Death of favorite Razorback brings back bittersweet memories

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I had a lot of “heroes.” Some were from movies, others from TV or comic books, but the ones that were the most tangible were from sports.

While their exploits on the field were fantastic, they were still real people, and they were a true influence, and gave me and others something to aspire to.

Most of my friends’ sports heroes were from the NFL, the MLB, or the NBA. Guys like Roger Staubach, Johnny Bench, Dr. J, or even a boxer like Muhammed Ali.

I mean who didn’t love Dr. J, swooping in for monster dunks or picture-perfect finger rolls like Superman with an afro.

I have fond memories of watching defensive linemen Randy White, Mean Joe Greene, and running back Earl Campbell, despite him playing for the dreaded Texas Longhorns in college.

However, college football was my family’s sport of favor, and most of my heroes growing up were Razorbacks.

Guys like defensive tackle Dan Hampton, kicker Steve Little, running backs Ike Forte, Jerry Eckwood and Gary Anderson, linebacker Dennis Winston, quarterbacks Ron Calcagni, Kevin Scanlon, and Brad Taylor, and defensive end Billy Ray Smith Jr. were the Hog football players the captured my young imagination along with nose guard Richard Richardson.

It may seem odd to say that Richardson, who was nicknamed Donut, was a hero of mine.

Most guys look to the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers. You know, the guys who score touchdowns.

But, as a fat white kid from West Memphis, I learned early I wasn’t built to score touchdowns. I might get to block for one or try to stop one on the defensive line, but reaching pay dirt wasn’t anything that was going to happen for me in a real game.

So while I certainly appreciated the graceful exploits of QBs, RBs, and WRs, much of my attention when watching the Hogs was focused on linemen, and as a junior high kid, Richardson always stood out to me.

I never had the good fortune to meet Richardson, 60, but I was greatly saddened to learn that he passed away Thursday in Little Rock of respiratory distress after testing positive for COVID-19.

It would have been nice to tell him how much I enjoyed watching him play for the Hogs.

Sure, the standout and star of the Razorbacks’ defensive line from 1979-82 was two-time All-American and four-year starter Smith, who was a first-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 1983 along with Anderson.

But I played nose guard like Richardson, who was also a four-year starter for the Hogs and an All-Southwest Conference performer as a senior in 1982, so I kept my eyes on him at all Razorback home games during his career, and the televised away games.

The more I watched, the more I liked the way Richardson played. Even in the early 1980s, Richardson was smallish height-wise for a defensive lineman at 5-11 although he was a load at 260 pounds. Though his size kept him from being an NFL-type player, Richardson was so quick, and so powerful that he gave every team trouble.

The Little Rock Central grad specialized in getting low, really low, underneath opposing centers and exploding into them and stopping their momentum. Richardson had really good lateral movement and made plays sideline to sideline despite being a plugger in the middle.

For his career, Richardson made 253 tackles with 24 behind the line of scrimmage for 128 yards in losses. He also made two interceptions, batted down three passes, and recovered three fumbles for teams that played in the 1980 Sugar Bowl, the 1980 Hall of Fame Bowl, the 1981 Gator Bowl, and the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl.

During his senior year, Richardson made 80 tackles that included seven for 48 yards in losses. Richardson was one of four team captains for the 1982 squad along with Smith, Anderson, and fullback Jessie Clark.

The 1982 Razorback defense was a standout group. The Hogs lead the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 10.5 point per game, and were ninth in the nation against the run, allowing just 96.7 yards per game.

After beating Florida 28-24 in the Bluebonnet Bowl, the Razorbacks finished the season ranked ninth in the Associated Press Poll and eighth in the United Press International Coaches Poll.

That Razorback squad suffered one of the great injustices in the program’s history, one that helped deny them a Southwest Conference Championship and allowed SMU to tie the 17-17.

Referee Horton Nestra called defensive pass interference on Razorback cornerback Nathan Jones on a play where SMU quarterback Lance McIlhenny overthrew receiver Jackie Wilson. Not only that, but Wilson stopped his route abruptly in an effort to shield Jones from the ball. A no call was in order, but if any call were to be made is should have been offensive interference on Wilson.

The call flipped the field and gave SMU the ball on their 17-yard line, down 17-10 with 4:25 to play. Richardson made a tackle on Mustang and future Los Angelas Rams star Eric Dickerson for no gain, but on the next play tricky option operator McIlhenny reversed field on an option and rolled into the end zone to tie the game at 17.

Nestra’s call was so egregious and so affected the outcome of the game that the play helped prompt the NCAA to change the pass interference penalty from a spot-of-the-foul infraction to a 15-yard penalty.

That outcome of that game no doubt still irks all Razorbacks — players, coaches, staff, and fans — who remember it. It took the Hogs out of the running for the SWC title.

The play certainly left a mar on my memories of that season, but that Razorback team remains my all-time favorite.

A lot of it had to do with so many great Razorbacks that played on that team like the ones already mentioned plus offensive linemen Steve Korte, Alfred Mohammed, Marcus Elliott, Charles Ginn, Orson Weems, Jay Bequette; quarterbacks Tom Jones and Brad Taylor; tight ends Eddie White and Luther Franklin; receivers Derek Holloway, Keith Kidd, Mark Mistler, and Kim Dameron, defensive tackles Earl Buckingham and Phillip Boren, defensive end Ron Faurot; linebackers Bert Zinamon, Mark Lee, Milton Fields, David Bazzel; and defensive backs Keith Burns, Greg Lasker, and Danny Walters.

I loved watching all those Razorbacks play, but “Donut” Richardson remains my favorite. My condolences to his family and friends. Rest in Peace.