CALI, Colombia -- After 15 years, Kiko Alonso is back to milking cows, savoring the smell of fresh guava and riding a chestnut horse across the field of his ancestors.
This offseason, the Miami Dolphins linebacker fulfilled a promise he had made to his grandparents, uncles and cousins that he would return to the Hacienda Maranon Alto, in Cali, Colombia, where he used to spend his childhood summers and Christmas holidays.
At 25 and in his fourth season and third team in the NFL, Alonso had finally returned to Cali. The last time he had walked through his motherland, he was 10 years old. He never forgot how cherished he used to be here. He would eat his favorite meals, drink the tastiest fruit juices, and ride the horses he still calls "my friends."
Alonso fulfilled his promise because he needed to reconnect with Colombia, with Latin America, with the people who speak, feel, dance and laugh like his father Carlos, a Cuban raised in Puerto Rico, and his mother, Monica, born and raised in Cali, Colombia.
Like a storybook hero who returns to the castle to re-arm before resuming the battle, Alonso returned to the land of his ancestors on his mother's side to recover and start again. Two ligament injuries in his left knee altered a career in the NFL that had started at full speed. Alonso racked up 87 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in his first season with the Buffalo Bills, the team that drafted him in the second round in 2013 from the University of Oregon. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. The knee problems, however, led to him missing the entire 2014 season and part of 2015, after Buffalo traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles later traded him to the Miami Dolphins.
"Now I feel better than ever," said Alonso, speaking in his native Spanish. He will spend three weeks renewing his energy at his family estate, in preparation for a new beginning with the Dolphins.
He said things at the ranch haven't changed much. Little is different from what he remembered of his childhood days there.
He's the one who has changed.
"I can appreciate things a lot more," Alonso said. "I can appreciate all this a lot more."
In the morning, he jogged around the polo field and then swam in the pool. He said the knee has 100 percent recovered. Miami coaches who saw him in the first minicamps of the year confirmed that was true.
In fact, the knee is already a minor issue in this career restart for Alonso. The main thing is the rediscovery of himself.
The young man is experiencing a reconnection with his Latin roots. It's perhaps enhanced by his arrival at the Dolphins, a team with a large Hispanic fan base, one that happens to include Alonso's father.
I love P.R.
Earlier this year, Alonso traveled to Puerto Rico, to spend a vacation with his father's family. He admitted, "I realized that San Juan was my place in the world. I love the food, the beaches, the parties, the people."
He fell in love with San Sebastian Festival, an annual Carnaval-type celebration for four days in mid January in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The historic colonial section of the island's capital gives itself over to dancing, parades and live music.
"Every year, if we're not in the playoffs, I'll go there," he stated. "In those four days, you'll know where to find me. It's a really incredible event. I have also attended many other celebrations like that here in Colombia and other countries."
"Siempre hay fiestas en Latinoamérica, ¿no? Las personas son diferentes aquí. En los Estados Unidos, la vida es más rápida, con mayor estrés. Aquí la gente es más relajada, más divertida. Yo tendría que vivir aquí. Me gusta más esta forma de vida. Supongo que la llevo en los genes."
"There is always partying in Latin America, right? People are different here. In the United States, life is faster, more stressful. People here are more relaxed, more fun. I should be living here. I like this way of life. I guess it's in my genes."
He jumps the gate and returns to the corral. A foal comes near, knowing this man will cut green grass for him.
"I feel I belong here," says Alonso. "I belong here with the horses. I think I'll sleep with them tonight."
He did not sleep well the night before. It was Friday night. He went downtown to meet with his cousins, and drank aguardiente (moonshine) for the first time ever.
"I didn’t like it," he said, with clear disapproval. "It has a horrible taste... now I see that I wasn't missing anything. I had to drink four cups of coffee and eat a triple cheeseburger to clear the taste. Just give me rum with grapefruit juice, like they drink it in Puerto Rico."
For lunch, Alonso asked for another Puerto Rican specialty: rice with beans and tostones (fried plantains). "That gets me 100 percent ready," he said. "It's what I used to eat when I was growing up, and I feel I’m growing again when I eat it. It's the dish that makes me strong." He laughed at the memory of Adam Sandler in "Waterboy" adding: "It’s my tackling fuel."
Tackling is basically the reason Alonso plays football.
"At first, I started playing baseball," he explained. "My father taught us how to play baseball before even teaching us how to walk. The earliest memories I have is playing chapitas with a broomstick and a cap of a bottle of beer. We used to play all day, all year long."
His brother Carlos, two years older than him, is still playing. He's the second baseman for the Reading Fightin Phils in the minor leagues, with hopes of reaching MLB. (Carlos suffered a knee ligament injury last weekend and is out for the rest of the season.)
However, Kiko changed course when he first encountered football.
"I started playing among friends," he said. "Then, I began playing in organized matches, with equipment. I fell in love immediately with the sport. I have always liked to fight, hit. I love boxing. I am addicted to [Roberto] ‘Mano de Piedra’ Duran fights on Youtube. I want to go and meet him in Panama. That's why I'm a linebacker, because I love hitting. I love tackling. It's the way I found to hit someone without being punished. Now they punish you more during the games, with all those flags and fines, but it’s still a game of tackles."
Miami tackling machine
The Dolphins project Alonso as their starting middle linebacker for the upcoming season, and he is well aware: "Yes, it’s clear that is my position to lose."
His natural position is middle linebacker, although at some point the Bills tried to move him to outside linebacker. "That's my place," he said. "It is the most complete role. You have to do it all. Go inside and out, rush the passer, stop the runner, go back in coverage. What I like is to knock down the ball carrier; I'll do whatever it takes to take him down, anything within the rules. But besides the strength to hit, a linebacker must have agility, speed, good hands."
Hands good enough, for example, to intercept four passes as a rookie? Alonso nodded. "I think playing baseball as a boy gave me soft hands."
If offenses assign Alonso a double block, perhaps his fights as a child gave him the tools to overcome the two against one. Carlos and his other brother, Lucas, two years younger, always formed a duo to face him. "It was fair," Alonso admitted. "I was the biggest of the three."
"They would fight all day," recalled his mother. "It was Carlos and Lucas against Kiko. The only memories I have of that stage of my life was to be following them through the different corners of the house, hurrying up to move the ornaments before they would end up breaking them."
Alonso was a standout linebacker in high school in Los Gatos, California, and he remained so when he moved on to college with the Oregon Ducks. Los Gatos coaches sometimes made him align on the other side of the ball as a tight end, and he says he has something to contribute on offense.
"We have good tight ends in Miami," he said, "but if the Dolphins need me for a specific play, I can move on that side of the ball. I've already told the coaches that if they want me out there in a goal-line situation, I'm ready to jump into the field. I have some specific plays at hand, but I won't reveal them."
In the beginning, when playing street football with his friends, Alonso lined up as a wide receiver. "I pretended to be Randy Moss, my childhood idol. In those years of Moss in Minnesota, the quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, would throw long passes with his powerful arm, and Randy would burn them all."
In a twist of fate, another passion in Alonso’s life has ties with the Vikings -- and with his Hispanic heritage.
Gabriela, his girlfriend, is the daughter of Joe Kapp, the famous quarterback of the late '60s. With a father of German descent and a mother of Mexican heritage, Kapp was described as "The Toughest Chicano" by Sports Illustrated after he led the Minnesota Vikings to Super Bowl IV, where they were defeated by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Just like his daughter's boyfriend, Kapp loved hitting rivals, which is definitely unusual for a quarterback. At the time, the media described Kapp as "one half of a collision, looking for the other half."
"Joe was a linebacker playing quarterback," joked Alonso. He does not hide his respect and admiration for one of only eight players in NFL history who threw seven touchdown passes in a game, a record that Kapp managed against the Baltimore Colts in September 1969. "He was another kind of player," Alonso marveled. "The passion he had. He still has that passion. He tells me stories about the time when he was playing, and it was something else. They were very different players at that time."
His conversations with Kapp, his relationship with his girlfriend and his return to his family roots are helping Alonso to see his life from a new perspective.
Although fluent in Spanish, he sometimes lacks specific vocabulary for what he wants to say. For example, Alonso asked how to say "mature" and "immature." He needs those words to make reference to his behavioral and alcohol problems at university, which resulted in him getting hit with serious suspensions in Oregon.
"I was young and immature," he admitted. "I was a child. I did stupid things. Now I know that some things should not be done. I'm not invincible. I should be careful, and even more in the NFL, with people always focusing their cameras on the players. In college I was a little crazy. Now, I am more mature and feel more relaxed. I know I have to think before acting. I'm smarter, I learned from what happened and I'm more careful. I remember how I thought at the time, and I'm surprised at how silly I was. It's amazing to realize that you were a different person at a different time. You become aware that the person you are now is not the same as you were five or six years ago. You look at that person, and you see a completely different individual from what you are now. That's life. Everything grows. Everything changes."
He grasped a new handful of grass and fed a young mare.
"I still like partying," he continued. "I won't deny it. But that in itself is not bad. You just have to be careful. It's the same with horses. You have to be careful."
Alonso walked around the yard looking for more green fodder, warning a photographer about to follow him, "Watch out. Do not go behind the legs of the horse, unless you want a vasectomy."
When he goes out in Cali, Alonso tries to improve his salsa and reggaeton dance moves so he can continue teaching them to his colleagues when he returns to Miami.
"I'm the teacher of the linebackers." he revealed. "Salsa is what I find the most difficult. It is very difficult. When the rhythm accelerates, I make a mess. Merengue is easier. Reggaeton is the easiest for me. I've already taken Jelani Jenkins, Spencer Paysinger, Zach Vigil in a group to dance, and I have made them taste the food of my land. I took them to a Hispanic bar in Miami, and when Jelani tasted a croquette, he ordered the waitress, 'Give me 10 of these.' When the boys saw Latin girls, they said they were in Paradise."
The day he and his new friends arrived at the house he's renting in Fort Lauderdale, his mother was waiting for them with a paella. "A paella for a lot of people" recalls Monica. "They were six, but they were worth 24. That day I made marinera. It had shrimp, clams, squid, mussels, octopus, and also a bit of chicken, because I wanted it to have more flavor and couldn't find Spanish sausage in Ft. Lauderdale. There was another kind of sausage, but didn't produce the color or the flavor of the Spanish one. Some of these men had never eaten paella, and they were very happy."
Another of his friends is his former teammate, Mark Sanchez, with whom he maintains a good relationship after their time with the Eagles last year.
Sanchez is now the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. He has Mexican roots, and during his best years with USC and the New York Jets, he was the most visible person of Hispanic heritage in football. Sanchez made and continues to make great efforts to learn Spanish, but according to Alonso, there would be a clear winner if the two of them were ever to compete and see who's better at speaking Spanish.
"He learned Spanish at school," Alonso mocked gently. "I speak it naturally. In fact, when I returned from Puerto Rico, I had forgotten my English. They asked me something in English and I could hardly answer. It is true that sometimes I lose the fluidity of the Spanish after I spend a long time without practicing, but I recover it quickly when I spend time with my relatives. I even catch the accent. When I returned from San Juan I was told I talked like a Boricua, and when I come back from here, they will say I speak like a Colombian."
Alonso already knows what accent he will adopt when he's living in Miami. "Soon they will say that I speak like a Cuban."
If the reunion with his roots helps him regain his best form, perhaps Alonso will one day claim the mantle of "Latin America's favorite" that was once held by Sanchez. Alonso described the Mexican-American as "a great guy," but also noted, "When I came to Philadelphia and spoke to him in Spanish, he didn't understand much. I told him, ‘Mira... que pasa...' [Hey... what's going on] and he would only answer: 'Hola.' We ended up becoming close friends; he's a very nice guy. But I think the only thing he knows how to say in Spanish is 'hola.'"
Read the original Spanish-language version of this story here.