She's an attractive young brunette, a confident reveler with a
Jennifer Aniston hairdo, a killer tan and legs that seem as long
as the Florida panhandle. Her name is Melanie or Melinda or Amy
or Amanda--it doesn't matter, for there are others like her at
Bongo's, a laid-back bar on St. Petersburg Beach in which Jimmy
Buffet would be perfectly at home. Beers and tropical drinks are
flowing on this warm Thursday evening, and young women are
swooning over the area's most eligible bachelor, fullback Mike
Alstott of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alstott, who this evening
has already exchanged soul shakes with the proprietor, kissed
the bartender and shadowboxed with the guitar player, approaches
the brunette, playfully grabbing her love handles. She flashes
her pearly whites and holds her position. As everyone can see,
she's in good hands with Alstott.
The party began hours earlier when the patrons at Bongo's were
treated to a California-style sunset accompanied by the booming
strains of the 1812 Overture, a combination that might be
offensive to romantics but that was right in tune with Alstott.
Whether bulling through defenders or stampeding through life,
he's about as subtle as a tank. "I've got the image of being a
straight-and-narrow guy, and I like that," he said over the
blare of the music. "I want to be that clean-cut guy who people
look up to. But I also like to go out, be social and get loose."
With Alstott, there's myth and there's reality, and the line
between the two is often blurred. For instance, it's true that
as a high school scrapper in Joliet, Ill., and later as an
unlikely star at Purdue, Alstott toned his body by pushing his
Jeep Wrangler back and forth across the practice field and by
running with whitewall tires strapped around his waist. It has
also been reported that Alstott chased down and caught a rabbit
he spotted while leaving the Boilermakers' practice field. "Naw,
that's a myth," Alstott says. "One of my roommates at Purdue,
Bob O'Connor, was getting all these calls from reporters, and he
just made it up. One day someone in Illinois called and read it
to me, and I cracked up."
Now in his second NFL season, Alstott has become the league's
leading symbol of throwback virtue. A 6'1", 248-pound bruiser
with deceptive grace, he has won over coaches, teammates and
fans with his work ethic and old-school manner. He has been
depicted as the kind of guy you would want your daughter to
marry. He's a little more dangerous than that. It's probably
more accurate to call him the guy your daughter would want to
November 24, 1997
With a stylish goatee covering his milk-and-cookies face and a
man-of-steel physique, Alstott doesn't want for potential
partners. Just ask Bucs rookie tackle Jerry Wunsch, who rents a
room in Alstott's St. Petersburg house. Says Wunsch, "I'll come
off the practice field--or go anywhere in public--and I'll hear
women talking about him: 'That's Mike Alstott. Do you know what
I'd like to do to him?' And then they'll get very, very
explicit. Sometimes I'll lean over and say, 'I'm his roommate.
I'll be sure to tell him.' You should see them blush."
Most of these fantasies go unfulfilled. As linebackers and
defensive backs can attest, Alstott is difficult to pin down.
The female attention, however, is no bother. Though Alstott's
reputation suggests he is a man consumed by football, the
reality is that he has other things on his mind, too. Picture
yourself a 23-year-old from a small Illinois city with money,
fame, looks and the Sunshine State at your fingertips. "He's a
Midwestern boy in an amazing place, and he's living life to the
fullest," says Alstott's close friend and former Purdue teammate
Scott Dobbins. "The clean-cut legend is what it's cracked up to
be, but he goes all out in all aspects of his life, and he
doesn't worry about the fallout."
Adds Ryan Dooley, who has been one of Alstott's best friends
since childhood, "He loves it down there. How can you not? The
guy is living the dream."
It's not uncommon for Dooley or another hometown buddy, Ryan
Brown, to receive late-night cellular calls from Florida filling
them in on what they're missing. "Sometimes I can't believe I'm
here," Alstott says. "I mean, my two best friends are back in
Joliet, still living with their parents and trying to save
money. One [Brown] works for the phone company; the other
[Dooley] works in construction. I'd be right there with 'em if I
hadn't gotten a scholarship to play at Purdue."
Nothing about Mike's athletic success has been accidental. His
parents--Dennis, a truck driver for a waste-cleanup company, and
Jeanne, a grocery store cashier--allowed him to concentrate
almost solely on school and sports. "The only job I ever had was
a paper route," he says. "My parents are unbelievably cool.
Because they've worked so hard, they wanted me to enjoy my
childhood." Dennis and Jeanne have never missed one of Mike's
games--nearly 200, all told, from peewee football to the pros.
Says Mike, "They like to go out afterward and have a good time,
Though Alstott was a star at Joliet Catholic High and was
pursued by various Big Ten schools, only Purdue recruited him
with the promise of making him a feature back. He became the
first Boilermaker to earn team MVP honors three times. At the
1996 combine Alstott wowed NFL scouts by running a 4.66 40-yard
dash. Yet when the Bucs drafted him in the second round, with
the 35th pick, they envisioned him as a pure fullback and asked
him to concentrate on a skill with which he was unfamiliar:
blocking. Midway through training camp before Alstott's rookie
season, first-year coach Tony Dungy was forced to reevaluate.
"We began to think, Maybe we've got a little bit more than a
blocker," Dungy recalls.
In fact, if Alstott has a shortcoming, it's his blocking. Dungy
says Alstott is "a slightly above-average blocker, and that's
because he never blocked at all. He's 50 percent better than
last year. It's still the weakest part of his game, but I think
he'll be in the upper echelon in another year."
As a rookie Alstott ran for 377 yards, caught a team-high 65
passes and broke tackles more routinely than Pete Townshend once
broke guitars. Suddenly, he was being compared to the classic
running fullbacks of the 1970s and '80s: Larry Csonka, Larry
Brown and his boyhood idol, John Riggins. As the '97 draft
neared, Dungy and Tampa Bay running backs coach Tony Nathan,
among others, debated the merits of finding another fullback and
making Alstott an oversized feature back, like the Pittsburgh
Steelers' Jerome (the Bus) Bettis. Dungy spent hours watching
film, comparing clips of Alstott's runs to tapes from Bettis's
All-Pro performance in '96. "Ultimately, we decided he was
capable of carrying the load," Dungy says. "That gave us the
luxury of drafting Warrick Dunn--because we didn't think Warrick
could do it full time, but he could bring us a change of pace."
Again, Dungy was pleasantly surprised: The 5'8", 178-pound Dunn
has been more durable than expected, and he and Alstott now
share the rushing chores, with 614 and 571 yards, respectively,
through Sunday's 27-7 win over the New England Patriots. In that
game (which brought the Bucs to 8-3) Alstott ran for 91 yards on
16 carries, caught three passes for 35 yards and scored his
team-high sixth rushing touchdown of the season.
"I love the Bus, and I don't want him to take this the wrong
way, but if Mike had [Steelers fullback] Tim Lester blocking for
him and got 28 to 30 carries a game, he could be Jerome Bettis,"
says Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer. "You hear so much about him
being a Riggins- or Csonka-type back, but people don't realize
how great an athlete he is. He has good moves and amazing
balance and can make people miss."
Despite the fact that he is becoming more recognized for his
athleticism, the staples of the Alstott myth remain work ethic
and toughness. He recalls a game last season in which he was so
dazed from a helmet-to-helmet collision that he couldn't
remember his phone number. "I got in the huddle and told Trent,
'Help me out here--left or right?'" Alstott says. He refuses to
name the game because he doesn't want the opponent to get the
satisfaction of knowing that he rang Alstott's bell.
Those close to Alstott know about his determination. "Even when
he's out late, he's up early the next morning to work out," says
Dobbins. "He can't just sit there and do nothing. And when he
decides he's going to do something, he won't stop until the
project is completed."
Last March, Alstott drove his Jeep--the same one he pushed for
exercise--from Joliet to St. Petersburg. He enlisted Dooley as
co-pilot and told him to be ready to leave the next morning.
Dooley went to bed, only to be awakened by an Alstott phone call
a little past midnight. Recalls Dooley, "He told me we were
leaving right away, but first we had to drive 3 1/2 hours to
Purdue to get the top to the Jeep and attach it. The only
problem was, we were hit by sleet, snow and freezing rain.
Didn't matter. Mike had decided we were leaving. I'm sitting
there with a sock wrapped around my ears, cursing him." After a
28-hour odyssey, culminating in a raucous stopover in Panama
City, Fla., where spring break was in full swing, Alstott
finally consented to stop at a motel and sleep.
Alstott's current roommates, Wunsch and second-year defensive
tackle Jason Maniecki, have also been caught in his wake. "When
he gets something on his mind, there's no changing it," Wunsch
says. "It doesn't matter what time of night it is--there's work
to be done." Among the projects for which they've been enlisted
are knocking out the kitchen cabinets, making improvements to
the house's two fish tanks and rebuilding the dock out back that
holds the 23-foot Mako fishing boat Alstott purchased last year.
Theirs is the ultimate bachelor pad: a janitor's-style mop and
bucket reside in one corner of the dining room, across from the
cage that houses Buddy, Maniecki's rowdy yellow Lab; a
half-eaten pecan pie, a fork still inserted, sits on the kitchen
counter, next to a tin of chewing tobacco.
Back at Bongo's, Alstott makes no apologies. "It's great for
now," he says of his house, "but in a couple of years, when I
sign my next contract, I'm going to tear it down and build my
dream house. When it's time to demolish it, I'll have a huge
party and give everyone hammers and paint brushes."
It's just one of many plans for Alstott. He recently bought an
acoustic guitar, and a member of the house band at Bongo's has
offered to give him lessons. "I've only been to one concert,"
Alstott says, "Nine Inch Nails at the Rosemont Horizon, near
Chicago. Can you believe that? I want to do some traveling this
off-season. Other than road-tripping to Key West with my
buddies, I've never really taken a true vacation. Chicago is the
only big city I've partied in, and other than playing in San
Diego, I've never been out West. There's so much I haven't
experienced. I've never even slept on the beach."
There's an earnestness to Alstott's voice that makes him sound
more corny than reckless. Then, suddenly, the clean-cut kid is
out of his chair, roaming behind the bar and pouring another
round for everyone. Nobody tries to stop him.