By Ridge Mahoney
When he’s on a plane, as he is a lot these days, Alexi Lalas is doing what he should be doing: studying.
But it’s likely he’s not just perusing game reports, checking heat maps, shuffling through the reams of data provided to him by ESPN chief researcher Marc Connolly, or wondering how best to foil colleague Taylor Twellman in the next BigHead/RedHead podcast.
Instead, there are notebooks on the tray table and textbooks at the ready. Nearly three decades after last stepping into a Rutgers classroom, Alexi Lalas is once again a student working feverishly to graduate in May.
“I’m doing most of it on-line, which was part of the problem in the past,” says Lalas, who needed many months to orchestrate a plan that met with the school’s approval. “I was traveling so much and Rutgers wouldn’t allow me to do a lot of it on-line. So we’ve organized it where hopefully I can get this thing done.
“It’s been a pain in the ass. I’ll tell you, I’ve been trying to do this and Rutgers has just been so difficult. About a year ago, I finally went and pled my case to the athletic director directly. I said, ‘Look, I get calls from people wanting comments and asking about Rutgers as a former student and as a former athlete there, and I talk about Rutgers.’ And nobody makes it more difficult to actually graduate from the institution.
“He sympathized and hooked me up with a guy that went and figured out how we were going to do this and talked to different people. It was nice to have somebody there but it took me forever.”
The guy, Scott Walker, is Director of Academic Support Services for Student Athletes. He examined Lalas’ academic record and told him which on-line courses could be applied to his major and minor.
“I offered him seven courses available online, and suggested he take four, which is a pretty good load,” says Walker, a former football coach who remembers watching Lalas play in the 1994 World Cup. “He said, ‘No, I’ll take five.’ Athletes have to be driven. He sees this as a challenge, and believes he’s going to win.” Lalas is taking more credits, 15, than he ever did while attending the college in any one semester. He'll take 12 more in the spring.
There’s family pressure from many angles: his brother Greggraduated from a prestigious college, Brown, and his father is a professor. His mother is a writer and poet. All have college degrees, and none are of the honorary variety, for which the workload is nil.
“You have all those guys up there with the tassels and honorary degrees and I’m getting the real thing,” he cites as to what might be the scene next spring. “I can prove it with all my textbooks.”
He’s also mindful of setting the right example for his own children, to whom college is many years away but definitely in the game plan. “I want my kids to understand how important it is,” he says. “And when I get canned from whatever I do and I wanted to coach college soccer, I wouldn’t be able to do that right now, so there’s a practical purpose to this, too.
“I’m enjoying it. It’s another example of how education is wasted on the youth. I enjoy it much more than I ever did 26 years ago or whatever it was. I’m on the 26-year plan.”
If the plan comes to fruition, he plans on graduating from the stage along with his current classmates, who regard him with some bemusement. Lalas has always been one to stand out: for his appearance, his personality, and his brazenness, but being the oldest guy in the room most of the time is something new.
“I’m the oldest in many of my classes and older than many of my professors,” says Lalas, who turns 44 just before the 2014 World Cup kicks off next June. “As I meet my fellow students, they are interested and a little amazed that his 40-someone is hanging out in their class and then puts on makeup and talks about soccer on ESPN.”
One irony to this tale is Lalas and Walker have never met. All their communication came via much of the same technology that is enabling Lalas to graduate nearly three decades after physically attending a class. “I turn on the TV to watch the U.S. play Mexico in Ohio, and there he is,” laughs Walker of the 2-0 victory in Columbus last month that clinched a 2014 World Cup berth for the USA.
As to being on-line as opposed to on-campus, there’s good and bad. “For most people it’s a dream but since most of it is on-line, I don’t get the keg parties and things like that,” says Lalas. “All the good stuff that came with college when I was there for real, I don’t get any of that. But of course I probably did enough for two people, so I’m okay with it.
“I do homework and take tests and quizzes. I’m reading on airplanes and hotel rooms and all different places. It actually works out great for the lifestyle I live right now. But it’s certainly not easy and I’ll be happy when it’s done.”
In the run-up to the 1994 World Cup as well as its aftermath, much of America got to know Lalas, and surprise, surprise, discovered that underneath the wild hair and garish goatee did a exist a musician and social commentator along with a player. (Walker remembers "A big guy with long hair and a beard.") Since retiring in 2003, Lalas has started a family with his wife Anneand worked as an executive as well as a broadcaster. He commutes to his ESPN gigs from his home in Southern California and much of the time when he’s in the air, he’s also in class, working towards a BA degree in English as well as a minor in music.
“I might have embellished a little bit,” he says. “It’s a lot more monotony than I care to go into. I’m the only one in my family who hasn’t graduated from college. I’m certainly not destitute and following the Grateful Dead or anything like that, but it certainly has been a thorn in my side.
“It shouldn’t matter but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t. I’m such a disappointment to my family. Let’s hope and fingers crossed that next May, I’ll get my diploma and then jump on a plane down to Brazil.”