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All in the Family: UF recruit's friends inspire journey

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Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 12:00 am

The tears of Pahokee residents could fill Lake Okeechobee.

It is so different from any town in America: rural, yet with the plights of the inner city. The median family income is $26,265 and 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

But for Nu'Keese Richardson, the tears never came from losing electricity or worrying about food. For Richardson, a current UF commit at wide receiver, an economic slump paled in comparison to the cruel shadow of death that refused to stay away.

But Richardson's story doesn't start there, with the painful passing of a couple of family members - one blood relative, the other just as close. Instead, it starts with friendship, something stronger than money, something so beautiful it can counter the ugly sting of death.

Ever since he was little (he estimates around the age of 4), Richardson has had friends he could rely on. Jarvis Byrd, Carlos Lammons, Vincent Smith and Brandin Hawthorne have been his best friends.

"We call each other brothers," Byrd said.

Their friendship extended onto the football field, where they started playing for the Pahokee Baby Blue Devils youth league football team at 9 years old. Like a lot of places, the boys of Pahokee dream of becoming star athletes.

Unlike a lot of places, they have good reason to believe it can happen. Former Blue Devil greats like Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin come back and bring famous friends (Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald and Washington Redskins receiver Santana Moss to name a few) with them.

Richardson's first love was basketball, but his uncle saw him playing football one day and knew he was meant for the field, not the hardwood. He wasn't the only one to notice.

"I loved watching him play little league, you know. (I) was amazed by his talent," said Blaze Thompson, a former elementary school teacher in the area who would one day become Pahokee High's coach.

The group kept playing together throughout middle school, and the family dynamic only grew. The boys did everything as one and spent many nights sleeping in one another's homes. And it wasn't just the original five. Everyone who played on their team became part of the family.

Dealing With Losses

That's why Sept. 27, 2008 hurt so badly.

That's the morning teammate Norman "Pooh" Griffith was shot and killed while leaving the homecoming dance.

Richardson knew this situation too well.

Cynthia Hayes had been an asthmatic with lots of love for her son, Nu'Keese. One day, when Richardson was in third grade, Hayes was on her way to pick him up from her mom's house after work when she suffered an asthma attack. She decided to speed home, and when she arrived, neighbors said she jumped out of her car and desperately raced to her front door while gasping for air, hoping to get within reach of her asthma pump.

She died on the front porch.

At age 8, Richardson lost the person who loved him most.

"I saw him battling with it in school," said Robbie Everett, Richardson's aunt and the media specialist at Pahokee Elementary School. "He did the little things little kids do, like cry. He struggled a couple of years with it."

Years passed, but football and friendship remained true.

Richardson moved in with his grandmother Gloria for a while, but she had trouble raising a young man, so he moved in with Everett and her husband, Juel, his sophomore year.

Two years later, Richardson was starting at quarterback instead of receiver, where scouts agree he will fit best, and was asked to lead a team reeling from Griffith's death. A week after Griffith died, Pahokee flew to Duncan, S.C., to take on Byrnes High - the No. 9 team in the nation - on ESPNU.

The Blue Devils could not overcome the emotions of playing their first game without Griffith and lost 38-12, but responded by winning eight of their last nine games. The culmination of that streak took place in Orlando, where Pahokee captured its third straight state championship with a 21-17 win against Trinity Catholic.

With his third ring in hand, there was nothing left for Richardson to do but take his game to the next level. But unlike other heavily recruited athletes, he chose not to milk the attention thrown his way. Instead, he announced he would be a Gator and orally committed last May.

The list of offers Richardson received reads like a who's who of football programs: USC, Miami, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan. He didn't so much as visit another school.

Richardson was so eager to get to Gainesville that he tried to enroll early, something his friends Smith and Hawthorne were doing at Michigan. He came close, but was unable to complete the ACT verbal in time and still had a half-credit of English to take.

While he can't join the Gators until this summer, he has put his time into playing basketball, hanging out with his friends that haven't enrolled early and improving his grades.

"I want to be top-ranked in my class," said Richardson, who currently holds a 3.0 grade point average.

Sticking to Offense

The Oklahoma drill varies depending on the age level and team, but in most youth leagues it begins with two players - a ball carrier and linebacker - lying on their backs about 6 yards from each other, waiting for their coach to blow his whistle. Once they hear the high-pitched shriek, each player races to his feet and hopes to beat his opponent. The running back's goal is to truck the defender. The defender's goal is to tackle the running back.

When the boys were 11, Smith was playing running back, and nobody on the team could tackle him. Richardson, who was being held out of the drill because of his status as the team's quarterback, challenged Smith, saying he could make the tackle.

Just like that, it was on. Both men lay on their backs, hearing nothing but their hearts beat and the excited squeals of teammates waiting to see a collision. When the whistle blew, Richardson and Smith raced to their feet and faced each other before charging forward.

Richardson was flattened.

The entire team burst out laughing at its star quarterback. Richardson said he felt dizzy and had to leave practice. He was staying with Byrd at the time, so Byrd had to carry him on his shoulders to get him home.

Richardson's uncle dropped some food off at Byrd's house, but Richardson was tired and decided to take a nap.

"When he woke up, he was asking where his food was. I was so hungry I had eaten his food," Byrd managed to say before erupting with laughter.

It turned out Richardson got a pinched nerve that day, and he has been hearing about it from his friends ever since.

Getting His Licks

When he joined the varsity team for spring football his freshman year, Richardson wanted to keep playing quarterback but lost the position battle to teammate Anthony Sheppard. The Blue Devils decided Richardson was a better fit for receiver. Richardson disagreed.

He thought about quitting. Then Martavious Odoms stepped in.

Odoms, then a junior and now a Michigan Wolverine, spent the summer before the season working with Richardson, teaching him the position.

"Martavious can adjust to a football in the air better than anyone I have ever seen. Nu'Keese has adapted to that as well," coach Thompson said. "It's just amazing. You see the ball in the air and you think, 'You know, how is he going to contort his body? How's he going to adjust to the ball?' And somehow, some way, he gets it."

Odoms also introduced Richardson to the art of the "crack-back." A crack-back occurs when a receiver charges toward the middle of the field and removes an unsuspecting linebacker from his cleats.

For Richardson, it doesn't get any better.

"Defense gets to lay licks all the time. It feels good to go across the middle and hit one of them linebackers," Richardson said.

The only thing that could possibly make Richardson feel better is to get a full scholarship and see his friends experience the same thing. Smith and Hawthorne are already at Michigan, Byrd is headed for North Carolina State and Lammons has offers from Florida Atlantic and Buffalo.

Five brothers going to four-year universities? Sounds like a successful family.

Oral commitments are non-binding until a national letter-of-intent is signed on National Signing Day on Feb. 4.

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