Commentary

Alfonzo Dennard has his backers

Ex-coaches stand behind Patriots draft pick despite arrest for assault

Updated: May 21, 2012, 1:46 PM ET
By Field Yates | Special to ESPNBoston.com

The opening chapter of Alfonzo Dennard's NFL career was written before he even knew what team's jersey he would wear.

On April 21, just five days before the 2012 NFL draft, Dennard was arrested and charged with third-degree felony assault of a police officer after allegedly striking an officer outside of a bar in Lincoln, Neb.

[+] EnlargeAlfonzo Dennard
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaAlfonzo Dennard was someone coach Bo Pelini used as an example of success during his time at Nebraska.

He was in the news for the wrong reasons leading up to one of the most important days of his life, and his draft stock plummeted. It wasn't until the final round, on the third day of the draft, that the New England Patriots selected the former Nebraska Cornhuskers cornerback.

While the NFL decision-makers clearly have their reservations about Dennard in light of his arrest, two coaches who know the 22-year-old well paint a different picture.

"That isn't who he is, that's never been who he is, and that's not going to be who he is in the future," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "And I put my reputation, and I put everything I stand for as a football coach behind that young man.

"He is a tremendous young man, and one who you want not only representing you as a football player, but the type of kid you want in your community, the type of kid you want representing your organization," Pelini continued.

"For four years, I didn't have a problem with that young man in any way. He did things exactly how we asked him to do them here, and the way we handle our kids, we don't make it easy on the kids in our program. We hold them to high standards every single day."

Dennard earned 2011 Big Ten defensive back of the year honors, and became a player that Pelini guided his underclassmen toward as an example of how to become successful.

"We had some young [defensive backs] on our football team last year, and he was kind of the veteran guy, and I told them all, 'You just follow what Alfonzo does and you'll be fine. You just follow his lead and you do as he does.' He prepares the right way. He handles himself on the field and off the field the right way."

Leading others is a role Dennard has embraced since his days as a high school star at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga.

His coach there, Mark Ledford, knew Dennard was a special athlete dating back to the eighth grade, when none of Dennard's classmates could knock him out in a game of dodge ball during physical education class.

By ninth grade, Dennard was playing an important role on the football team, and was a catalyst behind the program's rise to state prominence.

A year later, his teammates voted him a captain.

Ledford recalled a game early in his junior season when Dennard, who was a captain for the second year in a row, suggested that he allow a senior (who had not been voted a captain) to march out to the middle of the field for the pregame coin toss. The selfless act became a pregame fixture, Dennard offering his spot to a senior he believed was deserving.

It turns out Dennard, years later, is still making his mark back home. In early June, he will host a basketball tournament at his high school, during which proceeds will be raised to benefit local college-bound student-athletes.

The event has been in the works for nearly a year, and it stems from Dennard's desire to help out the community he grew up in, Ledford said.

Dennard was raised in a single-parent household in Wilcox County and has recently reconnected with his absent father, which Ledford describes as a "a great thing" and "something that Alfonzo has initiated because he wants his dad in his life."

Throughout his high school experience, Ledford -- whose team has won 10 or more games in five straight seasons, an accomplishment he said is due in large part to the contributions of Dennard's senior class -- served in an advisory role to the star of his team. He said that he learned part of being a successful coach is developing a relationship with his players, and that he would "do anything" for Dennard.

Ledford's son, now 12, began idolizing Dennard around the age of 6, and the two have maintained a relationship the coach describes as a brotherly dynamic. No matter the situation -- even before or after a big game -- Dennard replies to Ledford's son's text messages.

That personality and character was something that Pelini said Bill Belichick learned about during the predraft process, when he met with Dennard in Lincoln.

Both coaches believe that New England is the perfect fit for Dennard, with Pelini noting that the Nebraska football program shares many of the same values and beliefs that Belichick has instituted for the Patriots.

They both also acknowledged that Dennard put himself in a situation with his arrest that he should have never been in. His case remains ongoing (he is due to be arraigned on May 30), and Dennard will have to handle potential legal sanctions as a result of it.

But no matter the outcome, Ledford remains behind the player who has stayed true to his roots years after leaving Georgia.

"The kid has overcome every obstacle that has ever been in front of him, and I have full confidence that he will overcome this, because he always has," he said.

Field Yates is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com's Patriots coverage.

Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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