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November 16, 2012

Richardson embraces student-athlete role, sets sights on Rhodes Scholarship interview

AUBURN, Ala. — Pay me now, or pay me later.

That’s the simple seven-word doctrine Al Richardson has spent his fatherhood instilling in his two sons.

A young man has two options as he lays the sticks to guide his path in life.

“Either you get your butt in that classroom and you study hard, you pass your courses and learn all you can learn, you put in the time and effort now for the reward later,” Al Richardson, LSU’s all-time leading tackler and an All-American linebacker 30 years ago, said from his home in New Orleans.

“Or you goof around like many kids do, have a nice time, watch television, go all to the attractions and amusements, chase the girls … and then you struggle in your later days. You’re gonna pay me later.”

Al’s baby boy, Ashton, took those words to heart during a sudden transition in high school, when a national catastrophe relocated Ashton Richardson to a position of enlightenment.

After being uprooted from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ashton made two discoveries assisting his father raise quarter-horses in Donaldsonville, La.: what he wanted to do with his life and how he would go about chasing those dreams.

“I found something I really love,” Ashton Richardson said, “and if you find happiness doing it, you pursue it as a career.”

Richardson has many incredible accomplishments in his five years at Auburn, as a walk-on turned scholarship linebacker valuing the student squarely before athlete. He’s a three-year letterwinner and three-time all-SEC Academic Honor Roll member, with a 3.94 GPA in Auburn’s College of Agriculture.

He won’t be present Saturday when 13 senior Tigers are celebrated before their final game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Richardson has a once-in-a-lifetime excuse — he’ll be interviewing in Birmingham for the Rhodes Scholarship, widely considered the world’s premier endowment for continued studies.

“I love the game, I love being here at Auburn — I love everything about it,” he said. “But the majority of my life is going to be after football. While you’re here, we should take advantage of all the resources we have to promote our life after football.”

Young buck

Horse breeding in the Richardson family goes back three generations. Ashton’s great-grandfather worked at the sugar cane mill, and he would have Ashton’s grandfather, as a boy, ride the family horse bareback for miles to deliver lunch to his dad.

When Al Richardson was 8 or 9 years old, his father paid $100 to give Al an American Paint horse. So when Ashton and his older brother, Albert, were old enough, Al filled his stable with five horses in Donaldsonville, roughly halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Ashton’s favorite was a tough colt called Buck, who as it turns out was aptly named.

In his early teenage years, Ashton would ride Buck, with a lead line attached meant to maintain control of the wild animal.

Buck bucked Ashton off his back several times. Ashton hit the ground solid, again, and again, and again.

“Most kids at his age would tell you, I don’t want any more to do with that,” Al recalled. “Ashton got up and got on that horse each and every time.”

At least, every time until the one time Ashton wasn’t expecting it. He went to wipe his brow on a hot day, and Buck took off, launching Ashton to the ground and breaking the growth plate in his right wrist.

An onlooking older gentleman at the stable scolded Al for putting his son in danger. But a middle-aged lady came to Ashton’s defense.

“Son, you did the right thing,” the woman told Ashton. “Back in the day, young boys fell off of things and broke their arms. This is what happens to young boys. They get up, they move on, they fix the problem. You did right.”

Al realized something about his boy: Ashton was tougher than the average kid. Al smiled.

Ashton realized something else, with help from the woman’s encouragement.

“I’ve always heard that things will happen when you’re working with horses,” Ashton said. “I was scared, but I also had a passion for it, so that helped me get over that fear.”

Surviving Katrina

On Aug. 29, 2005, Ashton, his mom, Trina, and his grandmother were evacuated in the dark of night by city officials as the horrors of Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans. They left virtually everything behind, fleeing for his grandma’s old home in Baton Rouge.

The storm destroyed Richardson’s New Orleans high school, so Ashton completed his final three years at St. Michael High School in Baton Rouge. He eventually earned first-team all-district honors, not bad for a kid relatively new to football.

“The only sure route is to put your academics first,” Ashton said of his dad’s mandate. “He wouldn’t let us play sports unless our grades were in order. He didn’t even let me play football until high school. He did a great job of stressing school first with my brother and I.”

The move northwest was ultimately a life-changer for Richardson. He had been attending an all-boys high school in inner New Orleans, a circle of friends which failed to serve him with positive role models outside his family.

“Getting out of New Orleans freed me from a lot of distractions I had at the time,” Richardson said. “Then I really started focusing on school. That’s what catapulted me to getting serious about carrying that on into college.”

Going for Rhodes

Dr. Paul Harris in Auburn’s honors college first asked Richardson to consider it a few years ago.

Then Dr. Carol McLeod, a renowned equine surgeon in small-town Kentucky, met Richardson this past spring — “she talked to me like her own son,” Ashton said — and continued to coax him into pursuing perhaps the highest international grant offered in the academic world.

Each year, 32 young ladies and gentlemen at American universities are chosen to continue their studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, typically a two-year commitment.

Famous recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship include former President Bill Clinton, Clinton’s political advisor and television journalist George Stephanopoulos, USC athletic director Pat Haden, NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Bradley and Florida State safety Myron Rolle.

Four Auburn graduates have won the scholarship, most recently in 2009 when All-American swimmer Jordan Anderson, who completed his master’s degree in global health science in England.

An animal sciences major, Richardson strives for two master’s degrees — biodiversity conservation management, and environment and climate change. That’s on the advice of McLeod, whose impact as a horse veterinarian in a rural area mirrors Richardson’s career intentions.

“That’s the best way I can give back to those communities,” Richardson said. “My goals really are to develop sustainable agricultural programs in rural communities.”

He’ll have dinner as one of 12 finalists in Birmingham tonight, a meet-and-greet with Rhodes representatives. Then after a short interview session Saturday, they’ll find out that day which two finalists are selected for the scholarship.

Richardson feels mostly prepared for the weekend, thanks to yet another lesson taught to him by his father.

“He demanded we would always study three or four days before an exam,” Richardson said. ”He never wanted us to cram for a test.”

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