Notre Dame football: Irish support helping Alford cope

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Tony Alford still catches himself grabbing his cell phone to reach out to his younger brother from time to time.

Ten days after his brother’s death, he hasn’t been able to shake the habit.

On Aug. 12, Aaron Alford passed away at the age of 39 from an apparent heart attack. Tony Alford boarded a plane and joined his family in Park City, Utah, where his brother had become an assistant football coach and athletic director at Park City High School. Like his older brother, Aaron Alford spent time coaching in the college ranks, most recently a four-year stint with Utah that ended in 2010.

Just six days after his brother’s death, Tony Alford returned to Notre Dame to resume his coaching responsibilities as ND’s running backs/slot receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Returning to the practice field was the only thing that felt right for Alford.

“Every single person in this world has something going on in their lives. This just happens to be mine at this juncture,” Alford said. “My mom and dad raised us a certain way. I know my brother would say, ‘Hey, get your tail back to work.’ It is what it is.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t think about him all the time. I miss him. ... We’re talking about a guy I talked to damn near every day in my adult life. It’s just like anybody else. You have things you have to do. The sun’s going to come up the next day as it has and will continue to.”

When Alford left South Bend for the week, he hadn’t imagined the outpour of support from the Notre Dame community that would follow.

He turned on his phone once in Utah and started to read the flood of support sent via text messages and Twitter. The next day, he started responding to all the messages.

“You think you know. You think you understand the family atmosphere and how much people care (at Notre Dame),” Alford said. “But until you go through something, then you truly find out. I’m eternally grateful for that and the support of the Notre Dame community at large.”

Alford took to Twitter on Aug. 13 and started responding to those who reached out. Quickly he passed 100 tweets of thank yous.

“I did my damnedest to answer all of them individually,” Alford said. “Some people say, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Listen, they took the time to reach out to me, so I felt behooved to take the time to reach back out to them.”

As Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator, Alford has gained the reputation with high school players and coaches around the country as being caring, considerate and easy to relate to. Those traits mirror the legacy he wants his brother to be remembered by.

“Every time you talk to someone or encounter someone, you have an opportunity to deliver a message. That message is whatever you want it to be, but every time you encounter someone you have an opportunity to deliver a positive message and a message of your choice,” Alford said. “I think he did an outstanding job of delivering a positive message, a message of hope to people, that you can get this done, you can succeed.”

Alford spent time with his brother’s three sons and even tagged along to little league practice one day. While there, he shared a laugh with a Notre Dame fan who showed him the now infamous video clip of Brian Kelly and Cam McDaniel’s mishap with the gauntlet machine at practice.

McDaniel contacted Alford later that day before his position coach could give him a hard time. Returning to coach players like McDaniel and the rest of the running back unit has made the grieving process easier.

“Coming back here, our players are unbelievable,” Alford said. “The support that I received from not just our staff, but from the guys in the locker room was heartfelt.”

The death of his brother has dealt Alford an unexpected dose of perspective, but he doesn’t plan to change who he is as a coach. As time passes, he’ll stop reaching for his phone to talk to his passed brother. He won’t, however, stop reaching out to those who matter to him.

“I’m as competitive as they come. I will continue to be. But if you care about people, let them know,” Alford said. “Don’t let a day go by that you don’t let people know you care about them and that you honor and cherish them being a part of your life.”

Notre Dame assistant coach Tony Alford looks over players at practice Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ