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Richardson won't turn back on his roots

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Trent Richardson (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Trent Richardson admits Warrington is 'tough,' but he remains positive about the area.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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WARRINGTON, Fla.

As the gunshots whizzed all around him, Trent Richardson sat in the black sedan’s passenger seat with his head between his legs.

Richardson, 17 at the time, had just left a club with his cousin in the wee hours of the morning, and the two were talking in the car when a man opened fire on them.

Richardson knew all too well the drill to avoid getting shot and immediately stuck his head between his legs. The handful of gunshots flew by in just seconds, but it felt like an eternity to him.

All he could think about was his mother, Katrina, and his newborn daughter, Taliyah.

“What am I doing out here?” Richardson recalled thinking. “Is this how my life is going to end?”

When the shots finally stopped, Richardson and his cousin were unscathed.

“It was just really crazy,” Richardson said. “I should have been shot. I should have been in the hospital. I should have even maybe been dead.”

Welcome to Richardson’s hometown.

Warrington is rife with violence, drugs and poverty — deadly realities for those who live in the heavily wooded area just southwest of Pensacola, Fla. The Alabama junior tailback is lucky to have escaped it, but others haven’t been so fortunate.

Last year, three of Richardson’s friends were murdered.

“Warrington is a tough neighborhood,” Richardson said. “There, it’s just good to graduate, make it to age 18 and not be in prison.”

But Warrington is Richardson, and he wants you to know about it.

Entering second-ranked Alabama’s rematch against No. 1 LSU (13-0) in the BCS title game Monday in New Orleans, there’s been plenty of talk about the Heisman Trophy finalist, who has rushed for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns on 263 carries this season for the 11-1 Crimson Tide.

It has centered on his strength (Alabama refuses to allow him to bench press more than 475 pounds), his two daughters, and his relationship with former teammate and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, an NFL rookie who plays for the New Orleans Saints.

Yet the real story of Richardson is told from places in Warrington like The Slab, Crack Alley and The Courts.

“You see the man smiling all the time,” said Derrick Boyd, who coached Richardson at Pensacola’s Escambia High School. “He’s smiling because he’s glad to be alive.”

Warrington, an unincorporated area that is home to about 15,000 people, used to be a close-knit community. Residents kept their doors open and usually didn’t lock them.

“If something was going on at one person’s house, the whole neighborhood got involved,” said Melia Adams, a Warrington native, who was Richardson’s counselor at Escambia High. “It was a great time.”

Back then, Richardson’s great-grandmother was the community’s matriarch. She looked out for everyone’s children and was heavily involved in the church.

But over time, the pillars of Warrington, including Richardson’s great-grandmother, died. Younger people without ties to the community moved in, and the town took a drastic turn for the worse when crack infiltrated in the mid-1980s.

Discarded syringes became commonplace, as did gunfire and robbery. Fearful residents started locking their doors and kept to themselves.

“There used to be a time when you said you were from Warrington and there was pride,” Adams said. “Now, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from that area? Oh my goodness!’ ”


Touring Richardson's roots

NICE GEAR

New-style or old-style, uniforms and helmets were the talk of the town. Here are some of the most distinctive.

On a weekday afternoon last month, a group of cigarette-smoking women pushed grocery carts from the local Wal-Mart toward a housing project as a bleary-eyed teenager stumbled down a sidewalk before he bent over and heaved.

On a corner, a woman in a revealing purple dress seductively tried to attract the attention of passers-by.

At Richardson’s insistence, a visitor was given a tour by the athlete's cousin Jerel Watts and friend Cordarro Locke, whose smile revealed a shiny gold grill.

“People around Pensacola hate Warrington,” Watts, 25, said. “We always been hated on. Don’t nobody like Warrington.”

The tour starts in a section called The Slab, at the heart of Warrington. Asked why it is named such, Watts explained, “It’s just real down here.”

The section is dotted by boarded-up houses, vacant lots filled with trash and a group of men smoking marijuana.

As Watts drove through Warrington, he flashed a hand gesture toward two shirtless men standing in the front yard of a dilapidated house, and they returned the greeting.

“My homeboys right there,” said Watts, who raps under the name Rel with Locke in a group called Corna Pocket Boyz.

But Watts insisted there are no gangs in Warrington.

“They try to label us a gang,” Watts said. “Warrington a neighborhood, man.”

The next stop is Crack Alley, a spot in an area known as The Village behind the Forest Creek Apartments. That is a housing project formerly named Warrington Village, where Richardson briefly lived as a young child.

Crack Alley used to be the place to purchase its namesake and all other types of drugs, but activity has slowed in recent years because of increased police presence and the installation of surveillance cameras.

“At night, this is where all type of s*** goes on,” said Locke, 25, who raps under the name Ball.

Crack Alley was the spot to hang out and was well known for its dice games. These days, though, Warrington has fewer basers, as crackheads are called.

“It’s improving by them throwing folks in jail,” Watts said. “They’re just trying to get rid of them instead of helping them.”

As Watts and Locke leave Forest Creek, they tell their guest he is lucky he wasn't spotted by a police officer.

“They probably would have gotten behind you coming up out of there,” Watts said.


Not kid friendly

Watts and Locke make sure to point out Marie Ella Davis Park and Community Center. Warrington has few parks, and Marie Ella Davis didn’t exist when they were children.

But the pocket-sized park has only one basketball hoop and little open space. Houses are bigger than the community center, which Watts and Locke said is open only for parties.

In neighboring Pensacola, where NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and boxer Roy Jones Jr. grew up, there are plenty of recreation centers and parks. Watts and Locke bemoan that Warrington doesn’t have more.

“They didn’t give kids a chance here,” Watts said. “They got to play in the streets.”

It was in the street where Richardson learned how to avoid being tackled long before he scored six touchdowns a game in youth football. Because Richardson was so freakishly strong as a child, Locke nicknamed him Lex Luger.

Watts said he and Richardson have discussed someday building a community center so Warrington’s youth have an alternative to the deadly streets.

“It’s got to stop,” Watts said.

On Warrington’s east side is a massive single-level housing project called Marino Courts, known as The Courts. It used to be worse than Warrington Village, Watts said.

“Now, that’s bad,” he said.

On this day, a large group of children played football. A pit bull ran loose, and a few women glared with menacing scowls at the unfamiliar, passing car.

“Back in the day, your car might have been lit up,” Watts said.

Watts and Locke lighted cigarettes. The group of men who had been smoking marijuana there earlier had dispersed, but Jay Goody was sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette surrounded by empty cigarette packs and large beer bottles.

He describes himself as “self-employed when I get it going” and raved about Richardson.

“I think the world of him,” said Goody, 50. “I’m happy for him. That’s the homeboy. I’m proud of him.”

Watts and Locke stopped to pick up one of their CDs, which they recorded in Locke’s bathroom. They perform a few times a month and once looked up to a Warrington rap group called Warrington Celebrities, but most of its members are in to prison for drug-related offenses.

“My family and friends leave me stranded, but you know that don’t stop my push. Cigar full of kush with a .45 cocked back so I feel that rush,” Locke raps in one of the songs. “It’s that s*** you cannot flush my n***** so let it float on. Never had a stable home. I roam and taking shots to my dome. Wonder why my pops has been gone and trying to enter my life when I’m grown.”

“We rap about real life,” Watts said.


Pride and joy

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The next stop was Potter Barber Shop, where James Potter has been cutting Richardson’s hair since he was a child. Potter said it would take him three weeks to talk about Richardson, who always visits when he’s home.

“My heart just stops every time I see him,” Potter said. “Everything just flutters.”

Had Richardson won the Heisman Trophy, Potter said, Warrington would have held a parade that would have stretched all the way to Pensacola Beach. Richardson probably still will get a parade at some point, Potter said.

“He just means so much to us,” Potter said.

Every chance that Richardson gets, he returns to Warrington, where everyone wants a piece of him. When he went to the local Wal-Mart with his grandmother earlier this season, a man spotted him and insisted Richardson come out to his car.

Inside were dozens of items the man had been driving around with for months so he could have Richardson autograph them all when he finally saw him. Richardson signed each of them, just as he poses for every photograph fans request and shakes every hand — especially in Warrington.

“If I didn’t, it’d be like if my little girls went up to Rihanna or Justin Bieber and they won’t do the same thing,” Richardson said. “They would be crushed.”

After the near-shooting in the summer of 2007, Richardson stopped going out and rededicated himself to his faith, family and football.

“That really changed my whole life around,” Richardson said.

But as dangerous as Warrington is, Richardson does not worry about becoming a victim during his visits.

“Everybody is proud for what I’m doing,” Richardson said. “I’m just showing everybody where I came from. It’s just nothing but hope. They keep me safe, man.”

Warrington has improved some in recent years, progress that has coincided with Richardson’s success at Alabama. Sidewalks have been installed, community-watch programs are on the rise, and new businesses are opening.

Earlier this season, Adams posted on Richardson’s Facebook page, “Good things do come out of Warrington.” She also finds herself often saying it as well.

“He’s brought a sense of pride back to the community,” Adams said.

It’s a start, but Warrington still has so far to go. So does Richardson, who knows some of the community's future might be determined by his own.

“There’s a reason why he can carry six guys,” Boyd said. “He’s carrying a neighborhood.”

Tagged: Alabama, Trent Richardson

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