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Dee Alford signed a reserve/future contract with the Falcons last spring, as a long shot to make the regular-season roster. Yet here the Griffin, Ga., native stands, a member of his hometown team after a long, winding road to this place, which included stops at a Division II program and a stint in the CFL.

This is a story of a defensive back who defied the odds to realize a dream.

Story by Ashton Edmunds

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. –Dee Alford was back home in Griffin, Ga., with his father Felton Jackson, waiting patiently to see if he had made the Falcons' 53-man roster. He had a solid preseason and training camp after joining the Falcons following his time in the CFL, but making the roster was no lock. This moment was a culmination of everything Alford had been through, a major milestone in his young life.

"It played out in my favor," Alford said, jubilantly. "I still haven't had the time to let it soak all in."

As someone who grew up just 40 miles south of Atlanta, and a Falcons fan, playing for his hometown team is something he dreamt about since he was a kid playing in the Spalding County parks and recreation league, idolizing Michael Vick. The reality of officially being a Falcon felt surreal.

"It's just crazy man, it's like a dream come true," Alford said. "Obviously I talked to a lot of teams, but I already knew that I wanted to come home and play for the home organization and you know, God made it happen for me. I'm thankful and blessed."

Alford's journey to that joyous moment didn't follow a straight line. Amid Alford's junior year at Spalding County High School, then head football coach Nick Davis came to one of his classes and pulled him aside seeing if he would be interested in joining the football team.

This interaction came after hearing about him around school, according to Jackson.

Alford's focus was solely on basketball, the only sport he played in his first three years of high school, but the conversation with Davis would prove to be a watershed moment for the Griffin native.

"He felt like he wasn't big enough for basketball," Jackson said. "Even though he was good in basketball, he felt like he didn't have the right size and he feels like he didn't have the right size for football, but you know, he was just talented in it."

Playing football was not foreign to Alford, though. It was the first sport he played growing up, so the game was already familiar to him.

"He was about 6-7 years old, and he was out there playing with the big boys," Jackson said. "One of the parents out there said 'you need to sign that boy up man, you need to sign him up' and so when he told me that, I went to sign him up for the parks and recreation and he took off from there. He always had the ability to do great things."

Alford started playing football with the Spalding County Falcons in Griffin at age seven and would play football up until his freshman year of high school, when he pivoted towards the hardwood.

"I was a basketball player, so obviously I was thinking like 'oh I'm going to play basketball," Alford said. "Coach Nick Davis, he talked to me, and I went out my senior year and just balled out."

Alford's football IQ was naturally high. In his lone football season at Spalding, he quickly emerged as one of the Jaguars most preeminent players, leading the region with seven interceptions, returning one for a record setting 103-yards. He was also named the 4A All-Region Georgia Southwest Bowl Game Team MVP. Considering he only played one-year of high school football, letters weren't flooding his mailbox. That wasn't his focus, though. One opportunity was the only thing he needed to prove his playmaking ability at the collegiate level.

Jerry Odom, who was an associate head coach at Jacksonville University at the time, traveled to Griffin for a high school game to watch a player he was recruiting from Griffin High School. But he quickly started to take heed of the 5-foot-11, 155-pound defensive back that played for Spalding.

"I'm watching this other player and he was okay, but then this other kid just keeps showing up," Odom said. "He just kind of piqued my interest and I tried to reach out and found Dee on Twitter. And then I called his coach and found out he was a first-year player and was a basketball guy."

Odom was a big fan of basketball players, specifically point guards, mainly because they had great footwork and were quick. The two cultivated a relationship over time and Odom started to recruit Alford to come play at Jacksonville University. At the end of Jacksonville's season that year, Odom got the call saying he would be the next head coach at Tusculum University, Tennessee's first university.

"I got the opportunity to come up here as the head coach," Odom said. "While I was doing it, I was scrambling getting in here for players and didn't know anything about our money situation, scholarship wise or anything but I knew there was four or five guys on my list and Dee was one of them."

Odom gave Alford a call following his move to Tusculum.

"He wanted me to follow him and that's what I did. I just wanted to go where I was wanted the most," Alford said.

Initially, Odom didn't have any scholarship money for Alford at Tusculum, so he joined the team as a walk-on.

"I just told him if you come up here and play, you do what I think you're going to do, I'll take care of you as soon as I can," Odom said. "That's kind of what worked out."

Despite playing at a smaller Division II institution, Alford's faith never wavered. He kept a steadfast mindset throughout the entire process.

"Going to a D-II, obviously you just have to work hard," he said. "It's a small school so you want to standout no matter what and just going to a Division II school, it made me play with a chip on my shoulder. It made want to be better. Better than the Power 5, better than the D-IAA, those types of guys. It just helped me play physical, play fast and it's just a mindset thing."

Alford earned a scholarship two months into his freshman campaign. In the next three seasons, he became one of Tusculum's most storied players in school history. He capped off his college career with 140 tackles, set a school record for 40 career passes defended, 10 interceptions (third in school history), 195 interceptions return yards, 50 career punt returns and 547 punt return yards which are both tied for third-most in Tusculum's football history.

"What impressed me the most about him was how much he wanted to learn," Odom said. "Everything that I could teach him or everything we tried to do conceptually. On the defensive side of the ball, we were in a lot of different coverages, and he really wanted to learn everything about it, and I think that was the first thing that really stood out to me about him."

Following an unparalleled tenure for the Pioneers, Alford spoke with a few different NFL teams but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened which put a pause on everything.

"All my pro days and stuff got canceled," Alford said. "But I did have the opportunity to go ahead and sign to Winnipeg [Blue Bombers] and that's what I did."

Odom reached out to Danny McManus, the assistant general manager, and Director for U.S. Scouting for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, and said, "hey look, you've got to give this kid a shot" and sent over his film following the conversation. Odom initially built the relationship with McManus after coaching with his brother Jerry McManus in the early 2000s at East Carolina University.

"They liked his film, and they ended up signing him," Odom said.

When Alford officially signed with the Blue Bombers in February of 2020, his season was postponed months later due to the pandemic, which pushed his first CFL season to 2021. Head coach Mike O'Shea knew the type of player he had in Alford after watching him in training camp.

"The athleticism was certainly there. He probably didn't have the same number of reps of experience that a lot of other guys have but he was always competitive, and he always showed up with a plan on how to get better," O'Shea said. "He just loves the game, he loves playing."

During his sole season in Canada, Alford recorded 48 tackles, four interceptions returning one for a touchdown, one forced fumble and helped lead Winnipeg to their second consecutive Grey Cup title.

"He had all the required attributes athletically to give himself a chance," O'Shea said. "An American coming up in that position to our league, it's a really different brand of football, right? You have to have humility. You got to be willing to put the ego aside and be willing to learn and recognize that it's a much different game that you have to really study to get a hold of it."

Alford's Canadian campaign would forge a lane to what he had been working for his entire life – a shot to play in the NFL. Kyle Smith, the vice president of player personnel for the Atlanta Falcons, watched Alford's CFL tape and knew something was distinct about the 24-year-old.

"He jumps off the tape in terms of twitch and quicks and speed. All the things that you see. Ball skills. Instinct," Smith said. "We just weren't sure how big he was. You know, he's from Griffin, Ga., he went to Tusculum, and it was a COVID year, and he didn't have a pro day and there weren't a lot of resources so there were unknowns of Dee. But as soon as we got him in here for a workout, he did the same thing in our workout. The feet, the quicks, the speed, it was all natural."

Around the middle of the NFL season, Smith and his scouting team will start the process of tracking college, CFL, and USFL players in statistical categories which includes league leaders in interceptions, touchdowns, passing, receptions, etc. and then will compile a list of names from the various leagues after gathering all the information.

"A lot of these guys, we've gone through at some point. You scouted them in college, you remember the background, you remember the makeup, you remember the measurables and you start weeding through that list," Smith said. "You start weeding through the names like 'okay we've got 27 names, let's get it down to 12' and of those 12, then we call our contacts [in the CFL, USFL, and college] to make sure we're not missing anybody."

Smith added: "You call these guys and you're like 'hey, are we on the right track? are these guys prospects for you and some of your top players?' and then we might get a couple names from them so once you get that list, you watch the tape and that's what we did with Dee."

On January 10, 2022, Alford signed a reserve/future contract with the Atlanta Falcons which brought things full circle for him.

"Me going to the CFL man, I just went in with a purpose and goal that I'm going to find a way to get back down south to the NFL and everything kind of worked out my way," Alford said. "Just going into Canada, like I said earlier, I just come in with a chip on my shoulder just to be the greatest and I'm still chasing greatness till this day."

Alford still had to earn his way on the roster, even with signing his contract in January. Amid training camp, doubt never lingered in his mind. He held the same confidence he always had in himself since growing up in Griffin.

In the first preseason game against the Detroit Lions, Alford was everywhere on the field. He led the Falcons defense with eight tackles, one interception, and one pass breakup. During a joint practice with the New York Jets the very next week, Alford had two interceptions and climbed his way up, playing majority of the first-team reps at slot cornerback.

"It's how Dee's wired," Smith said. "He's feisty, competitive. He came in here and I think gained 12-pounds in a couple of months and he just keeps getting better and better and he's got to continue to do that."

Now that Alford continues to settle into his first season with the franchise, carrying the same work ethic and valiant approach he's had his whole life, while playing for his hometown team is what fuels him as he charts his path in the NFL.

"Just playing for your home team, your home state, you have a chip on your shoulder to not let the state of Georgia down," Alford said. "Just coming from a place filled with great athletes around the league and Hall of Famers, you just want to do whatever to be that next guy that makes it to the Hall of Fame. It's a lot of love for the state of Georgia and I'm blessed to be able to play for this organization here in Georgia."


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