TEMPE, Ariz. — Six years later than originally planned, Angelo Richardson finally enjoyed a triumphant return to his Bay Area home as an Arizona State Sun Devil.
Inside the locker room at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., as the Sun Devils celebrated a 27-17 victory over California, their first win in Berkeley since 1997, coach Todd Graham gathered the team around Richardson and presented him with the game ball.
“I was just surprised, I was in shock,” Richardson recalls. “I couldn’t believe I got the game ball.”
It was quite an honor for a student coach, but Richardson is no ordinary student.
Once a prized football recruit for the Sun Devils, Richardson’s ASU career ended before it began when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting in 2006. That stopped him from running routes and catching passes in maroon and gold, but not from being a part of the program.
“Six years in the making, but I’m here,” said Richardson, now 27.
Richardson, from Oakland, turned down an offer from USC to sign with Arizona State in January of 2006 out of Santa Rosa Junior College, where he’d caught 93 passes for more than 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns. Then-coach Dirk Koetter was ecstatic to have landed what he considered to be a future star.
Two months later, on March 4, 2006, Richardson got caught in the crossfire of a San Francisco shooting that had nothing to do with him, taking a bullet to the chest and one in the back. According to published reports, Richardson and some friends were socializing outside a concert venue in the Fillmore Heritage District of San Francisco at about 1 a.m. when they happened upon a fight between some women. As they attempted to avoid the disturbance and return to their car, shots rang out. Two of them struck Richardson, leaving him with a collapsed lung, four broken ribs and what doctors described as “shock-wave destruction.”
The Sun Devils community was stunned, and Koetter made Richardson a promise that his scholarship would be honored whenever he was ready to come to Tempe.
Koetter would be dismissed as ASU’s coach that December, replaced by Dennis Erickson, whose tenure lasted five years. As Richardson endured years of rehabilitation in two states, he remained in contact with senior associate athletic director Jean Boyd, who Richardson had met during his initial recruitment. Boyd reassured Richardson that Koetter’s promise would be upheld.
After some prodding, Richardson finally prepared to enroll at ASU as a justice major this fall, and Boyd put the process in motion. He settled Richardson’s scholarship situation and began spreading the word that Richardson would be at ASU, feeling out interest in having him take on a small role within the football program.
Graham jumped at the opportunity.
“When they approached me about it, it was a no-brainer,” Graham said. “He (Richardson) has a great spirit that just exudes perseverance and having peace and joy in your heart.”
But a small role wasn’t enough — Graham wanted to make Richardson part of the Sun Devils family. He told Richardson to come to practice the day after meeting him and introduced him to the team.
Richardson now attends practice daily.
“I just really wanted to be accepted through everything I’ve been through,” Richardson said. “Coach Graham was never my coach, never recruited me, so for him to embrace me has been a big deal.”
Players took to Richardson immediately, embracing him as a teammate and gaining valuable perspective on playing a sport that they might sometimes take for granted.
“These guys, at such a young age, don’t think about how lucky they are to be blessed with the strength that they have, the health that they have,” Graham said. “So it’s a great reminder to them not only how blessed they are, but also it’s a great reminder of how to handle adversity. You talk about how he’s done it with class and character, it’s phenomenal.”
It’s a message that hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.
“It means a lot for him to be out here,” senior cornerback Deveron Carr said. “It makes you want to cherish your sport even more and the things you can do every day. It makes you realize how blessed you are to be out here and just to be able to wake up every morning and take a step.”
For ASU’s second game of the season against Illinois, Richardson was on the field with the team, on the sidelines in the same jersey as the players.
But that was just the beginning.
As ASU prepared to make the trip to Berkeley — near Richardson’s hometown of Oakland — Graham got to talking with his staff that maybe Richardson should accompany the team.
“He saw Angelo in the dining hall area and he said, ‘Hey man, we’re going back to your old stomping ground. It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t come with us,'” Boyd said. “So he extended an invitation for Angelo to come on the trip.”
The day of the trip, Richardson was appointed student coach. He flew on the team charter, stayed in the team hotel and took part in team meetings leading up to the game.
The trip home gave Richardson an opportunity to see his family, including his daughter, who was born shortly after he was paralyzed.
“It meant the world going back,” Richardson said. “My family actually got to see me as a part of the team.”
Added Boyd: “To see him at the hotel the night before the game with his daughter on his lap and his family — his mom and his siblings and all — that was powerful on our end.”
Witnessing the victory and receiving the game ball made it all the more surreal for Richardson.
Richardson said he’s not sure if he’ll be able to travel with the team again this season due to a full academic course load, but he’ll be at every practice and remaining home games. He emphasizes that even as much as he loves being part of the football team, academics are his main focus, and he hopes to become a sports agent.
Last week, Richardson was announced as a nominee for the Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, which will be presented at the end of the season. Richardson says it means a great deal to him that anyone would even take interest in his story, let alone give him such a prominent role in the football program.
But from Graham’s perspective, it’s the other way around. The Sun Devils are honored that Richardson, despite being robbed of his chance to play, comes to practice each day, a beacon of positivity and inspiration.
“You look at him, he’s got that million-dollar smile on his face all the time,” Graham said. “He’s a big part of our program and what we’re doing. And that’s what it’s all about, man — once a Sun Devil, you’re always a Sun Devil.”