Dean Richards left Dover, Ohio, four years ago "to get out on my own and see if I could hang."
And as the Maryland Terrapin football charter heads toward E1 Paso this morning en route to the site of the Saturday Sun Bowl, Richards should order up an extra bag of taco chips and gaze out the window feeling satisfied. He has hung.
Richards is no ordinary blend-into-the-background football player. He talks about style. He plays the bass guitar and chess and has been an honor student in business administration. Of the 18 seniors facing their final collegiate game, only Richards and the storied Steve Atkins have lettered as freshmen, sophomores and juniors with a fourth monogram on the way.
Richards has provided Maryland viewers with some most exciting, leaping, break-away catches.
So why is Richards polite but unenthused in his remembrances? Why does he compose such a vague response when asked if his college footabll career is what he thought it would be?
"I won't say it's been more than --i thought it would be. I won't say it's been less, and I won't say I'm happy with it," said Richards. "I'll just say I had fun."
Richards is not the only senior who, beneath the surface, finds this trek to a Texas border town a rather melancholy journey.
This is a group that, as sophomores, mostly watched its older teammates compile an 11-0 record and pack it off to the Cotton Bowl, along with a set of three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships.
Since then, there have been no ACC titles and the bowl charters have landed in El Paso and Birmingham, a few stops short of Dallas, Miami or New Orleans.
His is a group that expected more. It leaves a little bit frustrated.
The only question one hears in the second-guessing sessions is: could the offense be a little more jazzed up? Less predictable?
If it were up to quarterbacks and receivers, it is safe to guess that Maryland or any team's play-calling would be dizzying. Coaches would refer to this as the animals running the zoo.
"It's not that our offense isn't jazzed up," Richards said. "We have a lot of pattersn we don't use. I guess we save them for crucial situations. People say we're conservative. Hat's not for me to decide."
Of Richards' team-leading 35 catches this year, most came on two pass patterns: the comeback (where a receiver rums straight ahead or toward the sideline one-on-one with a defender, then turns around and cuts back in front of him for the catch), and the cross (used more against zone defenses, where the receiver runs ahead 10 to 15 yards, takes a 90-degree turn into the seam of the defense and catches the ball over the middle).
The comeback made use of Richards one-on-one skills, "basically a question of timing between me and the quarterback," said Richards. "It's man on man-I like that."
The cross probably brought more big-play catches, allowed him to rove and use his vision.
"I guess you could say I kind of free-lance," Richards said. One of his most important catches this year gave Maryland spark in a late rally to beat Louisville. Richards burst from a pack of defenders at the 15-yard line and caught his only touchdown pass. It was a broken play.
"I just try to get open and catch the ball," Richards said. "Being a receiver is more agility than anything else. You have to be aggressive. You also have to be smart. Defenses try to intimidate you, and you have to have a strong mind."
In the last two season, Richards has caught 58 passes for 945 yards and escaped the honor of being voted all-conference.
"It really didn't bother me," Richards said, "until all the players on our team came up and told me I was robbed. I wasn't myself for a couple days. I wasn't talking to anyone for a while."
It is competitiveness that drives the affable Richards to silence, after being overlooked for an honor, or, even after losing a card game. This is one of the things the pro scouts like baout him, one of the reasons they rate him a chance to catch on, even though he is not blazing fast or very big (5-foot-10 1/2, 180).
"He will get a chance," said one pro scout. "He's the kind of guy that maybe you look at him and say he has no chance, with his size, and he's not a speed burner. But he seems able to get open, apparently he's made a lot of big plays for Maryland, and that is the secred to being a receiver.
"The thing everybody likes about him is that he has good basic receiving skills-he runs good routes, his hands are good. He has good athletic ability and he's competitive. We have him marked down as a smart player."
So maybe there is another football stop on the journey that originated in Dover. Maybe not. But whatever Richards ventures into, he now knows one thing. He can hang.