‘As Tough As It Gets’

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on navysports.com August 26, 2011.

The jam session, as he calls it — one song actually, repeating itself, over and over — is underway. Music courses from the iPod in his left hand, his right hand extends and Alexander Teich begins his rounds.

With wrists wrapped in black tape, matching the streaks of grease across his cheekbones, Teich passes each stall and reaches out to as many teammates as possible. Here in this locker room at the brand new home of Jets and Giants, he renews a pre-game ritual.

Kickoff between Navy and Notre Dame is moments away and Teich wants fellow Midshipmen to understand how much they mean to him. There’s a whole lot of brotherly love to go around.

Of course, Teich has no idea how his gestures will be reciprocated in subsequent months, when teammates will elect him captain for 2011. Here’s what he does know in this hour on October 23, 2010: without many of them — specifically, his prep school classmates — he wouldn’t be here.

There’s something else Teich knows. He’s been convinced of it for days. And it’s being confirmed by the looks he now gets in return.

“I just had a feeling that week in practice,” Teich will say a year later. “I got in the locker room and saw the guys’ faces. You could just tell, everybody was ready to go.”

Circling the room and listening to a loop of Requiem for a Dream, he senses that the premonition he shared a short time ago is about to come true.

“It’s something I actually talked about with my mom before I got to the stadium,” Teich will confirm. “I said, ‘Today is going to be a great day. We’re going to make some history.’”

Alexander Teich prefers to be known by his given name, rather than Alex for short. It’s out of respect for parents Jacqueline and Patrick, who gave him much more than an identity.

They raised him in the small Southeast Texas town of Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston, where they created an assisted living community on their 11 acres. It remains the family business.

The Teiches work around the clock tending to residents, many of whom are in hospice care. As kids, Alexander and his sisters each lent a hand. He also took to heart his youth surrounded by elders.

“I was always around, and it felt like I had 20 grandparents,” Alexander says. “Really, as a kid, I would just hang out there, and they would tell me stories and give me candy.”

His sweet tooth satisfied, Teich learned to savor something else.

“I saw how hard the work was,” he said. “To see my parents do that every day, that’s always driven me to try to do better in life, in school, on the field.”

He grew into a three-sport star at Caney Creek High School; as a shooting guard in basketball, a pro catching prospect in baseball and, especially, a running back in football.

Teich was county player of the year in 2006, leading the Panthers to the third round of the Class 4A football playoffs. On a single night opposite Bellaire, he accounted for 361 total yards, scored four touchdowns and was crowned Homecoming King.

But much to the dismay of his coach Glenn Hill, that wasn’t good enough for college recruiters. Whatever their reasoning — perhaps perceiving a lack of speed commensurate to Teich’s size — they mostly shied away.

Hill wasn’t about to let a stopwatch blind him from what he could see. A successful coach in San Antonio before moving to Caney Creek, he could judge for himself whether a kid had Division I goods.

Fortunately for Navy, assistant Danny O’Rourke listened to what Hill was saying. O’Rourke knew and respected Hill enough to include Caney Creek on his annual tour of roughly 120 Texas schools.

“(Coach Hill) told me that Teich is as good as he’s ever had,” O’Rourke recalls. “He said, ‘Danny, this kid’s not going to win a combine with his 40-yard dash time, but he’s the best I’ve ever coached.’ I thought, if Coach Hill thinks he’s that good, I better start recruiting him.”

“Coach O’Rourke was really one of the first coaches who contacted me,” Teich remembers. “He came out to spring practice at the end of my junior year. I always felt loyal to him.

“Once I got up here on my official visit, I fell in love with the place.”

But Teich almost didn’t return.

Back in Conroe, his baseball team had already qualified for its first-ever state tournament appearance when Teich was involved in a collision at home plate. He suffered a hematoma on his left leg, and soon developed a staph infection.

After surgery, the leg became infected again, and Teich went back to the operating room. He missed the playoffs and was confined to a wheelchair on graduation day. For a kid O’Rourke describes as “tough as nails,” it was hard to take.

Life didn’t get any easier in the coming months.

Teich rebuilt the strength in his legs and reported to the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS) in Newport, R.I., presumably for the academic year. In the fourth quarter of his first football game, he tore ligaments in his right thumb.

Eighteen-hundred miles from home, he was injured again. Admittedly, his schoolwork suffered. Teich wanted out. He processed his paperwork, purchased a plane ticket and packed his bags. On the eve of Thanksgiving break, Teich planned on leaving; he wasn’t coming back.

“It kind of seemed like the whole world was against me,” he remembered.

Teich soon discovered, it was quite the opposite.

Byron McCoy, a former Navy player assigned to NAPS as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, penned an impassioned letter, imploring Teich to stay. Classmate Doug Furman remembers it being a dozen pages long.

Furman and other team leaders staged an intervention. Taps had sounded on what was going to be Teich’s last night there. Risking demerits or worse, they went door-to-door, rounding up others, rousing many of them from their bunks.

In all, 30-to-40 teammates, including a few in their boxers, converged on Teich’s room. All for one, they told him: You’re not going anywhere.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Furman, now a senior receiver for the Mids. “We wanted to keep everybody together. You could see how guys bonded around Teich. Everybody loves the kid.”

Soon after, just before midnight, Teich picked up his phone.

“He called me at about 11:30 and said, ‘Coach, I think I made a mistake,” O’Rourke retells. “‘The guys won’t let me leave.’”

O’Rourke advised Teich to contact his commanding officer, express his feelings and seek another chance. He got it.

“My brothers pulled me up,” a grateful Teich says today.

It was a classic example of how midshipmen are expected to rally around a teammate they consider family. The resulting bonds are life-lasting, and life-changing.

“I see it today as that,” Furman said. “But three months into my military training, I had no idea what I was doing. Looking back, it was the kind of team building the military wants to incorporate. We just didn’t want to lose a good friend.”

A reinvigorated Teich rededicated himself. The only place he was going from that night forward was Annapolis. When he got here, though, a position change awaited. First thought to be a large slot back, Teich became a small fullback. Instead of the perimeter, he would run inside.

“Navy got spoiled with (Kyle) Eckel, (Adam) Ballard and (Eric) Kettani, the big, physical bruisers who all could run well,” fullbacks coach Mike Judge says of the three ex-Mids averaging 240 pounds. “(Teich) is a hybrid.”

Six-feet tall and 200 pounds as a plebe, Teich was quicker and faster than those past prototypes. He immediately took to his new role.

“I don’t like to run east and west. Fullback was more downhill,” he says, before joking, “I didn’t realize how much of a beating came with it. But it definitely fit my style a lot more.”

To refine that style, he attached himself to Kettani.

“My freshman year I was in his hip pocket everywhere he went on the field, trying to learn as much knowledge as I could about the game,” Teich said. “(Eric) taught me a lot more about the schemes and concepts, what defenses are trying to do. I learned a lot from him.

“And Coach Judge has been phenomenal. I had a lot of days in the offseason when I just met with him to look at plays and go over film. He wrote notes on the (video) screen so I could (learn from) them. He did a tremendous job of getting me ready when I was young.”

Teich appeared in 12 games in 2008, often deployed on kickoff returns. As a sophomore, he started at Ohio State, rushing for 61 yards. Two weeks later at Pittsburgh, Teich gained 80 yards. But in the season’s fifth game, he injured his ankle vs. Air Force.

Sidelined for two weeks, he watched junior Vince Murray seize his opportunity. Murray ended the fall by rushing for nearly 1,000 yards. Teich finished with 70 carries and 376 yards.

“It was definitely tough. It taught me a lot about growing up fast, and making the most of opportunities,” Teich says. “Vince did a great job. There’s nothing I can take away from him; I can’t be mad at him for that. All I can do is continue to prepare as if I was the starter, coming to work every day.

“I get a little upset when I hear guys complaining about their playing time. I didn’t want to go to Coach and ask, ‘Coach, why am I not playing?’ That’s not me, that’s not my character. Put your head down, work hard and earn what you get.”

Instead of sulking, Teich ignited a spark. No longer lead fullback, he reappeared on kickoffs and averaged 27.6 yards per return, including a 47-yarder vs. Missouri in the Texas Bowl. Teich showed who he was, and what he wasn’t.

“He’s as tough as it gets,” head coach Ken Niumatalolo insists. “I firmly believe that when we put him back on kickoff return, he completely changed our return game. The kickoff return guy — I don’t care how fast you are, I don’t care how elusive you are or how strong you are — you’ve got to be fearless. You’ve got to hit it, you’ve got to run and you can’t dance.

“You’ve got to, basically, see that hole and run through it and have the confidence that you can get through there before it closes. You can’t be scared.”

This too is no time to be scared, even though it seems like the ball is in the air forever.

Navy’s defense just denied Notre Dame on 4th-and-goal; Teich flipped the field with a 54-yard run; and it’s 3rd-and-5 at the Fighting Irish 31. Navy must convert to sustain the drive and maintain momentum.

When the Mids won at Notre Dame a year earlier, Murray was their brightest star. But, in a reversal of misfortune, he is now the injured fullback. Here in the Meadowlands, this is Teich’s moment to embrace.

He’s been ready for it all week, talked about it en route to the stadium, sensed it inside those locker room walls.

“When the role was flipped for Vince, the door was open and I had to make the most of my opportunity,” Teich will later reflect. “I think that preparing myself the season before, as if I was the starter, I understood the offense. I understood what (the coaches) were asking of me, so when it came my turn, I was ready to step in there and fill those shoes.”

“(Alexander’s) an absolute pleasure to coach. He really listens to what you’re trying to teach him,” Judge will say months later. “He competes against himself. He has the ability to drive himself to get better that separates him from others.

“His knowledge of the offense has grown remarkably. He puts himself in the right spot. He knows what offensive lineman is blocking for him.”

All of the above is evident in these few seconds that feel like an eternity, before the screen pass lobbed out of Ricky Dobbs’s right hand finds Teich’s right hand.

“It was a third down and I knew I had to get the first down, so when Ricky lofted that ball, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, he threw this thing over my head,‘“ Teich will recreate. “After that great stop by our defense, I thought, ‘I can’t let this ball hit the ground, I have to catch it somehow.‘ So I reached up and luckily it just stuck in my hand.”

Leaning forward, Teich cannot reach any higher. Nor be left more vulnerable.

“I was expecting to get nailed as soon as I turned around, (but) I was hoping I would at least get a first down,” he will continue. “I looked up and saw some guys making great blocks; Josh Cabrall pancaked the outside linebacker. Then I saw some room and thought, ‘I might as well get into the end zone after that great catch.’”

Teich will laugh as he speaks those last two words. It was a great catch, only to be bested by the finish to the run that follows.

Left arm pressing the ball against his chest, Teich sprints to the Irish 3-yard line. Two defenders close — one from his right, one from his left, both aiming low. He plants his left foot and propels himself toward the end zone. He flips in mid-air and lands on a heavily-wrapped left shoulder; the same shoulder he injured two weeks ago at Wake Forest.

Fearless. Breathless. Those adjectives describe the most spectacular play of this sensational day.

“It was a lot of guys making plays in front of me that allowed me to be able to run and score that touchdown,” Teich will summarize, the following August.

The game is only 8 minutes, 55 seconds old, and the Mids have the lead for good. Already, Teich has caught a 31-yard pass and rushed three times for 59 yards.

Navy will win, 35-17. Teich will rush 23 more times, gaining 151 additional yards for a total of 210. In a series dating to 1927, no Midshipman has rushed for more. In an overall history dating to 1879, no Navy fullback — large or small — has rushed for more.

“The offensive line was on point all day, Ricky was doing a great job making reads, the A-Backs were blocking, the wide receivers were blocking and the defense was playing phenomenally,” Teich will conclude. “It was just a great day.”

More than a single catch-and-run, the overall body of Teich’s work gives Niumatalolo and his staff reason to rethink, if not recast the mold of Navy fullbacks.

“We’ve started to look at guys like Alexander now, the 220-pound guy who could be a one-back in a spread offense; big enough to block, athletic enough to catch a pass,” says Niumatalolo, after Teich rushed for 863 yards as a junior. “(He’s) a guy who’s very athletic and tough enough to run between the tackles. He’s obviously got the speed to run the ball on the edge and the strength and power to run inside.”

Niumatalolo calls Teich explosive and considers him “one of the strongest kids on the team, pound-for-pound,” the result of being “a weight-room freak.” Judge credits Teich with helping to evolve his position, observing that defenders “can’t get a lot of clean shots” at his now 217-pound frame.

Judge also helps explain why only a few years after prep school classmates showed Teich the way to Annapolis, they chose him to lead them in their final year together.

“He has unbelievable character,” Judge says. “One of the fiercest competitors I know.”

Teich may also be the most outwardly emotional and vocal Navy captain in recent memory.

“Everybody has their own style,” he says. “It’s who I am, it’s who I’ve been.”

“I think the guys understand that (Alexander) genuinely cares for his teammates,” says Niumatalolo. “The guys have really responded to his leadership.”

“When (he) tells you to do something,” adds Furman, “no one thinks twice about it.”

Teich isn’t just a talker, but a doer. And a listener.

He opened his ears at NAPS the night others poured out their hearts. He then opened his mind to a possibility he previously thought improbable.

For a time, Teich wanted to join special forces, until others persuaded him to reconsider. Too tough, they said, given the demands of your sport.

But last January a former player and longtime Navy SEAL spoke to the Midshipmen. That night, Teich’s earlier notion became his mission.

“I made up my mind, this is what I want to do,” said Teich, who worked out last summer with SEAL Team 4 in Little Creek, Va. “(The guest speaker) talked about the SEAL brotherhood and being part of the best. I feel like I’ve had a calling in life; a purpose not to be mediocre but to push myself to the limits and see how good I can be.”

So close to never finding out, he’s come awfully far in four years.

“Over the years, you understand why you’re here,” Teich says. “You grow with the bigger picture.

“I think you learn some of the best lessons to prepare yourself for the military on the football field. There are times you’re hurting and you have to keep pushing. Then there are guys you have to bring up when they’re down.”

Like in a dorm room in Newport. Or a locker room in New Jersey.

Bob is in his 15th season calling play-by-play of Navy football. He can be heard on Sirius Channel 134 at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 10, when the Midshipmen visit Western Kentucky. For samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Author: Bob Socci

Play-by-play broadcaster for the New England Patriots and 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston.

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