COLUMBIA, Mo. • With no obvious context to it, Mizzou defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson last Wednesday wrote via his Twitter account, @Godforshort, “I always gotta learn the hard way.”
A day later, the meaning became evident.
The prodigiously talented but mercurial Richardson was suspended for MU’s game against Syracuse after skipping classes and failing to carry out punishment to atone for it.
He was reinstated Monday, two days after his absence surely was a factor in the 31-27 loss on a Syracuse touchdown with 20 seconds left.
But coach Gary Pinkel’s gruff dismissal of questions about Richardson was an indication that the junior from Gateway Tech hadn’t quite redeemed himself.
And whatever he does Saturday at No. 9 Texas A&M, his otherwise sensational season will be book-ended by his learning the hard way: from his “old man football” line and other comments about Georgia after the Southeastern Louisiana game to the lapse of responsibility that impaired his team’s chances of clinching a bowl berth before its last shred of hope this weekend.
Entering the Syracuse game, Richardson led Mizzou with 70 tackles and had 9.5 for losses; MU was averaging 7.70 tackles for loss but had only two against the Orange.
“I’m a little disappointed (in Richardson),” said Cornell Ford, the MU cornerbacks coach whose exhaustive efforts were crucial to navigating Richardson through a series of academic hurdles and dalliances with other schools.
But Ford quickly added, “I try to look at him as my kid. Some kids learn quicker than others. Some are a little bit more stubborn than others. And you’ve got to just keep pounding them to do the right thing.
“And that’s what we’ll continue to do with Sheldon and all of our players.”
Richardson was not allowed to speak with the media Monday but was described by one who knows him as “despondent” over the suspension.
Asked his sense of that, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, “I have no answer for that” and turned to the next topic.
But Ford is hopeful that this action resonates with Richardson, whose MU career may end after this season because of his appeal to the NFL.
“I think it’s an awakening for him,” Ford said. “But I think also Sheldon’s the kind of kid who has always responded well. That’s what makes him a good kid.
“You can say a lot of things about him, but in the end, deep down inside, he’s a good kid. … Sometimes he doesn’t make the right decisions, but he really, truly wants to make the right decisions. And in the end, when you look at it in the long run, he usually does.”
The question of the moment, though, isn’t just how Richardson looks at things.
It’s also how his teammates might view him after a loss that might mean Mizzou doesn’t go to a bowl for the first time since 2004.
But even if Pinkel and Kuligowski weren’t inclined to discuss Richardson on Monday, Ford said he believes players buy into the concept of family.
And one of the few Tigers to appear at media day, guard Max Copeland, affirmed the point when asked how the team will embrace Richardson’s return.
“We all screw up, we’ve all got shortcomings, man. He’s our brother. We’ll welcome him back with open arms because we love him,” Copeland said. “I’ve seen that dude when things get heavy, man, and I like what I see, man. And I love the guy.”
From the outside looking in, Copeland added, it’s easy to be critical.
“Criticism’s real easy, man, and forgiveness isn’t,” he said. “(But) that’s what we do. That’s the nature of our brotherhood: We forgive each other. … Come hell or high water, we’re there for each other.”
Ford said he hadn’t spoken with Richardson since the game, noting that he “still had a lot of things he had to get done. I’ve given him time to kind of slowly move himself back in (and) think about things. Time is always a factor with Sheldon.”
But he has spoken twice with Richardson’s father, Mike, characterizing him as “understanding” of what MU was doing, an approach that reflects what Ford said is laid out clearly ahead of time with all incoming recruits.
“We tell all players and all parents, ‘This is how we run our program,’ ” he said. “We don’t hide anything. We tell them … ‘Listen, if you don’t do these things, your life is going to be difficult here. And maybe it’s not the best place for you.’ ”
Or at least a place where he’d have to learn the hard way.