MARS HILL, N.C. – Less than 24 hours away from biggest football game of the season, Jon Richt stands on a sidewalk adjacent to the athletic facilities at Mars Hill College.
It’s a chilly day in mid-October and Richt, the starting quarterback, is prepared – he’s wearing a jacket from The North Face and has a full, somewhat kept-looking beard.
Every person that walks by waves or smiles at the redshirt junior, who’s father Mark coaches the Georgia Bulldogs. With a student body just shy of 1,200, nearly every face is familiar – especially that of the 6-2, 215-pound team captain of the 6-1 Mountain Lions football team.
“Oh, yeah, I love that,” Jon says. “That’s how my high school was back in Athens, so I’m very used to it.”
Located near Ashville, Mars Hill is a small college town, consisting of a Waffle House, The Wagon Wheel (a country kitchen) and the college – a private, liberal arts institution chartered in 1859 and affiliated with the Baptist Church.
Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, leaves turning yellow, orange and red provide a backdrop for the football field, the baseball diamond and the basketball gym. While Athens, Ga., “is definitely home,” Mars Hill is the next best thing, according to Jon.
And how he found this place, well, “that’s a long story,” he said.
Jon Richt in action for Mars Hill in 2011. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)
‘Always a part of me’
Growing up in a family full of quarterbacks, a young Jon Richt wanted to catch passes more than he liked to throw them.
Jon’s father was a quarterback at Miami in the early 80s. He went on to coach Heisman winners at the position in Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke at Florida State. His time spent at Georgia produced greats in David Greene, D.J. Shockley and Matthew Stafford. Brad Johnson, Jon’s uncle, quarterbacked for 17 seasons in the NFL – winning the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003.
“It’s kind of funny because I wanted to play wide receiver,” Jon said. “Never wanted to play quarterback because I knew how, and I’d been around it for so long.”
Once Jon started playing middle school football, it became obvious he needed to be leading the huddle, calling the plays.
“My dad had taught me,” he said. “He coached me.”
Jon’s football experience growing up, obviously, was immeasurably different from that of most. He was 11 years old when his dad took the head position at Georgia. He routinely attended practice and games, throwing passes with Greene and Shockley and hanging out, a smaller version of one of the guys.
“He was definitely around the program,” said former Georgia receiver Damian Gary.
Gary played from 2000-03, and is now an assistant coach at Mars Hill. “Everywhere you looked back then, Jon was around,” Gary said.
Jon joined his father for nearly every game – home and away – in the early years. Two wins in the SEC Championship Game stand out. A loss in the title game to LSU in 2003 put Jon “in the tank for a while.”
“With as many hours as we spend away from our family, it’s nice to do something special for your boys,” Mark said. “Jon was my travel buddy one year and we got some good pictures of that when we actually got the victory (against Florida in 2004).”
While his father’s career was flourishing, Jon’s was just beginning. Prince Avenue High, a single-A school, was in the process of starting a football program. Jon’s class was the first to play a varsity schedule. He was well on his way to establishing his own imprint in the family business.
“My whole family is kind of around it,” he said. “That’s what we do, I guess, in a way. I enjoyed it from the get-go. That was something that – I was never actually pushed toward it – it was just always a part of me.”
He finished his high school career with 2,468 yards passing, 26 touchdowns and was a two-time all-region selection.
In February of 2008, Jon signed a letter-of-intent to play for Clemson. He turned down offers to play at smaller schools for a chance to play at the highest level for coach Tommy Bowden, a family friend dating back to Mark’s time at Florida State under Tommy’s father Bobby.
“That was a big thing because Clemson was a completely different thing from small little Prince Avenue High School,” Jon said.
A young Jon Richt embraces his father after a game in 2004. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)
‘Be true to who you really are’
Bowden resigned midseason in 2008 after a poor start. Jon was soon to follow out the door. He made his intention to transfer official in the spring of 2009. His parents, Mark and Katharyn, were on a cruise at the time, but Jon filed the paperwork anyway.
Then just a freshman, Jon was feeling the pull to get married to his long-time girlfriend Anna, and Clemson wasn’t fitting the plan he had in mind. During his only season, spent redshirting, Jon found the college lifestyle on such a big campus challenging. For Jon, faith comes first and the schedule for a football player at Clemson was stretching his priorities.
“If you try to conform you’re not going to be happy, no matter what you do,” he said. “You learn that your parents really did know what they were talking about when they told you things.”
While searching for his next football destination, a connection from Prince Avenue sparked an interest in Mars Hill. Jon’s former coach, Mark Farriba, played high school football with Mountain Lions coach Tim Clifton.
Jon, Anna and Katharyn set up a visit to the school after Farriba’s vote of confidence.
“It was just a deal where he felt like this would be a great place for him,” Clifton said. “We let him know we needed him. There was a real family-type feel to it.”
Jon was also strongly considering Valdosta State, another Division II school. Anna wanted to go there because of the nursing program. Most of the Richt family liked Valdosta, too, because of the successful football tradition.
“I guess the players loved me up enough, and the coaches loved me up enough that I ended up choosing Mars Hill against what everybody else in my family wanted,” Jon admitted. “It turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.”
‘A very unique situation’
Jon and Anna were married in May of 2010 following his first season at Mars Hill. Jon hadn’t yet turned 21, but they first began their relationship in ninth grade.
He was finding his way on the football field – having completed 46 percent of his passes as the team narrowly missed the playoffs with a 6-4 record. Anna played volleyball and shifted her academic interests.
“She cried when I told her we were coming here, but like a trooper she sucked it up and she’s taken advantage of the athletic training program and has really found her niche,” Jon said.
She has since given up playing college athletics, and now serves as a trainer for the football team.
“Every game, every practice she’s actually out there and right there with us,” Jon said.
They live in an off campus apartment, but are still on a limited dining hall meal plan.
“Jon is very mature,” Gary said. “His marriage has a lot to do with his success in life and on the football field.”
Family has always been fundamental to Jon. He remembers his dad being around more often when he was offensive coordinator at Florida State. Despite picking up more responsibility and obligations after moving to Georgia, his dad balanced his work and family life well, Jon said.
“He has the sternness of a coach,” Jon said. “You can tell he’s a good head coach because he can talk to you if you’re in the wrong and make you feel like you’re definitely not in the right. At the same time, he’s able to sit there and almost use a coaching mentality that you’re going to mess up, and he’s going to be right there to pick you up. It’s like on Saturdays, he’s going to pat you on the butt and you’ll think you’re the best player in the world.”
Much of Jon’s family lives in Athens. Johnson is now a coach at Prince Avenue. Jon’s uncle Kevin Hynes, or “Chappy”, is a Georgia team chaplain and is active with Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus.
Given the competitive nature of most of the family members, summers and holiday gatherings usually lead to interesting circumstances.
“Every time we get together and do a sport we always end up fighting and nobody talks to each other the rest of the night,” Jon said. “The next day we’re all good, and we end up playing again. We end up fighting by the end of the night. It’s a very unique situation, but at the same time everybody loves each other.”
Jon and his younger brother David came along the usual way. Brother Zach and sister Anya were two children from the Ukraine, adopted by Mark and Katharyn in 1999.
“As much as we could have been spoiled, the kids in my family are not,” Jon said. “We could have had cell phones when we were 10 or 12. We could have had the nicest cars. We got what we needed instead of what we wanted all the time. Yes, we do get a lot of nice stuff, and we are blessed in a lot of ways, but my parents really have done a good job of instilling a work ethic and instilling certain things that we needed later in life.”
Now Jon is the man of his own house.
“My teammates call me the Fuddy Dud or the Old Man,” he said. “I enjoy it. I’m able to go home and just chill instead of having to deal with the extra riff raff that goes on on campus.”
His major, physical education with an emphasis on coaching, suggests he’ll follow his father’s football steps even further. Coaching may be in his future, Jon said, but it’s not his end goal. He doesn’t want to even think about being a coach at the level his father’s at until much later in his life, “because of the time restrictions and stuff like that,” he said.
“I want to be there like my dad was there for me when he was offensive coordinator at Florida State,” he said. “Really, my goal is to make an impact on a younger person’s life and be able to use my experiences and my faith to impact a kid when they’re young to get them going on the right path. Whether I do that through football or not or end up doing some kind of camp somewhere, that’s what’s going on.”
Jon Richt in action against Lenoir-Rhyne. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)
‘What you see is what you get’
Mark stepped out of his Ford, decked out in sunglasses and a sweatshirt with royal blue lettering. Katharyn, who doesn’t miss a game, and the kids join him, the family arriving an hour early to watch Mars Hill warm up as it prepares to host rival Lenoir-Rhyne, traveling from Hickory, N.C.
After a down year in 2010, Mars Hill has lost only once heading into this mid-October matchup. Lenoir-Rhyne is customarily at the top of the South Atlantic Conference. The winner of this game will be in position to win the conference.
“You can tell the campus has the buzz going on,” Jon said.
Georgia, winners of five straight after a 0-2 start, isn’t playing this weekend, so Mark is able to take in his first Mars Hill game of the season.
“He loves it here because he doesn’t have to think about football,” Jon said. “He just gets to watch football. He gets to do all the stuff that he doesn’t get to do. He gets to go nuts and act like a fool. He can yell at the quarterback and be like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”
Jon enters averaging over 200 yards passing a game, and his completion percentage is above 55 percent.
“This year he has really come into his own,” Clifton said. “He’s learned the offense inside out. He always had a big arm, but he’s a very intelligent player, makes really good decisions and is a great leader.”
Early on, it’s obvious this is a day for quarterbacks and offenses and scoring points.
Lenoir-Rhyne jumps out to a 14-point lead less than six minutes into the contest. Jon leads a drive to answer, hitting on all types of passes. He completes a curl route for 16 yards, then an out-route for 14 more, and a slant to march the offense near the goal line.
Shortly after the snap on second-and-goal, Clifton screams: “There it is, throw it.”
Jon already has, completing a pass to receiver Josh Young for a touchdown.
The teams trade scores back and forth for the rest of the first half, with Lenoir-Rhyne leading 30-21 at the break.
“We’ve got to stay in the game,” Jon urges his teammates. “C’mon now.”
The Bears keep scoring in the second half; Mars Hill does not. The game ends 51-31, Jon finishing 13 of 26 with 139 yards and one touchdown.
“Unfortunately Mars Hill had a rough day,” Mark said. “Really didn't get a whole lot going on offensively. Not a good day for the Mars Hill Lions."
After the game, Jon spent time with his family. And eventually went home with Anna, trying his best to leave football “at the office,” knowing his team can still make the playoffs.
“He knows where he’s going in his life,” Clifton said. “He has a direction. He stays on that path. He has a deep path. What you see is what you get with Jon Richt.”