By Luke Severt
For the Troy Daily News
There were three distinct moments over the past few months where it truly resonated with Alex Dalton that his football career was winding down and coming to an end.
The first came in mid-August, approximately two weeks before the Troy High School graduate’s fifth and final season opener as a member of the Oklahoma Sooner football team. It was the concluding day of the team’s summer camp, a months-long, grueling regimen of intense practice in the brutal Norman, Oklahoma heat, where the University of Oklahoma — Dalton’s home for the past five years — is located.
“Summer workouts is a time when you’re with your buddies, your teammates, your friends, every single day,” Dalton, an offensive lineman, says. “But summer workouts are also one of the hardest things you do, one of the biggest grinds. There are little checkpoints, and after that last summer workout you’re like ‘Dang man, it went by fast. I’ll never do another summer workout again.’”
The second moment was in a practice this season, following a Sooner win at Texas Tech. Dalton was participating in drills, when what he calls a ‘freak accident’ occurred. Dalton had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, or his ACL, in his knee. It was the third ACL tear he faced in his time at Oklahoma, but this one was different. At that point in the season, there were only three regular season games left in Dalton’s final season of eligibility.
There would be no return. His football career had ended.
“When you’re playing the games, you get wrapped up in week-to-week competition. We got cruising there in the season, and then it hit me that I would never play again once I tore my ACL,” Dalton says. With his 6-foot-3, 288-pound build comes a booming voice. Yet at this moment, it seemed to soften up. “I’d never play for the Sooners again, for Oklahoma again, once I tore my ACL, and I was like, ‘Dang, last week was my last practice ever.”
The final time it occurred to Dalton that his career was over is when it truly was. On Dec. 29, 2018, the No. 4 Sooners were in Miami, battling the juggernaut that is the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide football team in the Orange Bowl, the College Football Playoff semifinal.
The Tide jumped out to an early lead, and although Oklahoma was able to make things interesting late, they were ultimately defeated by a final score of 45-34. It was in those final snaps, as the clock approached three zeroes, when Dalton had a moment of reflection.
“You start thinking that it’s the last time you’ll ever walk off a field like that as a player ever again,” Dalton says. “But it’s the memories, the experiences during those five years, that you’ll remember that make it worth it.”
Dalton feels a similar nostalgia when remembering the time he spent as a Trojan. He says he misses the Friday night lights and the passion exhibited by the school and the Troy community.
“I love how when Friday nights come around, it’s the thing to do,” he says. “As a teenager in high school that’s what you looked forward to, because if it wasn’t for football, what were you going to do? And if you didn’t play football, you were at the games.”
“I’ll always remember playing with my good friends, and miss some of those times,” Dalton said. He then named eight of his high school teammates off the top of his head. “When you talk to those guys, it’s what you talk about. You don’t talk about what you did in the hallways, you talk about what you did on Friday nights.”
A member of the class of 2014, he was a three-sport athlete for all four years and excelled in them all, being named an All-Ohio football player and a state finisher in wrestling and track.
In each of the sports Dalton played, there was a coach that has helped him in a particular way. Troy football coaching legend Steve Nolan retired after Dalton’s sophomore season but helped him through the recruiting process and had the greatest impact on his career. Doug Curnes, head wrestling coach, taught Dalton the importance of being a great all-around athlete, while teaching him to be a good person as well. Lastly, Aaron Gibbons, Trojan strength coach and track and field coach, taught Dalton about work ethic and perseverance in a sport where “there are many ups and downs.”
Gibbons believes that the work ethic Dalton demonstrated in high school helped prepare him for the ups and downs he’d face as a Sooner.
The first of these hardships was one that came early, but Dalton admits everyone goes through it. He had no concerns or troubles leaving home and becoming acclimated to life in Norman, yet it was the first football summer camp that he struggled through.
“You’re just a young pup out there trying to survive,” Dalton said. “You go from playing with the best in the city of Troy to the best in the country. The competition, day in and day out, you just can’t compare it to anything.”
He was redshirted and sidelined for his first season as a Sooner in the fall of 2014 as he used the year to become stronger and elevate his mental skills, as well.
It was the worst season the Sooners had during Dalton’s career. They finished with a record of 8-5, fourth in the Big 12 Conference, and were handily defeated by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, a low-level bowl game by Oklahoma standards.
“When you go 8-5 in Oklahoma, you go out to dinner or walk down the street and everyone’s just kind of looking at you like they’re disappointed,” Dalton said.
He then tells the story of a team that revived itself. With little chemistry and a lot of tension between teammates, the Sooners needed a change. Due to stadium renovations, the Oklahoma locker room was moved to a labyrinth of connected semi-trailers.
“We went from having one of the best locker rooms in the country to being in some dumpy trailer locker room,” Dalton says with a laugh. “Our lockers were this close together, this tight together, and I think anyone will say that brought us together as a team. You could just tell a difference, and that’s carried throughout since that first year.”
In the fall of 2015, it was clear that Dalton had improved since he first arrived on campus a year prior. On Aug. 5, 2015, the Sooners opened their season at home against Akron in front of 85,370 enthusiastic fans. On that day, Oklahoma cruised to an easy victory, and Dalton made his collegiate debut, officially earning repetitions on the offensive line.
“You go from playing in front of a couple thousand people in Troy, and then you go that redshirt year and you sit there and see everyone playing and you go ‘Geez man, this is awesome,’ but you’re also standing on the sideline thinking ‘What am I doing? I’ve played my whole life and now I’m sitting here watching,’” Dalton says.
Then, his voice shifts into an excited, ardent tone. “Once I was back out there, playing in front of 85,000 people in Oklahoma, you can’t speak for it. It’s a great feeling being out there doing what you love. Once I was finally out there it felt like I had some something, I worked my way there.”
Dalton played in seven games that season while his team went 11-2, won the Big 12 and earned the program’s first berth in the College Football Playoff. It was a semifinal matchup against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers, in Miami at the Orange Bowl, and Dalton looked poised to be able to earn some playing time in one of the biggest games of his career.
Then, all of a sudden, it was taken away. In the team’s first practice in preparation for the bowl, Dalton tore his ACL. It was the first major injury he had faced in his life, and he was immediately concerned that he would not be the same upon return. However, Dalton approaches every aspect of his life with a positive attitude, making the recovery process much easier.
Despite it being a game that Dalton had anticipated playing in, and despite the Oklahoma loss, Dalton remembers the 2015 Orange Bowl with fondness, noting that there are only four teams in the whole country that have the opportunity to compete for the national championship, and the opportunity to make the memories that he made during that experience.
Arguably his best accomplishment of that season was being named to the Academic All-Big 12 first team. Dalton, who speaks in an eloquent, intelligent manner, expresses the importance of his education, saying that he was always aware that his football career would end at some point and he needed to have his schooling to fall back on once the day arrived.
The Sooners opened the 2016 season in Houston against the Cougars, when Dalton made his first career start for Oklahoma.
“What was most exciting for me was I turned around and I could see my parents in the stands and it just made them so happy,” Dalton reminisces. “Just being out there and getting my first start was just unbelievable, and knowing your hard work is paying off is one of the best feelings.”
Houston upset the Sooners to win that game, but according to Dalton, it was an exciting year for him and the team, as he played in six games and the team went 11-2, winning the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against the Auburn Tigers.
An anecdote from that season is a now-famous game between the Sooners, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Patrick Mahomes-led Texas Tech Red Raiders. In 2018 the two took the NFL by storm, as Mayfield—who’d win the Heisman a year later—is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Mahomes is the obvious choice for Most Valuable Player. In the collegiate matchup, the two teams combined for 125 points, and Oklahoma won 66-59.
Dalton earned in-game repetitions that night, a special memory for him, but he says high-scoring games like that are expected as a member of the Oklahoma offense.
Dalton took pride in being a member of that Oklahoma offense, even when he wasn’t able to on the field. His second ACL tear came just a week before the commencement of the 2017 campaign. His season was over before it had even started.
While recovering from his second significant knee injury, Dalton had two goals: the first was to rehabilitate as quickly and safely as possible, and the second was to remain a member of the offensive line. He attended every position meeting, every practice, and every other function. He says that some athletes will face an injury like his and disappear from the team, but he was determined to not be one of those players.
Notables from the 2017 Oklahoma season include a win against Ohio State in Columbus (Dalton says although he didn’t play against the Buckeyes, he felt a bit of revenge after the victory against the hometown team that did not offer him a scholarship), a three-peat Big 12 championship, a trip to the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff as the No. 2 seed, a 12-2 season and a Heisman Trophy for Mayfield.
“He’s in New York City, but we celebrate as friends,” Dalton says of his reaction to Mayfield’s Heisman. “He’s a good friend of ours, so we shoot him a text and he’s back in Norman the next day and we’re practicing the day after. That’s our buddy, he’s not just a player to us, he’s our quarterback and obviously we respect him for that, but you respect him as a friend, you’re happy for him as a friend and the success that he’s had is unbelievable. You still see him succeeding up with the Browns, and it’s great stuff.”
Just a few months after the Cleveland Browns made Mayfield the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in June, Dalton experienced his last summer workout ever. He played in four games this season before his injury, the third of his career. Injuries that he says have made him the person he is today.
The 2018 season was another successful season for the Sooners, finishing 12-2, with the second Playoff semifinal Orange Bowl appearance of Dalton’s career. They were champions of the Big 12 for the fourth straight season, and Kyler Murray—a quarterback that Dalton commends for his humbleness and character—won the Heisman.
Oklahoma hosted a “Senior Night” at home against Kansas to recognize those who have dedicated countless hours and four-plus years to the football program, and it’d be hard to find someone who earned that recognition more than Dalton. He says that the program and the fans do a great job to make you feel like it all was worth it, but it was also sad as it was his last time in the home stadium. He was joined by his parents, who he considers to be his greatest support system.
A few days after his football career came to a close, Alex Dalton describes his time as an Oklahoma Sooner:
“It was great. Sometimes throughout your career you question things, you kind of think ‘Oh man, what am I doing?,’ or ‘Is this the right thing?,’ but I would do it again. It’s a great experience. Oklahoma’s a great place. Norman has been great to me, the whole state of Oklahoma’s been great to me, the university has been the best. My education, I’ll value that forever. (Dalton completed his undergraduate studies with a degree in business management in three and a half years. He’s currently earning his masters in management of information technology, which he will finish in May, before job searching. He’d like to come back to the Troy area.) This last semester, finishing up my schooling and stuff, it’ll be crazy once that comes to an end, because then it’s go time. But I’d do it again. I love Norman, I love playing for the Sooners, there’s nothing like it in the world.”
Dalton then emphasizes the value of a positive attitude and of hard work and dedication, adding that he was never late to a single thing throughout his five years at Oklahoma. He thanks everyone who has supported him, as he believes the successful career he had was not achieved just by himself, but by everyone who has been there with him along the way. He thanks the Sooner fans, and then the fans from his hometown.
“The support that the community can give is always good, just seeing tweets or receiving texts from people saying ‘Hey good luck,’ or ‘Hey, I saw you out there, good job,’” Dalton says. “That’s always greatly appreciated, the people that send you the texts or the tweets that say ‘Hey good job man, way to represent Troy.’”
And represent Troy, he did.