns honking than he has “in my whole life, combined.” As we drive through Belleville, Weston keeps saying: “There’s so many turns. I don’t know how you don’t get lost.”
When I asked Weston about his favorite restaurant in Bushland, he says: “There are no restaurants in Bushland. There’s a Red Robin close by, though.”
It’s tricky to order at the Belmont Tavern, since Richburg has eliminated white bread, pasta and fried foods from his diet (the Giants would like him to stay at his current weight of about 305 pounds. He loves the clams casino and shrimp beeps, but the pork francaise losing something after Weston scrapes off the fried outer layer. When he says he’s never had eggplant before, I insist we order the eggplant parm. The Richburg Report: “Like lasagna, but slimy.”
“I like this place,” he says upon leaving. “Definitely wouldn’t have chosen it on my own, but it was cool. The music in the background was nice.” (Mostly Sinatra, from the juke box).
When the check comes, Richburg offers to pay. Being a professional athlete is also a novel concept. “As far as all the new money goes, I’m going to be smart,” he said earlier. “I have no interest in blowing it all in New York City, or even getting a sportscar or whatever.” Richburg’s father, it should be noted, is a financial advisor.
After OTAs, Richburg trained in Arizona then went back to Bushland for two weeks. He caught up with friends, stopped by local camps, and yes, even drove the tractor and doctored a few cows. “It was relaxing to be back, but I wish it was for longer,” he says. “It felt like a school break. It’s never enough time.”
I asked Richburg if, two days before camp, he felt nerves. His answer was surprsingly candid: “Nervous? Heck yeah I feel nervous. This is the NFL. I’ve been doing this for a while, but you don’t want to botch a snap for Eli Manning.”
Richburg already did that once. It was one of the first days of OTAs, and he didn’t know the snap count. The ball sailed over Manning’s shoulder.
“He wasn’t mad or anything,” Richburg says. “Didn’t yell, didn’t blame. He’s actually much more of a regular guy than I thought. He doesn’t act like a superstar.”
At that moment, Richburg realized, the NFL might not be so scary after all.
“But I didn’t want to do it again,” Richburg says. “Heck no.”