Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn.
Update: Richie James was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round (pick 240) of the 2018 NFL Draft.
This weekend is one of my favorite of the year, every year.
It’s basically a three-day holiday for me. I refuse to make plans. I make something hearty and delicious and horrible for my health in my crock pot that’ll last me through Saturday night (I’m thinking a buffalo chicken pasta bake this year, but please hit me up with suggestions if you have them). Come Thursday and Friday nights and all day Saturday, I’ll be glued to the TV, watching one of the best spectacles there is.
It’s NFL Draft weekend, folks. Some of you are rolling your eyes, and I get it. On the surface, it’s hours and hours of men in suits saying other people’s names into a microphone, but it’s more than that. It’s cheering when your team does the “right” thing, laughing when other teams don’t, letting out a big “whoa” when trades fly out of nowhere and embracing the ridiculous nature of it all. This is an event where monkeys and, this year, a parrot named Zsa Zsa announce team draft picks.
Mostly, though, it’s watching the dreams of young people come true. If you played a sport growing up, you likely wanted, however unrealistically, to reach the pros someday. I may not be able to relate to pro athletes in many respects, but I relate to that. I also have dreams as a writer and journalist, as everyone does in their respective fields. Seeing tears of joy fall from faces of achievers shows how badly they wanted to get to this exact moment, and how hard they worked to make sure it happened. It’s inspiring to me and to high school and college players across the country.
This year, another Sarasota native will likely join the ranks of those living their dreams. Richie James, the former Riverview High standout quarterback (now a wide receiver), declared for the draft after his junior season at Middle Tennessee State was marred by injuries. The 5-foot-10 James finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in catches (244), yards (3,261) and touchdowns (23). Because of his size and injury history, James is projected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick by NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
Where he’s taken, or by whom, is less important than the fact that’ll get his chance. It matters to guys like current Riverview seniors Jamar Johnson and Arthur Brantley, who have known James since childhood. Johnson, a defensive back, will play for Indiana University next season, and Brantley, a quarterback, for Austin Peay University. Over the past week, James has reached out to both players to give words of encouragement and wish them well on their own journeys to the NFL.
For years, players from this area have felt slighted by national recruiting services and big-time colleges. A “941” mentality has been born from that frustration. They’re rivals on the field, but Brantley said schools in the area root for each other to do well when not in direct competition, in the hopes of changing the conversation. It’s why Riverview was happy to see Venice High win the state football championship last fall.
It seems like the perception might be changing, Johnson said, with the sudden uptick of area players making it to the top. Last year, former Booker High running back Marlon Mack was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts out of USF and had a productive rookie season, collecting 583 total yards and four touchdowns. On the hardwood, former Cardinal Mooney guard Antonio Blakeney went undrafted last June, but signed with the Chicago Bulls organization and won the G League’s Rookie of the Year award after averaging 32 points a game. Now, James has a chance to add to the area’s recent legacy.
“It’s a dream come true for all of us,” Brantley said. “It inspires me. It makes me want to focus that much more.”
“They set the standard,” Johnson added. “I’ve seen them (Mack and James) do it with my own eyes. They made it to where I want to be.”
James told both players to outwork their competitors and be around their teams as much as possible, even if it hurts to be away from home so much. If they take the advice, they may indeed follow in James’ footsteps. For now, I’m excited to watch James take his first steps into the NFL, and chalk up another win for the 941.