NEW ORLEANS - Sometimes it is difficult to pin down the real identity of Trent Richardson.
Is he the Alabama junior running back who followed Mark Ingram - the first Crimson Tide player to win the Heisman Trophy - and became a Heisman finalist himself this season?
Is he the hotshot who came from the often-mean streets of Pensacola, Fla., and Escambia High School, just like former All-Pro running back Emmitt Smith, who later starred at Florida and with the Dallas Cowboys?
Is he the father of two daughters who will probably jump to the NFL with one season of eligibility left in his college career as the fastest means of securing their - as well as his - financial future?
Ask Richardson, and he will give you a different answer, depending on his mood and the circumstances.
For now, the 5-foot-11-inch, 224-pounder will have to settle for being a key factor in Alabama’s quest to win its second national championship in three years.
To do that, Richardson and the Tide must do what they couldn’t do in November: beat LSU. In that meeting, LSU pulled out a 9-6 overtime victory that gave the Tigers the edge in the SEC West, which they parlayed into the SEC title, the No. 1 ranking in the country, and a spot in Monday night’s BCS title game against the Tide in the Superdome.
Alabama (11-1) had to settle for the No. 2 spot, by virtue of a narrow edge over No. 3 Oklahoma State in the final BCS standings.
Against LSU, Richardson gained 169 total yards (80 rushing, 89 receiving), though he couldn’t produce a much-needed touchdown. It didn’t seem much to ask for a running back who this season rushed for 20 touchdowns, second-most in Southeastern Conference history behind former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
Both of those players won the Heisman Trophy and led their teams to national championships. Richardson was on the 1999 Alabama team that won the BCS title, but he was a freshman in a secondary role. He finished third in this year’s Heisman balloting behind Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Richardson does not disguise his motivation in wanting to win the rematch with the Tigers. And it is no secret that he is a key - if not the key - to the Tide’s chances.
“He’s our most valuable player on offense,’’ said offensive tackle Barrett Jones. “I think more than that, he’s just a great team player. There aren’t many people who could have sat for years and played behind Mark, where he could probably have started anywhere else.
“Obviously, I think it’s extremely important for us to get him going in this game.’’
Richardson sees it similarly.
“This is the most motivated game that we have in the season because a lot of people voted us out and didn’t want us in this ballgame,’’ said Richardson. “But Monday night we’re going to show them why we should have been in this ballgame.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win or we’re going to lose, but it’s one of the things that we strive on and want to be remembered as the team that came down to history and had the most significant season and an outcome of the season that we’re going to be winners.’’
Richardson has been that through a career highlighted by milestone moments and games. He came out of Pensacola well aware of the reputation of Smith.
“There was a lot of pressure playing behind a guy that set all the records,’’ said Richardson. “But there was also a lot of joy. I learned a lot going through the same situation.’’
When he came to Alabama, he slid into the role behind Ingram, then emerged last season as the primary back as Ingram moved to the NFL.
But he plays an even bigger role off the field. It involves his two daughters - 5-year-old Taliyah and 3-year-old Elevera - and hopes for a better life than he had growing up in an area infested by drugs and crime.
“Where I grew up was crazy out there,’’ said Richardson, who has yet to announce whether he will come back to Alabama for his senior season. “I went through a lot of deaths going on, a lot of drugs around me. That’s where I was brought up.
“So for my little girls to have the opportunity they have today and their daddy to make a better place for them . . . I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I’ve seen my mom work two or three jobs at one time and have to come home and make meals for us and had to come and clean up behind us.
“So at the end of the day, it was like I don’t want my kids to go through that. And their daddy is in a situation where he can make life better for them and show them how hard work has been done because that’s what my brothers have shown me and taught me the whole time while we were growing up - never to give up and stuff like that.
“I try to show my girls that it is a struggle out there and it is hard for us and parents out there. And I don’t want them to struggle like I did. That really motivated me.
“When I play with my girls on my mind, I feel like nobody can stop me.’’