Getting Madden

A McKinney family sues Fox for sacking a young quarterback's dream

Even now, more than a year later, the kids at school taunt him. They call him liar, say he's arrogant, full of shit. Hey, when ya gonna get your own video game? They pull up to his pickup truck at stoplights and ridicule him, holding up signs on which they have scrawled their adolescent insults. Troy Aikman wannabe. Troy, my ass!

Him--a clean-cut kid with good grades and a slingshot arm, a disciplined athlete who gets up at 5:30 each morning and hauls his butt up to the high school gym to throw footballs at targets, the son who wouldn't do anything to disappoint his parents. Even now, more than a year later, the kids at school do not let him forget the worst day of his life--as though it was his fault.

Robert Richardson II--Rob to his friends and family--has been ridiculed ever since November 1996, when what didn't happen to the then-14-year-old quarterback became his defining moment. It's still hard for him to talk about what occurred, and when he does, his voice is soft and low.

For days leading up to November 3, 1996, Rob had been telling anyone who would listen that he would be featured on Fox Television during the broadcast of that day's Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles game. And not just some quick shot, another fan in the stands. Get this: John Madden, beloved sportscaster and Hall of Fame coach of the Oakland Raiders, was going to compare the McKinney High School freshman quarterback to, of all people, Troy Aikman.

It was all Madden's idea, say Rob and his father, Robert Richardson Sr.: The burly Ace Hardware spokesman was in town on October 24, 1996, and just happened to attend the McKinney-Coppell freshman game where Rob was starting for the McKinney Lions. Madden was, according to the Richardsons, so impressed by the kid's performance that he wanted to highlight the boy on national television, put his picture next to Aikman's, and make him, well, a star. Fox sent over a crew the next week to film Rob for the broadcast, and the McKinney newspaper wrote of the impending event--with pictures and everything. The local radio station that carries the McKinney High School Lions games even interviewed the television crew.

Rob was going to be a Texas high school football hero before he even started in a varsity game. John Madden was going to give him his stamp of approval. Do you know what that means? College scouts and recruiters would come see him play. He would get noticed, maybe get invited to play for a Division I NCAA team. Maybe this would lead to a shot at the pros someday. Hell, it sure couldn't hurt.

The Richardsons called everyone they knew to tell them their son was going to be on national television--family in Texas and Florida, every friend they had, every business associate Robert Sr. and his wife, Jan, had from California to Florida...and Rob told everyone at school.

But on November 3, 1996, when the Cowboys and Eagles played at Texas Stadium and swapped leads like recipes on national television, there was never any mention made of Rob or his ability to throw the ball like Troy Aikman. Madden never uttered his name.

The Richardsons, who attended the game and expected to meet Madden and Aikman, watched the halftime show on a television in the concession area and couldn't believe what they had not seen. Rob stared in blank silence and thought to himself: "People are going to say I'm the biggest liar in America." Robert Sr. remembers his son trying to remain stoic, tough--save the lone tear that streamed down his face as they made their way back to their seats.

If the son was embarrassed and confused, the father was outraged--mad enough to file a lawsuit in Collin County District Court suing Madden, Fox producer Fran Morrison (who supposedly arranged the filming), and Fox Television itself, for negligent representation, breach of good faith, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other counts. The suit, filed on October 27, 1997, and later moved to U.S. District Court in Sherman, calls for Fox to pay the Richardsons almost $15 million in damages.

There are those who may scoff at the lawsuit, wondering if the Richardsons are just one more family caught up in the Texas obsession with high school football and blinded by Thursday-night lights. They may cite this case as another abuse of legal process by overprotective parents--the kind who sue school counselors when their kids don't get into the college of their choice or football coaches who don't give their kids enough playing time. Hell, we all live with a little disappointment, they say. Get over it.

Or they may simply dismiss the incident as the way things are: part of the arrogance of a professional sport that believes it has the right to dangle fame and fortune in front of the most vulnerable elements in society and bear no responsibility for the pain it causes.

Fox will not offer any comment about the suit other than these few words, forwarded by Dallas-based attorney Michael Buchanan: "Fox, Mr. Madden, and Mr. Morrison believe this litigation to be completely meritless and intend to aggressively defend the case."

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