She's an attractive young brunette, a confident reveler with a Jennifer Aniston hairdo, a killer tan and legs that seem as long as the Florida panhandle. Her name is Melanie or Melinda or Amy or Amanda—it doesn't matter, for there are others like her at Bongo's, a laid-back bar on St. Petersburg Beach in which Jimmy Buffet would be perfectly at home. Beers and tropical drinks are flowing on this warm Thursday evening, and young women are swooning over the area's most eligible bachelor, fullback Mike Alstott of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alstott, who this evening has already exchanged soul shakes with the proprietor, kissed the bartender and shadowboxed with the guitar player, approaches the brunette, playfully grabbing her love handles. She flashes her pearly whites and holds her position. As everyone can see, she's in good hands with Alstott.
The party began hours earlier when the patrons at Bongo's were treated to a California-style sunset accompanied by the booming strains of the 1812 Overture, a combination that might be offensive to romantics but that was right in tune with Alstott. Whether bulling through defenders or stampeding through life, he's about as subtle as a tank. "I've got the image of being a straight-and-narrow guy, and I like that," he said over the blare of the music. "I want to be that clean-cut guy who people look up to. But I also like to go out, be social and get loose."
With Alstott, there's myth and there's reality, and the line between the two is often blurred. For instance, it's true that as a high school scrapper in Joliet, Ill., and later as an unlikely star at Purdue, Alstott toned his body by pushing his Jeep Wrangler back and forth across the practice field and by running with whitewall tires strapped around his waist. It has also been reported that Alstott chased down and caught a rabbit he spotted while leaving the Boilermakers' practice field. "Naw, that's a myth," Alstott says. "One of my roommates at Purdue, Bob O'Connor, was getting all these calls from reporters, and he just made it up. One day someone in Illinois called and read it to me, and I cracked up."
Now in his second NFL season, Alstott has become the league's leading symbol of throwback virtue. A 6'1", 248-pound bruiser with deceptive grace, he has won over coaches, teammates and fans with his work ethic and old-school manner. He has been depicted as the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry. He's a little more dangerous than that. It's probably more accurate to call him the guy your daughter would want to marry.
With a stylish goatee covering his milk-and-cookies face and a man-of-steel physique, Alstott doesn't want for potential partners. Just ask Bucs rookie tackle Jerry Wunsch, who rents a room in Alstott's St. Petersburg house. Says Wunsch, "I'll come off the practice field—or go anywhere in public—and I'll hear women talking about him: "That's Mike Alstott. Do you know what I'd like to do to him?' And then they'll get very, very explicit. Sometimes I'll lean over and say, 'I'm his roommate. I'll be sure to tell him.' You should see them blush."
Most of these fantasies go unfulfilled. As linebackers and defensive backs can attest, Alstott is difficult to pin down. The female attention, however, is no bother. Though Alstott's reputation suggests he is a man consumed by football, the reality is that he has other things on his mind, too. Picture yourself a 23-year-old from a small Illinois city with money, fame, looks and the Sunshine State at your fingertips. "He's a Midwestern boy in an amazing place, and he's living life to the fullest," says Alstott's close friend and former Purdue teammate Scott Dobbins. "The clean-cut legend is what it's cracked up to be, but he goes all out in all aspects of his life, and he doesn't worry about the fallout."
Adds Ryan Dooley, who has been one of Alstott's best friends since childhood, "He loves it down there. How can you not? The guy is living the dream."
It's not uncommon for Dooley or another hometown buddy, Ryan Brown, to receive late-night cellular calls from Florida filling them in on what they're missing. "Sometimes I can't believe I'm here," Alstott says. "I mean, my two best friends are back in Joliet, still living with their parents and trying to save money. One [Brown] works for the phone company; the other [Dooley] works in construction. I'd be right there with 'em if I hadn't gotten a scholarship to play at Purdue."
Nothing about Mike's athletic success has been accidental. His parents—Dennis, a truck driver for a waste-cleanup company, and Jeanne, a grocery store cashier—allowed him to concentrate almost solely on school and sports. "The only job I ever had was a paper route," he says. "My parents are unbelievably cool. Because they've worked so hard, they wanted me to enjoy my childhood." Dennis and Jeanne have never missed one of Mike's games—nearly 200, all told, from peewee football to the pros. Says Mike, "They like to go out afterward and have a good time, too."
Though Alstott was a star at Joliet Catholic High and was pursued by various Big Ten schools, only Purdue recruited him with the promise of making him a feature back. He became the first Boilermaker to earn team MVP honors three times. At the 1996 combine Alstott wowed NFL scouts by running a 4.66 40-yard dash. Yet when the Bucs drafted him in the second round, with the 35th pick, they envisioned him as a pure fullback and asked him to concentrate on a skill with which he was unfamiliar: blocking. Midway through training camp before Alstott's rookie season, first-year coach Tony Dungy was forced to reevaluate. "We began to think, Maybe we've got a little bit more than a blocker," Dungy recalls.