Tony Richardson was a high school senior in Alabama. The Army brat and the youngest of seven children didn’t know anything but living somewhere for a brief time, packing up and moving to where his father was stationed.
When Ben, a sergeant major, told the family that he had another two-year stint to do overseas, Tony learned what genuine commitment is. “My dad is my ultimate role model,” the former NFL player, considered one of the best fullbacks in the league’s history, said to Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns High School students on Nov. 10, the day Veterans Day was celebrated as a federal holiday. “My dad missed my senior year of high school and my freshman year at Auburn,” Richardson said, “that is commitment to service.”
Commitment to service is also ingrained in Richardson. From a 16-season career that included sacrificing himself for the team — he paved the way for 1,000-yard rushers in nine consecutive seasons — to winning the “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award in 2010 as a New York Jet for his charitable work.
The Long Island City resident’s sister recently retired from the armed forces after 28 years. It was her military back that he brought with him. He pulled out his No. 49 game-worn Jets jersey and allowed the students to pass it around.
Then he showed an item that Richardson said he holds dear. At her retirement ceremony, he said, his sister handed out gifts and the one he received was several items encased in a box that included the information needed to identify a soldier should they be killed. “It means she came home alive,” he said.
As a young boy, he would wake up at 4:45 a.m. and watch his father put on his uniform. It translated to the football player. “Yeah, I had my regimen,” he said, “I would lay out my uniform, had a certain time to get taped, get a massage. I am a creature of habit.”
The second Auburn freshman to start at running back (an unknown named Bo Jackson was the first) did provide a history lesson for the students for whom the Vietnam War exists only in books, videos and other media. “When my father came back soldiers were being disrespected,” he said, “they (protestors) were spitting at my dad.”
Not what HAFTR Principal Naomi Lippman’s father, Dr. Harold Weinerman, a dentist, who served in the medical corps in World War II endured. “He was part of the second wave of American soldiers that landed on the beaches of Normandy,” she told the students about her connection to what is called “the greatest generation.” “He helped to liberate concentration camps in Poland.”
Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Gedaliah Oppen made it point to say that Richardson played football but also earned graduated college and earned a master’s degree. “He grew up in a family that gives back,” the unabashed Vikings fan said. “They are not just takers.”
The visit had an impact on HAFTR senior Ethan Jesselson. “I have no family in the military, but it was an eye-opener to learn about being in someone else’s shoes and the sacrifices they made for our safety,” he said, adding that this inspires him to help in “any way I can.”
Richardson took questions from the students and posed for photos with everyone who asked. “This is my way of paying it forward and if I can help one person, then I’ve done my job,” he said.