By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In 1996, when Rob enrolled at McKinney High School, he was put in charge of the freshman squad. He wore No. 8 and tucked a towel into his pants. He looked like his hero Troy Aikman, played like him too, drilling the ball with a marksman's precision; even on shaky videotapes filmed by his mother, you can see that the young boy exudes a veteran's confidence.
Much of it is the result of his drive to be better than anyone else on the team and to compensate for his lack of height: He is small by college or pro standards, standing 5-foot-10 instead of 6-foot-1. Every morning, during the summer and school year, he gets into his pickup truck and heads over to the high school at 5:30 a.m. to throw the ball, run the track, lift weights, and practice in early-morning silence until classes begin. His coaches and father praise his work ethic: Rob may not be tall enough, but he's damned sure going to make himself good enough.
"He's got a chance to be real good," says Billy Whitman, McKinney High School assistant coach. "What you look for in a young quarterback is work habits, and he's got good work habits. He's been coming early since eighth grade. Everybody wants to be a quarterback, but I don't ever worry about that, because usually they eliminate themselves because they're not gonna spend the time on it. We've had good quarterbacks here, because some of them are talented and some just work themselves into it. What I look for in a kid is attitude and talent."
Rob will not start for the McKinney High School football team next season--they rarely start juniors on the team, and the job is already taken by Chad Hall, a senior who came in last year out of necessity and led the team to a handful of hard-fought victories, one in overtime. When spring practice rolls around in a matter of days, Rob will instead try out for the second team, a backup role. He'll get his shot the following season, and he is happy to wait, eager to prove himself.
"I do it 'cause I want to," he says of his work habits. "I want to get stronger; I want to get faster. It's just what I need to do to get where I want to get to."
His father insists repeatedly that he has never pushed his son to become a quarterback; Robert Sr. says he understands that an athlete's career can end in a split second, a freak injury from which he might never recover. He claims he is not one of those football fathers who pushes his son toward the field and demands he live his life between the hash marks. But make no mistake about it: Rob is the son of a former college player and the grandson of a beloved coach, and sometimes those shoulder pads might feel a little heavier for the burden of carrying old football dreams. If Robert Sr. does not demand greatness from his son, it's only because he expects it.
"If Rob doesn't become a pro quarterback or doesn't become a college player, it won't be because he didn't give 110 percent of what he had," Robert Sr. offers. "We've always had a saying amongst us that if you're gonna be the best, you have to be better than the rest, and I think that kind of goes along with his work ethic. I think either one of us could look each other in the eye and say, 'You did the very best you could do.'"
October 24, 1996, was just like any other Thursday night during the football season for the Richardson family. They had driven to Coppell to see their son play, bringing the video camera to capture every hand-off, every pass, every painful sack. It was Rob's play that saved the game for McKinney, connecting on a game-ending two-point conversion as he took a shot to his mouth by one of the Coppell players; he had hung in the pocket long enough to get the ball away and take a beating for his troubles.
It was "just another night at the office," Robert Sr. recalls about his son's heroics.
At least it was until word began circulating through the bleachers that John Madden was in attendance. Jan Richardson's videotape made that night shows Madden sitting in the stands with another man; it's clearly him, in a blue shirt and a black motorcycle hat, though the image is small and blurry. In his response to the Richardsons' lawsuit, Madden admits he was indeed at the game and saw Rob play.
According to Robert Sr., the family left the game and didn't give Madden's presence another thought, not until he went to pick up his son from school a few days later and was told that Fran Morrison from Fox Sports was trying to get a hold of Coach Whitman. Whitman remembers getting the call and says Morrison wanted to know if it was OK if he sent over a TV crew to film Rob.
"He told me [that Rob] had been seen at a junior-high game by Madden and [that they] wanted to do a piece on him," Whitman recalls. The coach gave his OK, checked with his superiors, and told Morrison that Fox was more than welcome to shoot the game. A secretary at the school also passed the note along to Robert Sr., who says he called Fox and was put in touch with Morrison. According to the father, Morrison said he had been ordered by Madden to film Rob.