By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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."
Robert Richardson Sr. knew when he brought the suit against Fox and Madden that he would open a whole new can of trouble, which is why he waited almost a year to file it. He says he thought long and hard about reopening his son's wound, which has been slow to heal.
He refers to his son as the innocent victim in all of this. Rob did not ask John Madden to come watch him play. He did not seek out Fox and beg the network to film him. He did not plead to be on television. According to the Richardsons, Fox offered him the world and instead gave him nothing but heartbreak and embarrassment, and all he did was go out there and throw the football like he has ever since he was 8 years old.
"They took the truest thing in his life and trashed it for him to the point that he didn't want to play ball anymore," Robert Sr. says. "For those guys to leave a 14-year-old kid sitting in a football stadium with all these expectations and all these great things that were fixing to happen to him, and not to have the decency to come up there and say anything and leave him sitting there is the coldest, cruelest thing I think you could ever do to anybody."
In an instant, a hopeful kid became a cynical young man, courtesy of the big-money world of pro sports and the billion-dollar industry that fights for the rights to broadcast football to millions of people each week. Rob didn't ask to be famous, and he sure didn't ask to be humiliated. So his father went ahead and filed suit, he says, for one simple reason: Nobody messes with my boy.
Robert Richardson Sr. does not need Fox's money. He has his own, courtesy of his McKinney steel plant and an oil-field equipment business. He lives in McKinney in one of those Texas ranch homes most people only dream about--the kind with a winding driveway that leads from the road to the house, the kind that sits on so many acres you can't walk them all in a day, the kind with horse stables and a wooden back porch that faces a swimming pool and a grand, big-sky vista that exists in fiction. He has a boat in Florida, a deer lease, and several shiny new pickup trucks sitting in that long driveway.
Robert Sr. says this lawsuit is not about greed, it's about revenge: He doesn't necessarily want Fox's money; he just wants the network's attention. That said, he also wants Fox to literally pay for the emotional distress inflicted on his son. A kid can only take being called a liar for so long. Eventually, it takes its toll.
Rob Richardson looks like the kind of kid born to play quarterback. His room, filled with balls signed by Aikman and Dan Marino and Joe Montana and a handful of other football greats, is a shrine to his love for the game. He's so all-American, his breath practically smells like apple pie; he's 16 now, but looks much older at certain angles, his brown hair so perfect even when tousled, his chin so proud when clenched. He will walk around the house wearing nothing but jeans, proud of an upper torso that seems sculpted in soft focus--he still has, after all, the body of a child.
He doesn't speak much, certainly not of the incident behind the lawsuit. He lets his father do that; Rob will answer questions about it, but he will not offer anything unsolicited. He prefers that the whole thing just disappear, and he worries that an article about the messy affair will only rekindle the teasing from his classmates, which has just barely subsided. He gives only short answers to long questions; he's polite and reserved, and you could almost mistake him for shy, though his father and mother insist the whole incident with Fox has hardened him.
How did you end up playing quarterback instead of running back or wide receiver?
"I chose to try to play quarterback," says Rob.
What did you like about that position?
"It's more fun. More challenging."
Do you like being in charge? Directing the team?
Were your heroes quarterbacks? Obviously you must have been a Cowboy fan. Did you always like Aikman?
Rob began playing ball when he was 8 years old, quarterbacking the Boys' Club flag football team in McKinney. His father, who grew up in Pleasant Grove and played football at W.W. Samuell High School and later at Austin College in Sherman, encouraged him to join the team after seeing an ad in the McKinney Courier-Gazette, and Robert Sr. coached his son until the sixth grade.
In 1994, Rob started playing in a tackle league in neighboring Allen. Around that time, he began attending quarterback camps at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Florida, where he studied the game with famed coach Steve Spurrier. He also took top quarterback honors at the Jason Garrett Quarterback and Receiver Camp held at East Texas State University in Commerce. He has the medal and newspaper clipping framed and hanging in his bedroom above a black-and-white picture of his mother's father, who was a football coach in Florida for 30 years.
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.
"[Morrison] goes, 'Madden thinks that he saw an up-and-coming Troy Aikman. Said the guy throws like Aikman, moves like Aikman, you know, thinks he's an outstanding quarterback and thinks he's an up-and-coming Troy Aikman,'" Robert Sr. recounts. "I said, 'You're kidding!' I mean, for someone to say that really shocked me and impressed me and made me feel proud, and I said, 'Man, that's great!'"
In court documents, Morrison admits that he did contact "one or more members of the McKinney High School team and sought permission and consent to film footage of plaintiff Robert Richardson II playing football."
The next week, on October 31, Fox sent a local crew out to film McKinney playing at home against Southlake-Carroll. News of the video shoot ended up in the Courier-Gazette, along with a picture of a cameraman standing on the sidelines, aiming his lens right at Rob. The Richardsons even have the raw videotape made by the local production company, and it's of stellar quality--like being on the field, in the huddle, on the sidelines, with Rob at the center of every frame.
Rob says he was unaffected by the attention; a good leader is never distracted. He just went out on the field and played his game, ignoring the camera in his face. His friends were more impressed than he was, trying to get into the picture every time the camera was rolling.
"I played a good game," Rob recalls, shrugging. "I didn't get to do as much as I planned to as far as throwing the football, but it's not my fault, because we were running the ball." A few times, Rob says with a grin, he asked the coach to let him throw the ball a little more.
Robert Sr. says that the following day, a Friday, he received a call from Morrison, who instructed him to bring his wife and son to Texas Stadium early on Sunday for the Cowboys-Eagles game. According to Richardson, Morrison offered him tickets to the game--which the family didn't need, as they already hold season tickets--and told them to arrive at 9:30 a.m. for the noon kickoff, since Morrison wanted to introduce Rob to Madden and Aikman. The boy was thrilled. It was "the second coming of Christmas," his father says, proof that all his hard work was paying off.
"Oh, Jesus, I was so proud," Robert Sr. says. "It's still unbelievable that a Hall of Fame coach recognized my son...You can call it naive on my part, but I told [Rob], 'If John Madden goes on television and split-screens you on TV like he says he's going to do and compares you to Troy Aikman, and that he thinks in his mind that you're the next up-and-coming Troy Aikman, you're locked, bud.' I said, 'You're going to have recruiters all over America wanting to see who this kid is and what John Madden saw in him.'"
Between his Friday conversation with Morrison and Sunday morning, Richardson and his wife called everyone they knew, telling them to watch the game so they could see their son being compared to Aikman. Everyone at high school heard the news, and those who hadn't seen the article in the paper or heard about it on the radio didn't believe Rob, but he told them: Just watch. Which they did, unfortunately.
Robert Sr. says he brought Rob and Jan to the November 3 game three hours before kickoff and waited for Morrison to take them into the locker room, where the 14-year-old boy could shake hands with his idol and the man who was going to make him famous, if only for a moment.
And they waited...
Until suddenly it occurred to Robert Sr. that Morrison was not coming and that there would be no meeting with Madden or Aikman. He recalls that his stomach began to churn.
At the end of the second quarter, the family went to find a television so they could watch the halftime broadcast.
There was nothing about Rob, no film comparing him to Troy Aikman, no mention of his name.
Rob was bewildered and angry. His father felt "horrible" for his son, who had been humiliated with silence. "I was confused and upset," Rob says, "and wondering what all my friends and family would say: 'Why didn't they do it?' Getting all these questions I didn't know the answers to. I had all my friends saying, 'That's cool; I'll be watching.' Then when I come back to school, [they would be] saying, 'You liar.'"
Which, the family says, is exactly what happened.
Dejected and ashamed, Rob returned to his seat and watched the rest of the Cowboys-Eagles game, which the Eagles somehow managed to win. Rob doesn't remember much of what happened. He was too stunned. His father says Rob remained quiet through the rest of the game, hung tough like a trouper, until the two-minute warning. Then, his father remembers, an enormous tear--"the size of a dime"--rolled down Rob's cheek. He clenched his jaw and said nothing.
"At that point," says Robert Sr., "if I could have gotten my hands on those guys [at Fox], it wouldn't have been pretty."
He says he phoned Fox and, on November 5, finally reached Morrison, who explained that he had the tape ready to roll but that the game producer refused to put it on because the score was so close. Richardson wanted to know how he could explain leaving his son waiting up in the stands to meet Madden and Aikman; he demanded to know why he made his boy a promise he didn't keep. He was "some kind of pissed," and he let Morrison feel his rage.
Robert Sr. says Morrison told him he would make it up to Rob by airing the segment during the Cowboys-Washington Redskins game on Thanksgiving Day, which had a higher national audience anyway. Richardson was skeptical but placated for the moment.
Morrison, in court documents, says he did indeed talk to Robert Sr. on November 5 and that "filmed footage of plaintiff Robert Richardson II was not broadcast." However, Morrison denies promising Richardson the footage would air on Thanksgiving--or, for that matter, ever.
Meanwhile, Rob was being taunted at school, harassed by kids who had waited to see him on television.
"Everybody was on my back about it: 'Why weren't you on TV? How come they didn't do anything on the TV about you?'" Rob recalls, staring at the carpet as he talks. "I said, 'I don't know...' I mean, just two weeks ago, a car drove by, and someone held a big old sign up in the window saying 'Troy Aikman wannabe' on it. It was some kids. I didn't know them. Kids still bother me, saying that I should make up my own video game and stuff like that. It drives me crazy. Makes me want to fight them, but I don't want to live that way."
On the day before Thanksgiving--November 27, 1996--Robert Sr. hadn't heard from Morrison about whether Fox would be airing the piece about his son. He held out hope, but felt deep down it would not air this time either. So he called his attorney in Dallas, Eric Fein, and asked him to place a call to Fox to find out what was happening. It did no good: Richardson was informed that the piece would not air during the Redskins game or at any other time during the rest of the season.
But, he says, a producer at Fox did offer some compensation: a couple of footballs, signed by John Madden and his broadcasting partner Pat Summerall.
Robert Sr., a dedicated hunter who keeps a stuffed bear in his living room and other dead animal heads hanging on the walls of his home, raged at the producer. "I said, 'This isn't about memorabilia now.' I said, 'You've taken my son and trashed him in this town. You made him a total embarrassment in this community. You've emotionally wrecked him; he doesn't want to go to school because of the ridicule and the teasing and the name-calling that he's getting. This has gone way beyond footballs.'
"I said, 'You've messed with the wrong guy and the wrong kid, and I'm here to tell you that one way or the other, you're going to make it right, or you're going to wish you had.'"
The Richardsons did not file suit against Fox, Madden, or Morrison until October 21, 1997. They waited, the father explains, because they hoped Fox would make it right--air the piece during the following season, prove their son wasn't a liar, give him back a little of the respect he had lost when a network decided a promise to a high school kid wasn't worth keeping. Never happened.
Fox denies that it guaranteed it would ever air the piece in the first place; there were no written contracts, no signed documents. And Madden, in court papers, says he doesn't know how he ever got involved in this lawsuit since he "has never had the power and authority to determine what will be broadcast by Fox Broadcasting during a game."
But the family and their lawyer insist that it was Madden who set in motion this whole rusted chain of events. And the Richardsons also claim they entered into an agreement with Fox by giving the network permission to film Rob playing football.
Robert Sr. says all this would be a moot point if only Morrison had told him there was a chance the footage might not have aired. Then, it would have been no big deal. But the father says no such words were uttered, and Morrison's insistence that they show up at Texas Stadium early on the day of their son's humiliation was just an extra kick in the gut.
Attorney Fein expects depositions to begin in a few weeks, and from there, who knows. This could turn into a lengthy battle, or the federal judge in Sherman might consider the litigation frivolous and throw the case out of court.
For now, Robert Sr. is willing to fight this suit just as "aggressively" as Fox is planning to defend it. He vows to get back his son's dignity from Fox Television, and he will spend whatever is necessary to see that come to pass. But when he talks, it seems as though it's his own pride that has been damaged.
"I gave them a chance to make it right on two or three chances," Richardson says. "They're going to make it right, or we're going to be sitting in the courthouse in Sherman, and I'm going to have 12 people tell me what's right and what's wrong. Win or lose--and this is what I've told my son--there comes a point in your life where you've got to stand up and fight for what's right and what's wrong...It's a principle thing, it's a moral thing with me, and I don't care what it costs. And if I lose, I lose, but at least on my principles I will have taken it as far as I could possibly take it to make my point and make them pay for what they did to my kid.