HAMILTON — DeAundre Alford didn't want to live in the projects for the rest of his life.
He also wanted to find a way to support his parents and eight siblings (he has five on his mom's side and three on his dad's side) as much as possible.
"It was a struggle. My mom and dad did the best they could. I just had that mindset that I needed to make it out so I focused on sports," said Alford, a 23-year-old defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Free Press chatted with the rookie at Thursday's Grey Cup media day at the Hamilton Convention Centre.
"I had older brothers in penitentiaries and stuff like that so I just knew the route I had to take in order to be successful."
He was a standout point guard at Spalding High School in Griffin, Ga., and had an offer to play at Mercer University, but that wasn't going to cut it. No matter how good Alford was from beyond the arc, he knew that being under six-feet tall was going to make it an uphill battle to make it to the pros.
Heading into Grade 12, Alford, who stood at 5-8 at the time, figured if he was going to make it to the highest level, football was his ticket.
There was only one problem: he had never played before.
But that didn't matter to Jerry Odom, a defensive co-ordinator at Jacksonville University at the time. He caught one of Alford's high school games and he saw something right away.
"I recruited Georgia and a friend of mine was coaching at Griffin, which is one of (Alford's) rival schools and I just happened to watch a game and he kept standing out," Odom said in a phone interview.
"So, I kind of looked him up and found him on Twitter, which is how you do a lot of recruiting nowadays and we just formed a relationship."
Soon after Odom took a head coaching position at Tusculum University, a Div. II program that has only had one player drafted to the NFL. Alford could've been a walk-on at a bigger campus, but he took Odom's offer and joined him at the small Tennessee school."He’s one of those coaches where it’s not all about football. It’s about bringing up young men and getting them ready for the real world," said Alford.
"So, instantly, man, I had a bond with coach Odom so I decided to follow him."
Alford, now 5-11, played nine games as a freshman and went on to close out his four-year career with the Pioneers by getting named to the All-South Atlantic Conference First Team. In four seasons, he set a Tusculum school-record with 40 career passes defended and 195 career interceptions return yards. Alford's 10 career interceptions are third-most in school history.
But getting his name in the program's record books didn't lead to any NFL interest. Owing to the pandemic, Tusculum wasn't able to hold a pro day, either. So, Odom took matters into his own hands. He sent an email to Bombers assistant general manager and director of U.S. scouting Danny McManus. Odom used to work with Danny's brother Jerry McManus at East Carolina University.
Without even getting to meet Alford in person, the Bombers signed him at the beginning of 2020. That didn't guarantee him anything except an invite to training camp where Alford was one of 27 defensive backs. Despite being a true rookie out of a program that many had never heard of before, Alford made the team and not only that, has started every game for the Blue and Gold since Week 1. He was named the Bombers' top rookie and a West Division all-star as he leads their impressive defensive unit with four interceptions.
"I feel like I’m the chosen one in a sense. It makes me smile cause I feel like I’m on the way to a very successful professional football career and it means a lot to make my mom smile, my dad smile, my siblings smile," Alford said.
"I'm able to do things that they weren’t able to do for themselves or for me when I was a child."
Is Odom surprised how quickly Alford has found success as a pro? "Yes and no. Obviously, it's a different game up there in Canada, but he's a guy that will sit there and learn. He'll shut his mouth, be humble, and learn from those other DBs. I know they have a great defence and they have some older guys that he really looks up to and tries to learn as much as he can from those guys. That's a big part of Dee's success," said Odom.
One of those older guys that Alford looks up to is Winston Rose. The two haven't been teammates for long as Rose started the year with the Cincinnati Bengals before returning to the Bombers at the end of October, but the defensive backs met in Atlanta while training in the offseason.
"Watching him train and prepare, I knew he had something. I didn't know how he'd transition to the CFL, 'cause I know transitioning from playing down south to playing here can take a year or two to get adjusted. So, for him, to adjust how he did, that's just a token to the hard work he put in and the preparation he did in the offseason," Rose said.
"Alford's that guy. He has that it factor."
Now Alford has the chance to show what he's got on the biggest stage in three-down football: Sunday's Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Alford wasn't familiar with Canada's silver mug when he was growing up, but that doesn't mean he doesn't realize the opportunity that's in front of him.
"This will actually be my first championship game that I’ll be a part of and it’s my rookie year, man. It means a lot and I just want to go out on Sunday and win this thing and go back to Georgia as a champion."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.