- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame players and coaches came and went during last season's media day, posing for pictures and shuffling out of the stadium to resume preparations for their looming opener. But Tony Alford remained behind, alone with his thoughts. Alford's younger brother Aaron died from a blood clot 10 days earlier, on Aug. 12. He was 39. Alford had been back at work as the Irish's running backs and slot receivers coach for just four days after burying his best friend in Park City, Utah. Much of his mind remained there.
First-year graduate assistant Tyler McDermott recognized the look on Alford's face and took a seat next to his mentor, who let the emotions of the month pour out.
"He was very open and very honest about it, and he told me some things I don't think he would have told many other people," said McDermott, who connected with Tony through Colorado State, their alma mater. "Before we got up to walk back, he goes, 'Hey, Aaron had a camp, and it was in Park City.' And I just said, 'In the summer?' He's like, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You don't even need to ask. I'm there.' "
That set in motion preparations for the second annual Aaron Alford Greatest Of All-Time football camp, which took place June 30-July 2. The Alford brothers always talked about starting their own camp as a way to get more kids involved in football. Aaron made it happen when he was out of coaching last summer, drawing a crowd of about 75.
Aaron Alford was the Greatest Of All Time!! Honored/privileged to run the G.O.A.T. Football Camp 2014 in his honor!! pic.twitter.com/1IrWHwLeHp
— Coach Tony Alford (@CoachTonyAlford) June 29, 2014
An event like that was always Aaron's dream, Tony said. Yes, a shoulder injury Aaron suffered at Colorado State opened the coaching door early. And yes, he made a difference as an assistant at five different colleges, Utah the most notable among them. But he wanted to spend more time with his family and impact his community in a different way.
He opened a local branch of the New Beginnings Behavioral Treatment Agency, a center for youths having trouble at home, last July. He was, according to several accounts, literally signing the papers to make him Park City High's next athletic director right before he felt light-headed and stood up to get some fresh air. A blood clot from deep vein thrombosis had moved to his heart. He collapsed.
Everything was coming back into play for Aaron. And then he was gone.
At Aaron's funeral service, a boy no older than 10 approached Tony, telling him how much fun the camp was, and how Aaron got the boy interested in football.
"If the camp was still going on, would you do it?" Tony recalled asking the boy. "And he goes, 'Yeah, I would.' I said, 'Well I guess we'll have the camp.' I said it and it just kind of came out. It was an emotional time. 'Yeah, we'll run the camp.'"
A month later, Aaron's widow, Linda, called Tony asking if he was really going to run it. Plenty of area kids, including her three boys, were asking about it.
"I guess I better run the camp," Tony said, laughing.
So Tony rounded up his brother's friends in the coaching fraternity and got them involved. Brent Myers from Weber State, Bo Beck from Montana State and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator John Pease were soon on board, flying themselves to Utah for the second week of summer. Most of the area youth coaches participated, too.
Kelly Cares, Irish head coach Brian Kelly's foundation, offered support. Linda and Gloria, the Alfords' mother, helped with registration. Former Notre Dame players Louis Nix, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick reached out afterward, pledging their support for future years.
More than 170 kids showed up at Park City High's Dozier Field. Heads-up tackling, blocking techniques and catching drills were part of the itinerary. So, too, were super-soaker battles and water-balloon fights.
Tony played the role of supervisor for three days. And walking from group to group and interacting with each kid turned out to be more rewarding than running drills.
When McDermott and the rest of the visiting coaches explored town after each session, they inevitably found themselves locked in conversations with locals, sharing stories of Aaron's favorite meal or Aaron's favorite bar. When they returned to camp each morning, it was like the discussion never ended, as a parent always had another story to share.
"His deal was he was going to go out and try to be a positive influence on as many people as he could," Tony said. "He had a passion for young people, and watching them grow and mature. I stayed at his home and all the kids in that neighborhood, they just kind of flocked to him. That was his personality, it really was. He was a gregarious guy, high energy, always had a smile on his face and a positive word for everyone."
That youth center Aaron had opened? It was kick-started by Cedric Pittman, who ran the Las Vegas branch, whom Aaron had taken under his wing after Cedric's brother was murdered as a teenager, and who came back around to give Aaron this opportunity to bring a center home.
Those three boys of Aaron? The oldest, 15-year-old sophomore Elijah, is a promising two-way lineman for Park City. And he and his brothers, 10-year-old twins Max and Sam, are comforted by their uncle Tony, who flies them into South Bend, Indiana, regularly and looks after them the same way he does his own three sons.
"There's a lot of great single moms -- I get it, and they all need to be applauded," Tony said. "But when I'm talking about my sister-in-law, she's amazing. Those boys are sure lucky to have her. My brother was lucky to have her in his life, and he said that to me a lot. To watch them and the way that they're growing -- they're mature, they're responsible, they're polite, they're well mannered. All of the above."
Two months ago, for Father's Day, Linda gave Tony a handmade book of memories of Aaron, filled with pictures, old journal entries and quotes he lived by.
Tony paused for a few seconds when talking about the gesture, trying not to choke up. A full year later, and that old adage about time healing all wounds has been just that -- an adage. Everyone tells Tony his brother is in a better place now. He gets it, sure. But the pain has yet to subside, not even close.
Tony has that picture book to turn to at any point. He has a green "G.O.A.T." bracelet he wears at all times. Those are for him. Tony knows that to truly honor his brother, he must impact others.
"If I can do anything to prolong, to enhance, to move along his legacy, then that's what I'm going to do in his name," Tony said. "Because for those that knew him, we were very lucky to have him in our lives for as long as we did. And it was way too short, but the time that he did have with us was special, and he affected and he left an imprint on many, many people."
581dKevin Gemmell and Matt Fortuna