Some cities, like New York, are known as hotbeds for basketball talent, while other places, like Miami, have produced plenty of football professionals. Apart from Arthur Ashe, however, it's generally accepted that Richmond doesn't own much of a sports identity.
The 6-foot-2, 243-pound gentleman staring at you from the opposite page might beg to differ, at least when it comes to America's game.
"I think the Richmond area is very competitive with other regions," says James Farrior, a graduate of Matoaca High School who's now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "[We] have produced many NFL players such as Jamie and Darren Sharper, Shawn Barber, Ken Oxendine, William Henderson and many more."
Take a longer view, and the case gets stronger, helped quite a bit by Willie Lanier, who played his prep games at Maggie Walker High School and later starred for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1967-77 before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Other notable Richmond-area players with standout careers in the NFL include Ken Willard (Varina/San Francisco), Barty Smith (Douglas Freeman/Green Bay) and Ricky Hunley (Petersburg/Cincinnati).
Last year, there were 10 players with ties to the Richmond area in the National Football League, according to research provided by the nonprofit USA Football. (The University of Richmond's recent success, culminating in a 2008 national title in the Football Championship Subdivision, would seem to foreshadow an increase in that number.) Two of the current NFL players, Farrior and the Arizona Cardinals' Tim Hightower, competed in the Super Bowl. Another pair of metro-area players, Paris Lenon and Rudi Johnson, made a different kind of history by not winning a single game as members of the 0-16 Detroit Lions.
As the NFL's preseason begins this month, here's hoping that they and the other Richmond-area pros profiled on the following pages have better luck this year.
Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
6-2, 243 | DOB: Jan. 6, 1975
High School: Matoaca, in Chesterfield | College: University of Virginia
"It didn't take me long to figure out that my future as a running back was over when I got to U.Va.," says Farrior, a star ball carrier at Matoaca High School. "Plus, Tiki Barber was there."
After switching to linebacker before his first season at Virginia, Farrior had a tremendous career, posting 381 stops and earning All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team honors as a senior.
Since making the leap to the NFL in 1997, Farrior has proven to be an important member of the Steelers defense, winning Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh in the 2005 and 2008 seasons. For his career, Farrior has 931 tackles, 24.5 sacks and 10 interceptions.
As a two-way senior at Matoaca, he was named the Richmond Times-Dispatch co-player of the year after registering 78 tackles, 11 sacks and five blocked kicks while rushing for 1,006 yards. In a riff on the character from the sitcom classic Happy Days, he was nicknamed Potsie by his parents because of his potbelly. Today, that extra girth is long gone, but he still loves to eat. "When I'm home, I frequent Kona Grill in the West End," Farrior says. "But nothing is better than Mom's home cooking, though."
On June 12, Mayor Dwight C. Jones gave Farrior a key to the city for his charity work. The James Farrior Foundation donates thousands of dollars to help youth in the community, provides backpacks filled with school supplies and hands out scholarships.
Offensive Line, New York Jets
6-3, 335 | DOB: Nov. 3, 1977
High School: Patrick Henry, in Ashland | College: Boston College
Woody started at center and anchored a tough New England Patriots offensive line for 76 games early in his career. He earned Super Bowl rings for the 2001 and 2003 seasons with the Pats.
One of just two active players to start at four of the five offensive-line positions, he has started 14 games at left guard, 63 at center, 43 at right guard and five at right tackle.
Woody idolized future Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith and wore his No. 78 in high school while leading the Patrick Henry Patriots to a 14-0 record and a Division 5 State Group AAA championship in 1994.
Running Back, Arizona Cardinals
6-0, 224 | DOB: May 23, 1986
High School: Episcopal, in Alexandria | College: University of Richmond
Hightower capped off an amazing rookie season by scoring the winning touchdown in the 2009 NFC Championship Game that propelled the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII. It was the franchise's first-ever appearance in the title game.
Hightower was already coming off a stellar senior season at Richmond, when he compiled 1,924 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He also caught 32 passes for 228 yards.
As a rookie with the Cardinals, he rushed for 399 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in 2008. He was used in short-yardage situations and showed versatility by catching 34 balls out of the backfield.
Hightower is expected to be the Cardinals' primary running back this season, as former starter Edgerrin James was released by the team in April.
"The biggest, most important thing I've learned is consistency is your best friend," Hightower told Richmond magazine in an interview published in January. "It's a long season. One day can't determine the next day. You've really got to start each day fresh and approach each day with the mentality of getting better. It's such a long season — you're watching film every day, you're practicing every day — from training camp to the season."
DRAFTED IN 2009 | Cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles
5-11, 192 | DOB: Feb. 16, 1986
High School: Highland Springs | College: Virginia Tech
Harris was drafted in the fifth round by the Eagles. Before the draft, he was projected to go as high as the first round, but a poor 40-yard sprint time (4.6 seconds) dropped his stock drastically.
Harris' father nicknamed him "Macho" when he was 2 years old. A standout player during his career at Virginia Tech, he had 15 interceptions, scoring four touchdowns off those picks and one TD on a kickoff return.
If he makes the team, he will wear No. 35 for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Linebacker, New England Patriots
6-2, 235 | DOB: Nov. 26, 1977
High School: Heritage, in Lynchburg | College: University of Richmond
Lenon enters his eighth NFL season with 446 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions. He started 48 games the past three years with the Detroit Lions. He has never missed a game in his career.
Before his NFL debut with the Packers in 2002, Lenon played for the Memphis Maniax of the short-lived XFL and the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
In his spare time, Lenon has studied Muay Thai and American karate, and has expressed an interest in a future career in mixed martial arts.
Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
6-4, 220 | DOB: Jan. 14, 1979
High School: Armstrong High School and Fork Union Military Academy | College: Virginia Tech
Wilford looked like he would become a solid NFL starter until last year, when he fell down the depth chart in Miami. He finished with just three catches after posting 45 the previous season. For his career, which includes four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wilford has 144 receptions for 2,019 yards and 14 touchdowns.
However, Wilford is working out at tight end, and the move could rejuvenate his career. The Dolphins, who employed the Wildcat formation last year, hope that having Wilford at tight end will create confusion and mismatches for defenses.
Born with clubfeet, Wilford wore corrective braces on his legs until he was 9 or 10, "like Forrest Gump," he told the Palm Beach Post in 2008. His father, Ernest Sr., is a pastor for an Apostolic Church in Richmond, and Wilford grew up in a disciplined household. "I wasn't allowed to leave my front yard," Wilford told a Jaguars.com reporter in 2007. "My dad is very strict."
Running Back, San Francisco 49ers
6-1, 223 | DOB: Feb. 6, 1983
High School: Varina | College: Penn State
Robinson entered last season as the 49ers' third-string running back and special-teams captain. He eventually started several games at fullback. During his three-year career, all with the Niners, he has 83 rushing attempts for 287 yards and a pair of touchdowns, along with 37 catches for 322 yards.
Robinson split his time as a quarterback, tailback and wide receiver at Penn State, where he finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 2005 after throwing for 2,350 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also ran for 806 yards and 11 TDs that season.
He led Varina to four consecutive regional titles and two state runner-up finishes. He was a two-time Associated Press first team All-State pick and a three-time Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Metro team member.
Running Back, Atlanta Falcons
5-11, 229|DOB: Dec. 29, 1983
High School: L.C. Bird, in Chesterfield | College: University of Virginia
The Falcons selected Snelling in the seventh round of the 2007 draft. He has appeared in 23 games with one start over his two-year career.
Diagnosed with epilepsy during his sophomore season at Virginia, Snelling controls the disease with medication and openly talks about it.
In 2007, the running back had his No. 42 jersey retired by L.C. Bird High School, the place where he rushed for more than 3,300 yards.
Defensive End, Miami Dolphins
6-6, 290 | DOB: Jan, 27, 1986
High School: Petersburg | College: Hampton University
Langford was drafted in the third round in 2008 by legendary coach/general manager Bill Parcells, and he did not disappoint, starting 13 games and posting 31 tackles and two sacks during his rookie season with the Dolphins.
"I thought Kendall put together a really solid year for us last year," said Miami coach Tony Sparano, speaking at a press briefing in June.
In college, Langford had a special knack for blocking field goals, rejecting five during his career at Hampton.
Lawrence Sidbury Jr.
DRAFTED IN 2009 | Defensive End, Atlanta Falcons
6-2, 267 | DOB: Feb. 6, 1986
High School: Oxon Hill, in Oxon Hill, Md. | College: University of Richmond
A member of the Richmond Spiders team that won the NCAA Division I FCS National Championship last year, Sidbury started 16 games and recorded 56 tackles, including 20 for losses. He also had 11.5 sacks during the championship season.
Sidbury clocked an impressive (for his position) 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the NFL's Scouting Combine in February, and the Falcons selected him in the fourth round. He became the 36th Spider to be drafted and the second to be picked by Atlanta. If Sidbury sticks with the Falcons, he will wear No. 90.
Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
5-10, 225 | DOB: Oct. 1, 1979
High School: Thomas Dale, in Chester | College: Auburn University
Johnson was a featured back for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003 to 2006, amassing 5,178 yards and 45 touchdowns while carrying the ball 1,254 times. He has slowed down considerably the past two seasons due to injuries. Johnson totaled just 734 yards for the Bengals and the Detroit Lions. A sociology major at Auburn, he established the Rudi Johnson Foundation, which supports a number of charitable programs in our area, including the Harriet Fischer Scholarship Fund, named for Johnson's grandmother.
Offensive Tackle, Houston Texans
6-4, 330 | DOB: Aug. 30, 1985
High School: Hermitage | College: Virginia Tech
Drafted in the first round last year as the 26th pick, Brown started 16 games at left tackle for the Texans as a rookie. Big No. 76 looks every bit like an all-pro for years to come.
Brown started his collegiate career as a reserve tight end and finished his freshman season with three catches for 64 yards and one touchdown. (He even rushed once, picking up three yards on the play.) He was still a reserve tight end in his sophomore season at the end of August training camp, but realizing he had an opportunity to play more, Brown accepted a move to right tackle, where he started every game.
At Hermitage, Brown lettered twice as a tight end and defensive end. He broke his leg after three games during his senior year but returned for the Central Region semifinals game and caught seven passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort.
Strong Safety, New Orleans Saints
6-2, 210 | DOB: Nov. 3, 1975
High School: Hermitage | College: William & Mary
Sharper signed with the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent in March, after playing for the Green Bay Packers from 1997 to 2004 and the Minnesota Vikings from 2005 to 2008. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, he is the younger brother of former NFL linebacker Jamie Sharper, who was selected 26 spots ahead of Darren in the 1997 draft's second round.
The strong safety has posted impressive professional stats, with 564 tackles, seven sacks, 54 interceptions and eight touchdowns. His 54 picks have him tied for 18th on the all-time list. Some have suggested that if he continues his level of play for several more years, he'll demand strong consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sharper, who played college ball at William & Mary with current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (the two were also fraternity brothers), has expressed an interest in becoming a color commentator after he retires, and he graduated from a league-sponsored broadcasting boot camp at NFL Films headquarters in 2008.
Pro Football Returns to Richmond
Our town has had its ups and downs when it comes to professional sports — and football has been no exception. In 2003, the city's first arena-football team, the Richmond Speed, called it quits, and in 2006, their successor, the Richmond Bandits, also folded. Lately, it would seem that things are hardly looking better for indoor football in general, with the high-profile Arena Football League cancelling its 2009 season in order to work on its econo-mic viability (the AFL plans to return in 2010).
However, both Indoor Football League commissioner Tommy Benizio and American Indoor Football Association co-founder John Morris believe Richmond remains an untapped market for professional football.
The AIFA's Richmond franchise aims to take the field in March 2010, playing their seven home games at the Richmond Coliseum, while the IFL's Richmond team, owned by multifaceted athletic-training organization SportsQuest, is set to follow suit at a 5,000-seat arena that's planned for construction in Chesterfield County by 2011.
Both leagues pay their players $200 a game, with a $50 bonus for winning.
The 14-team AIFA, which formed in 2005, already has several squads in place on the East Coast, so for Morris, a Richmond franchise was simply a smart business decision.
"Traveling on I-95, Richmond is the perfect location between North and South," he explains. "When you look at expansion, you have to limit travel." According to Morris, the majority of the AIFA's teams travel round-trip in a single day to five of their seven away games during the 14-game regular season.
By keeping the AIFA's franchises within easy traveling distance of each other, the league plans not just to hold down expenses but also to boost ticket sales at away games. Morris believes that this strategy, coupled with paid attendance of at least 3,000 per game and decent support from local sponsors, will allow the AIFA to do more than just stay afloat.
"We're hoping to catapult ourselves to the premier indoor football league," he says.
On the other hand, with 19 teams in locations as far-ranging as Alaska and Texas, Benizio's decision to add an IFL franchise in Richmond while also relocating the league's offices here ostensibly relies on a somewhat different strategy for remaining profitable.
"We're expanding into niche markets where pro football is something new and our teams can work," says Mike Clark, director of communications for the IFL.
Last year, during its inaugural 14-game season, the IFL averaged a little more than 4,000 fans per game. The league was created through a merger of the Intense Football League and United Indoor Football.
The IFL's Benizio, a graduate of Midlothian High School, is not concerned about sharing turf with his AIFa counterparts. "I have nothing but respect for the AIFA and wish them great success," he says.
"It's to our benefit that everyone in indoor football be successful," Morris agrees. "We're in it to keep the players playing. That's what it's all about." —Ryan Marr