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Blue Jays: Anthony Alford- From the projects to the pros

DUNEDIN, FL- MARCH 04: Anthony Alford #75 of the Toronto Blue Jays during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 4, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL- MARCH 04: Anthony Alford #75 of the Toronto Blue Jays during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 4, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /
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Jays Journal had the opportunity to chat with Anthony Alford about his journey to playing for the Blue Jays in the big leagues, and all that lead him here.

I recently hopped on the phone with Blue Jays outfielder, Anthony Alford, after he and three other teammates knelt during either the Canadian or American national anthems back on Opening Day in late July.

The following day, Alford joined the media through a zoom call and spoke out on several social justice issues, and something that struck me was how he grew up with limited resources and turned into a high-level, dual-sport athlete, as he also played Division I football at Southern Miss and Ole Miss. Following this, Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet wrote this piece on Alford which sparked my interest in his upbringing.

There are not a ton of words I can write to help illustrate his story and path to the big leagues, so this will consist mostly of quotes from Alford as he touches on the situation he grew up in, the people who helped him out of Marion County, Mississippi and into pro ball, as well as how sports helped him escape the environment he was growing up in.

DUNEDIN, FL- MARCH 04: Anthony Alford #75 of the Toronto Blue Jays during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 4, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL- MARCH 04: Anthony Alford #75 of the Toronto Blue Jays during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 4, 2016 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

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Alford grew up in Marion County where just under one-third of the community lives in poverty.

“I grew up in government housing up until I was in about the 8th grade when I was able to move to a school that was about 45 minutes away that was better and had more resources and was just better academically and had better athletics.”

“Obviously growing up in it you don’t really know it because that’s what seems normal to you, so it wasn’t like I was in it thinking ‘I’m really poor,’ because at the same time my family and my parents did their best to make sure that I had everything I needed when it came to me wanting to pursue my dreams in sports. They always went above and beyond, whether it was working overtime or doing fundraisers for me to make sure I had the resources I needed to pursue my dreams.”

“It’s the same thing with a lot of kids, like when you’re real young and growing up in government housing, you don’t know you’re poor. I mean, some probably do but that was all I knew… I didn’t know about the nice, big houses with the big pools and the big backyards. All I knew was living in government housing, so that was just normal for me until I saw something different and it really just changed my perspective.”

While Marion County has churned some serious athletes throughout the years, whether it’s football or baseball, there isn’t a ton of chances to be seen by scouts, so many of the athletes eventually transfer out of of the county looking for better athletic opportunities to further their careers.

“So I went to a school called East Marion before I transferred to Petal High where I graduated from, so East Marion we always had a lack of resources. East Marion is a majority black school and we always lacked the resources and the funds and you see that with a lot of inner city schools or majority African-American schools, they don’t really have the resources, the funds or even in athletics the jerseys are always worn down, they don’t have the newest equipment, stuff like that.”

Alford grew up loving sports and never really wavered at any point in life when it came to where he wanted to be as an adult. He wanted to be a pro athlete. That passion for sports also worked as a positive, becoming an escape for him.

“I always wanted to do something with sports. I was always passionate about sports and that’s all I really cared about and my parents and my family, they knew that’s all I cared about. I didn’t care about anything if it didn’t involve a ball and they saw it as a way to keep me out of trouble too because of the environment, it would have been easy for me to get caught up in the environment that was around me. My mom always kept me busy with sports cause she knew it was something I enjoyed doing, and I was good at it and it was also a way to keep me busy.”

“My eighth-grade year I was playing on three different baseball teams in the spring, I was pretty much playing every day. It was pretty much six days a week I was playing baseball, so it just allowed me to escape the environment that I was growing up in because I was always travelling and I was staying at my teammates house. It just allowed me to see something else in life with travelling and it changed my perspective.”

When I asked the 26-year-old if there were any locals that made it to the pros that he was able to look up to, I wasn’t quite expecting to hear him mention an all-time football great.

“I mean we’ve had a few pro athletes but not like… I mean we had Walter Peyton, he’s a big name. Bobby Hamilton, he went to East Marion, he played for the Patriots for a long-time. Those are the two biggest names but as far as baseball, the guy who was a mentor, he was the first person to ever get drafted out of East Marion, he was a late-round pick but ended up going to college. He was like my big brother, he’s helped me a lot in my career and helped raise me… his name is Bernard Williams. He went to college and he’s now a doctor, which you don’t see much coming out of Marion either.”

Alford also has a younger cousin, Demarcus Evans, who he grew up playing baseball with and now plays in the Rangers system, another person he says has helped him along the way.

“My little cousin, he’s playing with the Texas Rangers and he’s on their 40-man roster. He went to West Marion, which had the same problems as East Marion, and then transferred to Petal where I graduated from high school as well. We actually started playing baseball together as kids, his mom and my mom were our first coaches. I just think it’s really cool that we’re both playing pro ball now.”

The former college quarterback was quick to point to his Mom on where he gets his character from, including his willingness to give back to the community.

“I know my mom, she’s very giving. Same with my grandma, I think that’s a trait I definitely got from them… they’re always giving. I know as far as doing the camps and community service type things, that’s something I didn’t really have growing up and I want to be able to give it to others who grew up in the same community or same neighbourhood as me. Baseball is so expensive to play as a kid, especially when you talk about travel ball and all that, so I just think it’s a great opportunity to give the kids from those communities a chance to interact with people they see on TV. It’s just a big day of fun and I think it gives them hope because they get to see we’re just normal people just like them. Sometimes people look at athletes or people on TV and just think they’re not human, or not like them so it’s a chance to get the kids to interact and just give back to the community and just give them hope to pursue their dreams, whatever that may be.”

Surprisingly, despite making it to the big leagues, Alford says he was actually a better football player growing up.

“Growing up in my neighbourhood, I would always play football with the older kids and get knocked around until I started learning and getting tougher. But I was about ten, eleven years old playing with pretty much grown men, playing full-speed tackle football with no pads or equipment on. The only time I ever played baseball was when I was with an organized team or an elite team so I was just able to play football more often growing up, so that’s why it was so natural to me. I think football was probably my better sport growing up but once I started focusing on baseball more… I didn’t really get good at baseball until I was about 11 or 12 years old, that’s when it really started to take off.”

OXFORD, MS – SEPTEMBER 27: Defensive back Anthony Alford #13 of the Mississippi Rebels warms up prior to their game against the Memphis Tigers on September 27, 2014 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi. The Mississippi Rebels defeated the Memphis Tigers 24-3. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
OXFORD, MS – SEPTEMBER 27: Defensive back Anthony Alford #13 of the Mississippi Rebels warms up prior to their game against the Memphis Tigers on September 27, 2014 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi. The Mississippi Rebels defeated the Memphis Tigers 24-3. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images) /

Alford had signed his contract with the Blue Jays but was convinced by his coaches at Ole Miss to return for a final season, a year that saw them ranked as high as third in the country for three weeks and also saw them knock off Alabama, a team that included NFL stars, Derrick Henry and Amari Cooper. He eventually left the team part way through the season to pursue his dream of playing pro baseball.

“I was going to leave that summer and start playing baseball full-time, so after that spring semester in 2014, when I came down to Florida for the eight weeks in the summer that I would usually spend in Florida, I was originally going to stay and play baseball full-time from that point on, but I went back and my college coaches kind of talked me out of it so I was going to give football one more try. I just didn’t see it in the future for me as far as me being happy doing it, so then I decided I wanted to try this baseball thing full-time. I don’t regret it at all, I’m in the big leagues so I don’t regret it at all but do I miss it? Absolutely, I miss football, but I think miss high school football more than anything.”

That same signing bonus with the Blue Jays was worth $750K, more than $300K above the slot value.

“Honestly, when I signed I was in college so I didn’t really need access to it so my agent just kind of put it into an account for me and I didn’t touch it really until I was like 21 and married. I did a few things, I wanted to do something nice for my Mom so one year I bought her a car for her birthday. I got married at 20 so I had a family to take care of too, but one of the main things I did was just buy my Mom a car as a token of appreciation for all she did when I was growing up, all the trips she was taking me on and I knew that was something she really wanted.”

Lastly, on his final path to the big leagues which included five minor league levels as well as the Arizona Fall League, he says football somewhat helped with the mental and physical aspects, but there was really nothing that truly could have prepared him for the grind of the lower levels.

“I think football from a mental aspect helped but I think coming through the minor leagues is one of the toughest things to do honestly. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that. From a physical standpoint I could say the workouts from football helped me but I don’t think anything can really prepare you for playing a night game and then a seven hour bus ride and then having a day game the next day. It’s pretty rough sometimes and more of a mental drain than anything so I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the minors.”

Alford may not find his story unique as several others have come out of Marion County and gone on to become pros and even Hall of Famers in some cases, but he would be the first person to tell you that through his camps or work in the community, he’s just trying to create an environment for the youth where they can each create their own unique story.

Next. Tweaks to the schedule after postponements. dark

Whether it’s trying to become a pro athlete or trying to become a doctor like his mentor, Dr. Bernard Williams, Alford is doing what he can to make these things possible for more kids.

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