Last week, James “Friday” Richards was in the head football coach’s office at Marietta High School, stowing a career. Thirty-three years packed into four middling boxes, the residue of a man who never thought himself overly important.
Not that a few photos, ribbons and trophy trinkets really tell his story.
Richards was much more into constructing living legacies.
They are legacies with voices, and they speak profoundly of his impact as he heads into retirement.
“I think about it every day,” said Terrance Huey, when asked about where he might be today if Richards and his wife, Dorothy, had not plucked him from the streets and taken him into their home a dozen years ago. “Before I do anything in life, I think about what my ‘dad’ and ‘mom’ would like. They showed me what it meant to be kind-hearted.”
“I see myself following in his steps,” said Derrick Tinsley, another of the 14 former players that the Richardses had living with them at different stages of Friday’s coaching career. “I didn’t finish my college degree, but I am going to finish up. I like the idea of becoming a coach like Coach Friday. I want to step up and be the best coach I can be — for him.”
Time for a change
Very quietly last month, Richards, at the age of 56, retired as Marietta’s head coach. The last few of his 15 seasons were not kind. A man accustomed to winning, he experienced only three sub-.500 seasons, and they all had fallen within the last four years. He had begun to feel the weight of the job and the slippery footing we all have on this earth.
“I wanted to put some time into my life, enjoy my life,” Richards said. “Spend more time with my wife. See some of the kids I help put in school, see them play. Go visit my baby girl and that kind of stuff. Enjoy life. I’ve been working a long time.”
The man is as much a Marietta landmark as the Big Chicken. A hulking former fullback who fills any room he’s in, he is more like the Big Panda. He grew up in the town, met his future wife here while in high school. Then went off to the University of Florida to play a little fullback there and earned a living briefly in the NFL. When it was over, he came straight back home to go to work. His family’s commitment to Marietta and its football was complete — his only child, daughter Jaimie, who is now off at college, was even the team’s manager while she was in school there.
The tattered No. 44 jersey Richards wore at Marietta is framed and hanging in the school hallway along with those of other athletes of note. As well as detailing his playing career, the inscription beneath the old bit of cloth hits on other qualities:
MHS Teacher/Coach. Friend to All. Devoted to Family. A Coach of All Sports. Enthusiasm. The Perfect Role Model. Truly “Somebody.”
That final note is a tribute to Richards’ old coach and mentor at Marietta, the late Ben Wilkins. His operating motto — “Be Somebody” — was handed down through the generations of Marietta coaches like a pocket watch.
Richards’ career at Marietta spanned more than three decades, during which time he coached a wide variety of sports from track to girls basketball. The head football coach since 1995, he compiled a record of 107-58, including four region titles and four 10-win seasons.
For all the years put in, for all the lives he touched, Richards’ retirement was extraordinarily low-key. He had been contemplating it off and on for years, but no one knew at the time that the 21-17 loss to top-ranked Grayson in the playoff’s first round would be his final game.
Thus, there would be no farewell season, although a few school and community tributes are coming, if he can be pinned down.
“Friday is very humble,” said Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, whose son played for Richards. “If we knew about [his retirement in advance] and tried to give him a proclamation, he’d have hidden from us.”
Ultimately, the testimonials to his coaching belong to the lives of those who played for him, the hundreds of young men he sent into the world armed with the unbending truths of football. Richards, they said, was there for all his players and his students.
“When you were with him, you always felt better about yourself,” said Dave Dorsey, a former Marietta player who is now the athletic director at North Cobb Christian.
But it is the young men whom he brought into his home and changed forever that most sets Richards apart on the coaching landscape. The couple also had, at various times, brought in four girls to live in their home — “but we don’t talk about them as much; girls are more sensitive,” said his wife.
Friday’s child is loving and giving, so goes the old nursery rhyme. Friday Richards’ children have learned those exact qualities first-hand, from the coach.
The first project was in 1986, a boy whose mother had been imprisoned and had nowhere else to go.
From that point on, there were always others who needed a good home. Like the former player whose mother was an addict (he ended up joining the service and serving in Iraq).
And the kid who was being raised by his grandmother and found himself without a stable home when she had a stroke (he went on to play college ball and get his degree).
And there was Tinsley, the gifted running back-turned-wide receiver who played at Tennessee and was a free agent Falcon for a bit. As a child, he lived close enough to the high school to hear the band practice and dream of playing to that sound one day. He had moved out of the district with his mother. He struggled and returned to live with Richards and to go to school and play at a place where he felt he belonged.
Room for one more
The last was Terrance Huey, who continues to occupy a special place in Richards’ heart.
Huey tells the story of himself as an almost feral teenager, running the streets, selling drugs, living on the edge. In 1998, at 15, he just broke down. Richards found him crying in the locker room, declaring between the tears that he just didn’t want to live as he had been any more. The coach made room for one more.
Said Marietta High Athletic Director Paul Hall, who knew Huey from middle school: “He was one of those kids you looked at and said, ‘This kid doesn’t have a chance. He’s crazy.’ You talk about a 180-degree turn.”
Richards said Huey fell into the discipline of his new environment quickly. Only once, after an issue with curfew, did the coach have to put a bear hug on the boy and drive home the way it had to be at the Richards house.
“People who grew up with a father maybe don’t understand,” said Huey, who still calls the coach and his wife ‘dad and mom,’ “how he can be so much like a father to me. He was a true mentor. He set the example of what it is to be a man and a husband.”
When Huey graduated from Clemson University, with a degree in technology resources and development, his surrogate mom and dad were in the audience watching. The tough football coach cried like a baby.
Richards remembered, “That was huge for me. A real emotional moment. He could be dead right now.” (Instead, Huey is managing a drug store in Marietta.)
“That is three times better than anything I experienced in football.”
Richards will stay on part time at the school. He hopes to coach a little youth track now and then, and maybe pitch in with the football team — whatever the new coach wants. He’ll have some contact with the kids, but probably nothing so intense as these last 15 years.
“I think he is ready to slow it down, get in better shape, enjoy some things,” said his wife. “He has been working all his life.”
Coach Friday, his nest empty, said he’ll miss the daily interaction with his players. He’ll miss coaching against his peers. And, yes, he does wish he had at least one state football championship to go along with the handful of state track titles he helped win.
But then, he quickly amends his reverie: “My state championship was when I saw Terrance Huey walk across the stage at Clemson.”