EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Albany’s Earl Lockette talks about his son’s journey to Super Bowl XLVIII, he doesn’t start with the unstable and unpredictable ride Ricardo went on in the last six months when he bounced around to three different NFL teams.
He doesn’t even start with Ricardo’s playing days at Monroe High School, where the speedy receiver was barely used on offense and eventually stopped playing football for two years.
Instead, Earl’s story starts 20 years ago on a Little League football field, back when he was Ricardo’s first coach and first fan.
Back when he and his wife, Felita, would listen to their son talk about how he would be famous one day. Back when all Ricardo had was a dream.
That’s where Earl’s story starts, and that’s what has made Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos such a special game for the tight-knit family from Southwest Georgia that has collected more and more admirers with every step toward greatness Ricardo has made.
His next step will be on the field at MetLife Stadium, where he will try to help the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Ricardo, who was signed by Seattle midseason after being released by the Chicago Bears, is listed on the Seahawks’ offensive depth chart as a backup to starting receiver Golden Tate, but the 2005 Monroe graduate has made highlight reels in recent weeks with his plays on Seattle’s special teams.
Since joining the Seahawks — for the second time in his three-year NFL career — on Oct. 22, Ricardo has caught just five passes for 82 yards. But he has become one of Seattle’s hardest hitters on special teams and a deep threat in the passing game every time he lines up on offense.
He’s come a long way since he was the 7-year-old kid who slipped on a football helmet for the first time as a Little League player with his dad as the coach.
“This has been a long journey for Ricardo,” Earl said. “He has persevered and has had a lot of obstacles, but through it all he remained humble and never gave up. He always stayed true to his dream.
“Through his journey, he has made us all stronger. He never gave up on himself, so we never gave up on him.”
Ricardo, who was a member of San Francisco’s practice squad during last year’s Super Bowl but didn’t participate in the game, said his journey to Seattle’s active roster and Super Bowl XLVIII has been long. But it’s one he thinks about often.
“My journey didn’t just start in the NFL,” he said in a phone interview with The Herald last week. “My journey started in Albany, Georgia. I’ve been on this journey for 26 years now. It took me a while to get here, and I am still going.”
Journey to the NFL
Ricardo’s journey started at Carver Park near downtown Albany, where he played Little League football for the Packers and the Trojans. Even then the future national champion sprinter was the fastest kid on the field. Those were the days when Ricardo started dreaming of something bigger, something that would make his name “famous.”
“He always told us he would be famous,” Earl said. “He always said his name would be in lights. He didn’t have a preference how, but he knew he would do something special.”
He was anything but famous as he walked the halls at Monroe High, where he didn’t play football as a freshman or run track until he was a junior. But then he started jumping over cars — and that’s when many, including his father, started to realize just how athletic he was.
“That’s why he initially got on the track team. He would actually bet guys that he could jump from one end of the car to the other. He would literally jump over a car,” Earl said. “We told him, ‘You have to get out there and get on that track team and do the high jump.’ He also had his friends pushing him to join the track team.”
Ricardo obliged and started an athletic career that took off almost instantly. He joined the track team as a high jumper, but when one of his teammates on a relay team sprained his ankle before a race, Ricardo all of a sudden found a baton in his hand as one of the four relay runners.
“That was what ignited his track career,” Earl said. “He went out to be a high jumper and ended up being on the relay team. He became the anchor immediately.”
By the time he was a senior, he was the star of the team. He won four state track & field titles and finished second in the high jump. He went on to Wallace State (Ala.) Community College to run track — after originally signing with Auburn out of high school but ultimately not attending the SEC school for academic reasons — and later transferred to Fort Valley State, where he became the 2009 NCAA Division II 200-meter champion.
However, the football career of the sprinter they nicknamed “The Rocket” didn’t take off nearly as quickly.
“It’s crazy really, but the best way to describe it is that in high school and college he was really more of a decoy (on his football teams),” Earl said. “He never got a lot of attention from an offensive standpoint. They knew he was fast, but he wasn’t the receiver who caught all the passes.”
He caught just 19 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns as a junior at FVSU before transferring to Bethel University (Tenn.) in hopes of gaining more exposure on the football field. But after sitting out a year at Bethel, he came back home to Georgia and played his senior year at FVSU, where he again had little impact: 23 catches for 262 yards and one touchdown.
But nobody could ignore Ricardo’s quickness, which earned him an invite to the 2011 NFL Combine.
“I remember when he got the email saying he was invited to the Combine,” Felita said. “We were all in the family room, and he came in and just fell to his knees. We asked him what was wrong, and he just told us that he got the invite. We were all jumping up and screaming and celebrating.”
In the past three years, the Lockettes have watched their son parlay his 4.37 40-yard dash time at the Combine — the second-fastest among all athletes in 2011 — into an NFL career that few saw coming from an overlooked Division II football player who showed little promise outside of his speed.
“It was never easy for him,” said Earl, who went on to tell a story of Ricardo just missing a chance to run in the Olympic Games, falling short by mere thousands of a second. “Through all of his different obstacles, he never gave up and never had an attitude about it. He has created a dream trip for us, and we are experiencing things that most people never get the chance to.
“It’s like he always tells the kids when he comes home, he says, ‘Only you can stop your destiny.’ ”
Back in Seattle
Ricardo went undrafted out of Fort Valley but was signed to a three-year deal by Seattle in July 2011, just days after a prolonged NFL lockout was lifted. In his first year with the Seahawks he caught just two passes, but one was a critical 44-yard snag against rival San Francisco and the other was a 61-yard TD catch in an overtime loss to the Cardinals.
Ricardo spent the 2012 season on the San Francisco practice squad and watched the 49ers lose the Super Bowl to Baltimore, but he was released by San Francisco last August. After spending a little more than a week without an NFL home, Ricardo was signed by Chicago, where he stayed for nearly two months on the practice squad before being released again.
But when the Seahawks came calling for a second time in October, he was moved to the active roster in a matter of days and he has played in all eight Seattle games since.
“It’s a dream come true,” Ricardo told The Herald in November. “I am living it every day, every hour, every minute. I am trying to make the best out of my opportunities.
“I love Seattle. Seattle is my second home. It’s where I originally started my career, and hopefully it’s where I finish.”
An injury-ridden Seahawks receiving corps gave Ricardo plenty of opportunities in the passing game — and he eventually became part of a four-receiver set that started the game — but lately in Seattle he has turned into the team’s star gunner on punt coverage.
And he said he’s just fine with his new role.
“I love it,” he said. “I love playing football no matter what position it is. When you are on the field in the NFL, you have no choice but to love it because you are living the dream and everything is pretty much a dream come true.”
He delivered a number of bone-crunching hits on punt returners in the latter part of the season, including a tackle in the NFC Championship game that knocked friend and former teammate LaMichael James out of the game.
“LaMichael is one of my close personal friends,” Ricardo told KOMOnews.com after the NFC title game, which Seattle won, 23-17. “He texted me the day before the game and said, ‘Hey, Lock, I’m gonna return it but don’t hit me.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m not gonna hit you.’”
When Ricardo did hit him, his family and friends back in Albany — who were hosting an NFC Championship party at Ricardo’s grandfather’s house with nearly 75 people in attendance — went crazy.
“Everybody went wild,” Earl said. “We got several comments from people, saying, ‘If he keeps hitting like that, they will change his position to safety.’ He has that speed, so that’s the opportunity he gets when he’s playing on special teams.”
It’s a hit that Ricardo had some fun with in the days after the NFC title game — including posting a looping video of the tackle from different angles on his Twitter page — but he has since turned his attention to the Super Bowl.
“That’s just my job,” said Ricardo, who had a similar hit on Broncos returner Trindon Holliday in the preseason that his dad said opened everybody’s eyes to his potential on special teams. “I watched it on film with the team, but other than that we are letting it go and looking toward the Broncos. You don’t get a pat on the back for doing your job.”
The Seahawks scored 13 unanswered points in the NFC title game to come back and beat the 49ers, and when they did — almost three years after Ricardo stumbled in his parents’ family room and fell to his knees with the news of being invited to the NFL Combine — it was Felita’s turn to drop to the ground.
“Everybody in the house was jumping and cheering and chanting, ‘Super Bowl! Seahawks! Lockette! No. 83!’ With all of that going on, I fell to my knees and just started praising God and thanking Him. It was so surreal just the thought of our child going back to the Super Bowl,” Felita said. “For him to go to the Super Bowl in back-to-back years is awesome, and we give the honor and praise to God. Nobody but God.”
Seattle had six players selected to last Sunday’s Pro Bowl, but remarkably nobody on the Seahawks’ roster has ever played in a Super Bowl, which makes Ricardo’s experience on the 49ers’ practice squad during last year’s Super Bowl run even more valuable for Seattle.
He said the message he delivered to his teammates was all about controlling their emotions.
“I’m just telling them to make sure not to make the game bigger than what it is,” he said. “We just have to play our game, because the worst feeling in the world is to get to the highest point and then lose it. Like they say, the higher you go, the harder you fall.”
Making Albany proud
Earl, Felita and Ricardo’s brother, Earl Jr., arrived in New York earlier this weekend for the game, as did Ricardo’s grandfather, Dougherty Superior Court Chief Judge Willie Lockette, who is keeping a promise to his grandson by making the trip north.
“With my father being the judge, he’s always had a hectic schedule and hasn’t been able to go to one of Ricardo’s (NFL) games,” Earl said. “About three weeks ago, Ricardo mentioned to my father about going to the game against the New Orleans Saints, but my dad said that if he made it to the Super Bowl, he promised that he would go.”
Ricardo calls his entire family his “No. 1 fan,” but his voice began to drip with emotion as he spoke about his “granddad” watching him on an NFL field for the first time.
“This will be the first time he’s seen me play in the NFL,” Ricardo said. “Just to have my family there supporting me as I complete a life-long dream is something special.”
It’s been a special ride for Ricardo and his family, but it’s also been a journey that Southwest Georgia is embracing.
Earl said it became commonplace to attend a Seahawks game in Seattle and meet fans who knew all about Ricardo’s journey and were honored to meet his parents. Now the Lockettes are becoming local celebrities in a community that is beginning to rally around one of its own.
“We are getting that kind of attention locally now. We can’t go to dinner or to the gas station without somebody saying something,” Earl said. “My mother just called me the other day and said she was at the doctor’s office and that they treated her like she played for the Seahawks.”
Regardless of what jersey Lockette had been wearing the past three years, he has always made time for his hometown, where he is a frequent speaker at elementary schools — such as Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools in Albany — and churches. The last two years, he has volunteered at fellow Albany native and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch’s summer football camp at Albany State University and plans to host his own camp this summer. And he has told his dad that he’s hoping for some of football’s biggest stars like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — two of his closest friends in the league — to appear at his camp.
On Sunday, Ricardo, Wilson and the rest of the Seahawks will look to upset slight-favorite Denver in what is anticipated to be one of the coldest Super Bowls on record, and Earl has already thought how he will feel the moment Ricardo steps out of the tunnel and onto the biggest stage in the world.
“One thing I told him all along is that when he made it to the NFL that I wouldn’t so much be impressed because I knew he had it in him all along,” Earl said. “I was just waiting for the NFL and the world to see it, too. When he runs out of the tunnel (Sunday), it will just be a confirmation of that. Of course, I will be proud and I might have some tears of joy. But I always knew that this kid would be right where he is right now.”
Back on that Little League football field, Earl knew.
Back when Ricardo was jumping over cars and making promises about one day becoming famous, Earl knew.
“Now years later, he’s playing in a game of this magnitude,” Earl said. “He reminded me (last week about the Little League days). He said, ‘Now you can say that you coached somebody in the Super Bowl.’ I said, ‘That’s right, I guess I have.’”