By Brian Kuppelweiser
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Growing up in Hampton, Va., West Virginia running back Shawne Alston wasn't the best player on his high school football team.
As he says it, he wasn't even the second, third or fourth-best player either.
"From my neighborhood, I was probably the fifth-best football player," said Alston about the talent that surrounded him. "I had a lot of friends that were way better than me at football, but they just got caught up doing other things - illegal things - or just flunking out of school. I knew from growing up in the Hampton and Newport News areas what types of things were going on around me. There were a lot of people that fell victim to those things."
For Alston, though, he knew that playing football was something that could give him a shot at a college degree, as well as the chance of proving those around him wrong.
Alston's road to college football began at Phoebus High, where he rushed for 2,278 yards and scored 34 touchdowns during a senior season in which his team finished the year with a 14-0 record and its second-consecutive state title.
Also starring on that team was current Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who initially committed to the Mountaineers prior to the duo's visit to the 2009 spring game.
"The biggest thing for me was the fans when I came up here for the spring game," Alston said of the experience. "The fans were really excited about everything that was going on. I came up here with Tajh, and he was getting a lot of love from the fans. I knew I wanted to be a part of that. I also got very comfortable with coach (Chris) Beatty, who was also going to be my position coach at the time."
Soon after his visit to the spring game, Alston received a scholarship offer from WVU. Boyd, however, would decommit from the Mountaineers and leave one of his friends hanging in the balance.
Despite the events surrounding Boyd, Alston remained firm in his commitment to suiting up for the Old Gold and Blue.
"I never really re-thought my decision because I never made my decision based off of Tajh," Alston said. "I made my decision based off my beliefs and what I had seen at the time. A lot of people and a lot of recruiters tried talking to me after Tajh decommitted from WVU. Most people made it a bigger issue than it really was. I gave my word on where I wanted to come to college."
With the recruiting hoopla behind him, Alston began his first year with the Mountaineers - a year that saw him used sparingly in the WVU offensive attack.
Despite the lack of action on the field, Alston focused his efforts on the classroom and heeded the advice of an uncle that once had the opportunity to play college football.
"My uncle went to college and played football, but I think he failed out in his first year," Alston said. "He always told me that when I got to college I had to grind it out during my first year. If you do everything right during your first year, it's easy to maintain the rest of the way. If you start off at the bottom, you will be fighting to get to the top the whole time. He just kept telling me about his experiences that he faced while he was in college, and I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me."
Also helping Alston was the knowledge of knowing precisely which route he wanted to take when he got to school.
"I did a good job of knowing exactly what I wanted to do," Alston said. "Some people in college go two or three years before they figure out what they want to major in or do career wise. I knew I wanted to be in WVU's criminology program because it was something I was around growing up."
With his uncle's guidance and an unwavering determination, Alston exceeded the expectations around him and not only did well in school, but excelled.
He was named a Big East Academic All-Star and to WVU's Garrett Ford Academic Honor Roll on the way to receiving his degree in criminology and investigations in just three years.
"It feels great to have that degree," Alston said. "I don't know a lot of people that have a college degree, especially a lot of my friends from back in Virginia. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Growing up, a lot of people told me I wouldn't graduate high school, let alone college. Just to prove those individuals wrong feels great. It felt good to do something with your life and show people that it isn't just about sports."
With one degree already in his possession, Alston has his sights set on another, as he evaluates the opportunity of attending law school after taking a shot at the NFL.
"I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was about 10 years old," Alston said. "I wanted to take the LSATs prior to the season to get law school started, but coach (Daron) Roberts and director of football operations Alex Hammond, who both have law degrees, advised me to hold off until football was finished because it would be quite the workload. I am definitely going to use them as resources when I get involved with law school in the future."
Alston's accomplishments both on and off the field have not gone unnoticed at WVU. Many of his peers and coaches now look to him for his leadership abilities.
"You definitely want to be able to lean on your seniors from time to time," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "He can be a voice for the team. At times, guys can get tired of hearing a coach's voice if we are yelling and grinding on them. It's always good to have older guys like him, because he can say 'hey coach, I've got this."
Mountaineers offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh echoed Gillespie's high praise of Alston.
"Shawne is a great running back, and he showed that last year," Bedenbaugh said. "He believes he's the best player on the field and it sounds a little cocky, but it's how you've got to be to be a good player. Shawne brings confidence out there, which brings confidence in everybody else."
In Alston's eyes, though, all of the praise will never be something that will let him forget where he came from or how hard he has worked to get there.
"It feels great," he said. "This past year is really showing that my hard work has paid off. I have always continually pushed myself, and it feels good to see the results of that."