By Ryan DiPentima, GateHouse Florida
With National Signing Day just a week away, University of Florida head coach Dan Mullen looked to make a lasting impression on top Palm Beach County recruit Mark-Antony Richards.
Mullen landed a helicopter on the football field at Wellington High School as an unsuspecting Richards, along with his teammates, cheerleaders and the school’s band, looked on.
Florida has shown strong interest in the four-star athlete following a campus visit earlier this month, and Mullen’s helicopter landing will likely be the most grandiose expression of interest that Richards will see during his recruiting period.
“We were all shocked, I didn’t expect this,” said Richards. “When I came out here I just saw the helicopter and I figured it was Saban or somebody.”
“I knew it was somebody important, but I’m glad it was Coach Mullen.”
The Gators coaching staff has been making the rounds in Palm Beach County of late, with Mullen attending the basketball game of four-star Benjamin defensive back and top target Kaair Elam on Monday night.
“We are the University of Florida, so a big, important thing for us is to get the best players in the state to come play for us,” said Mullen. “I think our coaching staff has worked hard, not just in South Florida, but throughout the entire state of Florida, trying to get the best players to stay home and play for the Gators.”
Though the Gators’ late push gives Richards something to think about before announcing his decision during National Signing Day on February 6, Mullen and his staff didn’t come away with any firm commitment.
“I told myself I’m going to think about it, but as far as a commitment, no,” said Richards, who admits it would difficult saying no to the helicopter treatment. “It’s hard, but you’ve just got to take your time and really think things over.”
And Richards has plenty to think over.
The Wellington star revealed his top five schools in August, citing Auburn, Miami, Tennessee, Penn State and Florida as the top contenders.
Since that social media announcement, Richards has visited Georgia, and now the Bulldogs have taken Tennessee’s spot in his list of five.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Georgia since I was a kid, and when they first offered me I was seriously considering it,” said Richards.
He added that Georgia initially offered him as a wide receiver, but after conversations with the coaching staff they came to realize that wide receiver wasn’t Richards’ preferred position and have adjusted their recruiting pitch. The relationship between the parties has strengthened since then, culminating in the official visit.
Auburn remains strongly in the mix as well, with the Tigers having formed a long-lasting relationship with the four-star athlete.
“They’ve been recruiting me since before my name was even anything, so I mean the connection has always been there with Coach Malzahn and his staff over there,” said Richards. “He’s always given me the same story, never really changed anything and I think that’s something that really stuck out to me, that he was always consistent with running back, running back, running back.”
Wellington’s offensive leader has also received an in-home visit from new Miami Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz. Richards’ older brother, Ahmmon, announced the end of his football career last year due to a neck injury after playing three season for the Hurricanes.
“It went really well,” said Richards of the visit. “Before I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but talking to Coach Diaz it really just kind of opened my mind up and that’s one of the reasons I took an official to Miami.”
While Ahmmon’s history as a former Hurricane won’t be a deciding factor in Mark-Antony’s decision, both he and his family have used his brother’s recruiting experience as a guide this time around.
“For the recruiting process we already know what to expect going in from having Ahmmon set the standard, so we know what questions are coming,” said Mark-Antony’s mother, Daphanie Richards. “As parents, we know what to look for.”
Beyond providing an experienced approach to the recruiting process, Ahmmon’s early retirement also helped shape Mark-Antony’s list of priorities.
“First is academics, I’m high on academics,” said Richards. “What happened to my brother, that really showed me that football won’t last forever and that you always need a back-up plan.”
“Then I’ll say scheme fit, and then just the atmosphere, the players, the coaches, everything.”
The matriarch of the Richards family agrees with her son’s assessment that academics will, and should, be his top priority.
“We always instilled in him to work hard, and first comes the classroom, so he’s a great kid in the classroom and on and off the field,” said Daphanie Richards. “It’s going to be amazing to see him go to that next level and perform at his best and still become that student-athlete that we raised.”
Tuesday’s helicopter landing was a first in the Wellington football program’s history, a landmark moment for a program that has been positively impacted by an era dominated by the Richards brothers.
“It’s huge, I just hugged his mom, kissed his mom,” said Wellington head coach Tom Abel. “We just had our football banquet not too long ago and tears were shed.”
“They single-handedly both changed the face of Wellington football and without them I don’t know if we’d have been as successful as we have been, and are going to be, because they set the standard.”
As the Wolverines prepare to play their first season without a Richards in uniform in six seasons, Abel says the bond he’s formed with the Richards family will be a lasting one.
“They’re very special to me and in my heart they’re always going to be part of my huddle,” said Abel. “Whether they make it to the NFL or not, I’ll be there for them, whatever it takes.”
Ryan DiPentima is a sports writer for The Palm Beach Post.