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Catching up with ‘Le Sack’

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Catching up with ‘Le Sack’

Richard Tardits, the onetime holder of the Georgia career sack record, lost out in the National Football League to a veteran’s experience but played for four years and became vested, which means that he can start drawing a retirement check at age 55. A prudent man, he’ll take the money, but the day Le Sack retires, hell will experience a cooling trend.

The Richard Tardits story is a many-splendored one, highlighted by the Greek dictum of combining mind and body in a trajectory of excellence, which remains as prominent in his life as his daily swim in the Atlantic. His story can be likened to a mountain stream in the Pyrenees, with countless tributaries feeding into a main body of water and rushing down to the sea. The whole is the sum of its consequential parts.

There is a central theme of experiencing life to the fullest for this Renaissance man, and the vignettes which illuminate his story are multiple and remarkable, sensational in scope and inspiration. Any man can look back on his life and play the “What if?” game. Usually, those who look back find regret or a fantasy of failed opportunity.

“If I had purchased that corner lot 25 years ago, I would be rich today” — lamentable circumstances when clairvoyance was not invoked. None of that in Richard’s life. Whichever fork in the road he took, there would be opportunity, enlightenment, and achievement. A new experience to savor and enjoy.

There has never been a time in Richard’s life when a decision was made and things did not bode well for him. The right fork in the road! He always took it. He exercised a sound, measured, and cogent approach to making decisions. However, the “other” choice likely would have brought about something gratifying. Chances are, he would have turned that experience into something productive, edifying and intellectually exhilarating.

The scenario that could have been negative would have been if he hadn’t journeyed to Hong Kong to play rugby after an injury wrote the final chapter of his four-year NFL career.

It was in Hong Kong in 1994 that he met a pretty English girl, Joanna Rushton, who is just as enterprising as Richard. A shoe designer, Joanna was in Hong Kong on business. It was in Hong Kong where the seeds of romance took deep root—where two young lovers, bent on enterprise and enlightenment, became one.

In every other case, Richard would not have been troubled if the “other” fork had become the direction he chose. Example: If he had not been drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1988, his plan was to buy a car and drive to Argentina—via Mexico, passing through the Panama Canal and driving on into South America. Destination: Buenos Aires where he would have worked for Renault. He has no notion of what influence that excursion would have brought about in his life, but any who know him is firmly convinced that something positive would have resulted to enhance his life and career.

Going to Hong Kong, however, was serendipitously life-changing for him. He cannot imagine what life would have been like without Joanna, also a body sculptor, who manages with hospitality, warmth, and efficiency their beautiful and spacious house on a hill in a thicket of pine and cork trees with a picturesque view down to the Bay of Biscay, which is where Richard hangs out when his body craves a workout, which it does every day. Anything to do with the ocean invigorates him. He swims in the Atlantic, even in winter. Spear fishing is enrapturing for him. He derives the greatest of satisfaction and pleasure in spearing a fish, bringing it home, and grilling it for dinner.

Richard has a handicap of 11 in golf, hunts rabbits and wild pigeons and plays tennis. He is in bed at 10:30 P.M. and arises by 5:30 A.M. for another full and active day. He experiences his only bout of yearly depression on June 21st, the longest day of the year, knowing that the days thereafter start gradually getting shorter and shorter.

Back in summer, when Joanna returned with their kids to Biarritz after visiting her parents in England, county Essex, the energetic Tardits’ offspring—Charlotte, 13, Samuel, 11, and Elodie, 9—all raced inside for their bathing suits to enjoy a swim in the back yard pool in water temperatures that would have made a polar bear grin. After a hearty splashing about, they all gathered on the side of the pool, clinging to the patriarch. There is a familial atmosphere always hovering over the Tardits’ enclave on rue de L’Étape.

Business is important in Richard’s life. Exercise also gets top priority, and there is always time for intellectual stimulation. He and Joanna want their children to grow up recognizing that this is a big world we live in but that all ports are within reach. “We have a policy that we want to travel often but never to the same place twice,” Richard said one morning. Taking a friend on a tour of his spacious and temperature-controlled wine cellar, he stopped by a map of the world and perused the islands of the Arctic Circle and the great steppes of Russia. “Can you imagine,” he said with the wanderlust of a 16th century sailor, “how exciting it would be to see those places.” Likely he will make those stops and many more with his children, gloriously deprived of provincialism, joining him.

To tell Richard’s story there are two basic challenges. His life has been so filled and fulfilled, it is difficult to determine where to start. But the biggest challenge is that there are so many interesting and exciting vignettes, which ones do you leave out?

When I visited him in the summer at Bagnères, which is near the city of Toulouse, it was refreshing and emotionally uplifting to see him running his golf club, “Country Club of Bigorre,” an 18-hole layout with adjoining condominiums and apartments. He has sold one fourth of the units and rents the others. The economy is problematic, an international affliction, but he became established before the economic downswing and with good management has a successful and growing business.

He took time off from running a corporate golf outing one day to take a friend up into the Pyrenées to the mountain pass of Tourmalet, where the Tour de France comes through each year. We had lunch on a deck of a restaurant run by Eric Abadie, a sheep herder famous in the Pyrenees for the lamb on his menu. We enjoyed an assortment of options, accompanied by the best of wine, with the soft cacophony of cowbells clanging on the mountainside, bringing charm and richness to an unforgettable experience. He does not take this always-at-his-fingertips experience for granted and delighted in a visitor’s compatibility with his favorite dishes, which included goose liver; pieds de cochon, or pig knuckles; and Riz d’agneau, or lamb thymus. You even took note of the competent service by a smiling Françoise Galiay.

An entrepreneur, Richard has four companies that conduct assorted business in France: Dawgbone, Dawghouse, Dawg Pound and Bulldog, corporations affiliated with impressive bottom lines. Driving a visit from the Biarritz airport to his home, he points to a sign, “Soltea Eco-Energies.” That was a company he started a few years ago and sold last year. During his NFL career, he bought surplus goods from companies like Nike and resold them in Europe, making handsome profits. On a flight from Paris to Boston, he met the head of a big waste company who hired him, which led to him establishing his own company, “Apollo Waste,” which he sold and the profits of which he used to buy a motor home, taking a year to travel the U. S. (over 40,000 miles) with Joanna and their kids, then ages 3, 1½, and four months. “How wonderful to see all those places out West,” he said while taking a tour of his golf course, stopping by a young Sequoia tree that he had planted after bringing home seeds for that purpose from a stop in California.

Like Hemmingway, he is an aficionado of bullfighting, admiring the skill and bravado of the matador, and never tires of running with the bulls at Pamplona, which he did in June with his Atlanta friends and Bulldog linebackers of the past, Frank Ros and Jeff Lewis. When Gene Stallings, then the head coach of the Cardinals, learned that Richard had run with the bulls before training camp in July of 1988, he was appalled. Linebacker coach Joe Pascale was amused that, instead of Playboy and comic books, Richard brought the Wall Street Journal to position meetings for leisure reading.

If there has ever been a man in full, it has to be Tardits, who often played fall Friday afternoon rugby matches, unbeknownst to Coach Vince Dooley, before meeting the team for dinner and the beginning of the home game football routine. After a tough loss to LSU one October Saturday, Dooley was the honorary starter for a campus triathlon on Sunday morning. He looked up and spotted Richard, who was one of the contestants. When Richard rode his skate board about on campus, it was not with a coasting gait—he dashed about pell mell, much to Dooley’s chagrin.

It is nigh impossible to convince Richard, who became Georgia’s career holder of the sack record of 29 (later broken by Davey Pollack), that he was anything special—his constant analysis dotes on the fact that he was in the right place at the right time. “If Greg (Muddy) Waters had not severely sprained his ankle and missed spring practice in 1985, I never would have had an opportunity to be a pass rusher. If Willie McClendon, who came to Georgia as a linebacker, had not been moved to tailback, what would have happened to Frank Ros? When I was hurt, it gave Mo Lewis an opportunity, and he played 13 years in the NFL. My timing was extraordinary.”

His reluctance for self-aggrandizement is admirable, but seldom has any college had a player who embodied the student athlete concept as did Richard Tardits. You must keep in mind that he didn’t grow up from infancy with a familiarity with football or a natural appreciation of the nuances of the popular American sport. When he was a senior, he was studying for a Masters degree, taking 25 hours. There was an NCAA rule that stipulated that he could only take 22 hours, so he audited courses like art appreciation, photography, and typing, the last a skill he knew he would need one day in the business world. When he earned an NCAA post graduate scholarship, a remarkable achievement for someone who learned to speak English as a high school exchange student in Augusta, Georgia, where he visited longtime family friend, Dr. Edouard Servy, he took the money and learned to fly an airplane and maintains an active pilot’s license today.

It was Servy who told him about the walk-on opportunities and the scholarship options that “might” be available. His father, Maurice, a very practical man, was not enamored with the plan. The senior Tardits wanted Richard to play professional rugby in France, as he had done. A rugby star in France doesn’t make big bucks but is the beneficiary of countless business introductions, which leads to unlimited opportunity. Richard, however, had an enduring passion for an American education. If Richard insisted on studying in America and taking up a new game, however, he would have to earn a scholarship in relatively short order or return home. Maurice, unfamiliar with the challenge that faced his son and unable to comprehend the odds stacked against Rickard, was, nonetheless, firm with his decision.

When Richard went to Dooley to outline his objective and lobby for scholarship assistance, he was told that it would be very difficult for him to obtain scholarship assistance unless he could find a way to help the team. At the time, Tardits was a tight end, far down the depth chart. He was moved to defensive end, and when Waters sprained his ankle, Richard’s circumstance met opportunity. With his upper body strength, quickness, and speed, he had pass rushing skills that would quickly move him up the depth chart. In the spring of 1985, Richard, resigned that he might have to return home to France if a scholarship were not soon forthcoming but ever the opportunist, kept penetrating the offensive blocking and sacking quarterback Todd Williams. It became so routine that Dooley stopped practice and awarded Richard a “battlefield” promotion. He became the first Frenchman to play football on scholarship at Georgia, perhaps the only one in college football history.

From that point on, Richard played and practiced with the heart of a lion while placing unending emphasis on his academic options. Looking back, he realizes that his academic emphasis was not in his best interests in regard to an NFL career but has no regrets. “I was in the middle of working for my MBA degree and did not prepare for the NFL combine as a result,” Richard said. Yet he knew what he had to do to make the team in the specialized NFL system. With his speed, he learned to cover backs out of the backfield and made the team at Arizona. Traded to the New England Patriots, he knew he was a better pass rusher than Andre Tippett, who was getting by on experience. “Once you are established in the NFL, they are not going to cut you if you have experience,” he said.

The then-lowly Patriots made a move for rebirth and hired Bill Parcells. By this time, Richard was injured. After a team meeting, Parcells told him, “You won’t be well by training camp, so we are going to release you.” Tardits knew the rules and said, “Coach I am injured, you cannot cut me.” Parcells curt reply, was, “Sue me.”

That did not offend Richard, who understands how cutthroat business is in the NFL. “Parcells was right. I would not have recovered by training camp.” With no place for bitterness in his life, Tardits holds no grudge and says wistfully, “I would have liked to have played for a coach like Parcells.” While in Boston, Richard applied for Harvard Law School and was admitted, but he knew he could not play in the NFL and take classes, so he opted not to enroll—one of the few regrets in his life.

Each year, he travels to the Super Bowl and provides color commentary on the game for French television. “Not a lot of people recognize me since the game is aired in the middle of the night in France. My children don’t even see me,” he smiles. The French are keen on sports, however, and he was well-celebrated during his time at Georgia by many French newspapers and magazines. A delegation came to Athens for the William and Mary game in 1988 when Richard was, unfortunately, sidelined with a badly sprained ankle. Georgia, nonetheless, promoted with great passion “Franco-Georgia Day,” which was, as the French would say, a “big” success. The French were amused at what they saw between the hedges but were proud of their countryman playing this American game.

Critics of college football today see a trend toward the abandonment of the academic process. That is why the Richard Tardits story is so illuminating and beautiful. He wanted to play football to accommodate his pursuit of a degree, which once was the way it was for most players. Now, all too many want only to be trained for the NFL and ignore the statistical confirmation that for most of them, they would be better off with a degree than a minimal career in pro football, even if it is accompanied by a big-bucks contract for a brief period of time. What’s more, they miss out on an exciting and fulfilling intellectual journey.

Although true, it is hard to believe that the story of the greatest tradeoff in American sports—a degree for playing a game—is best showcased by a Frenchman who grew up in the Basque Country of France without knowing anything about college and professional football. When Georgia signed a hot-shot prospect one year, a player who could have eventually taken Tardits’s job, Richard later tutored him in English.

To understand Richard Tardits, you only have to meet Maurice. On a hot summer day, Richard took me over to his parents’ compound, including their home on a cliff which is actually a condominium-style complex that his father turned into a real estate venture years ago. Maurice took the best apartment for his family and then sold the other units, a handsomely profitable venture. Next door, there is a tennis court and the Archiball Club, the rugby club that Maurice formed when his son was a boy. Richard is now President of the club.

Maurice, 74, a handsome Basque real estate entrepreneur, wearing a Steelers Super Bowl tee-shirt, is playing tennis with his twelve-year-old granddaughter Téa Urcelay, Richard’s niece. He was bent on winning the match. Maurice competed in rugby until age 63, when three broken ribs forced him to give up the game.

Maurice and Richard’s mother, Christine, are generous hosts, bringing out French bread, paté, Basque cheese, olives from Pamplona, and Richard’s wine. (He is a co-owner of a wine chateau, Château La tour boise). While watching the sun set over the Bay of Biscay, with towering waves crashing against the shore, you are keenly aware that Richard wants his kids to experience what he has experienced—an active life, both physically and intellectually, and enjoyment of friends. A sign on the patio wall at the Archiball Club reads “Adixkiderri zabac zorkik atea eta bihotza—To all my friends, I open my door and my heart.”

He credits his University of Georgia experience as integral in who he has become. He will always hold the institution in high esteem for what it means to him. The NCAA needs to spend time in Biarritz and find a way to showcase this remarkable product of the campus student-athlete concept. The author of the following Zen Buddist prose must have had Richard Tardits in mind when he wrote this text, which is prominently displayed on Richard and Joanna’s kitchen bulletin board:

“The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”