Top recruit gets surprise helicopter visit from Gators’ Mullen

Florida football head coach Dan Mullen (right) arrives by helicopter at Wellington High School's football field Tuesday. Mullen was on a recruiting trip to visit with Mark-Antony Richards in Wellington. [ALLEN EYESTONE/]

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.


  1. Sounds like this young man has a lot to think about. It reads as though Ga. will be the state to beat. If he chooses U of F, we fans know this is the best choice he can make. He will follow his head/heart, so we will find out next Wednesday. GO GATORS!!!

  2. “I knew it was somebody important, but I’m glad it was Coach Mullen.” -Mark-Antony Richards.
    Do what you gotta’ do, Coach Mullen! ”All is fair in love and war!”
    How I love clichés… they annoy Pat Dooley!

  3. what i do like, really for all of these kids, is the straight up admission that:

    “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.”

    thats probably the best summary of recruiting of a player ive ever read, not that i am the gold standard for this sort of thing.

  4. Don’t believe the BS most recruits tell reporters. Priorities for the vast majority of 4 and 5 star recruits (roughly in this order) are:

    1. Development and training for playing in the NFL within 3 years
    2. Opportunity to play their preferred positions
    3. Realistic opportunity to play as freshmen based on depth chart
    4. Opportunity to play for championships every season
    5. Academic and other considerations

    Richards wants to be a running back, but he’s built to play WR. He’s also looking at the Gator depth chart and not seeing much opportunity to play as a freshman, either as RB or WR. Mullen got his attention by offering him a Percy Harvin type roll, but UGA just lost 2 RBs to the NFL and Smart is not above telling him whatever he wants to hear. Just ask Justin Fields and his dad. Auburn and Miami have real backfield needs and Miami has additionally taken good care of his brother.

    We’ll see how this situation plays out. If the Gators end up landing Richards, we can toss out for good Mullen’s undeserved label as a mediocre recruiter.

    Go Gators!!!

  5. Mullen knows what he is doing and at this time we need another RUNNING BACK to go with the 5 we have on the team right now. This is a critical depth issue that needs to be addressed with a top recruit or by moving another player into this role, i.e. TONEY? With where the remainder of the 2019 GATOR Football Recruiting Class is at this time RB looks to be the most critical to fill, of course in 2 years it might be some other area due to attrition.

  6. One thing we don’t know about any of these recruits is their level of patience. If a kid is patient and willing to bide his time to get better , starting as a freshman and transferring if he doesn’t, takes that factor out of the equation. But admittedly, most kids aren’t that patient. ESPN and all these darn recruiting services have filled these kids’ heads with the notion they can stop a speeding mule cart rolling down a hill in Knoxville with a hand tied behind their back or leap over a two story outhouse in Starkville in a single bounce. Perine is an exception. That kid is one of the most grounded Gators on the team the last several years and one of my favorite players of the decade. He rode a bus down here from Alabama to attend camp and cried when he got offered by us. Love that guy! If Richards really means what he says, Florida is the best fit for him and it ain’t even close. We shall see.

    • mkf….I agree with you about Lamical Perine. He has been my favorite Gator since #15 was in town. Through thick and thin he has carried himself with class and you’ve not heard negative things about him. It was a ton of fun to watch him play this year and I’m glad he’ll be back in 2019. Perine is a GREAT GATOR!

    • But it’s the current “in” thing to do, so to one up it the next coach has to arrive in a flying saucer or something. The coach who finally signs him will have probably figured out how to land a 747 on the football field. Sounds more like he isn’t coming to Florida regardless.

    • Using a chopper as a recruiting tool may sound lame but given the time demands facing these coaches coupled with these are young men who are very impressionable it makes sense. I see where both Kirby “Not So” Smart and Saban both have employed the use of helicopters within this recruiting period to visit recruits so hats off to Coach Mullen for doing the same. I agree with the earlier post though in that bird needs a stick on Gator logo!

  7. Don’t have any info but I get the feeling that UF will not sign Moore or Richards. Think UF will probably get Elam. I would not be surprised at all if Henderson signs with FSU. Hope we get them all and more but my gut says only Elam.