There were scary moments. Sean Richardson closed his eyes, tried to stay optimistic, but he wondered if his lifetime of hard work was wasted.
Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers safety didn't know whether he'd play football again. A herniated disk in his neck threatened to end Richardson's career while it was still in its infancy.
Which made the public praise from Packers coach Mike McCarthy this week all the more special.
"If I was to pick an MVP of our special teams today, I'd pick Sean Richardson," McCarthy said. "I think Sean has clearly been our best player from a production, attitude, and you just talk about a young guy taking a big step from year one to two or two to three, and Sean is definitely one of those guys."
It's not easy, excelling on special teams. Like a relief pitcher, a special teamer enters a game cold, with no rhythm or feel for the game unfolding on the field. A special teamer's appearances come in spot situations, often key moments. He is overlooked, underappreciated — but vitally important.
So what's the key to finding success on special teams? What makes Richardson so good in his role? As he explained in this week's Q&A with Press-Gazette Media, it boils down to effort and appreciation for the game, something he learned when his future was in serious doubt.
Coach McCarthy said yesterday you've been the MVP on special teams so far. When you heard that comment, what were your thoughts?
Richardson: It means that I've been productive, doing something right. I've been playing hard on special teams. Whenever I get on the field, I just want to be dominant and beat the person across from me. That's how I approach it.
For your head coach to single you out publicly as an example for how to approach that phase of the game, what did that mean to you?
Richardson: It means a lot. You know, it's good recognition. When you go out there and practice hard, it shows up on the game film. When you prepare yourself, when you study hard in the film room, it's just rewarding.
Were special teams something you had to really work at when you came into the league, or do you feel you came in with a natural knack for being able to contribute?
Richardson: Special teams is more effort and having the willingness to take pride in the job, you know? I always thought I would be a good player no matter if it's special teams or defense. It's just, whenever opportunities come and whenever I get a chance to go out there, I try to give it my all. Two years ago, I had the neck injury. I didn't know if I'd play again or not. Every play, I don't take it for granted. I just go out there, work hard and try to give it my all.
How much did the neck injury — going through that experience — change your perspective on the game and help you appreciate it maybe even more than you did before?
Richardson: Well, I always had a passion for the sport. I always loved what I did, and I approached it with a professional attitude and mentality. But, just knowing how quick something you've worked for your whole life can be taken away, is what really was brought to my attention. Now, I try to capture every moment, you know? I try to seize the moment, and play as if this play may be my last play. If it is, at least I can say I gave it my all.
Did the thought of retiring cross your mind?
Richardson: No, not really. I always saw it as if, if I was able to play again and the doctor said there wouldn't be any neurological injury, then I would play again. It was pretty much, when he said that, 'Yeah, you're at no greater risk than any other player out there,' then I was all golden. I had been hoping for an answer like that anyway. I had prepared myself as if I was going to play again, but never really knew if I was going to play again. I never wanted to just retire, because what if I retired and then I'd have to live with the 'what if'? What if I was able to play again, and I didn't want to live that way.
Now that you're two years removed from the injury, are there any lingering effects from it? How long did it take for you to feel normal, like you'd never been injured?
Richardson: Well, it was kind of strange because, shoot, after I had the injury, maybe a few weeks after the injury, I felt normal. It was back to normal, but we knew it wasn't normal. I had neck and back pain for the first few weeks, but after that I felt healthy. Even after the surgery, that's what I was telling everybody, 'I'm fine. Honestly, I forgot I had the surgery until you asked me about the surgery — how's your neck and stuff — because I feel normal.' It's just a blessing.
When it involves your neck, that's a pretty scary injury. What was the biggest obstacle for you to get full confidence back that you could do everything you did before?
Richardson: Yeah, it's crazy because I never lost that confidence. Even when I went back out there, I guess because my neck felt normal and stuff, I never was, like, scared to tackle or thinking, 'Oh, I've got to be careful.' I just thank God that I didn't have that issue. A lot of people would be scared to go out there. They play timid and soft and stuff, just because they don't know how it's going to be. But I didn't have that issue, and I'm glad I didn't have that fear.
One of the things that's really impressive about a player who exclusively plays special teams is you're used to playing defense, getting into the rhythm of the game, but you don't get that opportunity. How challenging is it to come in cold off the sideline in specific situation without having a good feel for the flow of the game?
Richardson: It's very challenging, you know? But we're professionals. We've got to be a pro, and they expect us to be on top of that. It's more challenging mentally than physically, I can tell you that. But it's very challenging because as a competitor, you always want to play, you want to be out there with your teammates and stuff. But, like I said, whenever my number is called, I'll be there and I'll be waiting.
What makes it more challenging mentally than physically?
Richardson: I mean, because you want to be out there on the field. Everybody would rather be on the field than on the sideline, especially if you're a competitor and you have a great deal of confidence in yourself and your ability. So, the main thing is, whenever your number is called you've got to be ready. You've got to handle it in a professional way.
Do you approach special teams as being the avenue to get you on the field defensively?
Richardson: No, I don't really see it like that. I just see it, whenever I'm on the field, I want to dominate. I want to be recognized, and I want to have my presence felt. I just give it my all, and whatever happens, happens.