Pitt Frosh Covers Lots Of Ground

Posted: November 10, 1988

He spends his first nine years shuffling back and forth from Trinidad to St. Croix, islands where the only kind of football is played in short pants. But soccer, he figures, isn't for him. Too much running.

At the age of 10, he moves to La Porte, Texas, near Houston, where he watches football on television for the first time and is shocked by the size of the shoulders on these American guys. Then someone tells him they're wearing pads. Oh!

Anyway, the kid is impressed by a running back named Tony Dorsett, who played the first football game the kid ever saw on television.

Then, a friend talks the smallish kid into trying out for the local high school team. The kid tells the coach he'd like to play the offensive line. You see, the kid wasn't sure what the other positions were called.

After a superb high school career as a running back, the kid goes to Pitt, where Dorsett once roamed, and does in five games what it took Dorsett 11 games to do - gain 200 or more yards three times.

Some college football players are born to be stars. But it seems that Curvin Richards, the best freshman running back in the nation, was born to play the lead role in some outlandish fictional story - a story Penn State (5-4) must get a read on if it is to survive Saturday's game against bitter rival Pitt (5-3) at Beaver Stadium.

"Yes, I am amazed by all this," Richards said in a clipped island accent. ''The first time I saw a football game, it freaked my mind a little bit. I didn't know a man could make his shoulders so big. When I started playing, I liked football because I like contact and I like falling on the ground."

The 5-foot, 10-inch, 190-pound Richards, 19, has apparently developed a sour taste for falling on the ground, leaving that part of the game to the frustrated behemoths who have tried to slow him down.

Last week in the Panthers' 20-10 win over Rutgers, Swervin' Curvin gained 202 yards to run his season total to 932. And he's made only four starts. One more 200-yard game and he will tie Herschel Walker's NCAA record of four in a season by a freshman.

Richards, who turned his third carry in a Pitt uniform into a 47-yard TD run and who averages 6.8 yards a carry, didn't become a regular until the fourth game of the season against Boston College. Starter Adam Walker went down with an Achilles' tendon injury on the second play of the game. Richards took over and gained 202 yards on 26 carries. At the time, Walker was among the nation's top 10 in rushing.

Including the BC game, Richards has averaged 164.8 yards a game. If he continues that average over the final three games, he'll blow past Florida's Emmitt Smith into third place behind Walker and Dorsett among the most prolific freshman runners in NCAA history.

"My first practice at Pittsburgh, I couldn't believe how big and strong everybody was," Richards recalled. "They were pulling me down by my shirt, which never happened to me in high school. I was intimidated. My main goals were not to be redshirted, and maybe play a little here and there. That was it."

Richards has become the centerpiece of a Pitt freshman class that was ranked in the top five by just about every recruiting service. Aside from Richards, three other "true" freshmen start for coach Mike Gottfried - linebackers Curtis Bray and Ricardo McDonald and defensive tackle Jeff Esters. Nine others are in backup roles.

But unlike most of the other freshmen, Richards was an easy catch for Gottfried.

"Pitt was my first visit," Richards said. "When I came back, I told my high school coach that's where I wanted to go. He told me I should visit some other schools just to make sure. I went to Nebraska, Arkansas and Houston. Oklahoma wanted me to visit. So did Southern Cal.

"Every team in the Southwest Conference wanted me," Richards added. "But I didn't want to go to a school that might get in trouble with the NCAA and not be allowed to go to a bowl game. I wanted Pitt from the start."

Richards' running style is more slash than flash and dash. He has an uncanny knack for finding the hole and slicing through it like a knife through a fresh loaf of bread. He runs sideways without losing a step. The experts call it remarkable vision, the same way they describe Emmitt Smith.

"He's one of the great young backs in the country," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.

Precocious as he is, Richards gives off a fresh sense of innocence. He admits he spent the entire week before playing Notre Dame - his first start, in which he ran for 78 yards on 17 carries - in complete awe of the Irish and their tradition.

"Notre Dame . . . those guys are awfully big," said Richards, who says cold weather bothers him.

He eschews the comparisons to Dorsett. "It's a compliment that people talk about me and Tony Dorsett the same way," he said. "But, really, Tony Dorsett is great. He was great at Pittsburgh, great in Dallas and great in Denver. I've got a long way to go yet.

"My mom doesn't like me playing football," Richards added. "But she knows how I'm doing, and she told me not to let all this go to my head - that if I do, I won't be able to produce."

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