Richardson relying on faith with each setback

Through each surgery and each missed opportunity, Antonio Richardson remains optimistic that he will be able to prove himself and live up to the talent he believes could have made him a top-15 pick.

Sometimes players just seem to be snake-bit when it comes to injuries. Antonio Richardson was viewed as a second-round prospect with upside as he prepared for the 2014 draft. But when he got to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, his stock took as big a hit as any player in the draft.

Having suffered injuries in both high school and college, which required knee surgery following his sophomore year at Tennessee, when the medical people for NFL teams got a chance to get their hands on him and evaluate his knees, there was an immediate red flag that came up. Why? Because it wasn’t just one knee that was the problem. It was both.

He went from being a prospect that was being mentioned as a potential first- or second-round pick to a player who fell completely out of the draft. He signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent, but was expected to sit out his rookie season because of the surgery that was going to be required on his ailing knees.

Fortunately for Richardson, the knee surgeries didn’t require the repairing of ligaments – the worst-case scenario with knee injuries.

“They didn’t have to reconnect anything as far as ligaments were concerned,” Richardson said. “There was a decent amount of cartilage damage. They went in there and cleaned it out. We’ve been doing some things – injections and things of that nature – to try to help it. I’m doing everything that’s asked of me and rehab is going pretty well to this point.”

Richardson was placed on injured reserve when the Vikings were making their final cuts. He had his first surgery Sept. 4 on the right knee. After getting enough rehab time to handle a second surgery, on Sept. 30 he had a procedure done on his left knee.

Richardson is no stranger to recovering from injuries. Knees have been his primary issue, but he has also had other in-season injuries that he played through that kept him from being 100 percent on the field. With each surgery and injury recovery, there is always the nagging thought in the back of his mind as to whether he’ll be able to return to his pre-surgery form, but he’s been through enough of them that he is largely unfazed by the daunting rehab process.

“I think anybody who goes through a serious injury, there’s a mental block there, asking yourself how quick you can bounce back,” Richardson said. “For me, I’ve had a significant amount of injuries throughout my career and I’ve always been able to bounce back – going through the routine of rehab to get back as quickly as I can.”

One of the nagging issues that has weighed heavily on Richardson’s mind is how different his career could have been without the laundry list of injuries that have plagued him. He was convinced that, if not for his health red flags, he would have been one of the first offensive tackles off the board.

“If I didn’t have the series of injuries that I’ve had, I would have probably been a top-15 pick coming out of college,” Richardson said. “That’s the reality of it. People can say what they want to say, but if I had been healthy throughout my career I’m convinced I would have been in the top 20 picks and among the top four tackles in the draft. But, it is what it is. I’m a man of faith and people have different roads that they take to get to their destination. I got here, so I’ve got to continue to work to reach my ultimate goals.”

His setbacks have been a part of life for the last several years and he has learned to deal with it. Many elite athletes could understandably fall into a depression when hurdles keep being placed in front of them, but Richardson’s faith and inner circle have been able to keep him from dwelling on the negative and remaining positive in his attempt to fully come back and give him a fighting chance to show what he can do at the NFL level.

“It’s been frustrating at times, because it seems like my goals have been pushed farther away from me because of my injuries,” Richardson said. “But I have a strong support base – family and friends that are there to provide words of encouragement when I do get down or frustrated. They remind me that I will get better and I will heal up and that I’m more than just a football player.”

It is that support system that has helped him through the worst of times because, in the NFL, players are disposable. If injuries prevent a player from being able to get on the field, they don’t tend to last long. They’re easily replaced because there are hundreds of other players looking to take roster spots wherever they’re available and Richardson knows he doesn’t have a very long leash in terms of trying to make an impression on the coaching staff.

“To the general public, athletes are like toys,” Richardson said. “When you’re doing well, they love you. When you’re not, they just throw you away and move on to something else. That’s why it’s important to me to have my faith and my circle of friends, because they never give up on me and are always there when I need some support. That’s what has helped get me through the difficult times when I’ve had injuries.”

Richardson is at Winter Park every day, but most of his time is spent trying to heal and prepare himself for next year, not the next game. It has made it harder to make the impression on the coaching staff so he can land a spot on the roster, but he believes the Minnesota is the place he should be and head coach Mike Zimmer is the man who will give him every opportunity to make the roster in 2015.

“It’s not easy because I can’t show them every day what I’m capable of doing, but I’m doing everything that is asked of me,” Richardson said. “That’s all you do – do what you can control. As long as I do the things I can control, I think I’ll be fine. Coach Zim, one of the reasons I like him so much, is that he is a reasonable person as well as being a great coach. He knows I can play football. That’s why I’m here and I appreciate that.”

With his NFL career on hold, all Richardson has been focused on is getting his knees right and getting his career path back on track. He already has his sights set on late July when the Vikings will head to Mankato for training camp. It is there that his goals will start taking shape, because, if he can get back to full strength, he’s convinced the best is yet to come.

“If I’m 100 percent, you’re going to see me giving my all and fighting as best I can to make the team and prove to everyone that I can play,” Richardson said. “If I can stay healthy, I believe I have a pretty good career ahead of me.”

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