While Dajon Richard has not played a snap of football yet at Southern Miss, he has already emerged as a rising force in the running back corps after impressing coaches and teammates all fall camp. The standout Hinds Community College transfer dons his new colors of black and gold but has kept a number that is a reminder of what he has to fight for.
Richard has worn the number six since his days at Patterson High School in his hometown, Patterson, Louisiana, a small town with a population of around 6,000 people.
For Richard, football presented the opportunity to do what he loved and to stick to his father’s word.
“I let him know the streets aren’t for nobody- there are better things in life,” Tarrike Phillips, Richard’s father said. “I emphasized education and a degree. I’ve been there [the streets], so I refused to let anyone of my kids go through that.”
Although Richard’s collegiate football journey has been a winding path, with him transitioning to his third college in three years, Richard has used his family as motivation.
His seven-year-old cousin, Samuel Blair, was diagnosed with stage five neuroblastoma on October 18th, 2017, when he was just two years old.
Neuroblastoma is a rare disease, with less than 20,000 cases per year in the United States.
The diagnosis of Blair’s cancer came during Richard’s time in high school when he wore the number six. Since then, Richard has decided to keep that number and dedicate it to his cousin, who Richard calls “Sammy J”.
“He’s the strongest man I know, and he pushes me to go harder every day…Everywhere I go, I’ve been wearing that number for him,” Richard said. “His dream is to play football, and he can’t do that anymore, so I’ve got to do that for him.”
Marchele Jennings, Blair’s mother, said the family discovered Blair’s stomach was swollen during a routine check-up. Jennings brought Blair to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana, where after a series of tests and an ultrasound, doctors told the family that Blair had cancer.
“I was just crying because the first thing you think about somebody having cancer, you think they’re going to die,” Jennings said. “If I lose my child, what am I going to do? I may have cried for the first year because every time I thought about it, it just was devastating.”
The first news of the diagnosis sent shockwaves throughout Blair’s family.
“It hurt to see a little kid so young deal with cancer,” Phillips said. “Everybody was feeling pain.”
After his diagnosis, Blair underwent surgery to remove a five-inch tumor, but because of complications, doctors were only able to remove a portion of it. From then, he received seven rounds of chemotherapy, and the family hoped for improvement.
Jennings said the family stayed strong throughout the process and Richard stuck by Blair’s side.
“He would always come down the street and check on Samuel and the kids. He’d take Samuel down the street and let him ride his four-wheeler and walk behind him to guide him,” Jennings said. “Any holiday or just any time he was home or wasn’t busy, he asked me when Sam gets out of school. If Samuel was upset, Dajon would come around and bring him to the store and let him get anything he wanted. That’s just how he is. He loves my son, his whole family, everybody.”
Dajon Richard pictured with his cousin, Samuel Blair.
“The fact that he dedicated his whole career to my son is a blessing. Everything he does revolves around Samuel. Ever since he found out that Sam had cancer, he’s just been there, since day one.”
Jennings and the family heard the news they wanted to hear in May that Blair is cancer-free. Since then, Blair has been able to play recreational basketball and flag football, as he looks forward to sporting the number six just as his cousin.
As Richard makes his way back to the Division One playing field, Phillips, who coached his son until high school, reflects on his passion for the sport.
“Growing up, he always walked around with a football in his hand and he wanted to be a great athlete, that’s what he told me,” Phillips said. “When he touches that football field, he’s a different Dajon. Coming up in high school he played every position he could have played, that’s how great of an athlete he is.”
Richard’s connection with his family has kept him motivated throughout his football career, dating back to his late grandmother, who died when he was nine years old.
Richard remembers a conversation he had with his grandmother that has kept him inspired.
“She grabbed me one day and told me that I’m the one that would get my family out,” Richard said. “I really do this for a lot of people.”
Richard’s close connection with his family is evident. On Richard’s signing day at Hinds Community this past summer, Blair sat by his side as he made his decision to attend Southern Miss.
Richard’s decision to choose Southern Miss marked his return to Division One Football, a year after transferring from South Alabama to the community college level.
In the midst of the pandemic, Richard had to make the most out of his limited time on the field during a shortened season.
“It was hard to get out of JUCO with the COVID situation. I had to do my thing, and with just four games in the season. I had to dig deep.” Richard said.
In four games, Richard was able to produce 437 yards rushing on 72 carries and tacked on 14 receptions out of the backfield for 80 yards, gaining the attention of Southern Miss.
At Hinds, he found a friend in Jakarius Caston, who also joined the Golden Eagles this summer.
“That’s my best friend. We came from the same struggle,” Richard said. “I could relate to him. We’re doing it for the same reasons.”
As Richard transitions to his new team, he has developed new relationships in the locker room and has felt welcomed by the coaches.
“The coaches are outstanding, they love us,” Richard said. “They help us out every day. They are behind us for real, for real.”
In the first game of the season, Southern Miss will face Richard’s former college, South Alabama.
“When I see South Alabama, I’m going to go crazy with the Southern Miss attire on to let them know what they had, “ Tarrike Phillips said.
Richard will wear cleats with #DoItFaSammyJ written on them against the Jaguars, along with other notes dedicated to his family.
While Richard is listed as the third running back on the depth chart, running backs coach Jordy Joseph said he will be an important part of their run game this season.
“I’ve seen him be physical at the point of attack, which is great and I’ve seen him have a great balance and staying up on runs,” Joseph said. “I think he is going to help us this year a lot.”
Jennings said that she and her family are looking into attending Southern Miss’s first home game against Grambling State University as Blair wishes to be on the sideline to support Richard.
SM2 Director Charlie Luttrell also contributed to this report.