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Alton Voss' story seemed like an NFL dream come true, until it didn't

 
Grand Valley State University's Alton Voss (87) blocks a punt during a game versus Colorado State-Pueblo during the 2nd round of the NCAA D2 playoffs.


Photo credit: Grand Valley State University athletic department.
Grand Valley State University's Alton Voss (87) blocks a punt during a game versus Colorado State-Pueblo during the 2nd round of the NCAA D2 playoffs. Photo credit: Grand Valley State University athletic department.
Published May 4, 2017

Alton Voss, former Gulf High quarterback legend, owns a remarkable story, the kind they make books and movies about. He won his biggest battle. That remains true, even if Voss, the longest of long shots, came up short of his biggest dream.

He wasn't drafted into the NFL last weekend. No surprise there. But Voss thought he had a chance at being signed as an undrafted free agent and invited to a rookie minicamp. Dozens of players got the call after the draft ended last Saturday night, including several of Voss' former teammates at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan. No NFL team talked directly to Voss. Not one.

"I was just sitting around, waiting, waiting, waiting," he said.

His agent. Todd Williams, is still checking in with teams.

"I thought maybe I'd get an invite to a rookie camp," Voss said by phone from Michigan. "That's all I was asking for, a weekend. One weekend."

Yes, there was his age. Voss will turn 29 in September. There were his demons and drug addictions after he abandoned a football scholarship to USF in 2008, leading to a harrowing downward spiral which eventually included a raging crack habit. He nearly overdosed in 2011.

"I was so close to death," Voss said.

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But he made it all the way back. With the help of adopted family and friends, and an extended drug rehabilitation stay ... in Argentina ... Voss forged a productive college football career as a 6-3, 255-pound defensive end at Grand Valley.

His story, beautifully chronicled across the years by Times writer Joey Knight, went national before the draft — a long Detroit Free Press story, a pre-draft profile on SI.com's Monday Morning Quarterback, an appearance on Jim Rome's radio show.

But NFL teams don't hand out rookie minicamp slots like gum drops. Voss put up good numbers at his pro day at Grand Valley State. He held out hope. That it didn't happen crushed people in his world.

"It breaks my heart," said Robin Burge of New Port Richey, a stand-in father who helped rescue Voss and a sister from a broken home. "Here's a hometown story and potential. Can't the Bucs just give him a look for one weekend? Do you have a number? Can I call them?"

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Former Gulf High School star Alston Voss was a heralded USF signee in 2007. He relinquished his scholarship with the Bulls the following summer as he was beginning his initial descent into drug addiction.

"The weekend was probably harder on me than it was on Alton," said Jane Patterson, an attorney in Holland, Mich., who connected with Voss after his arrest for auto theft in 2011.

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Through the jailhouse glass, Patterson saw something in the young man, a lost soul. She helped get Voss' charges reduced. She helped Voss into an two-year rehab program in Buenos Aires, far away from bad influences. Then Patterson and others helped Voss meet Grand Valley football coach Matt Mitchell, who gave Voss a second chance.

"Alton is a like a son to me," said Patterson, who is married with two grown daughters. "And you never like to see your kids disappointed. All I wanted is for someone to give him a chance."

"I've been blessed by the caring of so many people," Voss said.

Photo provided

Alton Voss, top (with beard) poses with Joe Slenk, the police officer who arrested him, his wife Chanda (Slenk), far right., and their children, from left, Camryn Slenk, Lauryn Slenk and Taryn Slenk.

He watched the last day of the draft with the Pattersons. After the draft, he waited. And waited.

"My agent said there was a lot of talent ahead of me," Voss said. "Maybe being D-II and my age and my story went against me. I would like to talk to a scout and hear it from him. Because if it's a character, I would struggle with that. I see the stories about some of those guys drafted, like (Joe) Mixon, like (Caleb) Brantley."

He paused.

"Maybe the dream is gone. If football is done, I believe God has greater things for me the rest of my life."

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There is always the Canadian Football League, which will soon hold its draft. Or maybe American football in Europe. Or something else. Voss earned his degree from Grand Valley, where he studied communications, broadcasting and marketing. He has done some public speaking. He loves talking to kids about choices. You don't have to wear an NFL uniform to inspire people. I'd read an Alton Voss book right now, cover to cover.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow: @mjfennelly