CULVER CITY, Calif. – It happened in an instant, but Paul Richardson knew what he’d done. There was no doubt in his mind, or anyone else’s.
A kick-return drill in spring practice last year ended his junior season, just like that. The Colorado wide receiver, whose prep career at Serra High in Gardena had been nothing less than spectacular, planted his foot in the ground running downfield. But it stayed there as he ran forward.
“My knee buckled and it popped,” he said. “We pretty much knew immediately that I tore my ACL.”
A season was in ruins. But now, one year later, Richardson is back — 100 percent, he says firmly. And perhaps just in time.
The Buffaloes are hoping to rebound from a disastrous 1-11 season that resulted in the firing of Jon Embree after two unproductive years.
Richardson, 21, may not have gotten on the field in 2012, but he still felt the pain his teammates endured.
“I watched my team suffer, and that was depressing,” he said. “It was upsetting. But now, it’s just fuel to the fire. They’re happy I’m with them, I’m happy I’m with them. We’re ready to go out and get some W’s this year.”
It certainly won’t be easy. At Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day on the Sony Studios lot, media voters picked the Buffaloes to finish last in the Southern Division.
But Richardson, like his teammates and new coach Mike MacIntyre, is preparing to put the past behind him. Now that he’s healthy again, he wants to do the same with Colorado’s program.
“I don’t think about us going 1-11 or whatever our finish was last year,” he said. “I can’t think about that. I have to be positive. I have to give my team a sense of promise. I’ve been doing that with my work ethic, my attitude, and me being a new captain on the team, I’ve been doing that with my leadership.”
MacIntyre didn’t know much about Richardson when he arrived after three seasons at San Jose State, but given Richardson’s injury, one of the first things he did was consult with the team’s trainer.
“Paul was relentless in getting well, in pushing back to get going,” McIntyre said. “He pushed himself so hard, about the middle of the season, he maybe could have come back. But they made a decision to make sure he was a full go when we went out to spring practice. He didn’t want to be out of anything.”
His repaired ACL isn’t a problem. Richardson insisted he was running at full speed just 2½ months after his surgery. He recovered so quickly, he considered returning late last season, but the Buffs’ poor start and the risk of re-injury convinced him to wait.
“I am 100 percent, mentally and physical,” he said. “My confidence is out of this world.”
His good feelings might be partly a result of his injury. He focused on his schoolwork, took part in team workouts when he could and grew to appreciate his opportunity. He has finished his required work toward a degree in communications and only has his electives remaining.
Most of that wouldn’t have been possible had he not been injured.
“It humbled me spiritually,” he said. “I’m a man of faith, and I know everything happens for a reason. There’s a reason why I tore my ACL; there’s a reason why I’m going to be able to play this season.
“This humbling experience made me appreciate football more. It made me appreciate being able to go to school because I was good at football. It made me appreciate my teammates, friends and family. I’ve just embraced it.”
As a sophomore, Richardson had 39 receptions for 555 yards. He has 73 catches and 11 touchdowns in two seasons, making him a vital part of Colorado’s hope of recovery.
But can the Buffs turn around a season that was the worst in school history? It’s unlikely, although Richardson believes anything is possible.
“I think we should be able to go to a bowl game this year,” he said. “It’s rare that a team goes nearly (winless) and then comes back to win a bowl game, but I think we have the guys to do it.”