When he came into the league in 1996, Mike Alstott was a fresh-faced son of the Midwest, a hard-working Big Ten product who was most notable for his parents' insistence on being in attendance at every single one of his games.
When he left the game a dozen years later, Alstott was the head of his own family, a father of three who had put down roots in his new Florida hometown. In the interim, he had carved out a permanent spot in the collective heart of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fan base.
Last January, Alstott retired from the game after 12 incredible seasons, still obsessed by the game but unable to continue thanks to a second neck injury. The announcement was made at a press conference held at team headquarters, and as Alstott surveyed a crowd made up mostly of teammates and members of the local media, his eyes came to rest on the first row of observers, off to his right.
Seated there was his wife, Nicole, and their three children. If Alstott held any doubts about his decision to hang up the cleats, they melted in the face of his wife and kids. He had come to realize that sharing the rest of his life with his family was more important than giving them a few more precious memories from the gridiron.
"I feel so fortunate to be a father and have my kids experience my career," said Alstott on that January morning. "Some of the most memorable moments in my career were with my three beautiful children. Taking my son in the locker room, playing catch with them after games and chasing my girls around the 50-yard line — those will be the things I'll truly miss. But I'm relieved to know Daddy still gets to be Daddy and to be there for my children as they grow up."
Upon Alstott's retirement, the Buccaneers commissioned a book about his career, which became a gift for 2008 club suite and luxury suite ticketholders. Alstott's thoughts above, as well as the entries below, are excerpts from that exclusive book.
Chapter One: Before He Was a Buc (The Pre-NFL Years)
Make no mistake, Mike Alstott has long been obsessed with football. He would say it is in his blood. Son of a coach and athletic director, little brother to another gridiron junkie and willing youth in a football-crazed town outside of Chicagoâ€¦the game was there for him from Day One.
"We just had a football childhood," said Alstott. "I grew up with it all around me. My brother was four years older than me and I played with him all the time in the backyard and went to his practices and hung out. Football was just something in our family."
There was much more to Alstott's childhood in Joliet, Illinois than just football, of course. He was fortunate to have a loving, close-knit and balanced family. Mike and his brother Mark, inherited the need to always be on the move — and a strong work ethos — from their parents, Dennis and Jeanne. Football may have been Mike's number-one love, but there were other dimensions to the boy, just as there are to the father of three these days.
But this is the story of the Mike Alstott that Tampa Bay fell in love with, and that Alstott is a football player. Thus, our tale revolves around that passion, which met its first bit of organization with the Plainfield Jr. Cats when Mike was seven years old.
Dennis Alstott was the A.D. of the organization and Mark had come through the same program. Jeanne knew her younger son was going to do well with the Jr. Cats even before the first season began. Her words to the Lafayette Journal and Courier in 1996, just before the '06 NFL Draft, seem prescient today, given how Mike's pro career unfolded.
"When he played with the older kids, he was so tough," she said. "He would keep up with them, and they couldn't catch him. Everybody wanted Mikey on their team. He's always been like this. That's just Mikey."
Chapter Two: Taking the League By Storm (1996-97)
Looming after the bye week — Dungy's former team, the Minnesota Vikings, who would bring a 5-1 record and a first-place spot in the division into Tampa. It seemed like a terrible mismatchâ€¦or the perfect opportunity for the coaching staff to prove to the players that they were on the right course.
Sure enough, in an outcome too perfect to be fiction, the winless Bucs turned it around against the Vikings, giving Dungy his first victory with a 24-13 decision that included a 17-point surge in the fourth quarter. And, fittingly, Alstott scored his first NFL touchdown, a 12-yard pass in the fourth quarter that put the Bucs up 14-10, a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Alstott scored and the Bucs won — that would become one of the most indelible patterns for the Buccaneers over the next eight years. From 1996 through 2003, Alstott scored in 47 different contests and, remarkably, the Bucs won 39 of them.
The style of Alstott's first touchdown was as fitting as the substance. On second-and-nine from the Minnesota 12, the rookie fullback slipped out of the backfield and out to the right, where he caught a screen pass that Dilfer got off just before he was buried by John Randle. Alstott shook off a tackle attempt by safety Robert Griffith and rumbled to the six before linebacker Jeff Davis jumped on his back. Davis proceeded to get a six-yard ride, as Alstott refused to go down before he had extended the ball over the goal line and just inside the pylon.
He simply wasn't to be denied.
"Determination — I wanted it bad," said Alstott. "It was a critical situation. I want to be an impact player. I don't want to just be a blocking back."
For Dungy, Alstott's touchdown tied together the groundwork the team had laid since he and his staff arrived and the promise that first victory held for the future.
"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," Dungy told Sports Illustrated the following summer. 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."
Chapter Three: The A-Train — The Making of a Legend (1998-2002)
Just as it had been in 1998 and 2000, Minnesota's visit to Raymond James Stadium somehow brought out the best in a struggling team. A day shy of the anniversary of their 41-13 drubbing of the Vikings in 2000, the Buccaneers drummed up a 41-14 lashing in 2001 that included a 28-0 lead by halftime.
It also included, once again, a huge performance by Alstott. In some ways, in fact, this might have been the most outstanding game of the Buc back's career.
As he prepared for another afternoon in the tailback role, Alstott could feel something special building during the week. "I don't know how to describe it, but you sense it," he said later. "You don't have to talk to anyone. You don't have to do anything. Last week was very intense, very focused and there was a sense that we've got to get the job done."
Alstott got the job done early and often. Seeking to control the clock and keep Culpepper, Moss and company off the field, the Bucs handed it to him again and again. He carried the ball nine times (including one erased by a penalty) during an eight-minute touchdown drive in the first quarter, which he finished with a three-yard run. He was the man on six of the nine plays on the Bucs' next drive, too, as they went 66 yards for another score in the second quarter.
By the end of the game, Alstott had 129 yards and three touchdowns on two carries. He set a career high for totes, tied his single-game mark for touchdowns and finished just two yards off his best mark in that category. And he gave the Bucs a recognizable identity.
"That," said Vikings receiver Cris Carter, "was the Tampa Bay everybody was expecting to see earlier in the season."
The early running opened up the rest of the offense, as the team piled up a season-best 446 total yards and big days were turned in by Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Karl Williams and Aaron Stecker. Most of all, though, Alstott's teammates enjoyed watching him run all over the Vikings' defense.
"Those guys didn't really want to tackle [Alstott] after a couple of times of running into him," said Keyshawn Johnson. "It was kind of like, 'Nah, we don't want any part of that.' Once you sense that, you just kind of know they're in for a pretty good butt-kicking."
Chapter Four: Capping an Unforgettable Career (2003-06)
The Bucs won, 36-35, on one of the gutsiest calls the team has ever seen. Alstott gained a memory to cherish for the rest of his life, one he considers to be almost the biggest moment of his career.
"Other than the Super Bowl, yes," he said. "No question about it. We have less than a minute and he calls my number? Yes, it's up there. It's probably number two with the Super Bowl. Of all the ups and downs in my career, especially in the last three years, this is the best."
The following week, the Buccaneers would win in almost as dramatic a fashion, taking down the Falcons, 30-27, in Atlanta. That one turned on a remarkable, diving forced fumble by Derrick Brooks, which set up Bryant's 45-yard game-winning field goal. This one was a shootout, too, and while Cadillac Williams (116 yards, touchdown) was the Bucs' offensive star, Alstott once again got into the act, too. Not only did his third-quarter touchdown put the Bucs up 20-17, but he once again stupefied teammates and foes alike with one of his "A-Plane" dives.
This time, Alstott leapt over linebacker Keith Brooking and the Falcons' defense to find pay dirt. He took flight from well behind the line of scrimmage, too. "What is he trying to do," asked teammate Dan Buenning, "take off from the four-yard line? Unbelievable."
Alstott reiterated that he wasn't purposely adding a new dimension to his game late in his career.
"I think my attitude is to get into the end zone any way possible," said the 240-pound back. "Maybe it's over the top, through people or by walking in. I don't even think about it. It's not a thought process. It's instinct. It just happens when I receive the ball."