In fact, if Alstott has a shortcoming, it's his blocking. Dungy says Alstott is "a slightly above-average blocker, and that's because he never blocked at all. He's 50 percent better than last year. It's still the weakest part of his game, but I think he'll be in the upper echelon in another year."
As a rookie Alstott ran for 377 yards, caught a team-high 65 passes and broke tackles more routinely than Pete Townshend once broke guitars. Suddenly, he was being compared to the classic running fullbacks of the 1970s and '80s: Larry Csonka, Larry Brown and his boyhood idol, John Riggins. As the '97 draft neared, Dungy and Tampa Bay running backs coach Tony Nathan, among others, debated the merits of finding another fullback and making Alstott an oversized feature back, like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome (the Bus) Bettis. Dungy spent hours watching film, comparing clips of Alstott's runs to tapes from Bettis's All-Pro performance in '96. "Ultimately, we decided he was capable of carrying the load," Dungy says. "That gave us the luxury of drafting Warrick Dunn—because we didn't think Warrick could do it full time, but he could bring us a change of pace."
Again, Dungy was pleasantly surprised: The 5'8", 178-pound Dunn has been more durable than expected, and he and Alstott now share the rushing chores, with 614 and 571 yards, respectively, through Sunday's 27-7 win over the New England Patriots. In that game (which brought the Bucs to 8-3) Alstott ran for 91 yards on 16 carries, caught three passes for 35 yards and scored his team-high sixth rushing touchdown of the season.
"I love the Bus, and I don't want him to take this the wrong way, but if Mike had [Steelers fullback] Tim Lester blocking for him and got 28 to 30 carries a game, he could be Jerome Bettis," says Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer. "You hear so much about him being a Riggins-or Csonka-type back, but people don't realize how great an athlete he is. He has good moves and amazing balance and can make people miss."
Despite the fact that he is becoming more recognized for his athleticism, the staples of the Alstott myth remain work ethic and toughness. He recalls a game last season in which he was so dazed from a helmet-to-helmet collision that he couldn't remember his phone number. "I got in the huddle and told Trent, 'Help me out here—left or right?' " Alstott says. He refuses to name the game because he doesn't want the opponent to get the satisfaction of knowing that he rang Alstott's bell.
Those close to Alstott know about his determination. "Even when he's out late, he's up early the next morning to work out," says Dobbins. "He can't just sit there and do nothing. And when he decides he's going to do something, he won't stop until the project is completed."
Last March, Alstott drove his Jeep—the same one he pushed for exercise—from Joliet to St. Petersburg. He enlisted Dooley as copilot and told him to be ready to leave the next morning. Dooley went to bed, only to be awakened by an Alstott phone call a little past midnight. Recalls Dooley, "He told me we were leaving right away, but first we had to drive 3½ hours to Purdue to get the top to the Jeep and attach it. The only problem was, we were hit by sleet, snow and freezing rain. Didn't matter. Mike had decided we were leaving. I'm sitting there with a sock wrapped around my ears, cursing him." After a 28-hour odyssey, culminating in a raucous stopover in Panama City, Fla., where spring break was in full swing, Alstott finally consented to stop at a motel and sleep.
Alstott's current roommates, Wunsch and second-year defensive tackle Jason Maniecki, have also been caught in his wake. "When he gets something on his mind, there's no changing it," Wunsch says. "It doesn't matter what time of night it is—there's work to be done." Among the projects for which they've been enlisted are knocking out the kitchen cabinets, making improvements to the house's two fish tanks and rebuilding the dock out back that holds the 23-foot Mako fishing boat Alstott purchased last year.
Theirs is the ultimate bachelor pad: a janitor's-style mop and bucket reside in one corner of the dining room, across from the cage that houses Buddy, Maniecki's rowdy yellow Lab; a half-eaten pecan pie, a fork still inserted, sits on the kitchen counter, next to a tin of chewing tobacco.
Back at Bongo's, Alstott makes no apologies. "It's great for now," he says of his house, "but in a couple of years, when I sign my next contract, I'm going to tear it down and build my dream house. When it's time to demolish it, I'll have a huge party and give everyone hammers and paint brushes."