Of the 176 players between Lehigh and Lafayette that will make up the 150th game in college football’s most storied rivalry, only one of those players will be returning home on Saturday.
His name is Alex Buford, and the Mountain Hawk senior wide receiver will end his football career in the same place where it all began: New York City.
Above the game, however, this weekend will serve as an anniversary for Buford’s mentor, coach and idol. Four days from Saturday will mark the fifth anniversary of Buford’s father, Darryll Buford’s, sudden death.
It was basketball season for Buford when his dad passed. A Bronx native himself, growing up just three miles from Yankee Stadium, Darryll Buford was a high school basketball and football star, as well. After a knee injury derailed his scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh to play defensive end for the Panthers’ football team, the elder Buford found a home upstate, where he played basketball for the Binghamton University Bearcats.
Like any father, Darryll wanted to give Alex and his sister what he was deprived of growing up, which, for him, was stability. Darryll was raised in what Alex described as “dire straits” at times with his seven brothers and sisters and a single mom. All Darryll wanted was a better life for his kids.
“He came from nothing, really,” Buford said. “For him to be as successful as he ended up being says a lot about the guy he was.”
After graduating from Binghamton, Darryl matriculated at Fordham Law School — never losing touch with his New York roots. From litigation to property to criminal law, Darryll Buford was a cornerstone in the Bronx District Attorney’s office. It was there that he went through the process to keep his promise to himself.
“He worked so hard…he just wanted to provide for my mother and provide for his kids and make sure they had a better life than he did growing up,” Buford said. “He succeeded in that.”
With an athletic and academic career as rich as Darryll’s, it was difficult, at times, for Alex to cope with a hybrid father-coach.
“My relationship with my dad was always father first, but he was also a coach,” Buford said. “There was this one (baseball) game where I was pitching and I couldn’t hit the strike zone for my life. He was getting real pissed. He wanted me to do well, and he pushed me hard, but there were times during the game where I didn’t want to hear him.”
It was the talk the Buford men had after the game that created the father-coach balance that Alex attributes to why he is the student-athlete he is today.
“I told him, ‘Dad, you’ve got to stop. Let me do my thing. Let my coaches coach me,’” Buford said. “After that, he sat in the background at games — cheering, obviously, but he didn’t try to coach me out there.”
From then on, Darryll hardly missed a game in his new role. He was there when Alex consistently dropped 25 points or more against the city’s elite hoops programs, and he was there when Alex drew attention from Division I football recruiters in Poly Prep High School’s endzone.
Darryll saw his son score more touchdowns and drain more buckets than most fathers see their kids do, and the last time he saw Alex play was no different.
“We played St. Raymond’s — a really good basketball school from the Bronx,” Buford said “At the time, Navy was recruiting me for basketball, and I went out there against this big-time powerhouse and lit ‘em up.”
Thirty or so points and a win for the Poly Prep Blue Devils later, Buford ended the game the same he always did: with his dad.
“I remember him giving me a big old hug afterwards and telling me how proud he was of me,” Buford said. “That was the last time he saw me play basketball.”
Later that week, the unthinkable happened, and in a split second, Alex Buford was now the man of the house. Although it was not the way he envisioned such a transition to happen, Darryll had spent his entire life teaching Alex what being a man was all about. Just one week later, Alex was ready.
“After a week off from school, I played against Bishop Ford — another Brooklyn Catholic School that had a pretty good team. It was emotional,” Buford said. “During ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ I was getting emotional, but I pulled it together by the time the game started.”
Buford carried the team to a win that day, but it was Poly Prep, his city, and his home that carried him.
“The student section at Poly knew what was going on with me, and they were really awesome in supporting me and supporting the team,” Buford said. “I came back and played because I knew he would want me to, even though it was hard.”
Poly Prep football coach Dino Mangiero, an NFL veteran, praised Buford for what he meant to the Blue Devil program during his four years in Brooklyn.
“For a high school player to be 6 feet 3 inches tall and 200 pounds was a real luxury,” Mangiero said. “We tried to get him the ball as much as possible, whether it was throwing it down the field or on a jail-break screen. To have that was special.”
Buford’s senior football season culminated with camp invites and Division I football offers, but what Mangiero remembers is how Buford and his team became united amid unimaginable pain.
“I think we really came together as a team when that tragedy came,” Mangiero said. “Wherever we went — Queens, Brooklyn — people spent time with Alex and his family.Everybody talks about high school football and how you become brothers and have a second family. Almost every kid on the team would show up and support Alex. His father was a huge presence here at the games, and he had a wonderful personality. It was a big loss.”
The gridiron game in Bethlehem hasn’t been as kind to Buford, however, as the former high school superstar has been stuck behind all-league receivers throughout his entire collegiate career. Despite a change in roles, Buford has stayed true to his motto: Stay positive, and stay patient.
“I rest easy knowing I gave it my best shot,” Buford said. “I worked hard, I did what I could, I tried to stay patient. Obviously, it hasn’t gone the way I envisioned it when I committed here, but I don’t regret it for a second.”
On paper, Buford’s football career has culminated with one reception for 2 yards against Georgetown University last season. Those stats are irrelevant for Buford as he preps for his final game, as he only has one statistic on his mind: Win.
“To represent Lehigh in a game like this is why you come here,” Buford said. “Beating Lafayette is what you hear about on your visit, it’s what you hear about in your first couple days on campus, it’s the most important thing there is.”
Although winning his final game, and ending his collegiate career with a decisive 3-1 record over the Leopards, are the most important things on his mind, Buford can’t help but think about what it would be like to play on the field in the city that molded him.
“It would mean everything — it’s a homecoming for me,” Buford said. “I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people hoping I get to come in and run around a little bit. I’m confident I will get my opportunity.”
This gridiron has a different meaning to Buford. Despite the change in infrastructure, Yankee Stadium and New York’s most beloved team strengthened the bond between Alex and Darryll, father and son.
“We went to a ton of Yankee games,” Buford said. “I remember it was dark and dreary in the old stadium, but then you walk out near the field and there are these bright lights. We had a great time, just like any father and son would.”
For Mangiero, he sees no better venue for his former primary target to end his playing career.
“For him, it’s great to come back home and play on your home turf,” Mangiero said. “Yankee Stadium has not only great baseball tradition, but also great football tradition. It’s a great way for him to end his college career.”
The aura of Yankee Stadium, the five-year anniversary of his father’s passing, the lone player in the rivalry to be coming home — the stage is set for Buford to shine on Saturday. He’s ready for No. 17 to finally be called.
“Running out on that field and hopefully catching a pass…it’s what you think about as kids,” Buford said. “Thousands of screaming fans at this awesome stadium — it’s what you make memories on.”
Win or lose, playing time or not, touchdown or fumble, one thing is certain — Darryll will be proud of his son. He always has been.