Tom Keegan: Alex Fontana’s road to Kansas anything but typical
photo by: Carter Gaskins
Alex Fontana’s passion for football has taken him from his hometown of Toronto to faraway places.
Fontana spent his final two years of high school at a boarding school in Connecticut, his next two years at the UFO Capital of the World — otherwise known as Roswell, N.M. — and his next two years in Houston.
And for his final season as an amateur football player, Fontana has chosen Lawrence, where he’ll be snapping the football to Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender in Saturday’s 6 p.m. opener vs. Nicholls State, an FCS school from Thibodaux, La.
“First football game I ever went to was the Toronto Argonauts,” Fontana said. “It was a pretty cool atmosphere. I had never seen cheerleaders before at a game. It was pretty cool, so that got me into it.”
Fontana wanted to make sure he wasn’t misconstrued.
“Not the cheerleaders, I mean the atmosphere,” he said. “After that, I’ve always been interested in football. From there, it kind of took off. I was into hockey before that.”
Fontana packs 300 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He doesn’t look like a hockey player. He looks like an offensive lineman, a bouncer even, but not a hockey player.
Biggest player on the ice?
“By far,” Fontana said. “They used to just bring me on the team to hit people.”
Hockey teams call such players enforcers publicly, goons in private. It was good preparation for his current job, but, he noted, there are differences.
“You can’t be as hotheaded (in football),” Fontana said. “You can’t throw punches or anything like that.”
Even at his size, it’s not easy gaining exposure playing football in Canada, Fontana said, “unless you’re going to camps across the border, little combines that schools hold.”
Early in high school, he tried that, going to camps at the University at Buffalo, as well as Syracuse. That didn’t get him noticed, so he went to the Kent School, living away from home his final two years of high school.
“I feel like a lot of people from Canada take a boarding school route or a prep school route or junior college,” he said, adding that he enjoyed the experience in Connecticut. “It’s very difficult to get recruited from Canada.”
And it can be difficult to attract football players to Roswell, N.M., so maybe it makes sense that New Mexico Military Institute has made a habit of recruiting from north of the border, even though Toronto is 1,750 miles from Roswell.
It was there that Fontana gained his first exposure to the intense connection KU graduates can feel to their alma mater.
NMMI head football coach Joe Forchtner heard about Fontana from a few of his Canadian players. Forchtner graduated from Kansas in 2001, after spending his first two seasons in college playing football for William Jewell.
Forchtner’s first experience coaching football came at Haskell Indian Nations University.
He said he was refereeing a basketball game at Sport to Sport with a Haskell assistant coach who encouraged him to join the staff, so he did.
“I loved Kansas,” Forchtner said by phone from his office. “I loved everything about it. I liked the town. I liked the campus. I liked my classes. I tried to get my daughter to go there. We walked her around campus and went and ate at Yellow Sub.”
He loved Lawrence, but in college football, players and coaches alike let the best job they can land choose their addresses.
Roswell isn’t quite like any other town. The International UFO Museum and Research Center, located downtown, draws “a little over a million visitors a year,” Forchtner said.
“Just this morning, driving to work, I saw about 10 people out front with tinfoil hats on and a couple of them had blowup aliens under their arms,” Forchtner said.
Fontana said he never visited the UFO Museum, adding, “I probably should have.”
Maybe not. Football is a safer game to play wearing a helmet than a tinfoil hat.
Forchtner has coached at NMMI since 2006 and was promoted to head coach in January of 2012. He said he tried to get multiple head coaches interested in recruiting his players, mentioning he was a graduate, but didn’t have any success.
Even so, the story of how Fontana ended up in Lawrence winds through Roswell.
Then working for Illinois, new Kansas offensive line coach A.J. Ricker made a recruiting trip to Roswell to see Fontana and Shane Richards, who now plays for Oklahoma State.
The Illinois staff was fired after that season, but it wasn’t a wasted trip for Ricker.
He was hired by Missouri, his alma mater, and again was looking for work when a coaching change took place there, too.
Ricker headed to Houston in 2016 to volunteer for head coach Tom Herman, who is in his second year at Texas. Ricker, who spent last year in an analyst job at Oklahoma State, was surprised to see Fontana there.
“He’s physical and he’s tough,” Ricker said of Fontana. “And that’s what you need at the center position. He’s very smart, very football-smart. Obviously, he’s a good player, but all the other intangibles he brings to our room, his maturity and work ethic, are huge. Guys listen to him.”
Forchtner gave a similar scouting report on Fontana.
“He’s a smart kid,” Forchtner said. “He’s a tough kid mentally and physically on the field. He plays nasty.”
Fontana didn’t need to be reminded that he’s at his juco head coach’s alma mater.
“He has a lot of pride in his school,” Fontana said. “He let us all know he went here. He loved it here and he was happy that I came here.”
Forchtner’s not alone in that regard. Kansas was in desperate need of a center because concussions forced Mesa Ribordy into retiring from football. It appears as if the Jayhawks found a good one-year solution.