Arlene Alessi’s high-powered job as an HR executive made her a frequent flyer when her three boys were growing up just outside of Detroit. This required her husband, Ken Alessi, to serve as Mr. Mom much of the time. That left Yale University two-sport standout Jason Alessi — the youngest boy in a family full of gifted athletes — as the lowest man on the totem pole.
“It could have gone badly, but we made it work,” recalls Alessi, 20, a junior free safety and return man for Yale this fall, as well as a goal-scoring midfielder with the Bulldogs lacrosse team during the spring. “Both my parents were busy and my dad wasn’t much of a cook, but they maintained a big presence in our lives.
"They instilled the values of being respectful and kind and behaving with humility. They were huge about making us keep up in the classroom.”
And none of their three boys were unclear about what was expected.
“My dad was the one who brought the hammer down,” says Alessi. “I got off a little easier as the third boy. We’re all really close with them both. My dad was a D1 athlete and so was my mom. It really helps having parents who are aware of what I’m going through as a student-athlete.”
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Be that as it may, the 6-foot, 190-pound Alessi’s circumstance is unique in the context of FCS athletes. And it's a state of affairs no one in his family can relate to directly, even though dad played baseball at Michigan, mom played golf at Michigan State, eldest brother Matthew played golf at Michigan and middle brother Joey was two-sport athlete in high school.
Alessi posted three multi-goal games for Yale Lacrosse this past season. (Photo Courtesy: Bulldogs Athletics)
The youngest Alessi, on the other hand, verbally committed to Michigan in the sport of lacrosse at age 16 before reversing field completely and choosing to play both football and lacrosse at Yale. Gaining insight into why requires a quick glimpse into Alessi’s past. For one thing, he grew up in the Bloomfield Hills suburb of Metro Detroit, less than 15 minutes from the home of the Pistons, the Palace at Auburn Hills.
“Yes, that makes me a Pistons guy,” he admits. “They were great when I was a kid and won it all in ’04. I’m also a Tigers, Red Wings and Lions fan. It’s tough to hold true to those roots, especially going to school in New England.”
Alessi also grew up a good golfer in his own right, largely due to the plethora of links around his family home.
“We’re within a few miles of three public courses and the Oakland Hills Country Club, which any golf fan knows well,” says Alessi, who says his handicap has dipped to seven or eight since committing to no offseason from collegiate athletics. “There have to be a dozen courses within three or four miles of our house. But let’s not forget, you can only golf for three or four months a year in Michigan.”
Alessi even attended high school in his hometown, starring at Brother Rice. As a senior, he was named the Detroit Athletic Club 2014 Michigan High School Athlete of the Year. He broke 25 school and state records, combined, on the football field and led his program to three state titles. He also started at shooting guard and earned All-League honors for the Warriors.
As a middie on the lacrosse team, he was part of three state titles and was named an All-America selection by US Lacrosse.
With a father and two brothers either graduated from or attending Michigan during Alessi’s final prep season, the kid seemed destined to follow through on his intention to sign and become a Wolverine. Still, Yale had long expressed an interest in Alessi coming to New Haven to play football and kept wooing him well into his senior year.
Finally, Alessi and his father decided to make a visit to the campus in what he describes as more of a “courtesy” than anything else.
“I really didn’t intend to come, but after we got here, we were just blown away,” recalls Alessi. “With all the extras and opportunities at this university, the connections and the networks and everything else that goes along with Yale being Yale. The idea of playing both football and lacrosse was on the table. All of that together turned the tide.”
So Far, So Good
Two years into altering his collegiate athletic path, Alessi, who enters his junior campaign with 74 career tackles and three interceptions, concedes that the year-round load takes its toll physically. In 32 career lacrosse games for Yale (the program is 24-8 in that span), he’s banged his way to 18 goals and seven assists.
“It’s taxing on my body and I’m always getting treatment,” he says. “If I don’t ice down and take care of my body, I won’t be able to perform.”
Alessi would enjoy nothing more than improved performance for the Bulldogs this fall. A cornerback in his first two seasons, Alessi was part of an 8-2 squad that finished third in the Ivy League his freshman year, but Yale backslid to 6-4 last season, including a 2-2 record at home. Given that the program averaged over 20,000 in per-game attendance last fall — third highest in the FCS — protecting their house is a top priority for the Bulldogs in 2016.
“That’s always a mantra,” says Alessi, who has a career interest in investment banking and spent this past summer in Michigan completing an internship at UBS Wealth Management. “The Yale Bowl should be the toughest place for any of our opponents to play. We sold out the Harvard game (60,000 ) last year. There’s no doubt playing at home should be an advantage for us.
"We had a tough schedule last year, but there are no excuses. We’ve just got to play better. I think we’re in a better position to succeed. I like where our focus and confidence level is at.”
Enough to win the Ivy title?
“If you don’t think you can win it, you have no business going out there every day,” insists Alessi, who brought back 15 punts for a total of 178 yards last year and added 151 yards on nine kick returns. “You have to believe you’re the best in the league and that you can win every game. Then, once you’re fighting for the title at the end of the season, you’re not surprised. We have the talent and we feel our coaching staff is the best in the league.”
“Jason is an exceptional athlete and a guy we're thrilled to have,” says Yale D]defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steven Vashel. “To be able to play two Division I sports and maintain the academic rigor here at Yale is rare. As an athlete, he has such great intelligence and spatial awareness. He has great perception and ball skills. He’s easy to coach.
"He’s well-skilled: he can run, he can tackle. In a single series, you might see him play corner, safety and nickel. I can’t say enough about him as a player, and on top of that he’s a great person.”
Through all the practices and scrimmages and training camps and weight room sessions, Alessi remains grateful for the realities of his current day-to-day.
“Of course, there are times I’m here and playing two sports and there’s no offseason and it kind of sucks,” he says. “I get pulled in a lot of different directions. But I wouldn’t trade it for world. I've never focused on just one sport my entire life. I came to make the most of this opportunity. I’d heard a lot of two-sport stories that didn’t work out for the athlete, but I figured I’d give it a shot.”
It seems like he’s got a pretty good lie at this point.