April 2, 2023

Vanstone: Alford finds his fit in Saskatchewan

The Canadian Press

Mario Alford’s ability to cut is evident when he is evading a would-be tackler or toppling a tree. 

“We’re actually chainsawing today,” the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ game-breaking return specialist says from an expanse of property that is located near Sistersville, WV. “We’ve got some trees down the road that need to be chainsawed.” 

Such is life on the family farm, where Alford is adhering to a rather unique training regimen during the off-season. 

“I use what I’m doing now as my workout,” he says. “When I cut down trees, I’ll pick up big logs and carry them instead of going the easy route and maybe pulling them with a four-wheeler.  

“And I have to chase cows all over the place, because there’s a lot of fields and a lot of hills on the farm, so I run up and down the hills all the time chasing cattle.” 

Are any of those creatures capable of moo-ving at a rate that would enable them to exceed Alford’s peak time of 4.25 seconds over 40 yards? 

“I don’t know, man,” the CFL’s 2022 Most Outstanding Special Teams Player says with a chuckle. “Some of them are pretty fast. The ones I chase now, I tell you what, they make me work!” 

He wouldn’t have it any other way. 

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A work ethic is quickly ingrained when you are the youngest of 14 children in a close-knit family that is far more affectionate than affluent. 

“I’m not going to say we were poor,” reflects the 31-year-old son of Wardell and Mildred Alford. “We were less fortunate, but we got by.  

“My sisters and brothers really helped my mom take care of me. My mom and my dad, they actually made us the people we are today, just the way they are. Christmas and Thanksgiving, I don’t know how they did it, but they did.  

“My dad passed in 2015 and my mom, she’s still going. All I can do is salute them.” 

The salute is second nature for someone who spent two years at Georgia Military College after graduating from high school in Greenville, GA. 

“My SAT score wasn’t where I wanted it to be to go a Division I school right off the top, so I went to the military school,” Alford recalls. “It was all worth it, man, at the end of the day. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without that. 

“When I first got there, I called my mom and said, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ You had to wear cadet uniforms. It was a struggle. You had to eat your meals — ‘chow’ is what they called it — at a certain time.  

“It was real strict. Everything was organized. You had to be on time for everything, so that taught me life lessons. 

“Coming out of high school and going to a military college, it was like, ‘You mean to tell me that I’m on somebody else’s time and not my own time?’ ” 

Alford’s times were rarely matched within the context of sprinting. 

He was a Georgia state high school champion in the 100-metre dash, which he covered in an economical 10.77 seconds.  

After proceeding from Georgia Military College and starring in NCAA Division I football with the West Virginia Mountaineers, he ran three scorching times — 4.25, 4.27 and 4.31 seconds — on his pro day. 

By then, though, he had been running brisk times for a long time. 

Alford has always been elusive, serving as a plug-and-play fit for the Riders in 2022 (Thomas Skrlj/CFL.ca)

“Everywhere I went, I was the fastest,” he recalls. “It was pretty cool. It was always nice to know that you could outrun people.  

“I know that when I was young and I got in trouble at school or something, they’d try to get my older brothers to try to catch me to give me a butt-whipping, but I could outrun them, too.” 

Rival defensive backs and special-teamers didn’t stand a chance, either. 

A dual threat who ran and passed for 1,000-plus yards during the same season in high school, he played running back at Georgia Military College before changing positions at West Virginia. 

“When I switched to receiver, honestly, it was like second nature,” Alford says. “It was like I knew what I was doing already. I was coming out of my breaks well and catching the ball with my hands well, all that stuff that receivers do, without even doing it before.” 

As a junior at West Virginia in 2013, Alford made 27 receptions for 552 yards — an eye-popping average of 20.2 yards per catch — and saw some duty as a returner. 

Then came a sensational senior season in which he scored 13 touchdowns in as many games. 

He caught 65 passes for 945 yards and a Big 12-best 11 TDs in addition to returning 26 kickoffs for an average of 28.6 yards. Two of his returns went the distance. 

The Cincinnati Bengals took notice, selecting Alford in the seventh round (238th overall) of the 2015 National Football League draft. A total of 258 players were chosen over three days. 

“Me and my family were in a hotel, waiting,” Alford says when asked about the events of May 2, 2015. “As the rounds keep going on and on and on and your name is not called, it’s like, ‘OK …’  

“I kind of just left and went walking. I had gotten a call from my agent and he said, ‘Hey, Cincinnati’s going to draft you with this next pick, in the seventh round.’  

“When it happened, it was a nice experience. Me and my family, we cried.” 

Alford made his NFL debut on Dec. 6, 2015, catching one pass — from A.C. McCarron — for 15 yards as the Bengals bounced the host Cleveland Browns 37-3. 

He returned to the Bengals in 2016, only to be released following the pre-season. Later that year, there were stints with the New York Jets and with Cleveland, which activated him for three late-season games. 

Alford’s tenure with the Browns ended after the 2017 exhibition season. He soon resurfaced with the Chicago Bears and spent 2.5 months on their practice squad. 

“(The NFL) is one of those leagues that doesn’t last long for a lot of people,” Alford says. “I had my fun when I was there, but it was all political. There’s no reason I shouldn’t still be in the NFL, but I just control what I can control.  

“The experience was great. I met a lot of great people, so it was a nice time while I was there.” 

Alford only needed 13 games with the Riders in 2022 to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player (Thomas Skrlj/CFL.ca)

Next stop: Canada. 

Alford signed with the Toronto Argonauts on June 3, 2018. 

He played in six games with the Argonauts that year before spending two full seasons — 2019 and 2021 — with Montreal. 

After appearing in one game with the Alouettes last season, he was traded to Saskatchewan on July 3 for a sixth-round pick in the 2023 draft. 

It was an exceedingly small price to pay for someone who, in only 13 games, scored four touchdowns. He took two kickoffs, one punt and one missed field goal to the house. 

In so doing, he became the first Roughrider to score four return touchdowns in a season. He also set a team precedent by scoring on three different types of kick returns. 

The five-foot-nine, 182-pound Alford is quick to credit head coach Craig Dickenson and his staff, which includes special-teams co-ordinator Kent Maugeri. 

“I just like their style,” Alford says. “They tell me where to go but they don’t try to coach me as a runner. 

“It’s either in you or it isn’t in you as far as running and your ability to return. They draw up schemes and say, ‘This is possibly the hole you’re going to get it in or not,’ but they let me be who I want to be. And they let me give my input. 

“The coaches understand that, ‘Hey, he’s the one who runs the ball, so we’ll go with what he thinks.’ I think that worked out well for me and for Coach Maugeri.” 

Might the offensive coaches be tempted to deploy Alford on occasion? 

“Absolutely,” Roughriders offensive co-ordinator Kelly Jeffrey stated during a recent media conference. “He has already told me then when I get the ball, I’m just different — and he truly is.  

“Mario is a Ferrari. If you have a third car that you keep in the garage and is really nice, you don’t go and put 150,000 miles on it, driving it to go get groceries. You take it out about four or five times a year when the sun’s out and the top’s down and you show it off. That’s Mario.  

“There will be three, four, five plays per game where he gets a jet sweep or he gets a screen or we take a shot down the field and we make that defence really uncomfortable when he’s out on the field.  

“You see it all the time. Teams will put in an electric guy in a spot. Obviously, they can have success but, at the same time, defences blow it sometimes. They make mistakes.  

“You use him as a decoy or they get screwed up on who’s covering him or how they’re going to cover him and it causes a lot of problems.  

“I’m not going to overuse him, because the things that he does on special teams are absolutely game-changing.” 

As evidence to that effect, Alford has averaged one return touchdown for every four CFL games he has played. He has seven scores in 28 contests, dating back to 2016. 

As a Roughrider, he needed only 13 games to earn the league’s top special-teams prize in 2022. What might he accomplish over a full season? 

“My biggest thing is I just want to stay healthy,” Alford responds. “If I stay healthy, I can be real dangerous. Like they say, ‘Stay dangerous.’ That’s who I am.” 

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