At the end of his interview on the nationally syndicated Jim Rome sports radio show, Grand Valley State football standout Alton Voss wanted America to get one thing straight.
“I want to clarify one thing,” Voss said on the show Thursday, Feb. 16. “I’m 6’3”, 260 lbs. I just wanted to get that out there.”
“You got it!” Rome replied. “Six-three, 260. And don’t you cheat him on any of this stuff.”
Listeners across the entire country heard not only Voss’s correct height and weight, but a story that’s been told time and time again in Allendale and West Michigan: the Alton Voss story.
The 28-year old Voss, who graduated this past December, is pursuing his dream of making it into the NFL after wrapping up his senior season with GVSU football. Voss was named to the All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) First Team after recording 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in his most productive season wearing Laker blue last fall.
Voss was also named the 2016 Jack H. McAvoy Award recipient, which annually honors the GLIAC athlete who best combines outstanding character and leadership on the field.
Voss’s graduation marked the culmination of a collegiate career in which he went from one of the top quarterbacks in the country, to drug addict, to recovered addict and then to a four-year player on the GVSU football squad—not to mention one of the top leaders on the team.
Voss became the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
“It was definitely surreal that morning just being in (Van Andel Arena) with my cap and gown,” Voss said. “I was toward the back and I got a look ahead to see all of these people, and I just realized, ‘I did it.’ My family was there, it was great for them to see that.
“It’s a huge achievement and something I’ll always be grateful for.”
Now, he’s trying to become the first person in his family to make it to the NFL.
Voss was sitting in a movie theater one afternoon after training when he got a Twitter message from Sports Illustrated writer Emily Kaplan—luckily he didn’t turn his phone off at the start of the movie.
Kaplan told Voss she wanted to a story on him as part of a series, “The Longshots,” chronicling college football players who have had improbable or unusual paths to becoming NFL Draft prospects. Voss’ story was featured on the home page of MMQB.com, an affiliate of SI.com, Tuesday, Feb. 14.
“She told me it’d be like a 10 minute conversation,” Voss said. “We set up the time and when it was all said and done, it ended up being like 35 minutes. She asked one simple question, “How did you end up at GV?” and there’s no short way of explaining that story.
“I shared everything and she was amazed that it really happened.”
A day after Kaplan’s story went online, Voss woke up late on that Wednesday to a text from his trainer, Jim Kielbaso.
“He said check your voicemail,” Voss said. “I listened, and (Kielbaso’s message) says ‘Hey listen, the Jim Rome show contacted me this morning and they want you on their show.’ Then he goes, ‘By the way, that is fricking awesome.’”
Voss spoke with a producer on the show and was officially put on the interview schedule for the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 16. He admits he was nervous before telling his story to an audience, which included the U.S. and Canada on CBS Sports Radio, that was bigger than any audience he had ever told it to before. Despite this, the interview went smooth and was a little over 12 minutes long. Voss’ plug at the end about his height and weight got a laugh out of Rome.
“The reason for the plug at the end was because writers have recently done stories and I’ve seen some things that say 6’2”, 240,” Voss said. “I felt like with that opportunity and that national stage, this is a perfect moment for me to set the record straight.”
Voss’ agent, Todd Williams, said the national attention garnered from the two experiences even helped his exposure to NFL scouting departments.
“I know it did,” Williams said. “I had people in the industry call me and say, ‘Hey, tell me about this Alton guy, I’m interested to know.’”
The story Voss shared is one known well across the GVSU football community, and one he shared with each incoming class of freshmen football players the past three years: Voss was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the state of Florida at Gulf High School. He signed with South Florida, but gave up football and a full-ride scholarship his first year there as he delved deeper into drug addiction.
Voss’ addiction and withdrawals to Roxicodone, Oxycodone muscle relaxers and crack cocaine, among other things, only got worse. On some of his worst days, he was taking up to 30 pills. He attempted comebacks to football at various community colleges, but his addictions hampered otherwise doomed attempts.
One day, Voss had a manic episode that he was going to win the lottery. After winning some scratch-off tickets, Voss bragged to a friend over the phone about his minor winnings. The friend, concerned for Voss’ wellbeing, urged him to come up for a visit in Holland, Michigan.
While in Holland, Voss went for a jog one morning. He came upon an unoccupied vehicle and stole it. He was eventually apprehended in a cemetery by police officer Joe Slenk, who would become one of Voss’ best friends. Voss was arrested and sent to the Ottawa County jail.
His arrest connected him with defense attorney Jane Patterson, who would become his “Michigan mom” and one of the most important people in his life. Voss befriended Patterson, who eventually sent him to CMI Abasto, a rehab facility in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Voss was in Argentina for two years before coming back to Michigan. Once his treatment was complete, Voss came back to Michigan in 2013. He met with GVSU head football coach Matt Mitchell at a Grand Rapids Panera Bread and asked about joining the football team as a walk-on.
The rest is history.
“There was a leap of faith by a lot of people; by him, by us,” Mitchell said. “He committed to the process and we committed to him and he had a great playing career, he had a positive impact on Grand Valley and I think West Michigan.
“No matter what happens moving forward, you have to chalk this up to being a tremendous success.”
Division II player with Division I talent
Before any of that story happened, though, Voss was a sought-after high school football prospect in the state of Florida at Gulf High School.
In his senior season with the team in 2006, Voss passed for 1600 yards and ran for 600 yards. He led his team in interceptions, sacks, and blocked kicks on his way to being named on the St. Petersburg Times All-Suncoast Team as a defensive back.
Voss led Gulf to the school’s first-ever playoff appearance in school history that season.
“He can time a snap better than anybody I’ve coached in my whole career,” said Jay Fulmer, Voss’ coach at Gulf. “I’ve been coaching 33 years, and he can time a snap, block an extra point, field goal or punt better than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“He would stop (other team’s drives) by himself. He was just that type of kid.”
Voss was recruited by USF, Florida, Mississippi State and Miami, among others. He was destined to be a Division I athlete.
But where did his athleticism come from? One person Voss credits for his success is his step-dad, Robin Burge, who raised him and taught Voss early lessons on the gridiron.
Burge came into Voss’ life many years ago. When Voss was a toddler, Burge dated Voss’ mom. Burge stopped by the Voss’ trailer one day after work and what he saw changed his life forever.
“I’ve had two unusual things happen to me in my life,” Burge said. “I’m one of the rare people in the world who’s had an out-of-body experience. That was quite interesting. But the second thing was the day I went in (to their trailer).
Burge described walking in to find a 4.5-year old Voss eating restaurant saltine packets on the floor watching TV, as well as finding Voss’ eight-month old sister in the trailer alone.
“I was leaning against the wall just looking at Alton,” Burge said. “The sun was coming in these little shuddered windows, there was beams of light all across the floor where he was sitting. Some of them were hitting him, some of the shadows were hitting him. A voice said to me, ‘You’ve got to do something about this.’ I said in my mind, ‘Where’d that come from?’ Just a few more seconds later, same, repeat: ‘You’ve got to do something about this.’ My life changed that day.”
From that day forward, Burge took Voss in as one of his own. Voss’ mother and the two kids moved out of the trailer and in to Burge’s house. Patterson and Voss credit Burge for teaching Voss early life lessons, both on the football field and for taking Voss into his life.
Burge said Voss fully accepted him as a parental figure when he “was around eight or nine.” Burge realized early Voss had potential as an athlete. He started teaching Voss about how to be an athlete and took him to and from athletic obligations.
The road to Division I athlete started with baby steps, though.
“The first day we came home from baseball, he took his uniform off and dropped it by the washing machine,” Burge said. “I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute Alton. We’ve got a long way to go buddy.’”
Voss came around, though, and came around quickly. Burge said not only did his size and ability set him apart from other kids, but his eagerness to learn and adapt was unlike anyone else he’s ever seen.
Burge recalls one instance around the time Voss started football.
“He was so open for anything,” Burge said. “He was a running back. I was just messing with him one time, but he was so eager. I said, ‘Now Alton, when you’re running to the right side on a sweep, you never ever let the first man get you. Never let him tackle you, ever. Rule No. 1. You got that?’ And he said, ‘Okay.’
“You know what? He jumped on that and man, he got all through high school and when he ran the ball to the right, he’d knock them down! I’d go out (to the field) and say, ‘What’s hurting?’ And he’d go, ‘My wrist is hurting.’ He would stiff-arm those opponents trying to get to him, and my God I thought ‘This is unbelievable.’ He could do this just by me telling him and make it happen.”
Fast forward to now, and Voss is still that same athlete as he was in high school, only now he is more mature and more seasoned. Voss is training at Total Performance training center in Wixom, Michigan with trainer Jim Kielbaso—who also works with University of Michigan football players—in anticipation of the GVSU football pro day Monday, March 20, where he hopes to impress NFL scouts.
Voss has been working closely with his agent, Todd Williams, who like everyone else, was intrigued by his story.
“To me, here’s a good football player who’s going to get a shot,” Williams said about when he first looked into Voss. “Then you dig into things. One time I looked at his stats and I’m like, ‘This guy’s 28-years old!’
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s the deal here?”
Williams is also representing GVSU center Aaron Cox, defensive lineman DJ Hogan, linebacker David Talley and safety Donte Carey. He also represented GVSU alumnus Tim Lelito, who has played guard for the New Orleans Saints since 2013.
Voss signed Williams, and the two got to work. Williams’ pitch to the NFL: Voss is a 28-year old without the wear and tear on his body. He didn’t start playing college football until his mind and body were developed. He’s a proven leader with a great story. He’s a Division I player at a Division II school. Above all: he can play.
Another aspect Voss is working on is being able to play as a 3-4 style edge rusher at the next level. Williams said there are several teams in transition to a 3-4 defense, and says Voss has the body type to be able to step out on the edge and play at that position. They believe that if he makes an NFL roster, it will probably be as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Voss has been working tirelessly to show teams at the pro day he is more than ready to make this transition. Williams said Voss will also need to be a contributor on special teams, which he’s done his whole career.
Another thing Voss has going for him is the fact that when teams were watching film of GVSU alumnus Matt Judon, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens last year, they got an early lead on Voss and other GVSU prospects.
But Williams has been honest with Voss about two things: it’s a lot of work and NFL teams are looking for someone who is going help them win football games, plain and simple.
“I was honest with Alton from the beginning,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, (Voss’ backstory) is great and it’s going to get a couple more teams to look at you, but at the end of the day the team is going to say, ‘Is this individual going to help us win football games?’ And that’s how he’s going to be judged.”
Williams said Voss’ most likely scenario in the NFL Draft, which will take place April 27-29, is he’s going to be “a Saturday night guy.” Although anything can happen on draft night, Williams speculates that Voss will go undrafted, but then get selected as a priority free agent (PFA) or undrafted free agent/training camp invite.
After the seventh and final round of the draft, each of the 32 NFL teams gets 15 PFAs they can sign, and have a $75,000 pool allocated for signing bonuses to those 15 players. PFAs get three-year contracts. Williams said in a lot of cases, it’s better to be a PFA than get drafted because PFA’s can choose which team they sign with.
Regardless of what happens, Voss will have to work harder than everybody else because nothing is guaranteed to players in his position.
Patterson said Voss’ maturity level could be an asset to NFL teams thinking about signing him.
“If you look at the impact he’s had on the Grand Valley teams, that’s going to continue because many of these guys on professional teams are younger,” Patterson said. “A lot of them maybe are older, but they also still struggle with perhaps a lot of things that Alton had in his background and haven’t overcome. Drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, just the lack of structure. I think Alton can teach everybody something if they want to. I just read something in a book I was reading—you have the ability to make those around you better. Not just in the football field, but in the classroom, social life.
“He has that ability and that is a gift.”
Voss recognizes both the opportunity in front of him, as well as the narrow road to the NFL.
He is using football as a vehicle for good, but realizes one day that football will end. In the years Patterson has known him, she has instilled an overarching message to Voss and her own kids that transcends any sport or accomplishment on a football field.
“One thing that I’ve always said to him and said to my kids was ‘A smart man learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from others,’” Patterson said. “His hope is that others can learn from him and not go through all of the crap he went through.”
Voss has begun public speaking at various high schools and places in hopes of reaching out to young people falling into the same holes he did.
“Now I feel like those things that matter to me, being a son, a brother, trying to be a role model for my sister, I can do those things without hesitation, without self-doubt, knowing that I’m doing it the right way,” Voss said. “People that know me, that pay attention, hopefully they can learn something from my mistakes and not have to repeat those.”
The Alton Voss story is far from being a finished book. Voss is still writing the chapters, and those around him know the next few could be very exciting. There’s a lot of uncertainty on the path ahead, but two thing are absolutely certain: Voss is 6’3”, 260 lbs., and nothing will stop him from helping others.
“I’d love for this story to go on,” coach Fulmer said. “He’s going to be great no matter what, but I just know the difference he could make in so many kids’ lives if this thing goes on a little bit further. The further he goes, the more of a platform he will have.
“If anyone I’ve ever known in my life deserves this opportunity to be on an NFL roster, he deserves it.”