Buford vs. Temple
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Tom Riden Stadium
BUFORD -- There was a time when Buford senior Vadal Alexander was not as strong and imposing of a figure.
The towering 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive tackle battled a rare and potentially life-threatening auto-immune disease Guillain-Barre Syndrome in the summer of 2010, which for a short time left him dependent on a walker and questioning whether he would play at all his junior season.
Now back in good health and one of the mostly highly touted players at his position nationally, Alexander is one of the top-ranked Wolves' most instrumental leaders as they go for a state-record fifth consecutive state championship.
Buford (10-0, No. 1 6-AA) opens the Class AA state playoffs against Temple (6-4, No. 4 5-AA) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tom Riden Stadium in Buford.
"We're looking forward to the grind of another five-game streak and trying to bring home that state championship," said Alexander, an LSU verbal commit.
Teammates respect Alexander for the dedication he brings to the field, not letting his stature as a future Division-I lineman get in the way of his drive to bring home another state title.
Coaches take it a step further, appreciating that Alexander has crafted a mental sharpness through his adversity to go along with his God-given physical abilities.
"Vadal is just a really neat kid," Buford coach Jess Simpson said. "I have a lot of respect for him for the way he's handled all the adversity he's gone through and really done a great job in the classroom too."
Alexander's bout with illness started during spring practice at the end of his sophomore year, which happened to fall on the final day of the school year. He noticed he felt extremely tired.
Then he experienced numbness in his extremities. Unaware of what was happening, he was examined by team physician, Dr. John Alsobrook, then was sent to the hospital the next day to see a neurologist, which is where the diagnosis was handed down.
"When I saw him, I said ‘holy smokes,'" Simpson said. "I knew it wasn't just an injury he was dealing with."
By day two, he was extremely weak, a symptom in line with this condition that is an acute form of paralysis in the lower body, which gradually moves into the upper limbs.
Alexander was assured that he'd get back on the field eventually with a heavy dose of physical therapy over the summer and aggressive medical treatment.
Simpson says that Alexander was using a walker for the better part of six weeks.
Alexander, a mild-mannered kid with a smile big enough to match his chiseled frame, finally returned to the football field midway through the regular season last year. It gave him a totally new perspective for football - and life.
"It really got me closer to God," Alexander said. "I knew it was a blessing to be able to play football and to never take it for granted."
This wasn't the first time in his life that Alexander was challenged. The Wolves coaching staff tested his mental toughness as soon as he reached his current frame and broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore.
Buford offensive line coach Christian Hunnicutt took an unorthodox approach to seeing what kind of work ethic Alexander possessed early in his high school career.
"I'd tell Vadal that I wanted him to show up on Saturday night at, like, 10:33 to watch film," Hunnicutt said. "And he'd be here right on time and we'd watch film for about an hour, hour and a half."
The coach said he was pleasantly surprised by the result and noticed that it feel right in line with the lineman's physical ability.
Any fan who shows up to a Buford game can see the Alexander's size and talent, but what fans can't see is his high football IQ and ability to soak up information like a sponge.
Buford's offensive line coach has no doubt that his big tackle will be able to handle the grind of playing in the Southeastern Conference and for the nation's top-ranked Tigers.
"It's hard to imagine that LSU will have a lineman with a higher football IQ than Vadal," Hunnicutt said. "He's got the God-given size, but he's got a tremendous work ethic and is always looking to improve."
One area that Hunnicutt says that Alexander is trying to get better in is pass protection, an area not as important for the Wolves' run-first offense, but something that will definitely come into play at a school like LSU.
"I feel like I have really good feet and the awareness of what's going on around me," Alexander said. "But when I watch film, I know there's always room that I can improve."
Alexander's abilities as a potential star on the offensive line wasn't only noticed by Buford's coaches, but also college coaches nationwide by the time his sophomore year rolled around.
He still remembers the first letter that came in from the University of Wisconsin when he was a freshman; that number has now ballooned well over 1,000 letters and 40 Division-I scholarship offers, according to Alexander.
He said his father, James, has kept every letter and stored them in a room in the family's house.
Alexander made his verbal commitment to LSU on Oct. 10. It's a part of the country that he fell in love with while going to visit family in the summer growing up.
Even though it's a perk to have so many extended family members in the state, it wasn't a deciding factor in deciding to commit to the school.
"I'm looking to start a new chapter in my life," Alexander said. "I really had to put the fact that I had family in the area to the side to make my decision."
Alexander said he started playing football at age 6 at the insistence of his father, who played tight end in college at Nicholls State.
However, once he got a taste of football, he was hooked. Alexander played running back all the way until he reached eighth grade, but it became evident with his frame, he'd be better suited to play in the trenches.
Alexander says that Buford's intense summer conditioning package is one of the defining features of the program. It also helped tremendously in his rehabilitation and getting back on the playing field at full strength this season.
During the summer, Alexander said it's not uncommon to spend five hours at the school working out. It's helped Alexander maintain a size that is ideal to come in and play at the highest level of college football.
"We pride ourselves on lifting here at Buford," he said. "It's so intense."