by Noah Cohan
In order to succeed at the grueling game of football, one must be willing to sacrifice body and mind for gridiron glory.
In doing so, each proprietor of the pigskin must coerce his body into that elite state of physical fitness known only as "football shape." Then he must be endlessly coached, his every on-field action programmed through countless hours of training.
Needless to say, years of preparation are often required before a player can become an impact contributor on any level.
Unless you're Rich Alexis.
In that case, you can rush for 298 yards and five touchdowns in your first organized game.
"I didn't even practice with the team," says the Husky tailback of his first football experience, during the spring of his junior year at Boca Raton, Fla.'s Pope John Paul II High School. "I went out there without being taught anything. Basically, I had no technique. They just gave the ball and told me to run."
How did Alexis run rampant during what should have been his football baby-steps?
It was all a matter of picking up his dribble.
You see, Alexis actually had plenty of experience running with the ball - it's just that he was used to doing his running on the hard wood of the basketball court as opposed to the pliant green turf of the football field. A rabid basketball enthusiast growing up, Alexis had always more hoop dreams than football fantasies.
"Basically, I was just a basketball person," explains Alexis. "I never played football. I had a basketball coach in high school that was like a father-figure to me. Everything was going well - we went to the state championship in my junior year - until he decided to leave and coach another school."
Suddenly, the man who Alexis hoped would help him fulfill his hoop dreams was gone.
"My first reaction was to panic" continues the Coral Springs native. "I started to wonder how I was going to get to college. He was such a great coach that, even though I was only 5-foot-11, I thought he could help me get a scholarship somewhere. It's hard to play college basketball at 5'11" unless you're a point guard, which I wasn't.
"I knew that if I played football I'd be a big running back, so I gave it a try."
That try resulted in Alexis' 298-yard, five score effort in Pope John Paul II spring game. It was obvious he had a promising future in his new sport.
There was only one problem.
Alexis' parents, Numa and Alicia, didn't want their son to play football. They had encouraged him to play basketball, but were hesitant to allow him to take up football, especially considering his relative inexperience under the helmet. Alexis, though, had a simple solution that changed their minds.
"It came to a point where I put it to them simply," Alexis recalls. "I said, 'Do you want to pay for school, or do you want me to go to school for free? I can get a scholarship that will get me a free ride, but football is where it's at.' They came to the realization that football might be the best thing for me to do to get a college scholarship."
With his parents' blessing, Alexis fulfilled his burgeoning football potential, following his stunning spring debut with a senior year in which he rushed for 700 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a result, Alexis found himself on the football recruitment radar of schools such as Miami, Florida State, Kansas State and Ohio State. Ultimately, though, it was a school on the opposite side of the country that he felt really wanted him. A school that Alexis had admittedly never heard of before a friend from high school had enrolled there just a year before.
That friend was a promising kicker named John Anderson. The school that most wanted Alexis was the University of Washington.
As it turned out, the UW's interest in the roundballer-turned-pigskin phenom was fueled by more than word-of-mouth from its new kicker. Little did Alexis know, but Anderson's father was the one video-taping the action from the stands at Pope John Paul II. Impressed by the team's new star, Anderson sent tapes of Alexis to the Husky coaches. Soon the purple and gold were hotly pursuing the second of the three players (former-Husky Anderson, Alexis and Husky junior wide-out Charles Frederick) that would become the members of Washington's "Florida Connection."
Impressed by the Husky coaches' interest and wowed by a visit to the Washington campus, Alexis made the decision to come to the UW. Just a few weeks into his freshman fall camp, however, the self-described "true Floridian" was starting to regret his decision. Homesick, Alexis wasn't sure if he would stay at Washington, but decided to tough it out at least until the home opener against the Miami Hurricanes, one of his favorite childhood teams.
With the Huskies leading the fourth-ranked Hurricanes 21-3 in the third quarter, Alexis' decision to stay was rewarded.
Put in the game "so my parents could see me on TV," Alexis was assigned to block for former Husky quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo on a passing play. Fate, however, and Alexis' penchant for strong debuts, quickly intervened.
" Marques changed the play to a running play," says Alexis. "He audibled, tossed me the ball, and then I was just running for my life. I went 50 yards into the end zone. It was one of the scariest moments ever for me. I was running for my life, period. But it was great. That moment helped me seal my decision to stay here at Washington."
As it turned out, Alexis' renewed commitment helped propel the team to an 11-1 season in 2000. Thrust into the thick of the offensive mix after his Miami debut, Alexis played in all 12 games in his freshman campaign, starting four of them. The unexpected playing-time allowed him to rush for a UW freshman-record 726 yards and nine touchdowns, while averaging an astounding 6.2 yards per carry. Best of all, Alexis capped his freshman campaign with a trip to the Rose Bowl, a 34-24 Washington victory over Purdue in which he rushed for 78 yards on 10 carries. Included in that total was a 50 yard scamper - the longest non-scoring rush in Husky bowl history
It was a game, and an experience, he will never forget.
"The Rose Bowl was a lot different for me," Alexis remembers. "I didn't grow up watching Pac-10 football. I knew it was the 'Granddaddy Of Them All,' but I still had to adjust to it. The Rose Bowl wasn't new to the other guys on the team; they knew what to expect because most of them were West Coast guys. But everything was new to me. I had big eyes everywhere I went.
"It was so much fun to go in there and play in such a big game. To be a true freshman and get a chance to get in that game, that was incredible. That game's so hard to get to; you never know when you'll get back to the Rose Bowl. I'm just happy I got there my first year and got a chance to play."
After suffering injury setbacks in each of the last two seasons, a healthy Alexis hopes the Rose Bowl is where the Huskies will finish their season in 2003. An important part of the puzzle in the Washington backfield, the senior also realizes that his continued improvement will be crucial in attaining that goal.
"Personally, I just want to keep improving, every year," he remarks. "I don't want to be mediocre. I want to do things better than I did last year. I'm going to work real hard, try to get out on the field, and just help the team out any way I can. I'm not expecting anything, I just want to get out there and play.
"I haven't played football for very long, so I still have a lot more learn. I haven't tapped my potential."
A veteran player for the first time in his football playing career, Alexis hopes his newfound experience will help make his farewell to Husky football as impressive as his stunning debut.