The calm and crucibles of Kiko Alonso

Growing up, Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso didn’t even want to play football.

Born to Carlos and Monica Alonso in Newton, Mass., young Kristian was more interested in baseball, a sport rich with his family’s Hispanic tradition.

“My dad is from Cuba, and he grew up in Puerto Rico,” Alonso says. “Baseball is big for him. That’s what I wanted to be — a baseball player.”

Alonso had the talent. Fellow linebacker and Bay Area-native Michael Clay called him a “Little League legend,” and Alonso himself said it was hard to put down the baseball glove.

“I loved it,” Alonso says. “But then I got bigger.”

All 6-foot-4, 246 pounds of him is folded into a chair the Emerald’s office for a rare sit-down interview. After his fifth autumn on campus, Alonso is ready to reflect on a roller-coaster career at Oregon that saw him rebound from season-ending injuries and legal troubles to win defensive-player-of-the-game honors at the 2012 Rose Bowl and anchor an Oregon defense that tied for the nation’s lead with 38 takeaways this year.

Tapping his talents

Kiko Alonso sacks Keith Price during Oregon’s 52-21 victory over Washington. (Alex McDougall/Emerald)

Once enrolled in Los Gatos High School, Alonso found his literal strengths were put to better use on the gridiron. At first, father Carlos took exception.

“He was kind of mad at first,” Alonso says. “I just wanted to stop playing baseball, and he didn’t want that. He wanted me to play every sport possible. But once I started getting better and started getting looked at by colleges …” Alonso trails off and smiles. “He said it was fine.”

At Los Gatos, Alonso steadily improved. During his senior year, he led the De Anza League and Central Coast Section with 150 tackles. On offense, he had 35 catches for 559 yards and seven touchdowns as a wide receiver. The efforts earned him first-team all-Northern California, second-team all-state, league defensive player of the year, first-team San Jose Mercury News and first-team all-Metro San Francisco. That’s when the offers started coming in.

“I thought I was going to go to Utah for a second there, because that was my only offer,” Alonso recalls. But after a defensive camp at Oregon where Alonso got more face time with defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and positions coach Don Pellum, Alonso got his offer. “I liked it better here. I liked the people here. That’s why I ended up choosing here. But it was mainly because it was the better football program. I wanted to go to the best football program possible.”

During former head coach Mike Bellotti’s final year, Alonso redshirted. He spent the year working on his technique and getting acquainted with the speed of the collegiate game. As a redshirt freshman the next year, Alonso earned valuable playing time off the bench. All signs pointed to a blossoming talent anchoring the Ducks’ defense.

Battling through adversity

Alonso’s 2010 season was over before it began, really. In the spring, he was charged with a DUII after being pulled over near campus. Soon after, Alonso tore an ACL, which sidelined him for the year. The injury left Alonso with a long time to think about the decisions he made and his commitment to football.

“When I (tore my ACL), I didn’t really know how bad it was,” Alonso says. “You have to the right mindset. It can really mess with your head because you’re out for the while, and each day you have to do the same thing, and some days you don’t even see progress. I really wanted to come back and be at my best, which is why I went to work every single day.”

But it got worse for Alonso. As a junior, he was arrested and charged with burglary, criminal trespass and criminal mischief. In court, Alonso pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges to avoid jail time.

Credit Oregon’s personnel and coaches for sticking with Alonso and not dismissing him from the team for misbehavior, like former teammates Cliff Harris and Jamere Holland.

Since the incident, Alonso has been a pillar of maturity by all accounts. Alonso has stayed active in his community, as well. He recently joined fellow Spanish-speaking teammate Alejandro Maldonado on a trip to Spanish-immersive Buena Vista elementary school, which he says left the kids with “jaws dropped, eyes opened.”

“He made a mistake, he paid a price and he learned from it,” head coach Chip Kelly said. Aliotti called him “squeaky clean.”

“That was obviously a hard time,” Alonso says. “I just had to say I made a mistake, Now I gotta move on … I had to put it behind me. That’s why I didn’t like talking to reporters about it. You know? That was then.”

Redemption came when he was reinstated to the team in September. He served as an instrumental role in the Ducks’ run through the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game, but Alonso saved his best for last. In the season-ending 2012 Rose Bowl, he racked up 1.5 sacks against Wisconsin’s elusive quarterback Russell Wilson and also tallied a highlight-reel interception — just Wilson’s fourth on the season. The effort earned him defensive player of the game honors.

“It didn’t even really hit me until the next day,” Alonso recalls. “I remember I was laying in bed, it was probably four or five in the morning, and I was like, ‘Dang, this happened.'”

Renaissance man

Michael Arellano/Emerald

As an encore, Alonso has torn up the Pac-12 this season. Despite missing one game due to a wrist injury, Alonso leads the team in tackles for loss (12) and interceptions (four) and is second on the team with 75 tackles.

“Kiko Alonso, he’s all over the field,” Aliotti said after the Washington game. “I mean, if I had Kiko’s body, I’d be making movies.”

For his part, Alonso credits his instincts for the big-play reputation he’s developed.

“When you’re on the field, it just happens so fast, you can’t even think,” Alonso says. “The Stanford game, it felt like I was out there for two minutes and it was halftime already. Being out there is so much adrenaline.”

As he and the rest of the Ducks prepare for a fourth-straight BCS bowl, Alonso admits the culture has “changed a little bit” since he’s been here. This year’s group is the most focused squad he can recall.

“This group worked really hard compared to all the other teams I’ve been around,” Alonso says. “We just went to work … That’s led us to where we are now.”

So when the Fiesta Bowl is said and done and the sun has officially set on Kristian Alonso’s collegiate career, what does the future hold?

“I haven’t really thought about that. But at this point, I think there’s only one place …” the linebacker trails off again. “That’s the NFL.” He’s quick to point out he still needs work — on his technique, on his strength, on his coverage.

“I don’t like to look in the future, just like I don’t like to look in the past,” Alonso says. “I still got a lot of work to do in the offseason to get there so I’m not really saying, ‘That’s where I’m going to be.’ That’s definitely where I see myself, and that’s where I want to be, so I’m just going to keep working.”

And when the NFL scouts and coaches raise their eyebrows and ask about Alonso’s character, about his decisions, they’ll hear a man who’s grown and matured, traveled to the brink of losing the privilege to pursue his passion and came back stronger than ever.

“I think the Kiko that arrived here was really immature and didn’t know — wasn’t ready for what was in store for him,” Alonso says. “Now, I’ve been there, I’ve gone through things, so now I just know how to handle things. It didn’t just *snap* like that. Gradually over time I figured out things. This year is how I really figured it out. Even last year, I feel I was still a little immature. And I’m still immature; I still have things to learn. That’s why I gotta keep going every day, learning new things and working hard.”

Michele Karakas contributed reporting.

Kiko Alonso is tripped up during his interception return by Tennessee Tech quarterback Tre Lamb. (Alex McDougall/Emerald)


Sam Stites

Sam Stites