When Paul Richardson scored a touchdown for University High School last year on an 89-yard kickoff return against North Hollywood he "didn't realize that I ran it back till I got into the end zone."
That touchdown was the first of three that Richardson scored on kickoff returns last season. Then there was the 99-yarder that gave the Warriors a last-minute victory over Venice, defending Pac-8 League champion.
University went on to one of its best football seasons in many years, winning the Pac-8 title after upsetting a more powerful Reseda team in league play but losing to Reseda in the 2-A City championship game. The Warriors finished with a 10-2 record.
On that first kickoff return, Richardson may not have realized he had crossed the goal line, but he has long known his goal in life: using his ability in sports to get a university education. He will take his first step toward that goal when he reports to football practice at UCLA on Aug. 10. He is among a crop of freshman recruits said by many to be one of the best in the nation.
When he was growing up on the tough streets of South-Central Los Angeles, Richardson, a wide receiver and defensive back and a three-sport star at University High, knew he would have to walk a narrow path to achieve his aspirations.
He said that he knows gang members from his neighborhood but that his contact with them has gone only "as far as 'Hi' and 'Bye.' "
"The brothers would always catch balls in the streets," he said, and they would invite him to throw the ball with them. "But I would go up to (Jefferson High) school and play basketball. I like living."
When he was playing Pop Warner League football, he said, some people tried to influence him to continue playing at Jefferson High.
"But my mother said, 'No, thank you.' " Instead, after he spent the first grade at a neighborhood school, his mother decided to take advantage of the busing program in which inner-city youngsters were given the opportunity to attend Los Angeles City schools in other areas.
Richardson said he has been bused to Westside schools since the second grade and took 20- or 30-minute bus rides to and from Marquez Elementary School, Bellagio Road school, Emerson Junior High and finally to University High, where his dream of football glory was achieved.
The bus rides were not tedious, he said, adding, "If you know you're gonna do it, you get used to it, and I always knew it. I never had any serious urge to go to my home school."
He said that he could have gone to other high schools but chose University because several of his friends from Pop Warner football had decided to go there. The friends included wide receiver Marc Rodgers, who received a scholarship to USC, and running back-linebacker Amani Davis, who lives just around the corner from Richardson and signed a letter of intent with the University of Hawaii.
Richardson, who starred in prep basketball and track and field as well as in football, said he realized that University is "highly rated academically." He reasoned that if college football recruiters realized he was a good student at University, they would think, "maybe he can be acceptable at my school." He said that his grade point average in his senior year was 2.6 (on a 4-point scale).
If it were not for busing and his considerable athletic talents, Richardson might not be going to UCLA. He might be hanging out in mean streets where drug dealers, he said, have come up to him and asked, "What you need? What you want to buy? I'm selling."
But he wasn't buying any, he said, because he would have been "more of a fool to buy it. You don't know what they have in it." He also wasn't in the market, he said, because "my mother was a very strong influence on how I was brought up." He said that attending the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church has also encouraged him to walk the straight and narrow.
A serious sort, Richardson has spent the summer trying to build himself up for college football. He is 6-3 1/2 and last year his playing weight was 180. This summer he has added about 10 pounds by working as a helper on a beer truck, by lifting weights three days a week at a health spa and running sprints and distances for another three days.
He realizes that freshmen don't see much playing time at UCLA but says, "I want to play my first year. I want to be a part of the people on the team, of having the uniform. I believe I have athletic talent in football."
But he also knows the true purpose of attending a university. "First, I want to get an education. You play football only a few months out of the year. After that you're a student, but I want to maintain (in the classroom) through the football season and the course of the year. If I need help, I will find it because I know it's there for me. I'll do what I have to do."