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December 20, 2011
The Unfriendly Skies
TUSCALOOSA | No question, the entirety of the University of Alabama football team is thrilled enough to be playing in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 9 in New Orleans.
But the players won't all be thrilled about traveling there.
More than a few aren't comfortable with air travel, and more than a few identified star running back Trent Richardson as the most nervous flier on the Alabama roster.
Linebackers and defensive ends are hardly a match for the junior from Pensacola, Fla., but flying hits Richardson squarely in the stomach.
"I really just start praying before I get on, and just go from there," Richardson said. "I start sweating and it's just a big mess, for real. Just when it takes off and when they're about to land, it's crazy."
The next time the Alabama team takes to the skies - Jan. 4 - New Orleans will be the destination, and the trip will be all business.
Richardson had only flown once before arriving at Alabama in the summer of 2009, and that was a short flight to a high school all-star game. Since then, he's seen the Southeastern Conference skies from Fayetteville, Ark., to Lexington, Ky., from Gainesville, Fla., to Columbia, S.C. More recently, he flew commercial flights for his travels to Orlando, Fla., and New York City for the ESPN College Football Awards show and the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
But it's not something he's gotten used to.
And he's not alone.
"D.J. (Fluker) hates it. There's a few of us," Richardson said. "I know Fluker be having that ugly face on. I know I'll be having that nasty face on. There's quite a few of us, especially when you get in the air and they start moving."
Fluker, the starting right tackle and UA's biggest player at 6-foot-6, 335 pounds, didn't deny it.
"Flying, it's not for me," Fluker said. "I've got to make sure I'm sleepy before I get on that plane. You've got to at least knock me out somehow. The flight, just going up, it just ain't for me."
Defensive lineman Quinton Dial said the team's trip to Penn State in September was his first plane trip. Being a longer flight than most of the team's travel destinations, the Penn State trip wasn't one Richardson relished, either.
"If I could've driven, I would've went on and drove," he said. "If I could've walked, I would've walked."
Added senior receiver Brandon Gibson: "Trent is the worst one. I sat next to him one flight, and he was real nervous, and getting mad at me."
More relaxed veteran players have far more air miles under their belts, but for freshmen, UA coach Nick Saban doesn't think some anxiety is unusual.
"I forget where we traveled to, but I know my first plane trip was as a player. We didn't have an airport where I lived in West Virginia, so I wasn't traveling by plane much - until we went someplace when I was a player," Saban said. "I don't think it's that uncommon."
Though teammates from Josh Chapman to Dont'a Hightower to Gibson all agree Richardson is the most fearful flier on the team, Richardson still manages to smile about it as long as his feet are on the ground. Saban said if a player had a more serious phobia, the football program would find a way to help that player manage the fear.
"We would definitely try to help manage anybody that had that kind of issue or a problem, with some of the people who help us with some of the mental conditioning deals that we have around here," Saban said. "I wasn't aware of that. If a player had an issue, they could come to us and we would certainly try to help them and manage it in every way that we could."
The players who are fearless of air travel help Richardson and others with some good-natured fun when the team travels.
Richardson said Hightower likes to sit on the row in front of him so he can turn around and take photos and record video of Richardson sweating and clutching armrests.
But some, Richardson said, are only brave before takeoff.
"Everybody's messing with me, but it shakes them up, too. There will be a lot of people just laughing at me," Richardson said. "Then when it goes to moving everybody just starts being quiet."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.