By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Of all the games man plays, from darts to tennis, from checkers to baseball, from bridge to basketball, football is the one that depends most on attitude.
This is due, in part, because it is played only on a weekly basis, which makes each game that much more meaningful, and when one considers how seriously its followers take it and the scrutiny under which each competitor is placed, it becomes packed with the kind of pressure that requires a certain type of person to handle it.
Shawne Alston thinks he’s the perfect person to do that.
No, he didn’t come out and state that as a matter of fact, but as he readied himself for a starting assignment he didn’t really expect to have — not last week and certainly not last April — he is free of the pressure that often can break a player down and eager only to prove himself.
The stage is enormous, of course, it being the Orange Bowl on national television, and if this is a matchup between a pair of three-loss teams in Alston’s West Virginia University and Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson, it is also expected to be the most entertaining of the remaining bowl games and therefore one of the most viewed.
Shawne Alston doesn’t care, even if he wasn’t supposed to be starting until Dustin Garrison injured his knee severely enough to require surgery and six months of rehabilitation during a non-contract drill less than a week prior to kickoff.
“I don’t feel no pressure on my back,” Alston would say. “I’m ready to go out and play and show what I can do.”
He understands that there are those who would get the jitters, whose stomach would be tumbling like an interior Mary Lou Retton the night before the game.
He understands but says that is not him.
“Sometimes people get nervous when they lay responsibility on them, but this is the moment I have lived for. I know I am prepared. It’s just a matter of going out on the field and showing them,” he said.
It seems to be fated this way for Alston, which might be a good omen for those who believe in mystical interference in our daily lives.
It is not of his making, just as it was not of his making that someone would rear-end him in his automobile prior to spring practice, giving him a painful case of whiplash that kept him out all spring, kept him from showing what he had to a new coach in Dana Holgorsen.
“Throughout a season there are so many things that happen that you can’t control. You cannot make excuses about it or look for reasons why it happens. We just have to move on and keep rolling,” he said, referring both to his injury and the one suffered by Garrison.
Spring practice became a torture chamber for him.
“It was miserable. That’s the word I use — miserable,” he said. “I’d just keep asking myself, ‘When is my neck going to be ready so I can go out and play?’”
The answer was that it wouldn’t be ready in the spring, and when it was ready head coach
Bill Stewart was gone and Holgorsen had been promoted to head coach from offensive coordinator/head coach in waiting.
“I would sit around and get discouraged a lot,” Alston said of his spring. “I didn’t even know if I would be able to play this season. It was just hard.”
But come fall he was ready. He impressed Holgorsen, who’d had a running back in Kendall Hunter at Oklahoma State who was headed for the NFL. Now he had a group of young, inexperienced runners, each offering something different.
Who knew that group would be down to two by the bowl game, depleted by academics, injury and attrition. Alston was the biggest one left, the most experienced, a sometime starter during the year and a man who ran the ball into the end zone from up close.
He would start over Andrew Buie, the two being different types of runners but wise enough to know they had to help each other.
“Andrew is definitely faster and has better moves. I’m bigger in size, maybe break a few more tackles. We’re both good in pass protection,” he said. “We always talk to each other. If I’m on the sidelines I tell him what I see, and he does the same with me. You might have two different perspectives from the sidelines. You might see a lot of different stuff. You communicate. In the film room it’s the same.”
Now it’s time to go out and do it, play the game the way it is supposed to be played ... play it hard and with an attitude. That is the way they like their football in West Virginia.
“It means everything to the state of West Virginia. Just the way that the fans are — they are second to none in the country. I have been receiving tweets and Facebook messages encouraging me. It is definitely great to play for them,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.