Brandon Richards Finds Making His Own Way Can Be a Rough Climb : Living Up to a Legend

Times Staff Writer

There certainly are worse places to pass through on the road to greatness than this pretty seaside community, at least if you don't mind your new friends' spiked hair.

The folks at San Marcos High School, and this town of 75,000 as a whole, have been good to Brandon Richards and his accompanying family support group. His is a situation that requires understanding from teachers and coaches, which is exactly what he has received.

There's no time to put down roots, though. Brandon Richards, son of Bob Richards, the former Olympic pole vaulting star, is just passing through on the way to what he hopes will be his own pole vaulting stardom.

Richards, in his young life, has already done a lot of passing through, and there's more of it ahead of him.

Six months ago, he was vaulting on a 150-foot runway and $4,700 port-a-pit in the backyard of the family's 4,600-acre spread in Waco, Tex. Now, he and his family live in a motel room, and by the end of June, he will have graduated from San Marcos, his fourth high school. Then he'll go on to UCLA in the fall.

During one especially busy stretch, he went from Santa Barbara to the U.S. Olympic Invitational meet in New Jersey, back to Santa Barbara and then back to New Jersey for a national prep meet a couple of weeks later.

"I think, and I've told him this, that I would like to see him jump more in the high school division now," said fellow vaulter Mike Tully of Encino, silver medalist in last summer's Olympics and Brandon's friend and mentor since they met at the Sunkist Invitational in January. "There is no reason to push him to the big leagues so fast. He is going to be around for a long time."

Convincing Richards that the high school scene will never come again is another matter. But then, Richards has never been one to act his age in sports.

So when the Channel League meet was held May 3 at UC Santa Barbara, Richards, the Texas state champion in the pole vault last season with Midway High School, was there only to encourage younger brother Tom, a freshman. This year, being the best in the league or the Southern Section or even the state of California just doesn't fit into his schedule.

He didn't vault in the league preliminaries at San Marcos for the same reason he didn't compete at any other time in the dual-meet schedule. He considered the conditions of the pits, the standards and the divot-dotted runways hazardous to his health and vaulting career.

Besides, he had these other meets coming up, and, well, there's only so much a guy can do. He's got this schedule for greatness to follow and a big name in vaulting to uphold. And experience has shown that when it comes to stardom, it isn't easy being Bob Richards' son. His act is tough to follow.

The senior Richards was the Olympic vaulting champion in 1952 and '56. He won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete. He was the Populist Party's 1984 Presidential candidate. He is an author and a motivational speaker, these days getting $3,500 a speech, plus expenses.

Bob Richards is sort of a combination Jack LaLanne and Vince Lombardi.

Mostly, though, he is Bob Richards, Wheaties man. How the people have gone for Bob Richards over the years! And how he expects them to go for Brandon!

So Brandon, who calls a Santa Barbara motel home, travels the country as an 18-year-old, hoping to live up to 30-year-old memories.

He streaked through the indoor season, was in Texas recently for the Houston Invitational, has a meet in Chicago down the line, and will be at UCLA's Drake Stadium for the Pepsi Invitational Saturday, which happens to be the same day as the Southern Section finals.

"I don't know how to say this without it coming out bad," Richards said. "The state meet is the biggest thing around, as far as these people are concerned. Most of them didn't even hear about the national high school meet in Princeton. They don't know of anything else other than the state.

"I wish they could put themselves in my shoes. If you had the opportunity to jump in the Pepsi Invitational, wouldn't you? That's an honor to be in that. They picked eight guys out of the entire United States and I was one of them."

So the best prep pole vaulter in the country will leave San Marcos having represented the Royals in all of two meets, only one of them as a vaulter. In that one, the Easter Relays at UC Santa Barbara in March, there was a he's-lucky-to-walk-away-from-that crash and a no-height. Then, April 28, he ran the anchor leg in the 440 relay against Hueneme. He took the baton leading by two steps and lost by three.

Still, his vaulting ability and potential are unquestioned. He will be competing Saturday against the Olympic gold, silver and bronze medal winners. That Richards followed his spill here with three straight misses and another no-height at 16-6 at the Mt. San Antonio Relays April 27, and suffered a similar fate at 16-4 in Houston, makes no difference at this point. Promoters need only be reminded of what he did during the indoor campaign.

Competing for the New York Athletic Club, Richards whistle-stopped the country like one of those big leaguers. There were meets in Los Angeles and Chicago and finally the trips to New Jersey.

On Feb. 9, he went 17-5 at the Meadowlands in the U.S. Olympic Invitational, beating the prep record set by Joe Dial, a two-time NCAA indoor champion at Oklahoma State, by half an inch.

He returned for the meet at Princeton March 17 and increased the record to 17-6. Today, almost two months later, nobody is within six inches of that mark, indoors or out, and Jay Davis of Oregon (16-10) is the closest among West Coast vaulters.

Richards, whose best outdoor vault is 16-8 3/4, a height he reached in The Athletics Congress junior meet last June at the Coliseum, is very conscious of the remaining prep records awaiting his attention. Among them are Dial's outdoor, age-group (18) and senior-class mark of 18-1 from 1981.

When not pole vaulting, Richards is interested in kinesiology and quantum theory physics, which he plans to study at UCLA. And there are dates with the head cheerleader and frequent stops at his favorite pizza place.

Maybe he can make this high school scene after all.

"When I visit my dad he'll sit me down in the living room and give me a speech and bring me to tears. He can motivate you so much you want to tackle the world. He's amazing, a dynamo." --BOB RICHARDS JR., 1974

"Since they were little, he told them they could be anything they wanted to be as long as it was 19-feet high." --JOAN RICHARDS, 1985 As far as attractions go for meet promoters and track announcers, there are few better than Brandon Richards. He has good looks, an outgoing and friendly nature and, more important these days than anything else, he has what some like to refer to as the Richards pedigree.

It's too good to pass up.

Two other of Bob Richards' sons from a previous marriage, Bob Jr. and Paul, were in almost identical situations 15 years ago, although Bob Richards probably was better recognized among high school and college students than he is now. There were the usual expectations and name associations, son Bobby remembers, and generally a tough cover to get out from under.

"I think it was a lot of pressure to handle," said Bobby, who was a 17-6 vaulter in his days with San Jose State, Cal State Long Beach and the Pacific Coast Club. "People would always get the opinion that I had a real high opinion of myself and that I was a snob. I was always kind of pre-judged that way.

"And I'm sure Brandon is feeling that pressure now. People expect a lot more from you. It's such a hard thing to live up to, being Bob Richards Jr., and I'm not sure he can do it."

Is it that big a thing?

"I'm not sure anybody can do it," Bobby said.

If Brandon has an identity crisis, he hides it well. The way he figures, any glory that comes with the name is worth basking in, not something to run from.

But if Bob Richards Jr. isn't so sure of that, he isn't the only one. Brandon, who until a few years ago even wanted to be known as Bobby, had handled all the comparisons and insistent questions of fatherly pressure quite well, but that night at Princeton was something else.

He had just broken the high school indoor mark for the second week in a row--he had done it the first time at the Meadowlands, coincidentally in the "Bob Richards pole vault"--and the first thing interviewers wanted to know was whether he thought this would finally give him a name of his own.

"I had just broken the national record, and I'm down because of what happened a few minutes afterwards," Brandon said.

It's as though nobody wants to know the truth, he said, because it doesn't make for a great story.

His development is the story, he said.

What about when Brandon got a makeshift pole vault setup in the back yard of the family's home in Santo, Tex., about 50 miles west of Fort Worth?

Bob nailed a few 2-by-4s together for the standards, dragged out a mattress for the landing pit and got an old crossbar to use as the pole because what Brandon wanted most of all for his fifth birthday was to run barefoot through the grass during the Texas springtime and try to propel his little body into the air.

What about when Bob would invite 1960 Olympic champion Don Bragg or current stars Billy Olson or Earl Bell over, or Bobby would bring his good friend Steve Smith by?

What about Brandon being the one giving the tips now to Bob, a 12-foot vaulter in Masters meets?

What don't people understand?

If there was a time Brandon didn't quite understand, it was in December.

Through a combination of events--tighter restrictions on time and the number of meets for high school track athletes by the Texas legislature, Midway's not being able to use an indoor facility to train during the winter as it had in previous years, and worries about how Brandon's 1 1/2-year steady relationship with a girl would effect his vaulting--Bob and Joan Richards figured it would be better to take Brandon elsewhere.

Brandon, close to graduation, did not want to leave. But the decision was made for him.

"They're really pushing him big-time and working him toward the Olympics," said Bill Farmer, his former coach at Midway. "I've been hearing about that forever. I guess little things like the high school meets just are not important. I don't know if that part is from him or his parents.

"There are plenty of reasons (for the move), but I don't think any of them had to do with the school or the kids. A lot of people would have liked to see him stay because he is liked by just about everyone. I think he would have liked to graduate from Midway with his class. He's been with them two years and was probably just beginning to feel comfortable with them. I feel sorry for him, myself."

So he was enrolled at San Marcos for the spring semester, Santa Barbara having been chosen because this is where Joan's sister lives. Like Bob, Joan is a native Californian with a background in performing. She is a former actress whose biggest role as Joan Beaird was Cathy, the girlfriend of Gerald Lloyd (Kookie) Kookson III on television's "77 Sunset Strip" in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Surprisingly, it was she who pushed for the move and not Bob, the dominating figure in the family.

"Some people might say we tried to dominate (Brandon)," she said. "I look at it more like using our experience to help his inexperience. It was all done through love. And Brandon does know that we would do anything for him because we love him."

Indeed, a move of this kind is not without precedence in the Richards family. Brandon had enough talent as a figure skater during his sophomore year of high school that the family picked up and moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he could get better coaches and training facilities.

He was back in Texas for the next school year, but that move, which took him to his second high school, was something he wanted to do.

The deal this time was that if he was not happy in California by February, he could return to Texas. He hasn't been back, though, except for competition.

"They were just acting like any parents would have," he said. "I didn't see it at the time, but I do now. I had no idea things would work out like they have."

So here they stay, for the time being at least, Bob, Joan, Brandon, twins Tommy and Tammy, a dog and a half-dozen vaulting poles making their hotel room look, well, lived in.

Brandon commutes about twice a week to work out with Tully at Crespi High School near Tully's home in Encino, or to use the gymnastics room at Cal State Northridge, and that alone means he misses a couple of days of school, not to mention the 8,500 miles he has put on his Datsun 280 ZX since buying it in February.

Bob estimates that the move is costing the family $3,000 a month, $1,000 a month alone for the motel room two blocks from the ocean. He says the family is happy, though, to have followed Brandon and to go to meets together.

Sarcasm nowhere to be found, he said: "This has been the greatest move we ever made."

Bob Richards did big things for Wheaties and Wheaties did big things for Bob Richards, all long before people football player Ed White told America what he had for breakfast before putting on his cleaties.

Richards, 59, left the company in 1969, he said, because of an identity crisis of his own. After 14 years he wanted to move on. But he had made his mark.

As Sports Illustrated's Steve Wulf wrote in 1982: "A man of unbounded energy and enthusiasm, Richards got whole families to believe that, with glass bowlsful of Wheaties with strawberries and milk, they could become as healthy and vital as his family. . . . He sold a kind of Wheaties of the mind. In the meantime, he was selling a lot of real Wheaties."

Richards is still quite a talker, and not only because he gets paid for it. Given the chance, he'll chew your ear on how the two worst types of people ever invented, bankers and quitters, but he'll talk just as readily about sports, or building an oil pump on the ranch.

You name it, he'll discuss it. Just don't plan to control the conversation.

Perhaps better than anything, though, he knows people.

"I've had a lot of good vaulters, but I must confess this is so much fun," he said. "And of course the twins. Man, my little Tammy is so smart, she's such a thrill. And then Tommy is a great (figure) skater and he's going to be an outstanding decathlete and a pretty good vaulter, too.

"It's a strange thing. I'm nearly 60, and if anybody would have told me I'd be getting all my kicks and my joy out of three teen-age kids, I'd of said they were crazy."

He's on a roll, so he shifts the subject to Brandon.

"He's not in dope or booze or stuff like that and he's going for all those records. And he loves his country. God, what would you want a boy to be?

"Someone asked me what I would think if he didn't go to the Olympics, if he didn't go any higher (in the vault). I said, 'Man, I'd be so damn proud of him if he never went another inch.' "

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