HOUSTON -- When the tragedies began, they didn’t stop.
Two homes burned down. A historic hurricane displaced his family. His grandmother and aunt succumbed to illness. His uncle was murdered in his home, and his uncle's son was charged with his murder.
Weeks later, another uncle, the one who taught him how to fish, died in a car crash.
This all might have beaten a less hardy person, but Alfred Blue persevered.
“Football helps a lot,” Blue said. “It takes up a lot of your time. It helps you cope with a lot of stuff that goes on with your life. You can just turn to football if something’s going on on the outside. You’ve gotta focus so much on what you’re doing here. It helps deal with the pain. Eventually you learn to accept it, and you just move on.”
The game he loves was a sanctuary. Because of it, Blue now finds himself in a position he’s dreamed of ever since he was a chubby little kid everyone called Cheese. Already, as the Houston Texans’ backup running back, he’s made a mark. Blue scored after blocking a punt in Week 1. In Week 3, the rookie got his first NFL start.
“Blue is a big back; he's a smart back,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a tough kid.”
He was raised to be tough in a family that understood the sorrow life sometimes brings.
“I teach him ... things happen,” said Erica Clement, Blue’s mother. “Most of all, death isn’t just for the elderly or the sick. It can happen at any time.”
The kids were constantly outdoors, hunting, fishing, camping. There were aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents passing the family traditions on to each other.
Blue played organized recreational football, starting as a responsible 5-year-old making sure one of his parents took him to practice every day. Then he’d come home for more football with his cousins. He was always a running back.
The family’s loss began with a fire that destroyed their trailer back in 2005, not too long before Hurricane Katrina. They lost all the mementos Clement gathered over the years.
Then the hurricane hit New Orleans. Living in Boutte, Louisiana, not too far away, Blue’s family was displaced to a Pentecostal campground serving as a Red Cross shelter. His father moved to Houston not long after, finding economic opportunity here.
A respite followed for the next few years.
Blue became a star running back at Hahnville High School and the top prep prospect in Louisiana by his senior year. His commitment to LSU was noteworthy for the school and for his family, who were near enough that they could come watch his games.
“It’s very intimidating,” Blue said. “The expectations are very high when you go in [to LSU]. Coach [Les] Miles, he tells you that. He also tells you, you have the opportunity to play as a freshman. ‘You show me that you’re mature enough and ready.’”
Blue played in 11 games during his freshman year, with one start. In his sophomore year, Blue was part of a trio of running backs who each rushed for more than 500 yards. And during that sophomore season, hardship returned.
Clement didn’t want to tell her oldest son that their house had burned down again. She knew he’d rush right over to be with his family, and she wanted him to worry about himself instead.
In September 2011, the home in which she, Blue’s grandmother, Blue’s aunt, Blue’s cousin and Blue’s siblings had lived burned down. A cousin told Blue instead, and, as his mother predicted, he left school to go home to be with her. LSU held fundraisers through a foundation called Relief-4-Blue that was approved by the NCAA due to the extreme circumstances involved. They raised tens of thousands of dollars.
“I learned that LSU was family,” Blue said. “The university helped me and my family. Helped my mom, my sister, brother. Helped them get clothes. They raised money, they announced it at the games. ... Everything she needed to get back on her feet.”
A few months later, Blue’s grandmother, Beverly Geason, died. His aunt, Tyra Hill, had died earlier in the year. Again, Clement tried to shield her son from the news, knowing he had a big game approaching. The news got to him anyway.
During the 2012 season, Blue earned a job as LSU’s starting running back, but then pain returned in a more literal sense. He tore an ACL in the third week of the season. At the time, Blue was averaging 112 rushing yards per game.
“When I came back off my ACL, I was the starter again, and [then] I had a bruised knee after the TCU game,” Blue said, referring to the 2013 season opener. “That slowed me down again. It was just a lot of injuries that slowed me down from reaching my full potential in college. I just kept moving forward.”
Football continued to buttress him; he would need that again.
In November 2013, Blue lost two uncles. Stanley Robinson, who was shot to death in his house, always looked out for Blue, spending generously on his nephew. His son, Stanley Robinson Jr., who Blue says is schizophrenic, was charged in the slaying. His uncle Percy Hill, who taught blue how to hunt and fish, was killed in a car crash just before Thanksgiving.
“I think those two really took a toll,” Clement said. “Men, they won’t show it, but he broke down. Especially with my brother. At the funeral, he really broke down.”
Blue smiled so much, in college some mistakenly thought the nickname Cheese was because of his grin.
He doesn’t carry himself like someone weighted by pain.
“When I’m out there, football is football,” Blue said. “There’s nothing else on my mind. It’s all about football when I’m between them lines out there.”
He rushed 13 times for 78 yards, including a 46-yarder, against the Giants in starter Arian Foster’s absence. Depending on how Foster’s hamstring heals, Blue might get more chances. The Texans drafted him in the sixth round this May, and this early in his NFL career, he’s got plenty of room to grow.
“I really believe in this kid,” O’Brien said. “I think that he’s big, he’s smart, he’s really, from day one, really picked up on things. He hit a little wall in training camp. ... He climbed over it. ... I think he’s got a chance to be a really good back in this league.”
Family is still close by. His father, Alfred Blue Jr., attended several training camp practices. Easy to do since he lives in Houston. His mother is recovering from a broken foot and didn’t come to the Texans’ season opener, but she’s planning a trip soon.
In each of the past three weeks, she’s found a way to watch her son play the game that acted as a salve when life opened wounds.