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How Richard Tardits Went From Walk-On With No Football Experience to UGA’s All-Time Sack Leader

He tackled the wrong guy in his first college practice. Four years later, he became the school’s all-time sack leader.

The underdog story of Richard Tardits, who went from foreign exchange student with no football experience to graduating as Georgia Football's all-time sacks leader
Credit-UGA Athletics/Joker Mag

“Ain’t no way this kid’s going to learn to play football.” 

Quelle vie c’est is French for ‘what a life this is’.

If there’s anyone who lives by these words, it’s Richard Tardits. His journey may sound too unreal even for Hollywood.

He went from zero knowledge of football to walking on at a major Division I school. Then he earned a full scholarship and eventually became the school’s all-time sack leader.

Richard Tardits never submitted to any doubts of his worth.

But his path to dominating college football and making it to the NFL speaks to his determination and optimistic outlook on life.

Tardits grew up in Bayonne, France, located in the southwest part of the country next to Spain and the Bay of Biscay.

It’s a city popular for nothing even remotely related to sports.

Instead, Bayonne is known for its infatuation with bullfighting, beautiful Basque and French architecture, and delicious chocolates.

But young Richard Tardits was athletically inclined.

He was grabbed by the allure of a popular sport in other parts of France: rugby. He quickly realized he was a natural talent.

Tardits played for the French junior national rugby team for three years and his father had hopes of him playing professionally in France.

But plans changed.

19-year-old Tardits went to Augusta, Georgia as part of a foreign exchange program. He was originally supposed to be in the US for only a few months to improve his English.

But instead, he fell in love with the American lifestyle and wanted to attend college in the States.

His original plan was to become a PE teacher. That way, he could devote himself to rugby and then attend the University of Toulouse. After university, he’d sign with their local rugby team, Stade Touloussain.

His father was especially fond of this plan so he could network and gain some valuable local connections and job opportunities.

But the open-minded Tardits followed his heart instead.

It was his father, after all, who had encouraged him while growing up to try everything he took an interest in.

So he enrolled at the University of Georgia (UGA) in the fall of 1984, eager to make it work.

But getting a full grasp of English and adjusting to American culture were far from Tardits’ biggest obstacles.

From Tackling the wrong guy in his first practice to graduating as Georgia’s All-Time Sack leader.

He would need to earn a scholarship. In this case, an athletic scholarship. It was his only chance to be able to attend college in the U.S.

After all, his real dream was to get an education at an American university.

A longtime family friend told him about the opportunity to earn a walk-on scholarship to fulfill his dream.

The catch? It would have to be through the unfamiliar sport of American football.

Not one to hesitate, Tardits jumped at the opportunity.

Not too hard, right?

To put it into perspective, out of about 4,000 walk-ons who play Division 1 football each year, only a small percentage of them earn any type of scholarship.

Most colleges have a limit of 85 scholarships. And for a walk-on, the one they get is usually partial.

Coach Vince Dooley, the legendary UGA coach who was coaching at the time of Tardits’ arrival, told him how difficult it’d be for him to get a scholarship.

He would have to find a way to help the team.

The first play of open practice in the spring of 1985 didn’t help his cause. 

After Tardits tackled a defender he was supposed to block, Dooley is quoted as saying, “Ain’t no way this kid’s going to learn to play football.”

Starting close to the bottom of the depth chart and at the tight end position, the chances of Tardits staying in America looked grim.

But luck or fate – whichever way you look at it – were on his side.

He moved, at first, to special teams to have a better shot of making an impression. But his real break came when Coach Dooley moved him from tight end to defensive end, mostly to address an injury at the position.

Tardits’ combination of upper body strength and quickness eventually earned him a “battlefield” promotion. He would sack the starting quarterback so much that they had to stop practice.

Earning a full scholarship at a national powerhouse school after just one year is unique.

But doing this while learning a sport and culture he didn’t grow up in is highly unusual.

Based on the probabilities, it’s an achievement in itself. But he wasn’t satisfied with just making the team.

Tardits was known for his aggressive, relentless style of play on the field. The years of playing rugby, tackling others, and getting hit without pads, translated well for him. He loved contact, never shying away from a collision.

In addition, the stamina he’d built up during his years of rugby helped him shine during games.

In the three seasons he suited up for the Bulldogs, his boundless energy and tenacity earned him UGA’s all-time sack record of 29.

His record stood for over 15 years before finally being broken in 2004.

At this point, he could have sat back and basked in his incredible achievements.

His journey resulted in him earning a scholarship as a walk-on with no prior experience. The icing on the cake is in just one full season as a starter, he set the all-time sack record and earned a dual degree.

His dedication to academics shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

It sticks out, especially in the current landscape of college football.

Players today tend to focus more on preparing for the NFL than their college courses and exams. He took an equal amount of pride in the classroom as he did sacking quarterbacks on Saturdays.

Tardits cherished the opportunity to go to school for free more than most student-athletes. He earned a dual degree in International Business and Management Information Systems.

As a senior, he took 25 credit hours while relentlessly penetrating opposing backfields.

To fully prove his dedication, he also went on to get his MBA as a grad student.

He is such a steward of learning that he took the money from earning a post-graduate scholarship to learn how to fly airplanes. He still maintains an active pilot’s license in France. 

‘Richard, take a sip of some coffee, a bite of a croissant, and kick your feet up’, someone less ambitious might tell him. But that’s not how Richard “Le Sack” Tardits rolls. 

His rising star as a sack master earned him plenty of attention from NFL scouts.

As a 6’2”, 200 lb defensive end with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, that shouldn’t come as a shock.

Richard "Le Sack" Tardits quote that says: 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...My timing was extraordinary.

Even with only one year as a starter and less than four years of actual football experience, Tardits was drafted in the 5th round of the 1989 draft by the Arizona Cardinals.

By then, he was adept at beating the odds (only 1.6% of college football players make it to the NFL). Tardits also became one of the first Frenchmen to play in the NFL.

Despite the incredible achievement of getting drafted, he thinks he could’ve gone higher.

In an interview with the Georgia Dogs, Tardits told them, “I was in the middle of working for my MBA degree and did not prepare for the NFL Combine as a result.” 

Despite his NFL interest, Tardits never lost sight of his original intent for earning a scholarship: to get his education.

He ended up playing four seasons in the NFL, three of them with the New England Patriots. To top it off, he didn’t just retire and go sit at home after leaving the NFL. 

He was still an athletic specimen. Naturally, he rekindled his love of rugby. 

He moved to Hong Kong to play professionally following his NFL retirement. After a short stint there, he came back to the U.S. to play for the USA Eagles rugby team from 1993 to 1999.

Never one to hype himself up, Tardits’ story relays volumes about the value of hard work, dedication, a little naivete, and timing.

Those who played with him can attest to his endearing humility. His nonchalant answer during our interview proves it:

“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.” 

For someone who achieved more in a decade than some achieve their entire lives, it is a sign of Vraie humilité – French for true humility.

Despite his sack record being overtaken in 2004, the legend of “Le Sack” lives on in Athens, and abroad in his native Bayonne.

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Written By

Rodney is a freelance writer and alum of the University of Georgia. He grew up in the Atlanta area but now resides in Tampa, FL. His interests include sports, writing, reading, and talking smack about his favorite sports teams.

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