IN THE SPRING OF 2008, BEFORE ANYONE IN LUBBOCK REALLY KNEW HIS NAME, ALEX TORRES was called Air Force. After all, he had spent the previous school year at the Air Force Academy Prep School (akin to a freshman year at Air Force), and his approach in practice and in the weight room was militaristic. So what was he doing at Texas Tech anyway?
Torres broke his hand during basic training in the summer of 2007, just as the six-week program was getting started, and was sent home. He was given a year to heal and decide his future at the Academy. Torres craved a return to football—he'd starred as a wide receiver at Franklin High in El Paso—and spent the fall working out, sending around his high school highlight tape and taking classes at El Paso Community College. But a return to the field elsewhere would mean sacrificing his Air Force Academy scholarship.
"When there was uncertainty [about] where I'd end up, it was hard to keep a positive mentality," Torres recalls. "It seemed like I was training for no reason."
The Red Raiders offered Torres the chance to walk on in the spring of 2008. He made ends meet with tuition assistance that came from being honorably discharged—he was considered active military while at Air Force—and by working at the Texas Tech golf course. Torres also had the support of his family. "We learned to do more with less on our end," says Torres's mother, Lydia. "When we thought times were tough and I got a bonus, I paid a few months' rent up front. When it's your kids, you find a way."
Torres's persistence paid off with a strong spring in 2009, and he received a full scholarship in the fall. He returned the favor with a team-leading 67 catches while finishing second in receiving yards (806) and touchdowns (tied, with six). He also made a strong first impression on new coach Tommy Tuberville the following spring.
"I was amazed at the hands he had," Tuberville says. "He caught everything that we threw. And if you're a quarterback, you can always depend on him running the right route."
Torres had few chances to demonstrate that last year. He strained his back during two-a-days and suffered shoulder and knee injuries during the season, limiting him to 39 catches.
"We would have been a much better offense had Alex been healthy," Tuberville says. "He's worked very hard this spring to come off those injuries and get his confidence back. If he can stay healthy he can be one of the better receivers in the league."
The younger wideouts rib Torres about his age (he turns 24 in September) and those nagging injuries. ("They call me Old Man," he says. "I take a little longer to warm up than they do.") But he has used his position to his advantage. "Leading by example is the best way to be the glue this football team needs," he says. "I've really fallen into that role of setting an example of what we expect around here."
Off the field Torres graduates with a business degree this month and will take graduate classes in the fall and spring. On the field he's building on each milestone he's reached since arriving in Lubbock, while thanking his family for sticking with him.