Playing in his first big league camp, Anthony Alford is a little anxious. He's facing major league pitchers for the first time. He's playing catch with Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and other stars he's seen on TV. But more than anything, he knows this is his chance -- his only chance.
Alford, an outfielder in the Toronto Blue Jays system, got into his first spring training game last week as a pinch runner. He used the speed that has intrigued scouts since his high school days to easily score from second on a base hit to left field.
Meanwhile, 700 miles away in Oxford, Mississippi, the Ole Miss football team was taking the field for the first time since the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. It was the beginning of spring practice. Alford was supposed to be there, supposed to be battling for a job in the secondary. But that would've meant he finished out last season, and that's not how the story went.
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Alford still remembers cleaning out his locker at Ole Miss.
He was emotional because football will always be his first love. He remembers sitting in Hugh Freeze's office and telling his coach his football days were over. He remembers a month later watching the Rebels lose a heartbreaker at LSU and feeling like he was still part of that loss.
"I had to face reality," Alford said. "I knew baseball was going to be the sport that would provide for my family and put food on the table. I will always love football. To this day, I still love football. I just had to face reality and realize baseball was going to be my future.
"I didn't have the time to be one of those guys that they develop in football because my clock in baseball was still ticking."
So just days before No. 11 Ole Miss hosted No. 3 Alabama, Alford hung up his spikes. The former quarterback turned defensive back exchanged his helmet and pads for a bat and a glove. And a month later, the day after watching his teammates lose to LSU, he was on a plane to Australia to play winter ball in the Australian Baseball League.
The Rebels moved on without Alford. They went on to win that game against Alabama, their first win over the Crimson Tide since 2003. They finished the regular season 9-3 and earned a spot in a New Year's Six bowl. It was one of the program's best seasons in recent memory.
But there was still something missing after Alford left. It wasn't on the field where he rarely played. It was in the locker room where he had a relationship with his teammates. Other players, younger and older, went to the 20-year-old for advice. He had just gotten married in July and was wise beyond his years, an unsung leader for that team.
"Everybody wants an Anthony Alford on their team, because you know he's going to lead people the right way," said 23-year-old Ole Miss linebacker Deterrian Shackelford, who spent six years in Oxford after dealing with serious knee injuries.
Alford returned to Oxford last month to spend the weekend with Shackelford, his closest friend on the team. He saw old friends, teammates and even had a conversation with athletic director Ross Bjork. He didn't run into Freeze, but the two remain close. Like so many others, Freeze believes Alford could have played in the NFL had he stuck with football.
"He had a chance," Freeze said. "He's a very talented athlete. It was way too early to tell, but he certainly had a chance."
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In high school, a Chicago White Sox scout told Alford's agent that he'd only seen two people have the talent to be an all-star at the highest level in both football and baseball. The first was Bo Jackson. The second was Alford.
Alford, a five-tool outfielder, was not all that different from Jackson on the diamond. When Alford hit a single in high school, it was automatically a triple because he was going to steal second and third. He even stole home a couple of times.
But growing up in rural Mississippi, it didn't matter how good of a baseball player he was. It was all about football.
"The reason I say that (football is my first love) is because I grew up in Mississippi, south Mississippi at that," Alford said. "People eat, sleep and play football out here. That's just the environment that I grew up in. Baseball is kind of overlooked."
Alford's football talents were anything but overlooked. He began playing quarterback as a freshman, and by his senior year, he led Petal High School to the state championship game. He had scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Nebraska and Tennessee, in addition to the in-state powers Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
"I told recruiters I thought he was a cross between Michael Vick and Cam Newton," Petal coach Steve Buckley said. "He wasn't as tall as Cam, but he just had that 'it' factor about him. Cam could take over a game in college. Anthony could do the same at the high school level."
Alford went on to win Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball in Mississippi his senior year. He was the No. 95 football recruit in the ESPN 300 adn the No. 47 MLB draft prospect in Keith Law's ESPN rankings. He signed a letter of intent to stay home and play football at Southern Miss (his high school coach, Buckley, was added to the team's staff), and he was also drafted by the Blue Jays in the third round. Alford likely would've been drafted higher, but most teams were afraid they couldn't sign him.
He truly didn't know which sport he wanted to pursue, so he played both. His six-figure deal with the Blue Jays allowed him to work out for a few weeks in the spring and then return in the summer for a month of minor league games. The rest of the time he was able to focus on his college football career and dream of playing in the NFL.
It was a lot of money for the rights to Alford, but the risk might have been worth the reward now that he's given up football.
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When former major league outfielder Tim Raines first saw Alford, he knew the promising athlete had a chance to make it. Raines was a roving instructor for the Blue Jays, and Alford was in his first season with the team, still trying to balance two sports.
"Just looking at him, his stature, he's built like a brick house," Raines said. "He has great speed, power, arm, defense -- he can do it all. And that's from not really playing the game.
"For a guy that's focused on another sport and just coming out -- it's kind of like what Bo Jackson said, baseball was just a hobby for him. It was eye-opening to see that he was so much ahead of the guys that were already there and only playing baseball."
This time last year, Alford was waking up at 3 a.m. to go hit in the batting cage before football practice. It was a constant grind going back-and-forth between the two sports, and one that even he now admits kept him from reaching his full potential.
Now, for the first time in five years, Alford has downtime.
"I'm not going to know what to do," he said. "I'm so used to going from one sport to another, from one sport to another. It's good I can finally focus on one."
Giving up football doesn't mean that Alford is above waking up at 3 a.m. to go hit in the cages.
"He works. That's him. That's his DNA," Shackelford said. "He loves what he does, and he's going to give it 120 percent. He always worked for whatever he wants. That's why I don't believe it will be as long as a lot of people have predicted before he's in the major leagues."
"He's going to be a good one," added Raines. "Give him a few years, but I guarantee he'll be in the big leagues soon."
It wasn't always the plan Alford envisioned growing up. He probably would've told you the NFL was his future. But the funny thing is giving up football might ultimately be the decision that allows him to play professional baseball. And he's OK with that.
"I miss some things about [football]," Alford said. "I'm not going to lie, when I see some of the highlight videos, I get an adrenaline rush. But I'm happy where I'm at."