When Dee Alford first went out as a punt returner against Miami on Friday night, the Dolphins' volley went out of bounds. Alford, though, was itching to catch the ball. He told his teammates if he caught the ball he was going to score.
They replied "We'll see, we'll see" to Alford's lofty claim. And they did see.
Alford got his opportunity late in the fourth quarter. He got the ball at the Falcons 20-yard-line. He could have waived it off as a fair catch, but what's the fun in that? Darren Hall made the key block that allowed Alford to break left, then right. The broke a tackle across the field, speeding along the sideline and into the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown.
"It felt great, but I kind of knew I was going to do it," Alford said. "I can't really explain the feeling because it was supposed to happen — that type of feeling."
Throughout training camp Alford has worked with special teams, specifically as a nickel back, he made a compelling case for punt returner in the first preseason game.
Alford reached the end zone at a pivotal time. The Falcons narrowly led the Dolphins 6-3 with less than five minutes left in the game. His score helped break open the contest, as Breon Borders completed a pick-6 on the Dolphins next possession to finish off Miami 19-3.
"It's the preseason, but it wouldn't matter what season it is, I'm going to do whatever I can to help my team win," Alford said. "I want to continue to do what I do when my number gets called."
Any touchdown off a punt return is special, but this one seemed to mean more. Not just because it's Alford's first since playing at Spalding High School (about an hour outside Atlanta) but because it embodied Alford's journey to the Falcons.
Alford took leaps from a Division II school in Tennessee to the Canadian Football League to the Falcons.
"Dee's one of the many cool stories we have on our team," coach Arthur Smith said. "Another guy in our program who all he does is work continues to improve [and] showed it tonight."
After Alford's senior season at Tusculum in 2019, he had invitations from a few NFL teams but COVID-19 struck, canceling all pro days. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers made him an offer in 2021 and he capitalized on the opportunity.
That path doesn't usually add up to a spot in the NFL, but like that touchdown, it was supposed to happen.
Then when he finally got his chance, for his hometown team no less, he made a name for himself last training camp and cracked the Falcons 53-man roster. Now, he looks to do it again.
It's not by rare happenstance, according to assistant head coach -- defense coach Jerry Gray. It's because of how much Alford loves to compete.
"I'm trying to get him to understand you belong here," Gray said. "You're not lucky; you belong here."
Gray said that players with backgrounds like Alford don't need to do anything dramatic to make a roster. Instead, it's more about elevating your play practice to match the talent level. If guys practice that way, they become that way.
Thankfully for Alford, he's done both.
"I do feel like I belong here," Alford said. "I want to continue to show everyone that I do belong here."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins during Preseason Week 1.