A 3,000 Mile Journey - From Miami to Manhood

AP Photo - Ted Warren

As he did every day, Numa Alexis sat down and opened up the newspaper to see what interesting or scurrilous things were happening in the world. Only this time, the news hit closer to home. His son Rich, a freshman at Pope John Paul High School, was described in a story as having run for 298 yards and 5 TDs in the previous night's football game.

Problem was, Numa didn't know his 14-year old son was playing football. Papa Alexis had told Rich earlier that he wanted him to avoid football, for fear of getting hurt.

Alexis wouldn't play again until his senior season. When he finally suited up again, he rushed for 700 yards and 13 touchdowns, despite being limited by injuries. It was enough to garner recruiting attention. Miami came courting, but viewed Rich as a defensive back. Kansas State offered a scholarship. Indiana saw him as much for his basketball skills as for football.

Thanks to Jeff Anderson, the father of former Husky kicker John Anderson, Washington had entered into the fold. Former Husky coach Rick Neuheisel liked what he saw on film, sent to him by Mr. Anderson. But for Rich, the toughest part wasn't in choosing which college to play for; it was in securing his father's blessing.

"I said that I wanted to go to college," recalled a chuckling Rich Alexis to Dawgman.com. "I told him that either I could take a scholarship, or he'd have to pay for my tuition. And he said, `just don't get yourself hurt.'"

Alexis' parents had emigrated from Haiti, escaping the harrowing shadow cast by the dictator Francoise Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. When Numa and his wife Alicia left for Florida, Alicia was pregnant with Rich. They had been working class and knew very little English.

"Anything I do for my kids, that's my job to do," Numa told Everett Herald writer John Sleeper over the telephone in 1999. "I have to protect my family. Me and my wife, we work very hard, you know? We don't have good money. We don't have good job. But we keep in mind that one day, everything be OK."

Rich Alexis accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Washington. His friend John Anderson had played at the same high school, and left for Seattle in 1999. "I had never heard of the University of Washington," recalled Alexis. "I thought it was in Washington, DC." He committed to Rick Neuheisel at the former coach's house. "I had great guys on my trip, I enjoyed being with them. Terry Johnson, being the loudmouth, was telling everybody all the great things our class was going to do."

Alexis continued: "My first visit, it was such a long plane ride that I thought that we'd never get there. But then I got here, and I thought that this place is so nice, so beautiful, and the people are so friendly... And I committed."

There is an old expression, whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.

Rich Alexis had barely played football in high school, yet in his second collegiate game he was thrust in for a play. The freshman ran onto the field, broke huddle and lined up in the tailback position, across from the team he grew up watching on TV-- the vaunted Miami Hurricanes. At 6'2" and 215 lbs., his muscular frame belied his lack of playing experience. And Alexis laughs and delights at this memory.

"I got so nervous! Then Marques changes the play at the line (of scrimmage). We had a running play that was to the right, but the defense was loaded to that side. So Marques checked off. He shouted Red 47, and I'm sitting there thinking, oh man, what's Red 47? I knew it was a running play but that was all I knew. I paused to see which way the play went, then took the pitch. Basically, I just ran for my life."

Marques Tuiasosopo took the snap and began sidling down the line, seemingly using clairvoyance to read the Miami defense. Masterfully, he drew a defender toward him, waiting until the last possible moment to pitch the ball out to the trailing Alexis. As Tuiasosopo released the ball, he was blasted to the turf. Simultaneously, Husky wide receiver Wilbur Hooks was blocking a Miami defender into another area code, and Alexis had a giant hole through which to ramble. Lying on the ground with a defender on him, Tuiasosopo watched Alexis scamper wildly down the sideline and thought the freshman looked like he had been shot from a cannon.

"Man, I thought I was on top of the world," reminisced Alexis happily. "When I got to the end zone, the whole stadium was rocking. I saw the goal posts shaking. I kept the football in my hands. I didn't know what to do with it."

After the game, when Alexis returned to his room, students had plastered his door with signs of congratulations. He finished his freshman season with 739 yards rushing and a Rose Bowl ring. In the off-season, he decided to bulk up and get stronger. But his next two years brought with it the death of a friend and frustration on the field.

In August of 2001, with the season of promise fast approaching, Rich Alexis got a new tattoo added to his bicep; giving him the words "Loyalty" and "Chosen One" – and a prowling panther. "I like panthers -- they're vicious," said Alexis at the time. "That's how I am on the field." And then he broke into light-hearted laughter. Alexis was also talking openly of leaving early for the NFL after his junior season. It was not fully unfounded talk. OSU coach Dennis Erickson had heaped praise upon him and one NFL scout had touted Alexis with the tag, "the sky's the limit". But then problems beset the sophomore.

"We were playing Idaho, and I broke free for a 31-yard gain… And I got caught from behind," recalled Alexis. "Not to take anything away from Idaho, but I thought, man, this ain't right." Rich Alexis was too bulked up. For the first time, he was no longer the subject of adoration, but became the target of frustration and fan criticism. He was stunned. At times, Alexis looked terrible. He ran tentatively and with choppy, indecisive footwork. He would often run right up the back of his linemen, not yet possessing the vision needed to identify creases that could have been veered into for gains.

And in a fateful twist of horrible timing, the Washington offensive line had its worst two-year stretch in decades. Often times, Alexis would receive a handoff in the backfield only to be engulfed by frenzied tacklers. Occasional boos floated down from the stands. Criticism abounded on the radio and in the papers.

Then on May 6, 2002, word was received that former Husky teammate Curtis Williams had died.

"I'm very lucky to have met this guy," Alexis remarked somberly. "He was a guy that was always quiet. But he was a really good guy. And when I was struggling, he pulled me aside and said, 'hey, it's gonna be alright. Just keep working hard, you'll do fine.' He was a true leader."

2001 and 2002 came and went, pockmarked with struggles. There was the immense national tragedy of 9/11, the death of Curtis Williams, the heavy criticism from fans, and the hideous loss in the Orange Bowl against Miami. Looking ahead to his senior season, Alexis wanted it to be one to remember.

"Back in Florida (during the summer), I didn't lift weights. I wanted to get down to my freshman playing weight of 215. I played a lot of basketball, and that got me conditioned. To regain the starting position, I knew I had to work hard," recalled Alexis. "I worked out with Kaligis and Emtman, and every time I slacked off, coach Heater was on me. And I watched some film, not so much of me, but of guys like Willie Hurst."

As he entered the 2003 fall camp, Rich Alexis found himself demoted to fourth string. Gilbertson was sending him a message. Gone was Neuheisel. Very much present was chaos and scandal in the newspapers. But Alexis stayed focused and worked hard, keeping his head up and fighting through it. By the end of camp, he had been named the starter for the opener against Ohio State.

Rich Alexis was having a wonderful season before he was injured halfway through the year against Oregon State. Through experience and effort, he was now reading his blockers and hitting the holes like a freight train. Through strength and determination, Alexis was churning for positive yardage. Linebackers were feeling his impact. Piles were moving from his forward progress. His blocking was outstanding. Against Idaho, he had ignited the lethargic Husky Stadium crowd with a massive pancake clock of an opposing linebacker. And by the Beaver game, he was fourth in the conference in rushing. And just as a 1,000-yard season seemed an enticing possibility, fate intervened with its own plans. A torn thigh muscle ended the season for Rich Alexis.

Through its remaining schedule, Washington staggered along, suffering two of its worst defeats in history, to Arizona and California. The Huskies entered the Apple Cup with a 5-6 record. A dismal pall hung over the program. But for Alexis personally, something special was to occur. Numa Alexis was to make his first trip to Seattle, to visit his son.

"People have been pressuring him to see it one time," said Alexis of his father. "To come to Seattle and to experience it one time. To be where I have been, with the all things I have gone through. I wanted him to be here. He wasn't here when I was handling all of the criticism, and seeing my Dad here was special."

There is a smile in Alexis' voice as he describes the following: "The people in Seattle are extra nice, and people saw my blood (relation), someone biologically related to me, and people were loving him. Coming up to him and saying hi how are you? …Yea, my Dad is very gregarious, and he said to me "you may think you're the celebrity, but I'm the man on this campus!"

Recovering from injury, Rich Alexis was on the sidelines for the Apple Cup, wearing his gray sweats and rooting on his teammates. With Husky Stadium illuminated at night and a TV audience watching, the Huskies scored two late touchdowns to knock Washington State out of the Rose Bowl. As the clock struck 0:00, bedlam ensued upon the field. Players caroused before the cameras, hugged each other, and looked for relatives.

Rich Alexis soaked this up for a few moments, but then started for the tunnel. John Anderson's Dad stopped him. Rich Alexis describes the scene: "Mr. Anderson asked me, why don't you bring your Dad down to the field and show him around? I didn't know where my Dad was seated, but Mr. Anderson pointed him out to me. I went and grabbed him from the stands and showed him around. He was like, wow, this is beautiful and amazing. You guys finally decided to show up and play! My Dad was ecstatic, just very happy."

Through the maze of humanity amid the post-game celebration, Rich Alexis had his arm happily slung around his Dad's shoulders. He was introducing him to everyone. Both of their faces radiated happiness. It really made no difference that Rich had been injured and unable to play. Father and son had a memory that they'd hold onto for decades.

As Numa Alexis had stated back in 1999: "We keep in mind that one day, everything be OK."
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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