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Rookie Running Back Jalen Richard Reflects On "Crazy, Long" Journey To The NFL


It's funny that the biggest news of Jalen Richard's life actually came in the form of receiving no news at all.

After he signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent after a successful tryout in May, went through the Offseason Workout Program and training camp with the team, and then made it through the initial wave of roster reductions, there was just one, last, albeit stressful, hurdle in front of Richard before he officially fulfilled his dream of making an NFL roster.

So, on September 3 – the day that final rosters had to be submitted to the league – he waited, and waited, and then waited some more, hoping to hear some news about his NFL future.

Then, as the clock struck 2:30 p.m., and his phone remained quiet, he knew that he had done it. The kid from central Louisiana had done the improbable as an undrafted free agent, seemingly coming out of nowhere to make Raiders 53-man roster.

"I called my mom and dad in tears," said Richard. "It's a day I'll never forget; that feeling of great accomplishment, but also a blessing. It was a real good moment, real cool moment, to know that all the hard work you did up until this point, the focus you had, the things you had to not participate in because you wanted to be able to do this, the things you missed out on because you wanted to go train, do something else..."

His voice trailed off, "I used to stand on the corner in Alexandria, on the corner of my high school, with a sign and a bucket, asking for money, so I could be able to go to football camp. All these things were rushing through my mind."

The next day, Richard headed into work at the team's Alameda, Calif., facility, and after receiving words of congratulations from several players, and running backs coach Bernie Parmalee, Richard got right back to work, because as he says, while he's already accomplished more than many people thought possible, he's not done yet – in fact, he's not even close.

"It felt good, but you can only have your eyes in the stars for so long," Richard said about his first days on the final roster. "I knew in that moment that the next day, now I'm here, now I have other things I wanted to accomplish. I'm definitely not done. I definitely have other goals that I want to accomplish and obtain, [so] that was my focus. That's why I think I was able to get off to a good start now with making an impact in any way that I can, and [with what] the coaching staff has asked me to do, because I didn't keep my eyes in the stars for too long."

Bernie Parmalee sees a lot of himself in Richard, most notably the hunger that the former Southern Mississippi Golden Eagle has for the game.

Their stories are strikingly similar, as Parmalee himself also entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins, and he knows firsthand the importance of not being awestruck or overwhelmed by the situation when given a chance of a lifetime.

"A lot of times, coming in as rookies, [either] a draft pick or a free agent, sometimes you're in awe, but you forget why you're here," Parmalee explained. "You have talent also, so you can't get caught up in that, 'okay, I'm a rookie. This is my first year,' and then all of a sudden you hold back. But to his [Richard] credit, what he's done, he's learned the offense, that way he can play fast. When you don't know the offense, and you don't do your studying, you can't play fast. He's been doing that since he's been here."

The 23-year-old ball carrier has certainly started fast and made an impact in the early phases of his NFL career. His 6.3 yards per carry leads all the Raiders running backs, and his 198 kickoff return yards put him in the Top-15 league wide.

Now, nearly halfway through his first regular season as a pro, Richard is taking stock of just how far he's come over the past year, from an undrafted free agent with just a single tryout offer, to now a key contributor on a team tied atop the AFC West.

"I've come a crazy, long way," Richard explained. "It's basically like your life changes, which it really does, financially, mentally, just everything. I came a really long way. It's really cool, and it's been so fast. Like I said, I can remember yesterday playing park ball. I can remember being in high school, and I just got out of college. It's definitely been a process. I'm enjoying it."

While Richard is now living out his childhood dream, the road to the NFL hasn't been an easy one. As a senior in high school he tore his ACL, and saw most of his college offers dissipate in the process, and then some academic issues prior to his senior season at Southern Mississippi almost cost him his final season in Hattiesburg.

"I had some different – I wouldn't say issues – in college, but my mind was everywhere," Richard said. "I had to refocus on football. My mind was on different things that I don't take back. I had an issue where I got put off the team coming up to my senior year at Southern Miss because my focus was somewhere else. I let my grades slip, and [Head] Coach Todd Monken put me off the team until I got my grades back right. I had to refocus and pull myself out of that hole. You look at that, and I'm like, I was a grade away from not being in the position I am now. I definitely take that lesson with gratitude, but that's what makes me who I am now."

The dynamic running back hit the books and pulled his grades up, and was eventually reinstated to the football team, finishing his senior season second on the team with 1,098 rushing yards on 185 carries and 14 touchdowns.

Richard calls his time away from the Golden Eagles a learning experience, causing the college senior to "hone in" in on his craft, and since his arrival in Northern California he's been locked in entirely on football, and taking the proper steps to be successful on the field.

And those steps have not been lost on Parmalee.

"We go through things sometimes, and you have to grow," Parmalee said. "You're going to go one way or the other. You're going to go one way, or you're going to go the other way, so for him to sit back and say that from that it experience it helped him, that's a positive, because you could see a lot of people, they go the other direction."

"I make sure I'm doing the right things," Richard added. "I focus and make sure my mind is on the right thing, that when I get to work, it's about work. Nobody can give me a reason I shouldn't be there, whether it's off-the-field issues, or on the field. I do everything the right way, 'yes sir, no sir'. I do my job, because this is my job. This is what I do now, and I get paid for this, so if I don't do my job right, I get fired. I definitely appreciate it more."

That appreciation manifests itself myriad ways, one of which – as simple as it sounds – is just having fun.

In talking and spending time with the rookie running back, it's evident that Richard loves football, but he also loves life, and he's not taking any moment of his NFL journey for granted.

From squaring off against players whose highlight tapes he grew up watching, to experiencing things he never thought he would happen – dapping up Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tops that list – Richard is determined to become the best football player he can be, but to also have a lot of fun doing it.

"I'm having fun," Richard said. "I'm living my dream. I'm doing everything that I can possibly dream of, meeting people, having new friends, meeting people that I saw on TV. I just came out of college. Guys that I used to watch in the NFL, now I'm playing alongside them, or playing against them, and it's fun. You have to have fun."

Jalen Richard admits that he's happy with how his improbable NFL career has started, but don't mistake his happiness for complacency. He knows he has just embarked on the next football journey, and regardless of how it ends, rest assured he'll get there with a smile on his face.

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