by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- In 2005, Tommy Richardson was the Tar Heel who received the signals -- the guy who interpreted rapid-fire hand gestures from sideline coaches and shared the play calls with his defensive teammates before the next snap.
The energetic linebacker never thought, eight years later, he'd be part of that process for North Carolina again - this time, wearing a headset instead of a helmet, jumping around the sidelines instead of the field, and initiating the signals instead of receiving them.
"I've wanted to be a coach ever since I was a middle school player,'' said Richardson, now a 29-year-old first-year graduate assistant for UNC. "I just never thought I'd be back here, trying to take that step. ... And I feel humbled by the opportunity."
Coach "T-Rich" - who played for the Tar Heels from 2002-05 - is not your prototypical college GA (if there is such a thing). He already has a graduate degree and has taken several online classes toward his Ph.D. He was turned down for this job once already, a few years back. And he was an established teacher and athletics director at his high school alma mater, North Miami Beach, when he got the call to interview with head coach Larry Fedora.
"A lot of people asked, 'Hey, you are an AD, you've got your graduate degree, why would you go back to be a GA?' And that's something I had to ponder, myself,'' Richardson said. "... But when I think about my purpose, I know I would love to be a college coach, or an NFL coach, and really use that platform to mentor young men."
That's because looking back, he says he could have used a better mentor, himself, during his peewee playing days, when some of his youth coaches were more apt to yell than teach. And then again during his early playing seasons a UNC, when he twice declined to switch positions and often clashed with coaches, earning a suspension at one point after exchanging harsh words with an assistant.
He admits he "wasn't a very good guy" during his first couple of years in Chapel Hill, but those experiences make him a better one now.
"Having the chance to persevere, to have people take me under their wing, it showed me that you can grow from adversity,'' said Richardson, who turned things around by his senior season, when he made 91 tackles, earned honorable mention All-ACC kudos and was named the team's defensive MVP. "I'm an example of that ... and hopefully, the players [here] can learn from that."
To that end, he works with UNC's bandits as a big brother as much as a coach, trying to steer them toward good decisions off the field while trying to mold solid technique and aggressive tackles on it.
Richardson instructs, junior Darius Lipford said, but he also befriends.
"Having a [former] player from here, experienced with this area, closer to our age, he knows a lot of ways to portray things to us," Lipford said. "He knows we have to bring a lot of energy to the position, and he just helps us work on the details. ... He's had this experience; he knows what we're going through, and what it takes to make it through when times get a little bit rougher."
As a GA, Richardson can work up to two years at UNC while taking classes. Duties normally include film breakdowns, player studies, data entry - and in his case, listening for calls on game day from co-defensive coordinator Ron West (who watches from the coaches box), and signaling those plays to the players on the field.
Last Saturday, his first game at Kenan Stadium since he made a game-sealing interception with less than two minutes left to beat Duke in 2005, Richardson said he was more excited than nervous to get to that sideline.
Perhaps instinctively harkening back to old familiar times, he missed the coaches' cue to precede the players onto the field - and found himself hustling behind the Tar Heels, through the tunnel and smoke and old familiar cheers.
It was an awesome
feeling, he said, like coming home again.
And he was.
"I feel really fortunate to be on the sideline - able to relay the signals from Coach West to the guys, and also be able to help tackle any problems right away," he said. "But I also feel fortunate to be back on this sideline, at this school."