Hard to put down
FOXBOROUGH - It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, not for Stevan Ridley.
At least, that’s what everyone else thought.
The Patriots rookie running back was pegged for failure by some in Natchez, Miss., the town he calls home, at least athletically. A player from a school that has just more than 300 students, total, in kindergarten through 12th grade, no matter how successful the football program was, never would become a big-time athlete. And he certainly wouldn’t play in the NFL.
At least, that’s what they said.
They, predictably enough, are now all Patriots fans, scrambling to get access to New England’s games so they can watch their homegrown son.
There were some believers, as there always are, starting with Ridley’s mother, Carolyn. Carolyn’s first belief was that her two sons, Chad and Stevan, should get the best education possible. Although their paternal grandmother was president of the Natchez school board at the time, when Stevan was in second grade Carolyn pulled her sons out of the town’s public schools and enrolled them at private Trinity Episcopal Day School.
“She stressed the academics,’’ Ridley said. “That was her only concern. She made a big move and it was very strong. Going to that small school, the only thing she wanted me to do was get my grades and go to college and be successful academically.’’
That’s where he met another believer. Trinity Episcopal athletic director David King is the school’s football coach. He also is the coach of the track and field and basketball teams, and the assistant baseball coach. Ridley played all of those sports, so the two were together constantly.
King became much more than a coach to Ridley and his brother. Their father, Leon, is considered one of the finest athletes to come out of Natchez, and he passed those genes on to his sons, but he took himself out of their day-to-day lives and went to Chicago when they were young. King became a father figure to the boys, a relationship that endures.
Playing quarterback, running back, and linebacker for the Saints, Ridley was a star. But that didn’t mean he’d go on to star somewhere else, somewhere bigger.
“He was always doubted by a lot of the people in our community, that he wasn’t going to be able to play big-time college football,’’ King said. “In a nutshell, he was a small-town kid from private school and they just doubted him, and he and I both used it as his motivation to spring up to what we see today.’’
King acknowledges that Trinity only has a handful of its student-athletes go on to a college program, and rare is the Saint who goes to a Division 1 school. But Ridley got the opportunity to play for Louisiana State, one of the biggest college football programs in the country, and less than two hours from home.
A stellar season As it is for many players at Southeastern Conference schools, Ridley had to wait his turn. He redshirted as a freshman, then was a special-teams standout in his first season on the field, leading the conference with 15 tackles. He had his load increase as a redshirt sophomore, getting 45 carries.
In 2010, he was handed the reins of the Tigers’ ground game. He, well, ran with it.
Ridley had 249 carries for 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns. In 1997, a young man named Kevin Faulk also had 15 rushing touchdowns for LSU.
Ridley was ready to move on; the NFL beckoned. Despite his strong season for one of the best teams in the best conference in college football, the doubters started talking again.
But on Day 2 of this year’s draft, they were nowhere to be found. Instead, Ridley was surrounded by his mother and brother and King and other close friends and family, and as soon as he hung up with Bill Belichick, who told him the Patriots had made him the 73d pick in the draft, Carolyn made everyone join hands, take a knee, and thank God for the blessings they had been given.
“My mom is the whole drive behind me. There’s no doubt about it. That’s a very special lady to me, she’s a very strong lady and a very Christian lady,’’ Ridley said, noting that Carolyn made him promise to complete his degree before she’d allow him to leave school early to enter the draft. “She’s had an impact not only on me as a person but our whole community. I always say that, but anybody that knows my mom knows what kind of a special lady she is.’’
King and Ridley agree that Carolyn, who works as a cardiovascular ultrasound technician, sacrificed to put her sons through private school, that she went without at times to ensure that Chad and Stevan received their education and participated in so many sports.
After the Patriots selected Ridley, Faulk, now the respected elder statesman of the New England locker room, sat with LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson during one of his frequent visits to his alma mater and did a bit of advance scouting.
“I just asked him questions about [Ridley] and how he was as a person,’’ Faulk said. “Because you want to be able to, how do you say, start off on the right foot with someone if you’re starting a relationship. Especially knowing that you’re going to be in the same place with each other every day.
“[Wilson] just gave me everything that I needed to hear; he’s a good kid, comes from a good family background, smart kid, all he wants to do is play football. The normal things you want to hear about.’’
When Faulk, who is a de facto coach to Ridley, fellow rookie running back Shane Vereen, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, watches Ridley, he said he sees himself - a hard-nosed ball carrier, a solid route runner. Faulk jokes that Ridley, who is bigger than Faulk, gets to run between the tackles more often.
Learning on job Despite the lack of an offseason because of the NFL lockout, Ridley has made strides in his short time with the Patriots. Right after his first preseason game, when he had two rushing touchdowns and added a 16-yard touchdown reception against Jacksonville, he sent King a text message.
“It said, ‘Coach King I love you, I’ll never forget where it started. It started at the Pit.’ That’s the name of our high school football field,’’ King said. “I don’t know how many pro guys call their high school coaches after their first game, but that’s the kind of kid he is.’’
Ridley sent another text last Saturday night, before New England played in Oakland, looking for assurances that King would be watching. He felt like he was going to have a breakout game, Ridley told King, and he was right: he totaled 97 yards on 10 carries, including a 33-yard touchdown.
They communicate several times a week, Ridley and King, and King already has plans to travel to Washington to see New England play the Redskins in December, and a trip to Foxborough is in the works as well.
Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears doesn’t doubt Ridley, but he feels he has some work to do.
“He’s just starting,’’ Fears said. “I’m sure and hoping that he’s going to build on what he’s started, but we’ve got a lot of time here to see where he’s going. He’s got a long way to go.
“I think he’s done about what you would expect for a rookie. He’s worked hard, and he’s working hard, but there’s a [lot] still to go. I mean, all these young guys . . . [but] I have no complaints on where he is.’’
Told of Fears’s aversion to making a big deal about him just four games into his career, Ridley expresses the humility King spoke of, and the chip on his shoulder he carries with him after hearing the doubters for so long.
“The work’s not done yet. You know what I mean?’’ Ridley said. “I haven’t sewed up a spot or anything and there’s still a lot of hard work. I’m not satisfied, I know the coaches aren’t either, and I still have a job to go and win and I’m going to continue to do that and press forward every day.
“I know they don’t want me to get caught up in all this. I’m thankful that y’all are doing this [story], but at the end of the day there’s a lot of work to be done and still a lot of things I have to learn.’’
By now, finally, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doubts that Ridley will learn everything Fears wants him to know.