By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Breaking records, winning a bowl game and being a leader for the nationally-ranked Memphis Tigers have just been part of the busy schedule for Millington native Alan Cross.
Since graduating from Millington Central High School in 2011, Cross has been working at USA Stadium, participating in University of Memphis campus activities and earning his degree.
“I’m doing well in school,” he said. “I’m going to try to graduate this May with a Chemistry degree. And hopefully we can repeat next year as conference champs and go to another bowl game.”
As a red-shirt junior tight end, Cross caught 28 passes for 373 yards and 4 touchdowns adding to his school records in each category.
Cross’ contribution this past season helped the Tigers win the American Athletic Conference championship and the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl for Memphis’ 10th win in 2014. The win over BYU on Dec. 22 gave the Tigers a 10-3 record, the school’s first 10-win campaign since the undefeated 1938 season.
But when Cross first arrived on campus 4 years ago the Larry Porter era was coming to an end. The University of Memphis hired Justin Fuente to restore the program back to respectability.
“(Those days) were tough having to go through hard times and get Coach Fuente’s kids in there,” Cross recalled. “They’re all seniors this year. It’s just like building blocks. You have to build up, sometimes you’ll go down. But you have to build back up again. It has been a process.”
Cross said he realized the Fuente’s process was working early in 2014.
“When we started spring practice about this time last year,” he recalled. “We did this thing called the Colorado Circuit. It’s like going through hell and back. The first time we did it, I could tell a difference in the past two years. We were more of a team and closer together, more like brothers.”
The Tigers continued to build that brotherhood heading into the 2014 season. And after a 63-0 season-opening win over Austin Peay, it was time for Memphis to travel to Pac 12 power UCLA to play in the historic Rose Bowl Stadium.
Cross acknowledged the Tigers had fun and took some pictures while in Los Angeles, but when it was time for kickoff, the boys from the Bluff City were all business.
“When we hung in with UCLA,” he said, “I was like, ‘Ok, we’re going to be pretty good this season if we could hang in there with UCLA this early in the season.’”
UCLA outlasted Memphis 42-35. The Tigers got back over .500 with a dominating performance against Middle Tennessee winning 36-17. Next on the plate was a trip to SEC foe and area rival Ole Miss.
The Sept. 27 game was tight until the Rebels used a big fourth quarter to pull away 24-3.
“When we played the UCLA game, it as a pretty good little shootout,” Cross noted. “We hang in there with them. We would score and then they would score. They made a couple of more plays than we did.
“Then we went down there to Oxford,” he continued. “They were on that day on defense. We just couldn’t do anything on offense. Our defense played extremely well. We only had 100 yards of offense which is extremely low to win any ball game.”
The Tigers went 7-1 after returning from Mississippi only losing to Houston in conference play. Memphis earned a share of the AAC title and trip to South Florida.
In one of the most exciting games of the 2014 Bowl Season, the Tigers pulled out a 55-48 double-overtime win over the BYU Cougars.
“It was cool just playing in Miami and a nationally recognized team like BYU,” Cross said. “They’re a pretty good ball team. Playing in the Marlin’s park was a first for all of us. I think it was fun and it was beautiful down there. And it was a pretty good ball game.”
The Tigers appeared to have the game in control in the third quarter but momentum shifted quickly in favor of the Cougars. With BYU ahead, ESPN cameras caught a shot of Cross firing up his teammates.
“We got a little relax,” he acknowledged. “Then we had two really quick turnovers and they scored. So I went over there to our offensive line and gathered up some of the receivers. I was like, ‘Men, we’ve got to keep going. We have an whole other quarter to play. We have to keep making plays in order to get this championship.’ I think we did.”
To complete the comeback, the Tigers needed a 55-yard field goal in the first overtime to stay alive. Coach Fuente called upon place kicker Jake Elliot.
“I wasn’t even worried about the kick,” Cross said. “I told them, ‘This kid is going to make it.’ Ole’ Jake is a good kicker. You have to give him his props. I didn’t have any worry about him.”
Elliot drilled the 55-yard field goal with plenty of distance. And the Tigers took care of business in the second overtime to win the game. But many across the nation will remember the game for the brawl that broke out after the game between the two teams. One of the worst images of the fight between the Tigers and the Cougars was a cheap shot from BYU player Paul Allen to Cross.
That brawl made national news but to local residents the 10th win and news in January of a No. 25 and No. 23 rankings to finish the season were the bigger news.
“We put a lot of good images in a lot of people’s heads that we are a good ball team from last year,” Cross said. “It’s going to be a lot of new faces in this year’s team playing on the defensive and offensive side. We proved we can play with the best of them like BYU.
“They’ve been going to bowl games for many years,” he added. “I think it was 10 straight bowl games. Playing against them and beating them put us back on the map. As you can see, we were ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the season. The first time in Memphis history.”
Cross is a part of Memphis Football history with the tight end records for reception with 65 and counting. He is the all-time leader in receiving yards for a tight end with 821. And he also has a chance to add to his record 11 touchdowns.
Cross said with an established quarterback like Paxton Lynch, he will have a chance to improve on his records.
The 6’7, 230 signal caller threw for 3,031 yards in 2014 with 22 touchdowns.
“He’s come a long way,” Cross said of Lynch. “I’ve seen it in two years. He’s grown up so much. It’s like watching a little kid grow up. He’s a lot more mature and goes through his progression a lot better.
“He’s careful with the football throwing only 9 interceptions,” he continued. “He had a real good year this year. He got second-team all conference. That’s always good on your resume. I think he and I will do some good things this up coming year.”
With 2015 down the road, Cross is happy about how the 2014 season turned out.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “Hard work plays off is what Coach Fuentes always says. If you work your hardest, play your hardest and work together as a team, nobody can stop you. That’s the mentally we had going into each game. We felt we could play with anybody in the nation.”
Many Memphians have lived and died with Tiger Football over the years. And Cross said his dream season was special to many Tiger Football faithful.
“Just keep believing and never stop believing,” he said. “Those who kept believing when it was tough, I really appreciate it and you sticking it out with us the Memphis Tigers.
“I meet a guy the other night,” Cross continued. “He said, ‘I’ve had season tickets since the 60s with my family.’ People like that you’ve always got to keep in your prayers. Thank God he and others have stuck around this long. They’ve been through some hard times.”
Now there are good times at Memphis featuring a Millington Trojan. Cross is proud to represent the Black and Gold of Millington. And he hopes his story will be just one of many Trojans in the future.
“Stay in the book men,” Cross’ advice to current Trojans. “That’s the key ticket. That’s how I got my shot. I just walked on. I could have said, ‘Screw school, I’m going to concentrate on football.’ I didn’t and now I’m going to get a chemistry degree. That’s something a football player normally doesn’t get.
“For the young guys, keep your head on straight and stay out of trouble,” Cross concluded. “Get your grades and get a good ACT score. Get a school you are happy with and your family is happy with. Have fun and just enjoy life.”