Blessed and Determined

Carl Richburg

By James Nosek

He is in his home. The home he moved into in 1996. The home that is aging with necessity, if not destiny. The memories surround him, ready to be remembered or forgotten, tossed away or cherished forever. He knows things have changed. He’s accepting them. He’s come along way from the young boy from Baltimore who wound up in new places, with new people and new opportunities—from playing basketball at the University of Southern Indiana and Miami University in Ohio to now being a coach for the Central Methodist University basketball program. This house in Mason, Ohio will always be home, no matter where he ends up.

Carl Richburg sits shirtless at the elevated kitchen table on this sunny afternoon in early July. He takes small sips from the jelly-jar turned water jug as he talks about the NBA. A SportsCenter highlight about the Miami Heat flashes on the screen in the family room across from the kitchen. “I’m a Heat fan,” Richburg, 27, says. “That’s my team… well actually, I’m a LeBron James fan. I remember seeing him at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. He was very skinny and super awkward looking. Now he is huge. I remember his team had these simple little reversible jerseys. They were playing all these studs—guys like Raymond Felton—who had these nice jerseys, and here’s LeBron running circles around them.”

Across from Richburg is a kid’s high chair seat, and under the table next to it are children’s toys—a dump truck, a police car and a construction truck. Those are for when his godchildren come over to play. A big container of peanut butter and a plate of saltine crackers are in front of him. But are never touched. He’s too busy talking about the place he grew up in, and the stories that go a long with it. The cabinets in the kitchen have been replaced. He noticed the change. The furniture has moved around slightly. He noticed that, too. A deck was put in, along with a small concrete basketball court in the backyard.

In Mason, the Intermediate School used to be the Middle School. And the Middle School used to be the High School. The Buffalo Wild Wings, where the whole city would go after the high school basketball games, is now Lucky Dog Grille. No matter what is different, the people who gave meaning to Richburg and his home aren’t going anywhere. Veronica, Richburg’s mother, is still living in this house, and his father, Carl, is still the man of this house.

His summer has mainly consisted of helping coach summer college basketball camps all across the country. He’s worked a Northern Kentucky University camp and Rutgers University camp. A University of Cincinnati camp and University of Connecticut camp. He’s been busy. He likes being busy. When he’s not working with these schools, he’s probably doing something with his girlfriend, Katie, or even his mother: keeping her company, possibly having dinner with her from time to time. You usually won’t find Richburg sitting down in the TV room, wasting the day away watching movies or playing video games, either. Sure he likes to relax. But for a physically fit guy in his late-twenties, relaxing isn’t routine to him yet. He doesn’t want to be the retired college basketball player who can’t get up in the morning to work out or go to open gyms and play basketball. Actually, that’s what he does nearly everyday, when time allows him to. So retired probably isn’t the best word for him.

He won’t lie, though. Just because he stays active doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling older—a man who probably can’t do the things he used to be able to do. That’s just part of life. But when he works out with athletes from his former school, Mason High School, their youth motivates him to keep working, to bring back a little bit of the fire that used to drive him. “Being around younger, more athletic people, I still want to stay in shape and compete with them,” he says. “I’m going to use what I can. It’s important. I want to sweat with them to show that I care and that I’m invested.” There is no request too great for Richburg. He enjoys helping these young players grow. “I’ll never turn down a guy who wants to get better,” he says. “There’s a kid at Mason who wants to ride bikes close to every morning around 5am. When I see things like that, I want to be the person that can be there for someone else. I didn’t have people like that when I was growing up.”

The reason why he’s at home on this day is because there are no camps this week. That is convenient considering he suffered plantar fasciitis—“it seriously felt like I had rocks in my shoes,” he says—at the Baylor University camp a week and a half before. That’s one of the perks of getting older, huh? “If I was still in college, I would play through the injury,” he says.

A few hours before Richburg sat down to talk, he was getting his tattoo touched up. The tattoo covers his whole back, and is based on Psalm 27:1: The lord is my light and salvation. He says he was “bringing some life back” to the body art, something that is near and dear to his heart, even if it’s on his back. The ink is somewhat faded. But bold enough to figure out the story behind it—to figure out the story behind him. It will take time to touch up the tattoo and get it back to its fresh and livelier self. Eventually the dots will be connected, one step closer to a final product. Eventually, it will all make sense.

†††

The boy who loves Legos and Star Wars makes everything worth it to Richburg. The boy’s name is Austin, a fifth grader with mild autism; one of Richburg’s former students when he used to be a special needs teacher/aide at Little Miami Intermediate School. Every time Austin did something well, accomplish something little or big, he earned a Legos sticker. It was Richburg’s idea, his way of showing him the beauty of motivation. He loved spending time with Austin, seeing him develop with every sticker. He got a kick out of him. “He takes everything so literally,” Richburg says with a smile. “You say, ‘what’s up’ to him and he’s like, ‘ah, second floor.’” When working with special needs kids, it might take one more explanation or one more demonstration. Richburg learned just as much as the kids have. Everyday was different. He understood that if you give them the time and effort, they would return the favor.

“There was a kid I was working with who started out the year where he couldn’t focus whatsoever,” Richburg says. “Then he started to tell me what to write, and I would write it down. By the end, the time of testing, he’s at the point where he’s writing everything on his own. He didn’t want help writing it down anymore. People tell me, ‘wow, you had a big affect on him,’ but it wasn’t really me. I put things out there. He was the one grasping hold of them. I wanted these kids to know that they were improving themselves. I was just laying out the blueprint.” There were other kids he worked with that might have been too smart for their own good. “I would write the date on the board everyday, but one day I came in late and forgot to,” he says. “This one kid would not talk to me the whole class. I didn’t know what was going on. I soon realized I forgot, and finally wrote the date on the board. After I did, the kid was like, ‘oh hey, Mr. Richburg.’”

As the topic changes from little kids to college kids, the crackers still aren’t touched. The jar still has about the same amount of water from the last time he took a sip. SportsCenter is still on. He leans forward, then backwards. Forward. Backwards. There isn’t much diversity in his movements. He starts talking about his former assistant coaching job at Thomas More College as he leans forward. Last winter was his first season with the Saints. He expected to help out right away. But his influence became far greater than he imagined. They won 23 games—the most in the program’s history—and only lost five. Richburg brought his workout regiment—some of his former players at Mason called it Camp Carl—to Thomas More, and it helped out tremendously. “They never had a strength and conditioning program like the one I do,” he says. “They were freaked out for a while, but they realized that they were winning games—that something was changing.”

Richburg received an offer to coach at Central Methodist University in Missouri a few weeks ago. It’s an exciting change in his life, one that was attained by hard work and a dedication to his new career. He will be an assistant coach for the CMU basketball team, and the head coach for the university’s junior varsity basketball team. School starts August 20; so he will be moving to Missouri soon. That is, of course, after he and his girlfriend go on vacation to The Hamptons. He says that he will be paid to live on campus, and while he is there, he will also get his Masters Degree in education. Back in July, when he was one of 600 applicants applying for the CMU gig, Richburg said, “opportunities are there, I just have to find them.” Well, looks like he found one.

A few years ago, he thought playing professional basketball overseas was his calling. At the time, having a professional basketball career on the other side of the pond was that unattainable goal that he tried to make attainable. “Even when I graduated from Miami, I was like, ‘I’m playing, I’m going to prove that I can play,’” he says. “I was naïve in that aspect because I thought if someone would just give me that one chance, I would make the most of it. But I never really got that opportunity.” He could dwell on off-the-court politics—outperforming guys who are playing overseas today, not having extraordinary height (he’s 5’9”), and being an American—but what good does that do. He can only dwell on what is now.

A former Mason coach suggested that Richburg should start coaching and substitute teaching. At that point, it was all he had. And to top it off, he was able to return to Mason, his home. But the stint didn’t last as long as he hoped. He stopped working at Mason late last July. He says it was “God’s will to leave Mason.” He received a phone call from an old high school friend last September—“it was like two days before school started, it was a total blessing,” he says—telling him there was an opening for a job at Little Miami. And on the same day, Richburg made a random call himself, hoping that a coaching position at Thomas More would somehow be available for him. “The school said I was the type of person they needed, so they told me to come down for interview,” he says. “I got the job right away.”

Here is a man who at the beginning of the summer was still living with his parents and thought he’d be returning to teach at Little Miami and coach at Thomas More. Now he’s off to Missouri, a new journey awaits him. Everyday brings something new, maybe a proud smile from a fifth grader or a new coaching position in a far away state. It’s funny to think how sometimes things work out themselves, how a new opportunity can fall into his lap unexpectedly, at a time when the last one is still sinking in.

†††

Earlier this summer, when Richburg was considering the job at Central Methodist University, he walked into the interview and received a phone call from an old assistant coach at Miami University in Ohio. He glanced at the phone, but didn’t answer it. During the interview, though, the calls and texts kept coming. They were from people he knew at Miami saying they were sorry. A couple hours passed and he finally saw a text from someone asking Richburg if he heard what happened to his former head coach at Miami, Charlie Coles. “The minute I saw that text, I turned off my phone because I knew something happened to him and I wanted to stay focused on the interview,” Richburg says. “But honestly, after I got that last message, I couldn’t focus anymore. I was there for another four hours and I could only think of all the things I went through at Miami. It was the best experience of my life, those years at Miami that I spent with Coach Coles.” Coles passed away on June 7, the day of the interview. He was 71.

Richburg calls Coles the mayor because everyone at Miami knew who he was. It was his school. He describes Coles as a loving—“when basketball season was over, he was with his family and grandkids,” Richburg says—and genuine coach who always wanted the best out of his players, and always expected the best. “He was constantly testing you,” Richburg says. “He was the type of guy that can’t do anything without evaluating you. At half time, if you were being slow and lazy on the court, he would say, ‘you would have stayed with him on defense if you wouldn’t have gotten seconds during dinner.’ He noticed those things. He was so aware of everything.”

Coles’ son recruited Richburg to transfer to Miami after seeing him play in the Deveroes Pro/Am Summer League the summer following his freshman year at Southern Indiana. Soon after, Richburg called Coles about the opportunity to play for him. “Coach Coles was one of the main reasons I ended up transferring from Southern Indiana,” he says. “When I talked to him on the phone, I told him, ‘you know I haven’t grown since high school.’ And he’s like, ‘yeah, I knew that was my mistake.’ He had such a dry sense of humor. That’s when I knew he was a cool dude.” Richburg and Coles would have a great and unique journey together, lasting from 2005-2009. But, like anything, it took time for them to get used to each other’s company.

“Coach and I had our ups and downs,” he says. “I was his whipping boy for the first year. At the time, I couldn’t stand him. But I realize now it was his way of motivating me—to do stuff that I wouldn’t normally think I could do. For us to have so many ups and downs and for me to respect him as much as I do, that truly tells you what kind of person he was.” Richburg was happy to share his college years with his Miami family. It became his home away from home. Richburg even lived with an old friend, Tyler Dierkers, who was also his teammate. Dierkers had his wedding in June and of course Richburg attended it, wearing his 2007 MAC Conference Championship ring. The ring is still sits on the kitchen table. Richburg isn’t ready to put it away.

“We had a lot of fun at Miami, but we always knew what we had to do,” he says. “Coach always joked around saying, ‘if you guys were big time basketball players, you would have all the parties at your place.’ Getting our work done was more important, though. We didn’t have teachers who said, ‘oh, I saw you play on ESPN last night, you don’t have to do your work.’ We had to get our work done and go to class. Miami wasn’t like other schools where athletics overpower academics.”

One of Richburg’s favorite Miami stories was when he met Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played football at Miami. “He had come back for some golfing event after he won those Super Bowls,” Richburg recalls. “It was my redshirt freshman year, and the basketball players had to help out for this event. We were driving around with him in a golf cart, clowning with him. He was cool, telling all these stories about his time at Miami. He was wild when he was there; he always got all the girls. You’re trying to play it cool as he’s talking. But at the same time, you’re riding around with a Super Bowl MVP.” Richburg also knew many guys who now play in the NHL. He knew Tom Crabtree, who won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. He even knew former Miami football player, James Case, who was recently kicked off the show The Bachelorette.

His Miami years are long but over. He battled through the hard times—many serious injuries, having his back against the wall on numerous occasions—as well as the good times. He survived. He’s here. One day he might be the alumnus driving around in a golf cart entertaining college kids about the best days of his life. Sure, the stories are in the back of his mind. He could go around sharing them. But… he has to leave them in the past, without regretting who he was and what he has become.

Richburg’s last conversation with Coles was the week of his death. Coles was making calls for him, trying to land him a new coaching job. Naturally, Coles asked him about his family and his mother, as he always did. Coles wasn’t talking to his “favorite or best player ever,” but one who has grown as a person, maybe better than the days when he grew as a basketball player. “When I got to Miami and first met Coach, I wasn’t the most mature kid in the world,” he says. “I tried to defy the rules, but I learned that you can’t take shortcuts. The last few words he said to me were about how he was proud of me.” As Richburg talks about his former coach, his eyes glisten, and at times, he gets choked up in the slightest, most compassionate way. It was a man worth getting choked up about. On the fridge in the kitchen, surrounded by magnets, pictures, schedules and pizza menus, is a picture of Coles and his family, the caption reading: Charlie “Coach” Coles: 1942-2013.

††† 

His spine acts as a ladder for the Angels. They rise from two hands at the bottom of his back, escaping the two smaller Devils that are trying to bring them down further into the darkness. There is only one way out, and that is to the clouds, to the lord. Richburg’s whole back—literally his whole back—shows this scripture (Psalm 27:1) as another story, one that affects his life every second of everyday. “I look at the Lord as my light and salvation because everywhere you turn, the Devil is there,” he says. “People are always trying to stop you. But you have to push through and know who is lighting your journey through the darkness.” Richburg got this tattoo two years ago, an 18-hour process that is still not complete, and will never be complete—will never be perfect. That’s why he goes back to the parlor two hours at a time, attempting to make the outline of his back—the outline of his life—seen by the light, away from the Devils.

Richburg finds refuge in the art of his tattoos. They mean something to him. They aren’t just lines of ink randomly placed on his skin for attention or amusement. “I don’t have the tattoos for anyone else but me,” he says. “Most people say, ‘well, when you’re 80 years old, won’t it suck to have all those tattoos?’ I say, ‘I don’t really care because 80 years from now, they are still going to have the same amount of meaning they did when I first got them.’”

He got his first tattoo when he was a senior in high school, the time in his life when he was fresh and lively. He was the guy everyone wanted to be, the guy who was going to play college basketball at Southern Indiana and beyond. On senior night, Richburg and his fellow Comets were the first Mason High School basketball team to ever defeat Winton Woods High School, a Cincinnati basketball powerhouse. Mason’s head coach, Greg Richards, never allowed his players to wear high socks at the time, he says. But the young Richburg was determined to wear them, a risk he was willing to take, not for fashion or flash, or even rebellion. It was to prove he could do it: Beat the best team in the city when the odds were against him. “Before the game, I went up to everybody and told them we’re going to wear high socks,” he says. “Everyone was like, ‘no, no, coach is going to kill us.’ I didn’t care. So I went up to Coach Richards before the game and told him. He acted like he didn’t hear me. But of course he did because later on, he told me, ‘fine, you better win this game then.’”

There are many other tattoos Richburg has gotten over the years. On the inside of his right forearm, there is the Japanese character for good fortune. On the left side of his chest, near where his heart is located, is Proverb 3 5-6 written in cursive: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit him, and he will make your paths straight.

Directly on his left bicep is the word Blessed and on his right bicep is the word Determined. “I really believe that God has more for me in this lifetime,” he says. “I can’t complain, everyday I wake up and I’m healthy, I’m alive. I know I’ve sinned. I know I’ve done things I shouldn’t have done. I believe everything is determined, God’s will. Some people say, ‘you were still living at home and not making a lot of money.’ They’re right. But it depends on what you consider to be blessed. Do you consider your living situation and money a success, or is faith a success? What’s going to last longer?” Big Carl—“they called my dad that because he was older than me,” Richburg says—is tattooed on the back of his right arm, as Veronicais tattooed on the back of his left. His parents will always be with him, if they’re alive or in a better place. He will always feel home.

Richburg’s life is engraved on his skin, creeping into his body and into his heart. Everything is permanent, not to be removed or dismissed, even when sometimes it fades further from reality. As much as he tries, everyone that made him will always be with him, from the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. There’s no turning back. Instead of looking up at a chalkboard, he’s looking at a group of young men that look up to him. Instead of studying scouting reports for his next game, he’s filing scouting reports for his own players, maybe even throwing in a few pointers of what he would do back when the ink was bold, when the Angels were still rising from the darkness.

(Story Originally published for CincySportsWorld.com)

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