By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
[su_dropcap style=”light” size=”5″]M[/su_dropcap]ost people don’t know that Charles Alexander actually signed two different National Letters of Intent when mulling where to take his talents from Ball High School in Galveston, Texas.
NCAA regulations at the time permitted it, so long as the schools weren’t in the same conference, and on National Signing Day, Alexander inked NLIs with the two programs who’d shown the most interest — the University of Houston and LSU.
“There wasn’t a moment where the light went on, but I felt like it was going to be the day I made up my mind,” Alexander recalls. “I felt like I had all day to relax and make up my mind at the end of the day. But, lo and behold, when I stepped out my front door, there were two cars parked outside.”
One contained long-time Houston coach Bill Yeoman and his running backs coach, who served as Alexander’s primary recruiter for the in-state school. In the other sat LSU’s running backs coach, Jerry Stovall.
“So I didn’t have as much time as I thought,” Alexander laughs some 40 years after the fact. “I made up my mind right then and there.”
Alexander approached the Cougar contingent and thanked them for their time spent recruiting him, then he jumped in the car with Stovall and gave him the good news.
Like Stovall a generation before him, Alexander galloped his way into the illustrious fraternity of the best backs to ever come through the Ole War Skule. And the reason he chose Baton Rouge over staying home, a decision he agonized over for months, was his trust in the man waiting behind the wheel.
Alexander decided to follow in Stovall’s footsteps because, 20 years earlier, the coach arrived at LSU as a lightly-recruited prospect and left as an all-time great. Stovall walked the path that Alexander desperately wanted to travel, and he told the young back he could help him get where he wanted to go.
In fact, he guaranteed it.
Sitting in the living room with Charlie and his grandparents, Stovall made a promise that’d bind the two men forever.
“He made a promise to my grandparents that if I went to LSU, he would look out for me,” Alexander says. “Not just on the football field, but academically, he’d make sure I went to class and make sure I’d graduate. And it just seemed like he was genuine.”
Stovall knew just what to say because he’d been in Alexander’s shoes before, a high schooler hoping a coach would take a chance on him, and he spoke from the heart.
“I said ‘Charlie, we both don’t have a pot,” Stovall says, his mind still plenty sharp to recount decades-old conversations. “You come from the wharfs of Galveston. We didn’t have wharfs in the woods in Monroe where I lived, but we had little subdivisions. The only difference between us is you’re a whole lot better athlete than I ever was.”
Long before he finished second in the closest Heisman Trophy voting of the time, or was selected within the top three picks in the 1963 NFL and AFL drafts, Stovall was LSU’s 53rd target in a 52-man recruiting class.
The lanky two-way player wouldn’t have even had a scholarship if it weren’t for a late defection, which was in itself a rarity at that time, particularly for a team coming off an undefeated campaign culminated by the 1958 national title.
Stovall was content to sign with either Louisiana Tech or Northeast Louisiana, both a manageable drive from West Monroe High School.
Then he got a phone call from Abner Wimberly — “that call changes the direction of your life” — an assistant on Paul Dietzel’s staff, who told him the scholarship was his if he still wanted it.
There was a rub. He’d already settled on Louisiana Tech and felt apprehensive about breaking his verbal commitment. Not to mention the inherent risk of going to LSU only to get lost in the shuffle on a loaded roster. A conversation with his father provided perspective, and Stovall made his way to Tiger Town.
“I wanted to find someplace where I could be the best I could be,” Stovall says. “I didn’t know how good that would be. It might not have been very good. But I wanted to be at least that good. And my dad told me ‘If you go to LSU and excel, I’m of the opinion you can go anywhere.’ Not bad for a guy who didn’t go to college.”
Alexander, despite his considerable physical gifts — “He could fly, big as he was,” Stovall says — wasn’t a blue chip prospect coming out of high school, either.
Due to his size, he was pigeon holed early in his varsity days to be primarily a blocking back in Ball High’s wishbone attack. He didn’t accumulate 1,000 rushing yards over the entirety of his prep career, and given his role, he never got much of an opportunity to showcase his top speed.
But Stovall saw it, and he wanted his commitment badly from the first time he saw Alexander play. The tools were there — albeit quite raw — and he was confident he could mold the bulky blocking back into a splendid all-around runner with hard work and a dash of technical refinement.
“I was sort of a diamond in the rough,” Alexander says. “I was kind of a work in progress, but I think he saw something in me. I wasn’t a great high school football player, but he made me feel like I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
It didn’t happen overnight.
Even with Stovall working him as hard as he’d ever been worked, Alexander’s freshman season was a frustrating grind. He averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, but he points to scoring twice in the season finale against Tulane as a precursor for what was to come.
The light came on during his sophomore campaign, with Alexander rushing for 876 yards at 5.7 yards per carry to emerge as an explosive second option behind starter Terry Robiskie.
Then, over the next two years, the man earned the moniker ‘Alexander the Great’ while rewriting the LSU record book with 31 touchdowns during consecutive Consensus All-American campaigns.
Bowl games statistics weren’t officially counted in those days, but Alexander’s marks of 1,686 yards rushing and 153.3 yards per game in 1977 stood as the single-season standards until Leonard Fournette’s prodigious fall. He finished his career with 4,035 yards, exceeding the program’s previous rushing leader by more than 1,500 yards.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think any of this would happen to me,” Alexander says. “I was real raw, and a lot of people told me I was making a mistake by going to a big school. That’d I’d get lost in the shuffle. It was nice to go home and, while I couldn’t say I told ya so, I did it anyway.”
It’s actually Stovall with better cause for such gloating. He’s the one who sat in the Alexander’s cramped living room in Galveston and promised young Charlie and his grandparents that, if he put in the work, he’d be an NFL running back once his four-year college career finished.
Before going on to be the 12th overall selection, and before beginning his seven-year run with the Cincinnati Bengals, Alexander sought out ‘Coach Jerry’ for advice on making the jump to the next level.
Instead, his mentor offered an impassioned reminder that on-field success was only half of the pact that he’d made to Alexander’s grandparents years prior.
Alexander, again like Stovall before him, finished his playing career at LSU without a degree — the latter actually graduated from Missouri Baptist — and Stovall implored him that, no matter how long it took, he needed to come back and finish school.
“He’s a bulldog,” Alexander laughs. “You can tell him no once, but you’ll have to tell him 50 times before he’ll give up.”
Two offseasons of summer classes later, Alexander held up his end.
And when his NFL career ended with release one season shy of his stated goal of eight years — “I didn’t retire, they retired me” — that diploma allowed him to return to his alma mater to work at the Academic Center for Athletes and TAF for four years.
That piece of paper and the doors opened by football later allowed Alexander to realize his life-long goal of owning his own business, C’Mon Man Cajun Seasoning.
It’s been more than 40 years since Stovall drove from Baton Rouge to Galveston and promised a young running back and his grandparents that he’d look out for him if he came to LSU. Those are the kind of bonds that last a lifetime.
“We’re still close,” Alexander says. “He’s sort of like, if I have something on my mind that I can’t figure out, I know to go to him with it. He’s a sounding board sometimes.”
“He’s just a super, super person,” Stovall says of his star pupil. “Why’d I go back to LSU? People like him.”