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Highlands players open training camp with tragedy still on their minds

| Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Wearing one of his usual off-the-wall training camp outfits, Highlands coach Sam Albert calls out to a player during practice Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, at the high school in Harrison Township.
The locker of late Highlands' football player Ryan Richards remains untouched as the team opens training camp.
Valley News Dispatch
Highlands' #25 Ryan Richards Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A drawing of former player Ryan Richards done by running back Elijah Jackson hangs in the Highlands locker room.

Wilted flowers sag over the edge of the top shelf, a lonely football helmet hangs from a hook and assorted team-related items sit untouched inside No. 25's locker.

The small space is just as the late Ryan Richards left it — with a few respectful additions. It has been preserved by his Highlands teammates, who opened training camp Monday morning with more on their minds than Oklahomas and heat acclimatization.

“It's heart-breaking; Ryan was a first-class kid,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said. “But we know he's with us every day. He's up there helping us.”

Richards, who would have been a senior two-way starter for the Golden Rams this fall, was killed after falling from the bed of a moving pickup truck July 12.

A humble team leader who quietly but effectively amassed tackles on the field and brought comic relief to the locker room, Richards is gone but far from forgotten.

His presence was strong at Golden Rams Stadium as some 60 players began grueling two-a-day workouts in the annual build-up to the season opener Aug. 30.

“He was always positive in everything he did,” senior linebacker Allan Cratsenberg said. “He was always trying to make us laugh.

“Coach told us when you think you're down on yourself, think of Ryan.”

Richards was mentioned several times in the morning workout. Coaches questioned the team's first-day intensity with, “Ryan wouldn't like this,” and he was referenced in bookend team prayers.

“We use it now more as motivation than anything else,” said senior tight end Mike Calfe, who was a passenger in the truck from which Richards fell. “We had a vigil here and we got the tears out of the way then. He wouldn't want us to dwell on what happened.”

Calfe has the letters E-P-F-R on his game cleats, signifying “Every Play For Ryan.”

Players marvel at Richards' sneaky-good play at linebacker. In so many ways, he'll simply be irreplaceable.

“He was an outstanding backer,” Cratsenberg said. “He locked it down.”

On Sunday night, several players returned to the site of Richards' death, on Saxonburg Boulevard in West Deer, where they had placed a cross previously.

“Ryan was a great friend and liked to joke around,” junior quarterback Blake Leri said, “but when the time came to get serious, he got serious.”

Senior teammate Damen McDermott showed his loyalty to his closest friend by getting a tattoo on his right arm. “Rams For Life,” it reads, with “RIP” and Richards' full name across the bottom. Richards' jersey numbers — 25 for football and 18 for baseball — flank the middle ink.

“We were best buddies,” McDermott said. “He didn't say a whole lot; he usually let his play do (the talking). It's tough because I would always go and talk to him about things. We have to try and keep our heads up.”

Richards has been named an honorary captain this season. His brother, Dan, will wear Ryan's jersey and walk to midfield for the coin toss on opening night Aug. 30 at Highlands.

Players are expected to wear No. 25 decals on their helmets. And they're making promises that they will not wilt.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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