INDIANAPOLIS — The role is nothing new: Face of a football team and a city.
Pressure and expectations followed Anthony Richardson from Gainesville’s Eastside H.S. to the city’s national football institution.
That would be the University of Florida. Deciding to switch from the No. 2 jersey he wore as a freshman to No. 15 — hello, Tim Tebow, for cryin’ out loud! — only magnified the bullseye that accompanied it.
“People were always saying I was the face of the school, and I was the Gainesville kid,’’ Anthony Richardson said. “There was a lot of pressure, not only from in Gainesville, but just from Gator fans in general.
“They always want the best. Wearing 15, being the quarterback and then growing up in Gainesville, everybody expects so much from you.’’
It was Monday morning, and Richardson was spending quality time with a portion of the local media. He offered a glimpse inside the striking presence — 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, deep voice, deliberate eyes — and revealed why he’s done everything possible to prepare himself for a similar, yet exponentially more demanding role.
He became the face of the Indianapolis Colts, and by extension, the city the moment the franchise selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in April’s draft. When the Jacksonville Jaguars visit Lucas Oil Stadium Sept. 10, Anthony Richardson will become just the seventh rookie in franchise history to start a season-opener.
Need more pressure? He’s looking to become the first Colts’ rookie to win an opener since — drum roll, please — George Shaw in 1955.
“I know (the Colts) invested a lot in me,’’ Richardson said, “but I’m not the only person on this team. They invested a lot into the other players. They invested a lot into this staff.
“I know they’re going to ride with me, and I’m going to ride with them. I don’t really see it as I’m the main guy because, without the other pieces on the team, team not going to work.’’
Richardson did his best to deflect the responsibilities draped on his wide shoulders.
“People always talk about how I’m the franchise,’’ he said. “I see it that way, but (teammates) are here before I was here. They’re part of the franchise as well.’’
Still, Richardson understands that, at some level, a franchise that has failed to make the playoffs in six of the past eight seasons likely will go as far as he takes it.
“Everybody wants me to come here and win a Super Bowl my first year,’’ Richardson said. “I wish I could, and I hope I can.
“But sometimes, you’ve got to understand it’s not all about me. (I’m) making sure everybody on this team is involved and everybody is doing their job because I’m not the only one here.’’
If Richardson proves to be everything owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard, coach Shane Steichen and the city needs him to be, it likely will be because of the foundation in place.
Credit LaShawnda Cleare, his mother.
Credit Corey, his little brother.
Credit Brett Ledbetter, his mental coach.
Mom showed the way
Whatever it took, LaShawnda did to put food on the table and clothes on her sons’ backs.
Richardson slowly shook his head.
“She’s done a lot,’’ he said. “I don’t even know everything she’s done.
“My mom was grinding, trying to find a way for us.’’
LaShawnda’s resume is deep and diverse: delivering the mail, Taco Bell, helping take care of patients while working for the state of Florida, driving a city bus, volunteering at high school, working with her son’s football team.
At one point, she needed surgery “just from working too hard,’’ Richardson shared.
He appreciated everything his mother did for the family, and it made the necessary impression.
“Just seeing how much she’s grinding,’’ he said, “it’s a disservice if I don’t put the same energy in because she did a lot for me to get to this point.
“I would only see her an hour or two throughout the day because he’s coming home, changing clothes and just right back out of the house and catching a bus to go to a different spot.
“If I don’t grind myself, it’s like a slap in the face to her.’’
Richardson put a portion of his rookie contract — four years, $33.99 million guaranteed, a $21.7 million signing bonus — to good use. He bought his mom a home.
“It’s me finding her a stable place to the point she doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore,’’ he said. “Just seeing her sign the papers and getting the keys to her house, that was a fun moment for us because we had never done anything like that.’’
It was important for Richardson to keep his family close, including his stepdad, Ferrell Cleare, and Corey.
“It’s all part of the journey,’’ he said. “They’ve always been with me.’’
Richardson’s devotion to his little brother is obvious. Mini-Me, he calls him. Corey is a freshman quarterback/running back/sometimes cornerback at Westfield H.S.
“I love him and glad he’s here with me,’’ Richardson said. “My little brother is excited at his new school, making a lot of new friends.’’
Mental ‘coach’ provided perspective
As much as his mom showed Richardson how to carry himself as a man and how always to be in tune with those around him, there’s no dismissing the influence of Brett Ledbetter.
“He’s my mental coach,’’ Richardson said. “Been working with him for almost a year now. We actually have a meeting in the morning tomorrow.’’
Richardson always had a sounding board. Vernell Brown Jr. has been his manager/mentor.
But something more was needed, and that became evident last September after Richardson was unable to handle the emotional, individual high of a standout game in Florida’s season-opener against then-No. 7 Utah. He was the undeniable catalyst in the 29-26 upset: 17-of-24 for 168 yards, 11 rushes for 106 yards and three touchdowns.
Next up: Kentucky and highly-touted QB Will Levis.
“I was so excited, so pumped,’’ Richardson said.
NFL scouts converged on Gainesville.
“I told myself, ‘I have to play perfect. I have to play good,’’’ he said. “I didn’t play up to the standard anybody wanted me to play to.’’
Richardson completed just 14-of-35 passes for 143 yards and had an interception returned for a touchdown. He had just 12 yards on six carries.
“That’s when all the pressure started to settle on me,’’ he said.
Richardson talked with his mentor, who convinced him to seek additional help.
“Two weeks later, I started talking to Brett,’’ he said. “I’ve seen the difference in myself and my play.’’
No longer was Richardson driven by external forces. No longer was he trying to please everyone else. No longer was he affected by what was posted on social media.
“He taught me a lot about myself that I didn’t know about myself,’’ he said. “I was putting myself on the bottom of the list. It was just me stepping on the field and being there.
“Now, I have to make myself happy first. At the end of the day, if I’m not happy, it doesn’t really matter.’’
Ups and downs ahead
As life has demonstrated to Richardson at nearly every turn, highs often are balanced by lows. That was the case during his one season as a starter at Florida: the Gators were a year-long roller coaster ride at 6-7.
And that undoubtedly will be the case as Richardson embarks on his NFL career.
Remember, Peyton Manning, a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, endured a 3-13 rookie season in 1998. His 28 interceptions remain a rookie record.
Andrew Luck enjoyed immediate success — the Colts were 11-5 and earned a wild-card playoff berth in 2012. Rookie quarterbacks are a combined 37-68-2 (.350) in Colts franchise history. Only seven have won a single game as a rookie.
“I kinda put my expectations a little bit higher than everybody else’s,’’ Richardson said. “It’s just a matter of me wanting to be the best version of myself.
“I need to push myself and not get complacent. I can be complacent, saying, ‘Oh, I’m in the NFL now. I made it.’ But that’s not the case. I haven’t done anything yet, and I need to establish myself in this league and on this team and just push us to get victories.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.