By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Abdiel Richards traveled across the country to keep his dream of playing college football alive.
There were times when he slept on couches in teammates’ apartments. There were even a few occasions when he slept in his car.
He held odd jobs, one of which included picking onions and grapes from fields, to help make ends meet.
There were certainly times when Richards wasn’t sure if he’d make it.
Those thoughts were put to rest when the 2016 Wildwood High School graduate was awarded a scholarship to play football at North Carolina Central, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) program that competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, over the summer.
Richards was star at Wildwood. He was one of the top players in Cape May County and rushed for more than 1,500 yards as a junior and more than 1,000 yards as a senior.
But Richards slipped through the cracks when it came to college offers.
“I had a lot of hits and misses,” he recalled. “Towson and Morgan State told me they’d give me a spot as a preferred walk-on but that was really it.”
Richards posted highlight videos on social media. Eventually, the coaching staff at Bakersfield Junior College in California caught wind of his abilities and offered him a place in the program.
“It was a big jump, going from Wildwood all the way out to California, but I wasn’t really thinking about it. I just did it,” Richards said.
Richards transitioned to the defensive side of the ball at Bakersfield. He played in seven games as a freshman, recording 21 tackles and recording two pass breakups. He played in just three games as a sophomore due to a broken wrist and was granted an additional medical redshirt season. Richards returned to the lineup last fall and was named a second team all-conference selection, after posting 40 tackles and five pass breakups in 11 games.
Richards, 21, graduated from Bakersfield in May with an associate’s degree in communications and resumed the task of marketing himself to four-year colleges.
Richards said North Carolina Central defensive backs coach Ty Greenwood eventually saw Richards on video and began recruiting him in June. By July, Richards committed to the Durham, N.C., school.
“Coach Greenwood took a chance on me,” said Richards, who had also received interest from Abilene Christian and Sacred Heart.
Richards, considered a junior at North Carolina Central, has two seasons of eligibility.
“It’s a real blessing to be here,” said Richards, who’s now majoring in business. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so it’s a blessing for all of us. When I came home for a little bit to Wildwood everyone was so proud of me and that made me feel real good.”
North Carolina Central is set to open the season at Austin Peay on Thursday at 8 p.m. The game is scheduled to air on ESPN+.
Richards, 21, said he is in the rotation at defensive back and will be on the field for most special teams plays.
“Playing in junior college prepared me for this,” Richards said. “It gave me structure. I was a raw player when I got there but now I’m more of a skillful player because of the techniques I learned.
“The Division I level is way faster but I feel like junior college prepared me for this. It’s helped me come in and compete right away.”
Three years ago, Richards was unsure of his future. Two years ago, he was unsure where he’d sleep some nights. But later this week, he’ll be playing football on national television as a scholarship player for an FCS program.
“I had some adversity happen but I stuck it out because I knew good things could happen at the end,” Richards said. “Every day I have to thank God. It’s a real good feeling.”