LUCAS SEMB Missoulian
MISSOULA – Montana Grizzly defenseman Eli Alford exited the locker room and entered the hall at Adams Center. At 6ft 1, almost 300 pounds, the metal folding chair he was sitting on looked tiny beneath him.
As he folded his arms over his legs and embarked on his interview, a bracelet was revealed on his left arm. On one side were the words ‘Your Name – Your Brand’ and on the other side ‘Alford’.
It’s a saying his uncle Tony, an assistant soccer coach at Ohio State University, has been preaching to him since he began his college career. It’s a reminder that everything you do is a reflection of yourself.
“I want to set a precedent for what I want people to think of when they hear the name Alford,” he said. “I know that every action I do will reflect that, so I’m just trying to be the best man I can be and at the same time be the best football player I can be.”
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Sharing the same surname with his brothers Sam and Max, his mother Linda and his late father Aaron, there is much more at stake than his own identity. What he does will follow for the rest of the family.
After his father passed away from a sudden, unexpected heart attack in 2013, the urge to represent the Alfords is even stronger. It is a sense of responsibility to carry on the legacy.
Eli hopes people will associate his name with someone his father would be proud of.
“I want to make sure I make him happy, that he’s proud of what I do,” Eli said. “Especially more in terms of being a good man and a good person, more than football.”
become a man
Eli was barely a teenager when his father died nearly ten years ago. His twin brothers were just nine. Raising three young boys was a challenging task for a widowed mother, and that got the now Griz defender into action.
He was quickly forced to grow up and become the so-called “man of the house”. Whether his mother noticed the exertion or not, a younger Eli wanted to do whatever it took to calm his mother’s and siblings’ minds.
“I’ve come a long way and learned a lot. It’s really pushed me to improve as a man and grow a lot,” Eli said. “I was pretty young at the time but when it came to housekeeping I had to fill in for my brothers and make sure they did everything right because my mum is an incredible person and she did an amazing job with all three of us … say hello to my mother, she is an amazing woman.”
But while Eli put the well-being of others above his own, he found guidance from his uncle Tony.
As strong as he has become, it is almost impossible to overcome these difficulties alone. Tony was his helper through all of this and was able to take on that fatherly role when it was most needed.
Like when Eli started his college football career. A former college coach, Aaron would have loved nothing more than to guide his son through the experience, but his brother Tony was more than willing to help out for him.
While Eli felt responsible for giving the Alford name a respectable aura, Tony felt that he should help raise the men he knew his brother wanted to become.
“My uncle really got involved and really helped me with whatever I was struggling with,” Eli said. “I talk to him all the time and he’s supportive and lets me know what to do if I ever question myself… it’s a really good resource because not a lot of people have someone like that that they go to.” who knows so much about the sport so I’m really grateful to him.”
In an interview earlier this year with the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Tony spoke about his impact on the lives of his three nephews.
“Sometimes I feel guilty and that’s a weight I probably shouldn’t be holding, but sometimes I feel like I haven’t given them enough. It’s just time and distance. But I hope they know I’m trying to give them the best I can.”
From the sound of it, he’s done more than they could ever have hoped for.
When Eli arrived on the UM campus in his freshman year, he was sure to be placed in a dormitory room by Robby Hauck. To this day they still live together.
With his father gone, his uncle scattered across the country, and his immediate family scattered, he was comfortable in his new home. He had a long-standing relationship with the Haucks before coming to Montana.
“He’s a kid I knew growing up, believe it or not, although he’s not a Montana guy,” Griz head coach Bobby Hauck said. “I knew what kind of character he was, I knew his parents … it’s funny how things work in life and I always kept an eye on him when he lost his father and I’m glad he came here could come. ”
Bobby and Tony trained together at the University of Washington during the 2001 season and have been best friends ever since. Aaron became one of Bobby’s “good buddies” because of this, and when he came to UM, Eli became just as close to him.
The way Bobby welcomed Eli into his own family will never repay him.
“I’ve had dinner at their place a couple of times and he really just took me under his wing. He treats me like family,” Eli said. “It’s super awesome and I appreciate everything Coach Hauck has done for me since I was here. He’s done a tremendous amount for me, I can’t thank him enough…I love the Haucks.”
Under the tutelage of Tony and Bobby, Eli has grown into a man promoting a strong Alford brand.
The Eli of now
Once a young boy trying to cope with a devastating loss, school and football, Eli found the right guidance in his life to transform himself into a four-year senior player pursuing an MBA in psychology.
He is articulate, sincere and finishes what he starts – all things that give Aaron peace of mind.
At a time when change is the hottest trend, Eli never thought about it. Starting out as a Grizzly novice, he paid his dues on the practice field and weight room and earned his way to becoming a leader on the defensive line.
It’s 100% more fulfilling to know that they rightfully deserve everything they’ve been given.
Before earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology, he switched back and forth between three different majors. Self-described as someone who “gets bored easily,” he couldn’t envision a future career until he became mentally ill.
He continued to look for the right person and is now aiming for his master’s degree.
His story up until now has been one of perseverance – finding your way when every wrench is thrown your way. Montana has a big part in that.
With an inevitable end looming, whether it be winning the national championship or losing the playoffs, Eli is just trying to enjoy the final stages of this chapter in his life. It helped him figure out what the Alford brand should look like, and he’s going to infuse that into everything he does next.
“I try not to think about it because it would be sad, it’s a sad thing to think about,” Eli said. “But I know I still have a lot ahead of me in my future, so it’s a bright thing too. It’s not the end of the world for me. It will be just another step in my life. I am hopeful for the future.”
The Alford name will live on.
Lucas Semb is the Griz Football Beat Writer for The Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at [email protected]