CANTON, Ohio — As the first day of two-a-day practices wrapped up in the sweltering August heat three weeks ago, McKinley High School football players were being instructed on how to address their new assistant coach.
Not “That girl.”
It is either “Coach Syrina” or “Coach Richardson,” they were told.
Syrina Richardson, a 5-foot-3 Australian with a 7-foot-3 personality, took the opportunity to formally introduce herself to the players.
“Disrespect me and I’ll run you until you puke. Then I’ll make you do up-downs until you puke,” Richardson said matter-of-factly through her Aussie accent. “And you will never disrespect me again.”
After the players paused a brief moment to absorb that message, they gave a round of applause to the 37-year-old Brisbane native, who is a woman living in the man’s world of football and loving every minute of it.
Richardson is helping coach the McKinley defensive line this season as an intern. After experiencing football on the fringes of the sport for so many years, Richardson finds herself in the pigskin holy of holies.
Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
McKinley High School football, one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country.
“Feels like heaven,” she said after a recent practice.
Her blunt opening message aside, the spunky Richardson isn’t all fire and brimstone. She works her way among the players on the practice field and chats them up casually. She is positive until you give her a reason not to be.
“She is no nonsense,” McKinley head coach Dan Reardon said. “It’s good. We’re excited about her.”
Richardson is not really trying to blaze a path here in Stark County. She seems to just want to coach a game she has grown to love and build toward a potential career in the sport she calls “gridiron.”
“A lot of people say I want to be the next Jen Welter,” Richardson said, referring to the woman who became the first female to coach in the NFL last year when the Arizona Cardinals hired her for training camp and the preseason. “No, I want to be Syrina Richardson of high school football fame. . I prefer coaching children.
“I think trying to get the kids in the right frame of mind (is rewarding), watching the coaches try to get all the kids in the mindset that when they go to college or get out into the community as adults that they have sense in their heads. Common sense tends to not be so common. With coaching, not only do you get to teach them a game, but you get to teach them values and life lessons. That’s a double win.”
Richardson met Reardon and the McKinley staff last summer during the International Federation of American Football World Championships, which were held in Canton. Richardson coached for the Australian national team.
She spent three days shadowing the McKinley staff and absorbing as much information as she could.
Richardson and Reardon stayed in contact and started talking about how great it would be to have her spend a season with the Bulldogs, kind of like how someone might say it would be great to spend a few months traveling the world or how great it would be to retire at 40, but knowing it’s probably not going to happen.
Then Reardon asked, what exactly would it take for her to be able to come over and coach?
All Richardson needed was a place to stay, she said. So Reardon offered her a room in his home’s partially finished basement and Richardson worked two jobs (with her main job being at a car dealership) to save enough money to spend the season with the Bulldogs.
“My kids lost a playroom. They were a little salty,” joked Reardon, who has four kids with his wife, Amanda. “Actually, they won’t leave her alone.”
Added Richardson, “It’s like I’m a new toy.”
Richardson’s introduction to football happened when she was 10. She watched Goldie Hawn in “Wildcats” with her dad and the movie soon was getting watched again and again. Hawn plays a track and field coach who takes the challenge to coach an inner-city high school football team in the 1986 comedy.
A love for football was born. Growing up, she tried to glean whatever information she could get about American football in a country that favors swimming, rugby and Australian rules football.
This is a woman who reenacted part of the jail scene from the football movie “The Replacements” for a drama class in junior college (earning a “B” she said).
“I usually get asked why I love the game,” Richardson said. “I’m like, are you kidding me? It’s a real-life version of chess. You literally line up your pieces, have your strategy and go. People (in Australia) say they’ve never thought of it like that. They think it’s a bunch of people just head-butting each other.”
Richardson grew up playing basketball and also bowling. As an adult, she got a chance to join a women’s football league in Australia and played until she broke her leg four years ago. That prompted her to start coaching, and she soon was setting off on a new journey that was equal parts passion and profession. It’s taken her around the world, including coaching in Germany last year for a club team.
Coaching boys can be difficult in the testosterone-fueled, macho environment of football. She spoke of a “wall” that goes up at times with males being coached by a female, a “who do you think you are?” attitude, as she put it.
In that regard, she complimented the McKinley players.
“They’ve been really good,” said Richardson, who is assisting defensive line coach Matt White. “They call me ‘sir’ every now and then, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I get it: Someone on the coaching staff says something and you automatically say, ‘sir.’ I suppose that’s a compliment in a way that they think I’m just one of the coaches.”
McKinley’s Jordan Gardner, a 5-11, 300-pound sophomore defensive lineman, admitted it was strange at first to be coached by a woman. But Richardson’s knowledge and passion were quickly apparent.
“She brings a lot of energy to practice,” Gardner said. “When you’re down, she always picks you up. She knows what she’s talking about.”
Richardson loves to coach in a place that takes football so seriously.
She also loves that she won’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch NFL games or go online to watch a college football game.
“I was trying to explain how many games she’ll have to choose from on Saturdays,” Reardon said.
Richardson aims to take what she is learning and apply it back to her club team in Australia. But her ultimate goal is to latch on with an American high school team and make a career here in the States.
Doubt her if you want. Just don’t disrespect her, or get ready to run.
“You can only be yourself,” she said. “I’m not going make myself out to be something I’m not.
“So I’ll just be the Australian coach that yells.”
Information from: The Repository, http://www.cantonrep.com