In the first three minutes after he sat down at a table on the outdoor patio of a Panera Bread on Tuesday, Mike Alstott was greeted by one of his former high school players, a fellow football coach and a broadcaster from a local radio station who once interviewed him. • Alstott jumped to his feet, extended a hand, looked each in the eye and thanked him for stopping to say hello. • Who wouldn't want to be like Mike? • There have been more accomplished players for the Bucs. Three of them — Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But has there ever been a more popular player in Tampa Bay than Alstott? • His connection with fans almost from the first day he arrived in 1996 as a second-round draft pick from Purdue was obvious. • "I cared about them as much as they cared about me," Alstott said. "I never wanted to let anybody down." • So he didn't. Not during his playing career, when the running back bulldozed his way to 5,088 career rushing yards and 58 rushing touchdowns, the most in franchise history. He wasn't just one of the first building blocks to an eventual Super Bowl XXXVII champion, with six appearances in the Pro Bowl, he was the hardened cement that held the foundation together.
Sometimes, he carried the offense. Most of the time, the 6-foot-1, 248-pound fullback carried an entire defense with him into the end zone.
"I really cherish the highlights. But I think what it comes down to, I really cherish the people," Alstott said. "We're all off doing our own stuff now, but there's a special bond. That's the emotional part that will happen this weekend."
On Sunday, Alstott will be inducted into the Bucs' Ring of Honor. His No. 40 isn't retired. Though no Bucs player wears it on the field, it still is one of the most bountiful jerseys found in the seats at Raymond James Stadium.
Alstott was forced to retire after spending the 2007 season on injured reserve following a neck injury. That was three years after he had a vertebrae fused in his neck so he could keep playing. "I loved the game," he said. "What else would I do?'
Today, No. 40 is 41 years old. But the "A-Train" is not slowing. He's the coach of the 6-0 Northside Christian Mustangs in St. Petersburg. His son, Griffin, is a junior quarterback who used to throw Nerf footballs with his famous father after games on the field at Raymond James Stadium.
Griffin didn't play football until the sixth grade. "He was a baseball player. He didn't like contact," Alstott said. Alstott warned him the game was a grind and vowed not to coach his son. That vow lasted two weeks.
Alstott admits he's harder on Griffin than his other players. "Because I can be," he said. Early on, Griffin struggled in his father's shadow. "At one time, it was an issue," Alstott said. "He said, 'I'm not you! Everybody thinks I should be you.' I said, 'I know you're not me.' But now, he's making a pretty good name for himself."
Alstott held a Gatorade bottle in one hand, empty except for the expectorations from the tobacco dip in his mouth. His swollen biceps and Popeye-like forearms look the same as when he cradled a football in them.
A man his size is not supposed to have soft hands, a tap dancer's feet and 4.6-second speed. Alstott had demonstrated all of it by the time he had left Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High, went to Purdue and joined the Bucs in 1996. His training regimen was legendary. There were stories of how he would build leg strength by pushing a Jeep across the parking lot outside Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium and doing sprints with tires from a Ford Bronco strapped to his waist.
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What you might not know about Alstott is he was a first-class prankster, stealth in his execution.
Like when a rookie offensive lineman walked into the Bucs locker room to find the hood of his car resting against his cubicle.
Once, a rookie from North Carolina was asked to get Alstott and tight end Dave Moore protein shakes. Instead, he drew a map to the refrigerator with a sign that said, "get it yourself next time." After meetings, the first-year player found his truck on blocks in the parking lot. "We drew him a map where he could find his lug nuts and the tires we placed around the complex," Alstott said.
More than a few found their tires hanging like horseshoes on the goalposts.
Alstott hasn't thought about what he will say during the halftime ceremony Sunday. A lot of thank yous, he insisted.
As always, by his side will be his wife, Nicole, "the backbone of us all," Alstott said. "She holds my team together; she holds my family together. She's the one who kept me focused and straight."
Griffin and daughters Hannah and Lexie will join them on the field. Alstott said he drew his will and work ethic from his mother, Jeanne, who worked as a grocery store cashier, and his father, Dennis, a truck driver for a waste-cleanup company.
From high school to the NFL, his parents never missed a game.
Dennis — who enlisted in the Marines at 18, did a tour in Vietnam and was awarded the Purple Heart — will be gone four years to the day when Mike goes into the Ring of Honor.
"I think that's what so cool about Sunday," Alstott said. "My kids are going to see them pull the curtain back and see their name. Not my name. The family's name."