The first time Josh Richardson met his mentee, 14-year-old Elijah Byrd, he pulled him over to the side, away from the cameras.
“This isn’t just for the screen,” Elijah recalls Richardson saying. “I'm not doing this to just show that I'm a good guy and everything. If you want to hit me up, hit me up whenever you need.”
Elijah admits he was skeptical at first, and so was his mother, Jessica. Richardson and Elijah were paired up as part of the Sixers' "Walk In My Shoes" mentorship program. Both Elijah and his mom quickly realized that Richardson wasn’t kidding around.
“He put his name in my phone as big bro!” Jessica remembers her son saying that day, smiling from ear to ear.
“That in itself was worth the two-hour long journey to get there that day,” Jessica says of their trek out to the Sixers' Blue x White Scrimmage at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. “That smile is what makes everything worth it.”
(Photo courtesy of Sixers.com)
That first meeting was just the beginning.
Shortly thereafter, Richardson invited Byrd to the Philadelphia Union game. There were no cameras ...
“Josh was like, ‘You rolling with us?’ And I was like, 'Wait what did you say? Repeat that,'" Elijah remembers, stunned. “I was like, 'You have no idea what this means to me.' I was freaking out.”
Elijah and his mom both got to meet Richardson's family that day, an important step for a protective mother.
Jessica admits it’s been tough to let her only son go but she realizes now that she couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.
The fact that Richardson also grew up in a military household is an added bonus. Richardson’s mother, Alice, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force Reserves. Elijah’s father and Jessica’s late husband, LCPL John T. Byrd, lost his life serving as a marine in Iraq in 2004. They buried him on Veterans Day 15 years ago.
“I’m really here for him,” Richardson says. “I tried to make it a point off the bat, so his mom and his family could feel comfortable with me.”
“There was a lot of fear in my mom heart about what most of this would look like, but I was mostly worried about my sons’ spirit being crushed, if he had dreams and expectations and it ended up not happening,” Jessica admits. “But Josh just seems so humble. I feel like in regards to being a mentor, he's perfect for Elijah, teaching him some humility, and nutrition and good work ethic.”
“He’s kinda like me, honestly,” Richardson says of Elijah. “We don’t really talk a lot around new people and I understand how to approach that. He’s shy at first, but once you kind of get to know him and get talking to him, he’s really funny, he’s expressive.”
(Photo courtesy of Sixers.com)
Elijah’s spirits have been far from crushed. On Sunday night, which also coincided with Military Appreciation Night, Elijah was out on the court at Wells Fargo Center helping Richardson go through his pregame warmup prior to being introduced as the Strong Kid of the Game.
And as for that smile that his mom drove two hours to see last month, it was back and brighter than ever.
“It was really fun,” Elijah says moments after running off the court with his new friend. “I was kinda freaking out, though, because Mike Scott was also there shooting free throws … but it's not just Mike Scott, it's Mike Scott! I was freaking out.”
“I’ll holler at you after, bro,” Richardson shouts out in the hallway.
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