USMNT's Chris Richards carries Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom

USMNT's Chris Richards carries Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Chris Richards’ path to the international stage started in Alabama – the place that raised him, sometimes hurt him and has indelibly marked him.

The 22-year-old defender is making his World Cup debut for the United States men’s national team in Qatar. He’s joining a fresh crop of Americans that are expected to be the youngest of the field with an average age of just over 24, more than a year-and-a-half younger than the next closest team.

Richards is known for his precision and ability to play on either side of the back line. At 6-foot-3, he’s a manager’s dream with a combination of speed and strength at his disposal. However, that versatility doesn’t stop on the pitch.

Since heading to Europe in 2018, Richards has emerged as a vocal advocate working to address racism in soccer – both on the pitch and back home in the U.S.

Growing up biracial in Birmingham, Ala.

Richards was born in Birmingham, Ala., to a white mother and a Black father.

While the rest of the country had largely progressed past the legal battles of the civil right movement, parts of Alabama remained deeply segregated. In fact, the Alabama legislature didn’t vote to remove a ban on interracial marriage until 2000, seven months after Richards was born and 33 years after the Supreme Court’s 1967 landmark ruling on Loving v. Virginia.

“There’s definitely places that are just as bad, if not worse, but I mean, I think you can kind of feel the tension now in some parts of Birmingham that you don’t feel anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Richards recalled his mom receiving dirty looks when out with him and being questioned as if he were adopted. He said growing up he learned to hope for the best, but expect the worst.

“Growing up in Birmingham … you kind of have to take it on the chin because it’s a problem they have with you and not a problem that I have with them,” he said. “So you’ve just got to keep on pushing at the end of the day.”

He described his parents as his backbone and said their distinct experiences have helped him navigate the challenges of growing up biracial. His dad, Ken, said he doesn't shy away from these opportunities, rather choosing to educate his son about the increased risk of police brutality compared to most of his friends who are white.

Introduction to soccer at age 4

Soccer was Richards’ first love. Starting at age 4, he quickly took to the sport and made lifelong friends in the process. But it came at a price.

Richards recalled occasions where he was on the receiving end of racial epithets and slurs by parents or other players. In one particular case playing as a pre-teen, Richards said an opponent called him the N-word, prompting several of his teammates to come to his defense.

“I remember those guys had my back,” he said. “So that was pretty awesome.”

Taking his talents to Germany

Richards spent his early playing days with a local club team in nearby Hoover before moving to Texas at 16 to play with the Houston Texans FC and, eventually, FC Dallas. Almost as soon as he signed with Dallas, the German giant Bayern Munich came knocking to lure the teenager away.

At the time, Bayern Munich owned a staggering 28 Bundesliga titles – three times more than their next closest competitors – and was tied for third with five UEFA Champions League trophies.

He primarily played on the reserve team, but enjoyed four more Bundesliga league wins and a Champions League win while playing alongside soccer legend Robert Lewandowski.

In addition to the success he experienced on the pitch, Richards said Germany felt much more accepting as a country.

“It’s kind of a vibe you get once you go there,” he said. “... Different types of people from different backgrounds, all merging together.”

Ken Richards, who played basketball overseas, echoed that sentiment as Chris’s dad.

“When he’s home and he’s out hanging out with his buddies and stuff or just when he’s in the States in general, it’s hard for me to be at peace … It’s crazy when he’s in Germany or just Europe, I don’t have those same concerns,” the elder Richards said.

In many ways, the collection of Richards’ life experiences came to a head in May of 2020 following the death of George Floyd. He said he struggled to explain to his German friends how a counterfeit $20 bill could result in murder in broad daylight.

“It kind of gave the world a glimpse into … a black man’s life in the U.S.,” he said.

Racism in Europe

While Richards sang the praises of the German hospitality – even going so far to say he felt safer in Germany than in his hometown – he’s fully aware of the bigotry and racism throughout Europe, specifically in soccer.

In 2019, fellow American Chris Gloster was harassed during a game while playing with the German club Hannover 96. Richards reached out to Gloster privately and publicly, tweeting his frustration while encouraging the fellow teenager.

Gloster said Richards’ tweet meant a ton coming from a relatively big game.

“It was crazy to see, you know, how many people actually followed behind his footsteps to support me as well,” Gloster said.

In England – where Richards currently plays after signing with Crystal Palace this past summer – Premier League and national team players have found themselves at the center of racist attacks. In the wake of England’s 3-2 loss at the 2020 Euro championship, there was a barrage of abuse, primarily on social media, directed at three Black players – Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – who had missed penalty kicks.

Richards continues to reach out to other players to show his support. However, he’s not spared his own dose of harassment and hatred.

The young American can frequently be seen on social media wearing a white shirt with three simple words – “Stop Being Racist.” Among the comments of encouragement are trolls, mocking his efforts or even outright responding, “No, I don’t think I will.”

Standing on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite the challenges Richards experienced growing up in Birmingham, he carries a certain level of attachment toward his hometown.

“Birmingham has a lot of character into it and I think I gained a little bit of my character from Birmingham,” he said.

It’s the city’s rich character and history – the good, the bad and the ugly – that Richards carries with him. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent more than a week imprisoned and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” explaining the urgency of integration and equal rights and challenging the notion that all laws are just.

Richards’ right shoulder is covered in a tattoo featuring the civil rights leader. His childhood, 37 years after the assassination of Dr. King, serves as a reminder of where Birmingham stands today and the rallying call for Richards in the face of racism.