The imposing design of AT&T Stadium struck Desmond Ridder as he entered its hallowed confines. The landmark was empty, except for the Cincinnati Bearcats players and staff — inhabitants in a quiet space. The Bearcats practiced for the first time, immersing themselves in this colossal environment.
Seats left unoccupied. Cowboy stars plastered on the walls. The jumbotron hovers over the players, participating in a spirited 90-minute practice. Ridder knew this contrasted Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati or his football field at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.
“One of the biggest that I think all of us have played in or walked in,” Ridder told reporters on Monday.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Ridder experienced a full AT&T Stadium, when the Dallas Cowboys faced the Washington Football Team on Sunday Night Football. A divisional matchup in prime time injects uncanny electricity into the home of the Cowboys. Ridder soaked up the Cowboys securing the NFC East title with a 56-14 victory. More importantly, he paid attention to the atmosphere — fans cheering, music playing — and visualized what could be on New Year’s Eve during the Cotton Bowl.
The Bearcats, the 2021 American Athletic Conference champions who finished the season with a perfect 13-0 record, will square off Friday afternoon against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The odds are stacked against the Bearcats, who enter the Cotton Bowl as 13.5-point underdogs.
Ridder knows the huge task ahead. As a non-Power 5 school, the Bearcats take on a vaunted football program in Alabama, boasting 18 national championships. History may not be in Cincinnati’s favor. But if there is a quarterback equipped for this moment, it’s Ridder. Leadership is an important quality to Ridder, born out of his days at St. Xavier and grown during his five years at Cincinnati.
“Leadership is not only being the one person that everyone looks up to, but it’s also being there for people whether that be in good times or in bad,” Ridder said. “It was towards the latter part of my true freshman season where I started to open up, started to reach out to some of the older guys, and see how they were leading and going about their daily business. When I knew that I wanted to play my next year as a redshirt freshman, I could be the best person, I could be the best teammate I could be, and the best leader I could be.”
While the Bearcats are more than just their quarterback, they aren’t playing for a chance to compete for a national championship without Ridder. As he steps onto the AT&T Stadium field Friday, Ridder won’t deviate from who he is.
The leader, the competitor, the heartbeat of a Cincinnati team, with a chance to script history.
“It’s been a journey,” Ridder said. “Coach Fick [Luke Fickell] has always talked about trusting the journey and trusting the process, and that’s exactly what it’s been for myself and a lot of my teammates. I’ve had a great experience over my five years here, and I’m just hoping we can seal it off with one of the best experiences there is.”
Before touching down in Dallas, Ridder spent Christmas with his family. It’s been three weeks since the Bearcats found out they were headed to the College Football Playoff. After the excitement of winning the AAC championship and securing a berth in the CFP national semifinal, Ridder needed to unwind.
Three weeks is a long time without any football games. After an undefeated season, with a pivotal playoff game upcoming, recharge was necessary.
For Ridder, that means spending quality time with his girlfriend, Claire Cornett, and their first-born daughter, Leighton. The couple welcomed their first child into the world in April, five months before Ridder began his senior season at Cincinnati. He doesn’t let a moment pass on social media where he can show off his affection for his daughter, whether it’s raising her up at Nippert Stadium or posing for the camera wearing a “Girl Dad” T-shirt.
As explained in an ESPN College GameDay feature on the Cincinnati quarterback, playing football is for a greater purpose. To support his family, to give back to Claire and Leighton.
“He’s always loved kids,” said Ridder’s high school coach Will Wolford. “He loved teaching and hanging out with the younger kids who we brought in for our football camps. Now that he has his child, he’s complete in many ways as a man. He’s a great father.”
Ridder was raised by his mother, Sarah, and grandmother, Jan. The exemplary character Ridder became — grounded and compassionate — is a result of his mother’s influence.
Growing up in Louisville, Ridder dreamed of attending St. Xavier High School. He stared at the ceiling in his childhood bedroom, an “X” scattered across the wall. The dream of attending St. Xavier eventually became a reality for Ridder. That’s where the teenager met Wolford, who was St. Xavier’s football coach. Wolford, also from Louisville, was an offensive lineman who played for the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ridder began his tenure at St. Xavier as the third-string quarterback. Toward the end of his sophomore season, he began to improve his play. The St. Xavier coaching staff admired how Ridder showed maturity, getting faster and stronger. The first taste of playoff action came at the end of the season against Trinity High School, a rival of St. Xavier’s. The starting quarterback and the backup went down due to injury.
Ridder got his chance. While St. Xavier eventually lost, it was a formative experience for the young quarterback.
“Overall, it was two steps forward,” Wolford said. “He came out a much more competent, mature kid in his junior year.”
Wolford continued to be amazed at Ridder’s improvement. In his first game as a junior, Ridder extended the play on a bootleg. He went on a dead run toward the sideline before throwing the ball 40 yards downfield to his receiver, perfectly in stride.
“That is just pure natural talent,” Wolford recalled. “At that point, you’re thinking, ‘I didn’t teach this.’”
Later in the season against Louisville Male High School, a program that had beat St. Xavier the last couple of years, Ridder executed a Hail Mary pass to perfection at the end of the first half. According to Wolford, that play separated Ridder “from the herd” in terms of his capabilities.
As Ridder progressed through high school, he embraced Wolford’s principles about leadership. Earning all-metro honors as a senior, leading the team in passing and rushing yards, all became a reality for Ridder, thanks to Wolford providing the tools for the quarterback to grow on and off the field.
“I like to call him one of my good friends,” Ridder said of Wolford. “He’s been there for me ever since I was a young kid in high school, and he’s always there for me no matter what I do. He taught me what it was to be a leader and how to lead a football team.
“For him to be my first high school football coach, it showed me what an NFL player looks like, how they go about their daily business. And he made sure that we knew that too because we had some guys on the team that had dreams and aspirations of going to play in college and going to play in the NFL. So, he set the bar for them.”
Ridder’s transition to Cincinnati parallels his experience in the early days at St. Xavier. The youngster redshirted his true freshman season, preventing him from playing. He used that experience to learn from the older players and to be prepared for the opportunity when the time came.
Ridder earned the starting quarterback role during his first year of eligibility. Each season, he showed signs of improvement, just like during his time at St. Xavier.
“At the next level, you are going to get knocked down,” Wolford said. “It’s not always going to be peaches and cream. You’re going to have bad days, bad games. But it’s how you respond to it.
“With Des, he had some early adversity at Cincinnati. But he was like, ‘I’ve been through this before, in all different ways.’ He accepted a professional mentality, quickly forgetting about whatever happened and moving on to the next one. I think that’s why he’s had so much success at Cincinnati. He’s human. He’ll make better plays but he won’t let the bad ones get him down.”
Ridder ascended his draft status after his 2020 season. With AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, Ridder recorded 2,296 passing yards for 19 touchdowns and 592 rushing yards for another 12 touchdowns. While he considered entering the 2021 NFL draft, Ridder felt a calling back to the familiar environment of the Cincinnati campus. Staying for his redshirt senior season enabled Ridder to blossom into a dominant starting quarterback while being close to his family.
There was unfinished business in Cincinnati. The team finished the regular season 9-0, yet because of its conference, failed to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Ridder desired to be the leader of a Cincinnati program that earned a berth to the playoff. The path wouldn’t be easy, given the teams that populate the College Football Playoff. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are the three schools with the most CFP appearances. Their presence is a regular occurrence: Alabama leads with seven appearances, Clemson has six, while Ohio State and Oklahoma are tied for third place with four.
The 2021 season demonstrated a change at the top. With Clemson losing games early on, coupled with a highly competitive Big Ten conference, it paved the way for Cincinnati to sneak into the playoff.
If it went undefeated, of course.
The victory over Notre Dame on Oct. 2 put the Bearcats on the national map. Ridder and his teammates knew they belonged with the best programs. But a win against a vaunted school drastically changed Cincinnati’s perception around the country. Leading that charge was Ridder, who recorded a career-best season with 3,190 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. Ridder broke the school’s record for most passing touchdowns during a college career, which was previously held by Cincinnati’s quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli. The 22-year-old is also one passing touchdown short of tying the single-season school record of 31, and 353 yards shy of the single-season passing yards record set by Guidugli in 2002.
His dual-threat capability has the Alabama defense focused on containing Ridder.
“Ridder’s played a lot of football,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding. “I think he gets them in and out of certain plays at the right times based on coverages and fronts on the run game and pass game.”
The “Girl Dad” who is a loving father to Leighton will suit up and run onto the field Friday with his teammates. For Ridder, it could be his final college game. Or it could be another steppingstone toward achieving a national championship.
“It’s not out of character for Desmond to lead our football team in every way,” said Bearcats offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock. “Whether that’s vocally, whether that’s through his play, how he studies the game, how he prepares himself. He’s a great example to everybody around him of how to get ready for a game like this in the challenge that’s ahead for us offensively coming up.”
“We’ve heard a lot about this David versus Goliath talk,” said Bearcats offensive lineman Dylan O’Quinn. “The fact of the matter, everybody puts their pants on the same way. Everybody plays the game of football. We just want to go out and be us.”
AT&T Stadium sits empty now during Ridder’s practices. On Friday, fans will fill the seats, as they did for the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Among those attending are Wolford and over 20 of Ridder’s former high school teammates at St. Xavier, including Michael Meredith, who caught that Hail Mary pass their junior year.
This time, Ridder will be on the field as a participant, rather than a spectator in the crowd. If there’s ever an upset moment waiting for an author, it’s Ridder and the Bearcats, eager to shock the college football world.