It was a big deal.
No. Scratch that.
It was a huge deal.
Robert Alexander was not only the No. 1 recruit in West Virginia, he was No. 1 in the nation. He’d won the state’s Kennedy Award twice. Parade magazine named him the national Player of the Year in high school football.
There wasn’t just a buzz around Alexander, there was a roar. Every school wanted him. He had a reported 200 scholarship offers from colleges across the country. He went on trips in which O.J. Simpson showed him around USC. Tony Dorsett showed him around Pitt. Franco Harris showed him around Penn State.
In West Virginia, though, it wasn’t left to players and coaches. Gov. Jay Rockefeller got involved. Everyone in the state got involved. And soon Alexander caved to the home state pressure, turning away from early favorite Penn State and signing with the Mountaineers – in Rockefeller’s office.
Afterward, on a chilly spring day, as a junior in high school, I sat beside the statuesque Alexander in the old WVU stadium seats. I was the sports editor of my high school student newspaper. And while everyone around the state and nation was clamoring to interview Alexander, I had the ace: My journalism teacher was dating a WVU assistant coach.
To me, the interview wasn’t just a big deal. It was huge. I remember being nervous, even though Alexander was just two years older than me. I also remember we wanted to trumpet the fact that we’d interviewed Alexander in the student paper’s next issue. We jacked up the headline font until all we could fit in was this: Star talks!
See, Robert Alexander was indeed a star at that time. A five-star. And while we’ve seen five-star West Virginia football recruits since, we’ve never seen the circus that was around Alexander.
Unfortunately, the football story around the former running back didn’t really pan out.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s life after football had many rough patches.
And unfortunately, Alexander’s life ended at the much-too-young age of 64 Tuesday night in his St. Albans home.
It’s tragic. I knew Robert in college. He sat by me in nutrition class. (He once tried to sneak a peek at my test and I told him, “No! I don’t know any of this stuff! Look to your right and I’ll cheat off YOU!”) I covered Robert while at WVU’s student newspaper, the Daily Athenaeum. Then, when I moved to Charleston to work for the paper there, I frequently saw Robert around town.
And he always looked so fit. That’s another reason this is a tragedy.
Of course, those close to him will admit he struggled with drugs and alcohol. Heck, he admitted to it in a Charleston Gazette-Mail interview with Sandy Wells. She was writing about his book “From Glory to Grace: The True Life Story of Robert Alexander.”
I don’t know if the book was ever published. I couldn’t find it online. I couldn’t find it on Amazon.
Yet what he told Sandy Wells was powerful enough.
He went with WVU and its veer offense even though he wanted to run out of the I-formation. Finally, Don Nehlen came along and Alexander gained 1,064 yards his senior season. It was enough to get him selected in the 10th round of the NFL draft.
The South Charleston High grad did play for the Los Angeles Rams in 1981 and for San Diego and in the USFL, but it was not the stuff of dreams.
Nor was much of his life afterward. He told Wells he got in with the wrong crowd for a while. Besides smoking and drinking, he said cocaine was involved.
Apparently, one night his mother had enough. He’d been staying in her home and she kicked him out. Alexander told Wells he pulled out a .22, raised it to his head and pulled the trigger.
The gun jerked, however, and glanced Alexander.
“It wasn’t my time,” he said.
Alexander went to a couple treatment facilities. He tried to turn his life around by talking to high school kids about the dangers of drugs.
But the former star was also being humbled, working at KFC and McDonald’s. People would point and ask, “Was that Robert Alexander?”
“My biggest mistake was using drugs,” he said in the article. “I don’t see WVU as a mistake. I would do the same thing. I just wish they had used me the right way.”
Alexander also said this:
“I’ve always loved this state. I was upset at Rockefeller and WVU for all the promises they made. When I came home, everybody patted me on the back and said, ‘But you were loyal.’ I’m most proud of that, that I stuck it out.’”
Unfortunately, Tuesday was Alexander’s time. Much like his fullback and fellow Kanawha County native Walt Easley, his passing was way too early.
I guarantee, though, the legacy of Robert Alexander will live a long, long life.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.