IT'S June 2010. Ted Richards' footy career is over and he is moving to Sweden. Nothing is more certain in the ever-active mind of the Essendon-turned-Sydney player as he drives between Sydney and Canberra for yet another match in the reserves.
Out of contract, Richards has looked into enrolling at a university in Stockholm. With a commerce degree already, he can do his master's there. He has lodgings sorted with his banker brother, Jake. The only thing he doesn't have is an airline ticket.
It's August 2012. Ted Richards is in the car when his phone rings. It's his mum, Joanna, calling to say he has made his first All-Australian squad. Richards tells her she must be mistaken. She tells him she has cross-checked and confirmed.
This is the culmination of 11 seasons of AFL, and a late blossoming that flies in the face of modern football convention.
"I'm sure most other guys in the squad haven't got their first nomination at age 29," Richards told The Sunday Age. "It was a massive thrill considering my name has never been mentioned in anything like that before."
Adam Goodes remembers the Ted Richards who arrived at the Swans, weeks after the club won an historic premiership in 2005.
"His confidence was shot," Goodes recalled of the man who this year happened to be nominated into Sydney's hallowed leadership group.
"He played from the start of that year, but it was almost like he was waiting to get tapped on the shoulder to get dropped because of his form, because that's what always happened at Essendon."
Between 2002 and 2005 the most consecutive games Richards played for the Bombers was seven. And they were his last seven.
Then, Essendon pulled off what many football insiders of the day considered a coup: gaining the No. 19 and 51 draft picks for a player with a nickname of "Super Ted" that at times seemed more ironic than complimentary.
Seven years later, Richards is diplomatic when asked about the factors that saw him reject the two-year deal Essendon tabled to leave a city, and club, that was in his blood. "I just knew I had to leave. The future wasn't there," he says between sips of English breakfast tea. "I think it ended up working well for both parties."
Essendon picked up Courtenay Dempsey and Sam Lonergan with those No. 19 and 51 picks. Illustrating just how strong his ties to Essendon were then is the fact they are stronger now. Jobe Watson, whom Richards has known since they attended the same primary school, remains one of his closest mates. For years their mums walked together in Sandringham every morning.
David Hille and ex-Bombers Mark Bolton and Chris Heffernan are in the same category. All have been annual overseas travelling companions.
Though not exactly a holiday talking point between old friends, Richards has now played three times as many finals as Watson (12 v 4). In his first three seasons with the Swans, he missed just two games and played in six finals, including a brilliant performance in Sydney's losing grand final side of 2006.
But things got shaky for him again in 2009, after he missed the last two months of the season with injury and then, in early 2010, reverted to the Ted of old who was in and (mostly) out of the team.
The retirement of Sydney's defensive rock, Craig Bolton, now looks to be the sliding doors moment pivotal in reviving Richards' career. After Bolton played his last match, in round five 2010, coach Paul Roos promoted Richards from the reserves for the first time in a month.
And while he was dropped for another six weeks subsequently (at that point Sweden looked more realistic than another match in the seniors), by season's end Richards had returned to play 10 games straight, won the best clubman award and a one-year deal.
In the pre-season of 2011, under new head coach John Longmire and the tutelage of a new defensive coach, Stuart Dew, the first Sydney mentor Richards mentions when asked about his greatest football influences, the backman says he was reprogrammed. "He was a massive help to me last year," Richards says of Dew. "He just kept things really simple for me. He gave me two or three things to focus in on — maybe I did overcomplicate things."
Now Richards, who gained a two-year deal for last year's effort, has topped his 2011 season with an outstanding 2012. One very relevant performance includes keeping Lance Franklin to his only goalless game of the year, in round five.
Asked why he thinks it has taken so long for it to all come together, Richards stares at his teapot and takes a deep, audible breath. In the long pause he looks to be racking his brain for the meaning of life.
"About two years ago I started to think about what I wanted to be as a footballer," he says. "I compared myself to other key defenders in the comp, looking at what they do and looking at what I do.
"Previously, I don't know, I'd always been hard on myself, but I'd never thought of it from that angle."
Maybe Richards hadn't even pictured himself in the same league as those star defenders, but in that transformative off-season two years ago he studied, and tried to replicate, everything about them. Matthew Scarlett and Darren Glass weighed roughly four kilos more than him. So he put on roughly four kilos.
"With the best full backs in the comp, it's not just a matter of constantly spoiling the ball," Richards says, explaining some other focuses.
"When it's one-on-one they still go for marks and back themselves. That's something I wanted to do too."
A Xavier College alumnus brought up in Melbourne's bayside suburbs, Richards might have enjoyed a privileged upbringing, but as a footballer no one would deny he has arrived the hard way. He has also done it his way. This is, after all, a character that once arrived at a Swans' post-season celebration shirtless, with his torso and face covered in elaborate body paint, when no fancy dress code was stipulated (it was his tribute to indie musician Gotye).
Richards, as Sydney captain Goodes puts it, is his "own man". A mixture of brain and sometimes the hare-brained. An academic who works one day a week at Citibank in equities and completing his master's in finance, as well as a self-confessed Robert Murphy wannabe who channels his creative vibes into writing the loose, sometimes obtuse, Richards Report for the Swans' website.
Study has been Richards' constant: "It's not so much when footy's going well that you need it. When footy's going well the car can break down and you'll see the positive in it," he chuckles. "It's when footy's not going well that it's great to have another part to your life."
Tellingly, Sydney is now the city where Richards thinks he'll settle, though it's with great reluctance he declares himself a resident of Tamarama, the beachside eastern suburb otherwise known as 'Glamarama'.
"It gives the impression that I've got a kick-arse apartment, shovelling money, going, 'How good is this?' "
The reality, Richards insists, is "I'm in a shit apartment in a great spot".
He is more forthcoming about another truth: "It's the best thing I've ever done, coming here."
First time All-Australian tomorrow night or not, Richards is the AFL's 2012 poster boy for persistence.
For another year, at least, Sweden can wait.
FROM LITTLE TED, TO BIG TED RICHARDS BY THE NUMBERS
Born: 11/1/83 Recruited: Xavier College/Sandringham U18
Drafted: pick 27, 2000 draft (Essendon). Traded for picks 19 and 51 of 2005 draft (to Sydney).
2002: debut for Essendon (33 games in four seasons, 1 final)
2006: debut for Sydney (146 games in seven seasons, 11 finals)
Mid-2010: out of contract and thinks career is over. Plans move to Sweden but later wins best clubman award and one-year deal.
2011: Career best season, wins fresh two-year deal.
Pre-season 2012: nominated into Sydney's leadership group.
August 2012: first All Australian nomination, age 29.
2012 season highlights
- No.1 in competition for intercept marks. Second for intercept possessions. (home and away)
- No.3 for spoils, recording only two fewer than Josh Gibson.
- Averaging a career-high 3.3 intercept marks a game this year. Matthew Scarlett recorded a career-high 2.2
per game in 2005.
- No.1 at Sydney for marks. No.3 at Sydney for rebound 50s.