In the late 1990s and 2000s, Mike Alstott was considered one of the better fullbacks in the National Football League.
He earned that reputation by combining running skills with brute physicality and a throwback type of work ethic.
It not only took him to great heights as a college player, but it also got him to the pinnacle of the pro game.
Through it all, Alstott remained grounded and never let his success go to his head. In fact, he ended up paying it forward and helping the next generation realize their potential.
Growing Up In Illinois
Michael Joseph Alstott was born on December 21, 1973, in Joliet, Ill.
His father Dennis drove a truck for a waste-cleanup company, while his mother Jeanne was a grocery store cashier. Since Alstott was fortunate enough to grow up in a middle-income family, he was able to have what he considers a normal childhood, without having to work himself to make ends meet, as some NFL players had to do growing up.
“The only job I ever had was a paper route,” he says. “My parents are unbelievably cool. Because they’ve worked so hard, they wanted me to enjoy my childhood.”
Alstott was also lucky because his father happened to be the athletic director of the Plainfield Junior Cats, a youth football league in the area. Alstott started playing there at the age of seven, and even as a young child he started to show the first signs of being special.
“When he played with the older kids, he was so tough,” Jeanne Alstott said of her son. “He would keep up with them, and they couldn’t catch him. Everybody wanted Mikey on their team. He’s always been like this. That’s just Mikey.”
He ended up attending Joliet Catholic Academy, a private Catholic high school in Joliet, and he started off playing football on both the freshman and sophomore teams. Alstott was ecstatic for the opportunity to do so.
“It was just a dream come true to play for Joliet Catholic,” he said.
Joliet Catholic has become a storied football program in the area, as it had won six state titles in the past.
“That was just a way of life in Joliet,” he said. “We followed Joliet Catholic for so long, even when I was a little kid.”
By the end of his sophomore season, Alstott was promoted to the varsity squad, and he was so dominant that, as a sophomore, his team’s offensive gameplan was simple – get him the ball early and often.
“The guy that was the sophomore coach just pitched the ball to Mike and let him run,” said Bob Stone, Joliet Catholic’s varsity coach from 1989-96. “You don’t always like to hear that as the varsity coach, but he was that good.”
Once he was a junior, Alstott put his imprint on Joliet Catholic’s present and legacy. He rushed for over 1,000 yards that season, as his team went undefeated and won the Class 4A state title.
It wasn’t enough, however, to impress college recruiters, so he went to work.
As part of his training regimen, he dragged tires around his yard, and he even got one of his friends to let him push his Volkswagen around the parking lot of the school. He also stepped up his weight training to the point where he was able to bench press 330 pounds.
As a result, by the start of his senior season, Alstott stood 6-foot-1 and weighed a solid 210 pounds.
The results were evident right away. In Joliet Catholic’s first game of the new season, he helped wipe out a 24-6 deficit with under six minutes left in the fourth quarter, then added two scores in overtime as the Hilltoppers defeated Mount Carmel.
On the season, Alstott had a beastly 2,051 yards on 271 carries with 29 touchdowns. Although Joliet Catholic lost in the semifinals, he had numerous Big Ten schools clamoring for his services.
A Ponderous Presence At Purdue
Alstott decided to play for Purdue University, which, located in West Lafayette, Ind., allowed him to stay relatively close to home. The Boilermakers also promised to feature him offensively, which surely was a factor in his decision to play for them.
He didn’t get many opportunities as a freshman, but the following year he started to establish himself as a difference-maker.
Alstott rushed for 816 yards and scored a dozen touchdowns in 1993, his sophomore season. He also added 407 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
His junior season was even better: 1,188 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, and 298 yards in the air.
Through it all, he maintained and continued to hone his otherworldly work ethic. He took to pushing his Jeep Wrangler back and forth across the practice field to build his upper-body muscles and strength.
Alstott would also run while whitewall tires were strapped around his waist for added resistance.
By constantly working on his craft, he kept getting better, and others couldn’t help but notice.
“When he was going into his junior year, it became evident that he was going to be stepping up to that next level,” said Eric Gray, a lineman who played with Alstott at Joliet Catholic and Purdue. “Mike was always very dedicated to his team and also to others.”
Alstott ended his career as a Boilermaker with a bang, rushing for 1,436 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. No one in school history had ever run for more yards in a single season.
He also set two career school records with 3,635 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Hustlin’ And Bustlin’ As A Buccaneer
At the 1996 NFL draft combine, Alstott showed scouts that he had speed to go along with his strength, running the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to take him with the 35th pick in the NFL draft that year.
Although he had played the running back position in college, new Bucs head coach Tony Dungy wanted to convert him into a fullback and have him focus more on blocking than running the football.
But as Alstott’s rookie season unfolded, Dungy realized that perhaps he couldn’t typecast the Illinois native the way he thought he could.
“We began to think, maybe we’ve got a little bit more than a blocker,” Dungy recalled.
Alstott’s numbers as a rookie didn’t jump off the page, but with 377 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, 557 receiving yards and three more touchdowns off the pass, he was starting to draw comparisons to Larry Csonka, the bruising back who starred on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.
By now, Alstott had bulked up and gained more weight, making him an elusive target for opposing defenses. Sometimes, it seemed like it was harder to tackle him than it was to sell heaters to Eskimos.
Since their inception in 1976, the Bucs had been a doormat for most of their existence. They had mustered only two campaigns with a winning record, and they had reached the NFL playoffs only three times.
Although Tampa Bay won just six games and missed the postseason in Alstott’s rookie year, things were about to change for the moribund Bucs franchise.
He scored his first touchdown in Week 7 that year against the Minnesota Vikings. Positioned on Minnesota’s 12-yard line, quarterback Trent Dilfer sent Alstott a screen pass that he scored on to put the Bucs ahead for good.
Dungy felt that, despite a losing record, the team was just starting to come together and realize the vision he had for his players.
“We may look back at one point down the road and say Mike’s Minnesota play was the beginning of a new era for this team,” Dungy told Sports Illustrated the following summer. “In our first draft we wanted to make a statement about what kind of team we wanted to be. We wanted high-character guys who love everything about the game — the practices, the work, even the drudgery. Mike epitomizes the standard we’re building this team on.”
It was a sign of things to come, as Alstott would seem to make the Vikings his own personal punching bag in the years to come.
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) November 1, 2017
10-28-2001, Mike Alstott ran for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Buccaneers 41-14 thrashing of the Vikings. pic.twitter.com/8s3Xh8a59S
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) October 28, 2018
In 1997, the Bucs drafted Warrick Dunn, a star running back at Florida State University. While Alstott was fire and fury in the backfield, Dunn was quick and sleek.
Dungy felt that perhaps Alstott could carve out a role much like that of Jerome Bettis, the 252-pound Hall of Fame running back who had just started to blossom with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Ultimately, we decided he was capable of carrying the load,” Dungy said of Alstott. “That gave us the luxury of drafting Warrick Dunn–because we didn’t think Warrick could do it full time, but he could bring us a change of pace.”
With Alstott serving as a battering ram and Dunn playing the role of the shifty, elusive speedster, the Bucs started to boast one of the NFL’s best ground games.
They won 10 games in 1997, tying a team record, and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Alstott helped with 665 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, seven of them on the ground.
Tampa Bay started the playoffs with a win over the Detroit Lions, who featured a fearsome running back of their own named Barry Sanders. Sanders tallied 65 rushing yards, but Alstott outplayed him, getting 68 yards on the ground and a touchdown.
The Bucs would fall in the next round to the Green Bay Packers, but Alstott had made himself known as a premier player, as he made his first trip to the Pro Bowl and got named to the First-Team All-Pro squad.
With Alstott maturing, Tampa Bay started to mold itself into a contender. After missing the playoffs in 1998, it returned to the postseason the following year with an 11-5 record.
Although the Bucs’ defense was strong, Alstott was still one of their pillars with 949 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in Week 3, Alstott ran for 131 yards and a touchdown while outplaying Terrell Davis, the Broncos’ prolific running back, in a 13-10 win.
For his efforts, he earned a Pro Bowl nod and received First-Team All-Pro honors for the third straight season.
Although Tampa Bay’s offense was nothing to write home about, its 1999 edition was perhaps the best in its history to date. After getting past the Washington Redskins in the NFC Divisional round after trailing 13-0 in the second half, it was on to the conference championship game.
There, it would face the new flavor of the month: the 13-3 St. Louis Rams.
The Rams were having themselves a Cinderella season, led by quarterback Kurt Warner, who had seemingly come out of nowhere to win the league MVP award. Thanks also to Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, the Rams had one of the most powerful offenses anyone had ever seen, earning them the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Someway, somehow, the Bucs managed to make the Rams feel like they were running in mud, forging a 6-5 lead in the fourth quarter.
After St. Louis wideout Ricky Proehl scored a touchdown to put it ahead with 4:44 left in the final frame, Tampa Bay had a golden opportunity to respond and advance to the Super Bowl.
It appeared they had answered the call, as quarterback Shaun King brought the team to the Rams’ 22-yard line. He appeared to complete a pass to Bert Emanuel to set up a 3rd down and 10, but officials ruled that as he dove to catch the ball, the nose of the ball had touched the ground as he brought it into his body.
Therefore, it was ruled an incomplete pass, and just like that, Alstott and the Bucs had fallen short of the big game, 11-6.
They weren’t able to recapture the apparent magic of the season, as they lost in the NFC Wild Card round to the Philadelphia Eagles in each of the next two seasons.
Alstott continued to do his thing though, as he made the Pro Bowl both seasons and established a career-high with 10 rushing touchdowns in 2001.
The Dream Season
With Alstott pummeling defenders on a regular basis, the Bucs had clearly turned the corner, as they had made the playoffs in four of his first five seasons with the team.
But what good is making the playoffs if you don’t win it all?
That was the thought that hovered over the organization prior to the 2002 season. Overall, its offense was about as high-powered as a 1978 Chevrolet Chevette, and general manager Rich McKay knew that changes needed to be made.
He fired head coach Tony Dungy, and replaced him with Jon Gruden, who had previously coached the Oakland Raiders. With Dunn leaving to Atlanta, Michael Pittman was signed to complement Alstott in the backfield.
The 2002 Bucs still weren’t world-beaters on offense, but their defense was something to behold. They ranked first in points and yards allowed, as well as in passing touchdowns allowed and interceptions.
Opposing quarterbacks were nearly suffocated to death when they faced Tampa Bay that year, as it held them to a ridiculous 48.4 passer rating on the season.
Alstott recorded 548 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns that season, as the Bucs won 12 games and finished first in the new NFC South division.
They started their playoff run with a 31-6 thrashing of the San Francisco 49ers, which was aided by Alstott’s 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 12, 2016
They then brushed past the Eagles 27-10 in the NFC Championship Game to reach the Super Bowl for the first time ever.
There, Gruden would face his old flame – the Raiders, who were favored to win by four points.
Oakland featured a high-powered offense led by Pro Bowl QB Rich Gannon. It looked like it would be a classic tug of war between one team that wanted to air it out, and another that wanted to take the air out of the ball.
Instead, it was a Bucs blowout, almost from wire to wire.
Alstott started the onslaught with a two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that put Tampa Bay up 13-3. From there, the Raiders were brutalized as few teams had been in Super Bowl history.
With a 48-21 victory, a Tampa Bay franchise that had once been a perennial punching bag for the rest of the NFL had finally won the world championship. Alstott had fulfilled the dream that millions of kids throughout Middle America could only imagine manifesting.
Super Bowl Winner Mike Alstott is a mood pic.twitter.com/4DEMQVEbdj
— DaBoii Žižek (@toriimacdaddy) September 18, 2018
A Sad End To A Strong Career
Alstott had earned the nickname “A-Train,” and he now had six straight trips to the Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl ring to show for it.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
A neck ailment limited him to just four games in 2003. It required surgery and was thought to be career-threatening.
Although he returned the next season and played in 14 contests, and in 16 each of the next two years, he wasn’t quite the same player.
Another neck injury forced Alstott to miss the entire 2007 campaign, and he decided to call it quits in January of 2008.
“Though mentally I feel like I can continue, physically I can’t,” he said. “The second injury to my neck will prevent me from playing football forever.”
He ended his career with 5,088 rushing yards and 58 rushing touchdowns, impressive numbers for a fullback. But more importantly, he left Bucs fans with many memories of a man who simply refused to let defenders get in his way, let alone stop him.
Mike Alstott really used to run everyone over 🔥 pic.twitter.com/dHQTGPKgXj
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) April 19, 2021
After hanging up his No. 40 jersey for good, Alstott has become a devoted family man. It was one of the reasons he decided to retire in the first place.
“I feel so fortunate to be a father and have my kids experience my career,” said Alstott at his retirement press conference. “Some of the most memorable moments in my career were with my three beautiful children. Taking my son in the locker room, playing catch with them after games and chasing my girls around the 50-yard line — those will be the things I’ll truly miss. But I’m relieved to know Daddy still gets to be Daddy and to be there for my children as they grow up.”
He and his wife Nicole have three children: Lexie, Hannah and Griffin. When Griffin started playing Pop Warner football in the sixth grade, his dad decided to start coaching Pop Warner and rec league ball.
Just a couple of years later, Alstott became the head coach for the Northside Christian Mustangs in St. Petersburg, Fla. In 2014, Griffin Alstott became the team’s starting QB, and he went on to play second-string QB at Western Michigan University while majoring in sports management.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) November 25, 2020
Just before his retirement, the elder Alstott, along with his next of kin, started the Mike Alstott Family Foundation. According to its website, the organization’s mission is to “uplift the minds, hearts and spirits of families and children on their way to realizing their full potential through various events, assistance programs and celebrations.”
Alstott and crew help serve Thanksgiving meals to firefighters, as well as to sick kids who are staying at the Ronald McDonald House.
In what has become a tradition, each year the Alstotts visit kids at All Children’s Hospital and have some fun with them, helping them to make their own stuffed animals and dress them up in pretty outfits.
“Putting smiles on kids’ faces is what Mike and I truly love to do,” Nicole Alstott said. “And these kids are in the hospital beds every single day, so bringing them out is a total change of atmosphere. And giving them a chance to do something different – so they don’t have to think about why they’re here – is what we really why we do this.”
After spending years tearing the hearts and spirits out of many an opponent, Alstott is now spending his days strengthening the hearts and spirits of many young people.