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NOT A SHY GUY : Count On Chargers’ David Richards to Tell You Whatever Is on His Mind

Times Staff Writer

Yo, Howie Long of the Raiders. Listen up a second.

Remember that big ol’ rookie right tackle down here with the Chargers? The 300-pound Texas kid you thought had such a big yap?

Guy’s name is David Richards. Guy claims he was misquoted by a San Diego newspaper. Says he never dogged you in the press, never said he could stop you because you were no longer in your heyday. It’s more likely he didn’t realize that what he said about you could look so different in a newspaper than it sounded coming out of his mouth.

He says you’re the best defensive lineman in the AFC West. He’s only 22, but he’s done his homework, and he says your reaction time is quicker than the snap itself.

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He’s not too bad, either. Started every game so far on a team that went south long before the geese left Canada. Might last 15 years down here. Says his body will tell him when it’s time to quit. Nothing personal, Howie, but this kid’s got a little of you in him.

His favorite movie is “Platoon.” He’s seen it 20 times. He drives a pickup truck, reads Dostoevsky and hates the L.A. archetype. When he transferred from Southern Methodist to UCLA last year, he said he hadn’t been in California a week before he thought somebody had changed his name to “dude.”

His best buddy on the Chargers is Dennis McKnight--yeah, Conan--the right guard, the guy with the tattoos and the Harley.

Conan says he had a little talk with the kid after you turned him inside out in that first game. Says he told him to watch what he says in public. Told him his favorite answers to reporters, in order, ought to be: “Yes,” “No” and “No comment.”

The coach down here, Al Saunders, also talked to the kid about those things he said about you.

“David is open and honest and fun and a good person,” Saunders said later. “But we had a couple of meetings about the appropriate way not to get a Pro Bowl player like Howie Long upset for a game.”

Richards got the message. Keeps a civil tongue now about guys on the other side of the ball.

But there’s too much going on inside this kid’s head, 24 hours a day, for him not to express himself.

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A few for-instances:

--College football: “College football is dishonest professional football, is what it is. . . . The players are supposed to be students and players. And so you have a conflict of interest there, and it just doesn’t work. They want you to work in the off-season, and yet you’re a student, too.

“Professional football is honest. If football’s gonna be run like a business, this is how it should be run.”

--Pro football players, the breed: “I wish I could have been around back in the old days, when hell-raising wasn’t a sin.

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“Conan has told me all the stories. Hell-raising is part of being a football player. You gotta be half nuts to do this anyway. You can’t expect people to be nuts on the football field and not be nuts at least part of the time in their private life.

“Once upon a time, pro football players could be that way. Now you just have to use more discretion on when and where you let loose.”

--Los Angeles: “I still don’t like L.A. Coming from Texas, you kind of get lulled into that Southern hospitality. But when I opened the door for a few girls at UCLA, they looked at me like I was insane.

“When you’re driving down the road in Texas, if two cars come to a stop sign at the same time, 50% of the time, somebody’s gonna say, ‘Go ahead. You go first.’ In L.A., people roll up their windows and turn up the air-conditioner. But before they roll up the windows, they throw all their manners out the door.

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“Then they . . . cut off people, change lanes without signaling, don’t allow people to get into traffic and speed up to cut people off.”

Anyway, this guy Richards respects you, Howie. It hurt a little when you wouldn’t shake his hand after that game.

Saunders calls him a “young puppy, a puppy dog.” He was only the ninth tackle taken in the last draft. And that had a lot to do with the football learning time he lost at SMU when the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. handed down the death penalty after the 1986 season. By the time he transferred to UCLA, he had eaten himself out of the first round and into the fourth.

But football is all this kid ever wanted to do, Howie. In grade school, they played a game called British Bulldog. One kid stood in the middle and everybody else whizzed past. The kid in the middle had to stay in the middle until he tackled somebody. Richards always wanted to be the kid in the middle.

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His parents weren’t sure they wanted him to get into organized football. But he was on a team, in a league, in the fifth grade. When he got to high school, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

The Highland Park Fighting Scots played in a concrete stadium with folding chairs that held about 20,000 people. It had AstroTurf, a huge press box and an electronic scoreboard with those little figures running across the screen.

Money was not a problem. The free safety on Richards’ team was the son of the president of Texas Oil & Gas. The father of one of the wide receivers was the president of Republic National Bank. Richards’ father was the chief financial officer for an annuity firm. His mother had a good job with Texas Instruments.

The Fighting Scots pumped their iron in a 1,200-square-foot weight room. They had an indoor practice facility and two offensive line coaches. The year after Richards left for SMU, Highland Park played at Odessa, Tex., about 300 miles west of Dallas. It was an awfully long drive for a high school football game. So Highland Park chartered 11 jets, charged $120 a seat, filled ‘em and flew out for the game. When the game was over, they flew ‘em back. And those jets were 737s.

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Every year, Richards and his buddies would meet at 11 p.m. in front of the high school the night classes let out for spring break. They would line up in “cars and trucks and things of that matter.” And they would race, nonstop, 800 miles for South Padre Island down past Brownsville.

The first carload to arrive got to sleep in the beds at the hotel. The second carload had to buy dinner. And the third carload had to buy beer for everybody for the first two days.

Richards and three other road warriors would pile into a 1972 Chevrolet Blazer. They would load 5-gallon gas tanks aboard and stay off the main roads.

One year, Richards dozed off at the wheel and, well, maybe we ought to listen to his version:

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“It was the funniest thing that ever happened to me and also the scariest. I fell asleep driving. But I caught myself and slammed on the brakes, and we did a 180 right in the middle of the road and ended up in the other lane.

“But I thought I had stopped straight. So we kept on driving. Finally one of the other guys said, ‘Hey, didn’t we pass that a few miles ago?’ I turned around and, sure enough, we could see our own skid marks when we went past again.”

And to think Richards’ parents had been afraid to have their son playing football .

Maybe their boy didn’t grow up to be a role model in the classic sense. But he paid attention to a lot of different things along the way. The first book he ever read cover to cover--"Darkness at Noon"--was all about Bolshevism and the cutthroat world of Stalin’s Russia.

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Also along the way, he developed a philosophy.

“Trust what you know, not what you hear,” Richards says. “Don’t ever trust what people tell you. There are too many people that will lie to you big time.”

Richards’ trust these days doesn’t stretch much past the guys on the offensive line of the Chargers, who will play the Rams Sunday at Anaheim Stadium.

“It’s a lot like a platoon,” he says. “Friends you’ll fight and die for. That’s why they call it the trenches, because that’s what it’s about. Everybody sticks together and everybody fights together and everybody dies together.”

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So, Howie? What do you think of this guy now?


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