Ali Sharrief surveyed the situation and quickly realized there was no escaping the oncoming rush of bodies headed straight for him. As his eyes scanned left and right, his running back instincts told him there was no juke move that would free him, so he just stood his ground as a dozen 10-year-old boys rushed madly in his direction.
It was the last day of school at Woodland Forrest Elementary in Tuscaloosa, and Sharrief — the former North Jackson all-state running back who now is a University of Alabama safety — was making a surprise visit to a group of boys he had mentored since January.
“It was a real emotional day because it was the last time I was going to see some of those kids,” said Sharrief, who will graduate in December but is only a junior in athletic eligibility. “Kids ain’t going to sugar-coat anything. They’re honest about everything, so their reaction when I surprised them that last day let me know that they genuinely liked me, and that made me feel good.
“I was very fortunate to have a father in my life that taught me how to cope with problems. Some of them don’t have that.”
To motivate the school’s fourth-grade classes in a recycling contest, the prize was having several Alabama football players come for a visit. Tina Miller’s class won, and as other Crimson Tide players mingled with the kids, Sharrief took Miller aside to ask if he could return on his own and speak with any potentially at-risk boys who needed a positive male role model.
“He said he wanted to make a commitment to coming one afternoon a week and for me to choose the boys who would benefit from his visits,” Miller said. “The idea was that maybe he could help instill some values the boys aren’t getting at home.
“I knew they would listen to an Alabama football player, but I cautioned him that if he made the commitment, the worst thing in the world he could do would be to let the kids down.”
So every Wednesday from January through May, Sharrief spent at least a half hour with boys Miller knew were previous discipline problems and had unsteady homes. He even stayed to eat lunch with them when he could. Whether the subject was homework, girls, the temptations of the streets or family problems, Sharrief spoke honestly and gave each boy not only sound advice and encouragement but hope that they too could overcome any obstacle.
“Ali is what they want to be one day,” Miller said. “They hung on his every word every Wednesday. He could relate to them as a young black man in a way no one else could, and he brought a hope that many of them hadn’t experienced until then. He can get them while they’re young and mold them in a positive direction.
“Even little things mattered. Ali told them he loved to read before he went to bed every night, and all of a sudden reading books became cool for these kids. They wanted to emulate everything he did. Their behavior and their schoolwork — everything became better after Ali started visiting.”
Miller and several of the boys Sharrief was mentoring attended Alabama’s A-Day spring game, watching as their hero led the Crimson team with 10 tackles.
When spring practice wrapped up, Sharrief was given a community service award for his volunteer work. Rather than hanging the plaque among his many athletic awards, Sharrief brought it to Miller’s class, instructing the boys, “Every time you see that, think of me and go out and do something positive in the community.”
“We have athletes that come by the school and speak because they have to as a credit for class or because they were told to,” Miller said. “But in my 30-plus years of teaching, I’ve never had a player come back regularly on his own the way Ali did. And he was doing it for all the right reasons. He became as attached to the kids as they were to him and really wanted to make a difference for them.
“We hear a lot more about the negative side of sports a lot — athletes like Jimmy Johns that get arrested or kicked off the team. But Ali is a hero in the best sense of the word, and he really made a difference in the lives of a lot of kids just by spending a little of his time with them.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...