By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige used to say that his one-time Negro League teammate and Hall of Fame outfielder Cool Papa Bell was so fast so that “he could turn out the light and jump in bed before it got dark.”
Well, there are some West Virginia football players who believe if Bell had tried that little stunt with their teammate and wide receiver Mario Alford standing next to him, by the time Bell got to the bed he’d have to ask Alford to move over because he is there first, so fast he’d would be snuggled under the covers.
Now both stories may have a touch of fiction to them, Cool Papa Bell having admitted in a story carried on the website Mississippi History Now that the roots of the story came one time when he arrived at the hotel room before Paige, noticed a short in the light switch that delayed the room going dark, made a bet with Paige he could turn off the light and be in bed before the room got dark … and then did it.
Paige took it from there.
As for Alford’s speed, well, you ask him how fast he is and he says, “I really don’t know how fast I am.”
Follow that up by asking him who’s the fastest man on the team and he answers: “Oh, man. On the team? I’d say me. I’m the fastest on the team.”
See, when he showed up in West Virginia from Georgia Military Academy before last season, coaches had visions of having found Tavon Austin’s replacement.
Alford seemed to be an Austin clone at 5-8, 174. Austin had been listed at 5-9, 174.
Both were waterbug-quick with blazing speed. Both could catch the football and go with it after they caught it.
So, it was only natural they put the junior college transfer in the slot for his junior season.
Might as well have asked him to wear 342-pound offensive guard Quinton Spain’s pants, too.
It just didn’t fit.
The big plays they envisioned just didn’t happen. He accounted for just seven yards in his first game, that on a rush, 11 against Oklahoma, none against Maryland, 43 against Oklahoma State, none against Baylor, 13 against Texas Tech, none against Kansas State.
After seven games, Alford had caught only nine balls. Austin had caught 10 or more passes in the first six games of the previous season.
It was apparent Alford wasn’t Austin.
“I had my mind set before I came that I was only me, that I can’t be nobody else but myself,” he said.
Whereas Austin’s shiftiness, combined with his speed, made him a first-round draft pick, Alford had a different approach.
“My vertical speed is my greatest asset. I’m working on getting better laterally,” he said.
Part of his early inability to make big plays was an injury, more of it was that despite looking like a slot receiver, having skills like a slot receiver, he turned out to be a wide receiver in a slot receiver’s clothing.
“I’m really comfortable outside,” he admitted after Saturday’s public practice in Morgantown. “On the outside you don’t have to wiggle through all the linebackers. It’s basically straight routes.”
And straight routes mean he can take advantage of his speed.
They moved him outside and it was as if they traded for a new player.
“The coaches wanted me play outside. They felt I was a bigger threat to the cornerback one on one. They didn’t think anyone could stay in front of me,” he explained.
And he would quickly prove that.
He had been moved to the outside in practice but was behind Ronald Carwell, but just before the TCU game in Fort Worth, Carswell was suspended and Alford was the starter.
Quarterback Clint Trickett discovered him that day and he made three catches for 62 yards, two of them coming in touchdown drives that helped WVU beat TCU, 30-27, in overtime.
The next week, another overtime game, this a 47-40 loss to Texas, Alford lit the place up with a 72-yard touchdown reception. He followed that up with a 46-yard grab against Kansas, setting the stage for the season’s final game and what really would be his coming out party.
Against Iowa State in double overtime, he caught eight passes for 215 yards — Austin-type stuff, Chris Henry-type stuff — especially since there was a 76-yard TD grab included.
Now, Alford is there from the start, has an off-season and will have a spring under his belt.
He may not make anyone forget Tavon Austin, but he might wind up making them remember Mario Alford.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.