Defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson never gave up on NFL dreams

There were times growing up that Sheldon Richardson remembers being told to forget about his dream of playing in the NFL, but that never made much sense to him.

In middle school, he remembers when the school would host "Career Day" and different adults would filter into his classroom and tell them about their vocations. There would be doctors and lawyers and architects – but never a professional athlete. When the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?" was invariably asked by the presenter, Richardson's hand would shoot up.

He'd blurt out, “I want to be a professional football player.” He remembers other students were always encouraged when they gave their dream jobs. But there was Richardson, almost always discouraged from his ambition.

“They just told me it shouldn't be my dream. Shouldn't be my only dream. I told them how can you expect to succeed in Plan A when you're working on Plan B?” Richardson told Shutdown Corner. “I was probably 11 or 12 years old. It seemed like they had a problem with being 'an athlete.' They didn't have that when kids said doctor or nurse or lawyer or whatever. But with me they had a problem. Others kids could pursue their dream and I couldn't?”

Now dreams are a reality for Richardson.

In his rookie year, he had 77 tackles and 3.5 sacks along with a forced fumble, numbers that made him the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. There were also two touchdown runs when he was part of the Jets short-yardage package late in the season.

He wanted to play in the NFL since he was little and didn't have any other dreams, no backup plans.

"Why plan to fail at your dream? To me, that is what a backup plan is," Richardson said.

One of those people who remembers Richardson is Jerome Schmidt, who taught trigonometry to the future Jets star when he was a senior at Gateway High School in St. Louis, Mo.

“I always supported his dreams of playing football, but I never took it easy on him in the classroom. In the end, I'm responsible for teaching mathematics,” Schmidt said. “My angle was along the lines that being good at math and being good at football aren't mutually exclusive. I wanted Sheldon and all of my students to develop a growth mindset in any endeavor they wish to pursue.

"I wanted persistence in the face of challenges, a focus on self-improvement, and a belief that success is based on effort, not ability. He will be the first to admit that I wanted the same effort I saw on the football field in the classroom. Not because I didn't think he had the ability to make it, but precisely because I knew he had the ability to make it.”

Richardson laughs when he brings up the “naps I took in class” but he is proud to have done well in Schmidt's class. The connection between teacher and the athlete has maintained since Richardson graduated. The two met for lunch during spring break when Richardson went on to junior college after Gateway, just to catch up. Schmidt sent a congratulatory text to his former student on draft night.

“After the draft, he texted me, 'Big honor man, congrats and thanks for not listening to me.' He was on me about school and I was one of those kids who tried to be as rebellious as possible – not bad or nothing,” Richardson said. “But he was cool about it, most definitely. Real even-keeled. He was on me about grades. I got his grades, I don't know about most of the rest of the subjects.”

Schmidt remembers watching the hulking Richardson return kicks in high school and seeing his inherent athleticism. The Jets took Richardson No. 13 overall in last April's NFL draft. He was the first interior defensive lineman taken in the draft but the Jets had put together an offensive package for him out of the backfield shortly after they saw his athleticism in rookie minicamp.

Schmidt used to tease that Richardson would someday become a math major. Richardson instead studied agriculture at Missouri.

“I just wanted to get the most out of him as possible in the classroom, like any teacher who cared for his students would,” Schmidt said.

He also cautioned that “Sheldon was no exception” in terms of his efforts to get his students to work hard on and off the field.

“I knew my dream all along and I pursued it,” Richardson said, parting his lips to smile as he looked around the Jets locker room. “I'm here now. I guess I was right all along.”

Somewhere, Schmidt is smiling too.

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Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweetings on Twitter @KristianRDyer