Disc In: A Chat with David Richardson

May 22, 2020
By Evan Lepler

In December of 2014, at the Hooker Fields on UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, the Raleigh Flyers professional ultimate team held their first tryout. The AUDL’s new South Division would debut four months later, and somewhere in the vicinity of 100 players from around the region arrived early in the afternoon to compete in a variety of running, jumping, and ultimate-related activities, all looking to prove they belonged. 

One of these individuals was David Richardson, who at that point had never played on a Nationals-level ultimate team. The same, of course, could be said about me, and perhaps against my better judgement, I also had decided to attend those tryouts and see how I would measure up with all the awesome athletes who were striving to make the inaugural Flyers roster. My situation was a bit different than most since I harbored little ambition to actually be on the team—my Saturdays in the spring/summer were already booked in the broadcast booth—but I was curious to do a little firsthand reporting by experiencing a pro tryout and seeing if I could avoid embarrassing myself on the field. I never imagined that one of my throws would so impact the trajectory of another competitor, but in a weird way, that’s exactly what happened.  It’s absolutely true to say I lasted longer at those tryouts than D-Rich. But obviously, more context is required. 

A more accurate way to describe it would be to acknowledge that I was still throwing turnovers while he was in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. As for why he needed that medical attention, it was not the result of one of many turns. Quite the contrary. 

During a one-on-one deep cutting drill where two players pursued the disc, I, knowing that launching 50/50 flick hucks was my comfort zone, had shifted into the throwing spot. And on one of my throws, Richardson skied over the defensive player, defying gravity to snatch the disc at probably 10 or 11 feet high The only problem was the airborne contact with the other player, which awkwardly induced a painful landing that resulted in multiple broken bones in his arm. Tryouts came to a halt, and the athletic trainer on site immediately tended to Richardson, who initially thought this injury would drastically reduce his chances of making the Flyers’ first team. When the day was over, I tracked down his cell number and texted my best wishes, but still felt awful that my throw had resulted in his injury, which required surgery the very next day. 

Fast forward three and half months and Richardson, fully healed, was not only on the Flyers’ roster but was among the team’s active 20 for their first game ever, an ESPN3 Game of the Week against the Atlanta Hustle that I had the privilege to call. He played 14 points that night, less than four months removed from the excruciating injury at tryouts, and registered his first AUDL block in the second half of Raleigh’s 29-22 opening day victory. That was the opening salvo to a spectacularly solid five-year career (and counting) for one of the AUDL’s top one-on-one defenders. 

Overall, Richardson has seen the field all but 11 of the Flyers’ 75 games all-time, including all seven of their playoff games over five seasons. Furthermore, his athleticism, commitment, and defensive ability have led to 100 blocks so far, making him the Flyers franchise leader in that department and one of the 19 AUDL players all-time to reach 100 career blocks. 

Count me among the many relieved North Carolinians in the ultimate community, thankful that D-Rich’s scary sequence at tryouts was not career-ending. It surely hurt at the time, but as he’ll explain in this Q&A, he’s retrospectively considered the injury to be something a blessing in disguise. I’ll let him elaborate, a few questions into our conversation, that has been edited slightly for clarity. 

Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your everyday life been like over the course of the past couple of months?

David Richardson: I’m well. I've been working from home, and been doing lots of home projects with my wife. She is pregnant, so we have been doing a lot of work on the nursery.

EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape during these bizarre times?

DR: I have been doing a lot of sprint interval workouts, trying to improve my endurance. Because I haven't had practice to regulate my weight like normal, I've had to resort to eating better, which has resulted in me dropping to 205 pounds. I'm hoping this will really help on the field since I've played the last five seasons somewhere between 215 and 225. GPP [Game Point Performance] has also shaped their workouts for people working out at home so that has helped tremendously with the few dumbbells I have.

EL: I’ve mentioned this story a few times on Flyers broadcasts, but can you share your memories about what happened to you at the first Raleigh AUDL tryouts in December '14? What do you remember about that whole day and how'd you feel about your chances to make the team after the entire ordeal?

DR: That was an interesting day. For me, that tryout and the chance at playing a pro sport was my chance to do something with my athleticism since I didn't go any further after playing college tennis. I knew that my ability to time my jump with the height of the disc was one of my best ultimate skills, so I put my all into that apples drill. I also knew I was very out of shape, weighing around 235; the 3v3 scrimmages that were after the apples drill was going to suck for me. I told myself I needed to stand out during that drill. I achieved my goal, caught the disc but then got tangled in the air, landed on my arm, breaking both bones with a clean break. It was the first time I had broken a bone, and I immediately felt upset, assuming that this injury would take me out and I wouldn't be able to play on the team. I remember Brian Casey telling me not to worry, that it would heal before the season, but I didn't believe him. My heart was crushed at the time. Before the tryout, I had only played one season of organized ultimate and didn't believe that was enough to make the team. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because we did all the measurables first, I was able to show all my athletic strengths and didn't have to go through the agony of out of shape 3s. I was able to go into surgery the next day, have titanium plates put in and now I'm a cyborg! I'm glad [Raleigh Coach] Mike D[eNardis] and the rest of the Flyers leadership took a chance on me.

EL: Before going further, can you quickly share your narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and how long it took you to begin feeling fairly confident on the ultimate field?

DR: My first love was tennis. I started playing when I was four. I grew up playing every weekend at tournaments across North Carolina, getting as high at ninth in the state for my age group. I played football and track in high school, which is where I found weightlifting, but tennis was always the sport I loved the most. I first heard of ultimate at Duke TIP [Talent Identification Program]. On Duke East campus 2007, we beat the RCs [Residential Counselors]!! I thought it was super fun at the time, but just thought it was a summer camp game. I had no idea how organized it was. I then reconnected with ultimate when my Spanish teacher in college told me there was a club team and always welcomed new players. We were the Lenoir-Rhyne Los Osos, a small club team that just played pickup mostly. We didn't really have plays. There was one guy who could truly match my speed, but it was fun and enough for me to call this amazing game my second love. One day on Google, I stumbled upon Brodie Smith videos, which led me to an all star game that mentioned KP [Ken Porter] being from Raleigh, which led me to looking up [the top Raleigh club team] Ring of Fire and subsequently trying out. I didn't make it that first year but after college; I made the B team, Cash Crop, and I've been full-time in ultimate ever since. 

I didn't really feel confident on the field until the 2018 season. That was when I felt like I finally understood the flow of the game and where I needed to be. I felt like I could contribute a little more than just a big defender on the field. 

EL: Just curious, have you played tennis against any of your Flyers teammates?

DR: We have not! Which is so crazy because we have talked about it before. We have so many of us Raleigh guys that played tennis at a high level at some point in our lives. We just need to get together and do it. I'm sure one day we will.

EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your playing style and abilities have certainly labeled you as a defender. When do you think you first gained that distinction from your teammates and/or opponents on the field and how has that characterization impacted you as a player?

DR: I have been a defender since day one, and I love it. I have always loved defense in every sport I play, so it fit well that my athletic abilities fit perfectly for defense in ultimate. 

EL: Obviously your speed and athleticism are key factors in your ability to play defense and get blocks in the AUDL, but what are some of the little things that you focus on every day in order to have success playing defense at the professional level? How have you improved with these 'little things' through the years to become a better all-around player?

DR: I actually think one of the big parts of playing defense is the mental aspect and anticipation. I usually spend some time before games looking at film. I try to notice patterns that I can capitalize on in the game. Over the years, playing against the same guys, it has been easier to recognize what some people like to do. For example, there are some cutters I know that will always go deep and their team will always throw it to them. That knowledge allows me to not bite on the under fake and be in a better position to defend the huck. That's when the athleticism kicks in. But without the mental part, the athleticism doesn't stand a chance.

EL: If possible, I'd like to delve into your mindset as a defensive player over the course of a game. Do you prefer to guard the same person the entire game? What are your specific goals defensively, aside from the obvious 'let's prevent them from scoring?' Generally, how complex are the Flyers' defensive schemes and how long did it take you to feel comfortable and instinctive playing in that system? How does the system help you as an individual defender?

DR: I prefer to guard a certain person all game. That way, I can learn what he likes to do and it’s easier to anticipate what he will try to do as the game progresses. My specific goals depend on what we are trying to run during that game as a defensive unit. It also depends on who I'm guarding. Many times I'm trying to totally prevent one thing and put massive pressure on the other, like totally prevent deep shots and be in their pocket waiting for a bad throw on an under. 

I’m not sure how to judge our defensive schemes. Because I've never played anywhere else competitively, I don't know how our schemes compare to other teams. I don't think our schemes are [overly] complex. We try to use our strengths, which is usually our athleticism and depth, to put the offense in uncomfortable positions. But I assume most other teams do the same thing. It didn't take me long to feel comfortable in our system. It allows me to play my game, which is the gritty 1v1 physical defense that I love. You pick a spot and I'm going to beat you to it. 

EL: Who are some of the toughest matchups that you've had to deal with in your AUDL career, and why? Any particularly proud individual moments that you'd care to share?

DR: Most of my toughest matchups have been against guys I've played against at practice. Henry Fisher never stops running! It's annoying to try to guard him. Terrence Mitchell, I'm pretty sure can jump higher than me and he's shorter than me so that takes away a whole aspect of my game that I usually rely on. Jacob Fairfax lulls you to sleep and then takes one step and he's gone. I'm pretty sure he has a Staples easy button. Jack Williams is impossible to guard by yourself. He's a cheat code. Jonathan Nethercutt absolutely would lose me when I would try to guard him. I don't usually match up against [Atlanta’s] Matt Smith, but sometimes I have to switch onto him. He is another one of those forever runners. Plus, he can change direction before I even think about planting my foot. Mischa [Freystaetter] would just move me out of the way, which was surprising and frustrating because I’m used to using my weight. I wasn't used to playing against guys bigger than me. My proud moment wasn't against a particular matchup, but it was huge for me. In our first game in 2015 against Atlanta, I was a little worried that I didn't have the experience to be successful in this league. That first game I was able to get this pretty sweet layout D which gave me the validation I had been looking for. That was my first of many, but always big in my mind. 

EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic? 

DR: I’m not really good at cooking, but my wife made these really good brownies with Reese's Cups in them. Amazing!

EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something that you haven't been able to do during the quarantine that you're most looking forward to doing again when (if?) life returns back to normal?

DR: I really miss hanging out with my family. I have five siblings that all live relatively far away. We have had Zoom hangouts, but it's not the same. When things get back to normal, I look forward to spending time face-to-face with my siblings and nephews.