Like a Roc
by Noah Cohan
He sat, sidelined by injury for six games, unable to help his team.
He watched, powerless to prevent the Washington Huskies from a three-game losing streak that threatened the program's streak of 25 consecutive winning seasons.
He celebrated, jubilant at the team's three-game win streak to complete the coveted 'Northwest Championship,' yet felt unfulfilled at missing the action on the field.
For a player fast enough to compete at the elite levels of collegiate track, and reliable enough to be called 'Roc,' sitting out the second half of the 2002 Husky football season after suffering a shoulder injury against Arizona was an exercise in patience and frustration. Healthy again, however, senior cornerback Roc Alexander vows to channel that frustration into excellence on the gridiron in 2003.
'I am going to come back with a lot of fire and enthusiasm,' he says. 'It was really hard for me to watch, to sit there and see everybody play, to see Derrick Johnson and Nate Robinson get all those interceptions. I always wanted to help the team out, to do what I could. It was difficult, with the Northwest Championship and all, to sit and watch the whole team play without me.'
Adversity, though, is nothing new to the three-time Husky letterman, both on and off the football field.
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colo., Alexander was given the nickname 'Roc' by his grandfather, who had difficulty pronouncing his given name, Narond. As the man of the house in a single-parent home headed by his mother, the moniker was a perfect fit for the reliable Alexander.
Inspired by an uncle to utilize his work ethic and athletic talents on the football field, Alexander soon became a rock on the gridiron as well. An all-state running back and standout linebacker at Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, Alexander led the Thunderbirds to the state playoffs, and before long was receiving recruitment letters from universities across the country.
Soon, he was headed for Washington, but the transition from high school to college football was not without adversity of its own, as Alexander learned that he would be switching positions in Seattle.
'It was very difficult for me to come in and play cornerback at the UW. I never played cornerback in high school at all. I played linebacker; I was the smallest linebacker in the conference,' he says, laughing. 'I was very inexperienced as a cornerback, but coach Chuck Heater helped me out with that. My uncle played cornerback in college, too, so it was a good deal for me, to be in his shoes again, to try and play like him.'
Difficult as the transition may have been, the hard-hitting Alexander made the necessary adjustments during his freshman season, capping the year with two key defensive plays in the Huskies' 34-24 Rose Bowl win over Purdue. During the offseason, Alexander prepared himself for his first start, which would come at Husky Stadium in the season-opener against Michigan, a nationally-televised game in which he would forever make his name known to Husky fans.
With the Wolverines leading the Huskies 12-6 in the fourth quarter, Michigan lined up for a field goal that would have put the visitors up nine points with under 10 minutes to play. The kick, blocked by Husky senior cornerback Omare Lowe, began bouncing towards the sideline. Suddenly, Alexander - who holds the eighth fastest 100-meter time in UW history - was presented with the perfect opportunity to display his track-honed speed.
'It was a great game, a defensive game,' remembers Alexander. 'Then Omare blocked the field goal, and it was surprising to see the ball bouncing my way. My first thought was, 'Pick it up and run, see if you can score a touchdown.' I didn't really have any other thoughts, I just picked it up and ran.'
By the time he was done running, Alexander had sprinted 77 yards into the end zone, handing the Huskies their first lead of the game with 9:11 left in the fourth quarter. After the Huskies went on to win the game, the next day's headlines read, fittingly, 'Huskies dial 9:11 for big win.'
'It was my biggest moment ever,' he says. 'It was my first touchdown ever at Husky Stadium, but it didn't really sink in until the next day. I was like, 'Wow, I just scored at Husky Stadium, and against Michigan at that.' It gave me a lot of confidence.'
Alexander, who also had his first career interception in the game against the Wolverines, did not finish displaying his world-class speed with that moment. Against Idaho the next week, he returned a kick-off 95 yards for a score, becoming just the eighth player in UW history to score multiple special-teams touchdowns in the same season.
The sophomore finished the season tied for third in UW history with 11 pass defenses, and boasted three of the top-25 longest kick returns in UW history. Alexander's kick return average of 29.2 yards was tops in the Pac-10, and sixth in the nation.
Though he did not return kicks in 2002, Alexander isn't shy about professing his desire to do so again in his final season in the purple and gold.
'I love kickoff returning,' he says. 'I like having the ball in my hands. I did it in spring ball this year and I felt good about it. I am going to do what I did my sophomore year, go out there, have the ball in my hands and make plays.'
As exciting as the prospect of having Alexander on special teams has to be for Husky fans, his return to the defensive backfield is perhaps even more tantalizing. Not only will he add his tremendous physical abilities to the Washington secondary, but the senior also brings a renewed respect for the game and his position.
'My mentality is that it's really hard to play cornerback,' he explains. 'You're going to get scored on sometimes but you have to go out there and just sweat it off, forget it, and play hard again. Even though I'm a little guy, I try to hit as hard as I can. That's important. You can't be a soft hitter, not if you play at the University of Washington.'
'I am going to take people under my wing,' he says. 'We've got a lot of younger players that will make a big impact, so I have got to be a good leader out there. It is up to me to keep everything going. I have a lot of enthusiasm for this team. I'm going to go out there and play hard, and hopefully they will follow me.'
Given the perseverance and commitment to excellence that Alexander has shown in rebounding from last season's injury, Husky fans can only hope that the rest of the Huskies do follow in his footsteps, and become like a 'Roc.'