As he heads across the waters of Tampa Bay toward the Gulf of
Mexico in his 22-foot Mako fishing boat, Mike Alstott takes a
moment to size up the competition. Today's target, he explains,
is tarpon: giant, silver-scaled beasts of the deep that commonly
reach up to six feet in length, weigh more than 140 pounds and
are known to fight for more than an hour, repeatedly lurching
several feet out of the water. Alstott is armed with filament
only slightly thicker than thread, and rods so skinny they bend
in the breeze. After flattening most of the forces in the NFL
during his rookie season with surprising ease, it appears
Buccaneers fullback Alstott has found a worthy opponent out here.
He wants to anchor near the giant Sunshine Skyway, but the tide
is pushing Alstott's vessel in the wrong direction. A few
boatmates drag the anchor to the bow, and then, with a casual
heave, Alstott--who has forearms that make Popeye's look
puny--sends the hunk of steel out about 20 yards, where it
disappears with a splash. The boat quickly steadies against the
tide, and Alstott turns his cap backward, takes a dip of chew
and puts on his game face. "Now, this is a battle," he says,
beaming under a dome so blue you can't tell where the water ends
and the sky begins. "When that reel starts running, your heart
about jumps through your chest."
Would-be tacklers in the NFL experienced a similar arrhythmia
last year when they encountered the 6'1", 250-pound Alstott for
the first time. Selected in the second round of the 1996 draft
out of Purdue, Alstott led Tampa Bay with six touchdowns and 3.9
yards per carry. He was also second among NFL running backs in
receptions, with 65--a Buccaneers rookie record. Those stats,
and a crushing style of play that sparks comparisons to John
Riggins and Larry Csonka, earned him selection as a 1996 Pro
Bowl alternate. "Game after game, we continued to discover
Mike's talents last year," says Bucs head coach Tony Dungy. "And
at one point the coaches just sort of said to each other, 'This
guy is too good to be true.'"
That point may have come in the Bucs' sixth game of the 1996
season, against the 5-1 Vikings. In early September the city of
Tampa had passed a tax referendum to fund a new stadium to keep
the team in town, but the Bucs did not reward their faithful
fans. They stumbled to an 0-5 start, and pressure mounted on
first-year coach Dungy.
July 15, 1997
The Bucs were trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter when Alstott
made his move. He caught what looked to be a harmless floater
near the 12-yard line from quarterback Trent Dilfer, shook one
tackler, plowed through another and carried 240-pound linebacker
Jeff Brady the final four yards before reaching the ball across
the goal line with one hand for the go-ahead score. The Bucs won
that game 24-13, signaling the beginning of a franchise-record
five home wins in a row.
Says Dungy, "We may look back at one point down the road and say
Mike's Minnesota play was the beginning of a new era for this
team. In our first draft we wanted to make a statement about
what kind of team we wanted to be. We wanted high-character guys
who love everything about the game--the practices, the work,
even the drudgery. Mike epitomizes the standard we're building
this team on."
There are building blocks, and then there is the 23-year-old
Alstott, who is closer to a concrete foundation. On that one
play against the Vikings, Alstott showed he's that rarest of
players, a quadruple threat--with soft hands, speed in the open
field (he runs a 4.6 40), brute strength for blocking or
bulldozing defenders and the kind of warrior mentality that can
get him into the end zone with a team's entire secondary on his
back. "He's the best fullback in the league," says Dilfer. "He
blocks, he runs, he catches the ball. He does it all. And he's
Alstott's talents take pressure off Dilfer, who began to show
promise last year in his third season, when he was no longer
required to win every game by himself. And Alstott is a player
who gets stronger as the game progresses, which fits perfectly
with Dungy's plan for a strategy of attrition in the NFC
Central: build a defense that can keep the game close and allow
the offense to steal it in the fourth quarter. This approach
requires well-conditioned players, and Alstott has led on that
front as well. When Dungy suggested his fullback take some time
off after the season, Alstott replied simply, "No, Coach, I
might atrophy." In fact, almost everyone on the Bucs' roster
participated in the team's off-season training program in Tampa.
"One player's desire and dependability can spill over onto the
rest of the team," says Buccaneers G.M. Rich McKay. "It becomes
infectious. That's the kind of guy you want to build a team
With each game last year, Alstott seemed to gain momentum. He
had 121 all-purpose yards in an overtime win against Oakland on
Nov. 10. The next week he had assistant coaches high-fiving each
other as he rolled up 92 yards in a win over the Chargers. His
91 yards receiving against New Orleans on Nov. 24 included a
17-yard catch-and-run on which Alstott chugged through three
defenders into the end zone, then handed the ball to Josh Klein,
a wheelchair-bound third-grader whom the Bucs had adopted as
their No. 1 fan.
The next week veteran linebacker Kevin Greene of Carolina sought
out Alstott after their game to tell him how much he admired his
smash-mouth playing style. And against Washington on Dec. 8, the
rookie flattened two defenders on a 13-yard touchdown run.
Alstott was touted as a candidate for NFC rookie of the year,
grabbed a few votes for team MVP and had Dungy saying he could
be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for years to come. "He does it
all," says Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "He's like a 4x4
truck--water, mud or snow won't stop it, and nothing stops Allee."
Trucks, it seems, are integral to the Alstott story. He's built
like one, of course, and he's got two in his driveway. He grew
up cruising in a 4x4 as a teenager in Plainfield, Ill.,
southwest of Chicago. And at Purdue--where he gained 3,635 yards
rushing and 1,075 receiving and became the only player to be
voted the Boilermakers' MVP three times--Alstott incorporated
sports utility vehicles into his training regimen. To build leg
strength he would push a Jeep back and forth across the parking
lot outside the school's Ross-Ade Stadium and do sprints with
the tires from a Ford Bronco strapped to his waist.
"Mike is the toughest player I've ever been around," says Bobby
Turner, Alstott's running backs coach at Purdue and now an
assistant with the Broncos. "He leaves his guts on the field
every day. He's going to be the standard by which we measure
fullbacks in this league. And off the field--well, let's just
say if one of my daughters were to marry someone like Mike, I'd
die a happy man."
This spring Alstott presented his father, Dennis, with--what
else?--a new pickup truck. It took the son a few weeks to
persuade his father to accept the gift, but Alstott was pleased
to give something back to the person from whom he inherited the
work ethic and quiet toughness that serve him so well in the NFL.
Dennis enlisted in the Marines at the age of 18 and did a tour
of duty in Vietnam; he was awarded the Purple Heart after having
been wounded by enemy gunfire. "He spent 13 months in the jungle
as an 18-year-old," says Mike. "I've only seen him break down
about it once. You want to see an example of toughness, don't
look at me. Look at my dad."
Dennis worked extra shifts for Best Environmental, a Joliet,
Ill.-based waste-cleanup company for which he's now a
supervisor, to pay for his two sons to go to Joliet Catholic
High. Mike was a perfect fit there--Joliet Catholic is the
school that produced Rudy of Notre Dame lore, and it has won
seven state football titles despite turning out just a handful
of blue-chippers over the years. As a junior Alstott led the
team to the 1990 Illinois state 4A title while hiding a serious
thigh bruise from his family and coaches for the latter part of
the season. In his senior year he was a Parade All-America.
"We didn't have a lot of superstars, just this great love of the
game, a great blue-collar work ethic and a unity on our teams
that got it done," says Alstott (who as a high school catcher
also attracted interest from pro baseball scouts). "I think a
lot of that is still with me. I don't see why that stuff can't
exist in the NFL just because you get paid. I still just
flat-out love the game."
Alstott's football career got off to an auspicious beginning
when he was seven years old. The first time he touched the ball
in a Pop Warner game, he went 90 yards for a touchdown. "He took
off down the sideline," recalls Dennis, "and his helmet turned
sideways. He was looking out the earhole, but he never stopped
running. He never even slowed down."
Dennis and Jeanne Alstott were on the sideline for their son's
first touchdown run 16 years ago, and they haven't missed one
since. The devoted parents have been to every one of Mike's
games--in youth leagues, high school, college and the pros. In
all, they've logged more than 70,000 miles traveling to nearly
200 games. Jeanne worked for three weeks this spring mapping out
the family's autumn itinerary, saving money by making
reservations early. Though they don't want to jinx their son's
prospects, the Alstotts already know the best dates and carriers
for a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.
"I'd love to take my whole family to Hawaii," says Alstott, back
on the dock in St. Petersburg assessing the day's damage. The
one tarpon that had struck bit the bait, hook and a few feet of
line clean off. A few weeks earlier he had one near the boat,
but the knot on his hook gave way and the fish escaped.
Now, as the sun sinks into the horizon behind him, Alstott sums
up the challenges left for him--on the field and on the water.
He would like a few trips to the Pro Bowl and a few Super Bowl
rings. "And one tarpon for my wall," he says. "Just one. Is that
too much to ask out of life?"