Nearly a year ago, Desmond Ridder and his family spent three-and-a-half hours in the office of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell with a looming decision that held the potential to reshape the Bearcat program and the sport.
After Cincinnati’s Peach Bowl loss to Georgia, Ridder needed to figure out in short order whether he’d return to the Bearcats for a fifth and final season.
Myriad factors hovered over Ridder’s decision. His NFL projections were uneven – anywhere from the third to sixth round. He and longtime girlfriend, Claire Cornett, were expecting their first child around the draft. And Ridder’s return would mean 15 starters coming back to a preseason top-10 team with the potential to crash the College Football Playoff.
One year later, Ridder’s decision resonates among the best in the recent history of the sport. Ridder led Cincinnati (13-0) on a historic run to the CFP, played his way into the NFL draft first-round conversation and started a family in a familiar city not far from where the couple grew up in Louisville. (Their daughter, Leighton Elizabeth, also got enough air-time and Instagram love to be considered one of the season’s breakout stars.)
“To be able to come here now and be a part of Cincinnati and something special, it means a lot to me,” Ridder said. “I would definitely say it’s my home away from home.”
The season offered tangible and intangible awards. While exact numbers aren’t available, it’s a safe estimate Ridder made more than $250,000 in name, image and likeness sponsorships. But the year transcended upgrading from a Kia to a Range Rover or treating his linemen to Bose headphones or teammates to dinner at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.
Ridder also cemented himself in Cincinnati lore, both in the city and at the school. Along with the immediate financial opportunities, he became a star locally and a household name nationally, which percolates with possibility down the road. Plus, NFL scouts estimate to Yahoo Sports that his draft stock is in the 20-to-40 range, which means millions more in guaranteed money. (The last pick in the first round makes nearly $7 million more on a rookie deal than the last pick in the third round).
When No. 4 Cincinnati plays No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Friday, Ridder has a peerless opportunity to seize the moment and deliver another salvo to Cincinnati’s glass-breaking season. It’s another chance for Ridder to illustrate one of the enduring legacies of his final year in college – the power and possibility that comes with returning to school and emerging as a superstar.
“The way things have worked out, it’s going to be one that we use as an example for years to come,” Fickell told Yahoo Sports.
In the meeting in Fickell’s office a year ago, this was all possible. None of it was given. Fickell isn’t much for reflection and introspection, as he’s an old wrestler singularly focused on what’s ahead. But Fickell allowed himself a moment to appreciate how everything has played out near-perfect for Ridder – undefeated season, growing family and an ideal career foundation.
“You think about that three-and-a-half-hour conversation with him and his family, and laying it out,” Fickell said in a phone interview. “This is where you are. This is what you could do. We put our best foot forward to give you this opportunity to showcase you as a complete quarterback.”
In Nippert Stadium during summer workouts, strength coach Brady Collins had the team run seven sets of stadium steps – six for the home games scheduled and another for the possible home American Athletic Conference title game. Ridder finished his career 26-0 in Nippert, one of the many mind-bending stats that includes going 43-5 as a starter and winning 21 straight regular-season games.
The intimacy of Cincinnati with its 40,000-seat stadium and the novelty of this historic level of success fuels the legacy piece of Ridder’s return. Regardless of the result Friday (BetMGM has the Bearcats as 13.5-point underdogs), Ridder is the most decorated and celebrated player on the most decorated and celebrated team in school history.
Ridder chuckled when asked about the possibility of this team coming back for reunions and being toasted. “I hope that the players that are still playing in 20 years or so remember the name and coming to games as a kid,” he said. “Hopefully I’m still on the top of record books and hopefully by then I’m on the Ring of Honor.”
By then, a star college player like Ridder making hundreds of thousands of dollars won’t be novel. The notion of NIL played minimal factor in Ridder’s actual decision to come back. The legislation was theoretical more than actual 11 months ago. By the time it kicked in this summer, Ridder ended up doing deals that included a car (Bluegrass Motor Sport), clothing (Bylt), headphones (Bose), NFT (Candy Digital) and the types of memorabilia, jersey and trading card deals that have become familiar to college stars.
But what he’s accomplished and earned – and set himself up to earn in the future – will be a touchstone for players making similar decisions. For Ridder and his family, NIL brought a level of comfort. “His ability to make real income the past year definitely alleviated some of those stresses that in the old system would have been there for him,” said Brian McLaughlin, Ridder’s NIL agent.
The extra cash also brought generosity, as he made sure to include and reward teammates, something Fickell pointed out and appreciated.
“He had the maturity to recognize that he should share some of the wealth with guys on the team, and you have to take care of your linemen,” Cincinnati star linebacker Joel Dublanko said. “It was really cool to be able to see that, and it adds to his leadership.”
It’s funny to look back a year ago, in the story announcing that Ridder would be returning to Cincinnati. All of the listed competitors for the top quarterback spot underwhelmed in 2021 — UNC’s Sam Howell, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, USC’s Kedon Slovis, Georgia’s JT Daniels and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy.
Ridder, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis all rocketed past that crew. (Pickett’s decision to return will be remembered as wise as Ridder’s.) And Ridder did so with the ability to share his wealth. This Christmas, for example, he said that instead of buying his cousins a Cincinnati T-shirt, he asked his aunts and uncles what’s something expensive the cousins wanted.
“I went out and got it,” Ridder said. “I want to see a big smile put on their face. Being able to give back is huge to me.”
Ridder has helped deliver a sun-kissed season of joy for Cincinnati. And by returning for priceless memories with solid benefits, he’s assured that he and this team will be celebrated for years to come. And, perhaps, inspire others to follow his path.