Eric McAlister wasn’t even a teenager the first time he was drug tested.
“I had weed in my system when I was 10 years old, if that tells you anything,” McAlister said. “From smoking it. Putting it to (my) mouth. … When it’s around you 24/7, you tend to be like, ‘Is this OK for me to do? They’re doing it.’”
McAlister, Boise State’s redshirt sophomore receiver, is sitting on a little stone wall about 100 feet away from Albertsons Stadium, where last week the Texas native broke out, catching six passes for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns. After the game, he walked around the stadium high-fiving fans as words of affirmation poured down on him.
Back on the stone wall, McAlister leans back.
“I should not be in college right now,” he says. “I was an adult at 8 years old. Let’s just say that. … I was not raised right.”
There is a tinge of anger in McAlister’s voice. Frustration too. He did not have the white-picket fence and Sunday dinners. He never had stability. He said he feared some of the adults around him. He was getting groceries and making food before middle school. He acted out in the classroom. On and on.
None of his upbringing was his fault. He was a young cub following the pack, emulating exactly what he saw. He says he’s over everything that happened during his childhood. And perhaps he has found his peace. But we are all shaped by our past, molded by our childhood — for good or bad.
We either strive to be exactly like our parents or completely indistinguishable.
Which makes the real miracle of Eric McAlister his smile. It’s still there. Still shining.
“E-Mac is a fun-loving guy,” Boise State coach Andy Avalos said.
“He’s such a joyful guy to be around,” wide receivers coach Matt Miller said, “especially with how he grew up.”
Sinhue Finney had met his niece and nephew at only a handful of holidays before he got a call asking if he’d bring them into his home.
“Me and my sister really didn’t talk much. We had a falling out many years prior, back in the early 2000s,” said Finney, Eric’s uncle. “Then, all of a sudden, I get a call and it’s from her lawyer. She was on the line with him.”
“She was in trouble,” he continued. “The kids got pulled away by CPS (Child Protective Services) and if we didn’t take them, they were going into the system and I didn’t want that.”
In May of 2016, Eric and his sister, Ayrica, were driven three hours west from Troup, Texas to the Finneys’ home in Weatherford, a small town just outside of Fort Worth. Sinhue and his wife, Sarah, prepared their house for two extra kids. They took out a loan, buying clothes, dressers, beds, food, toothpaste, everything.
The worst part, logistically, about those first few years were the visits. They were constant. Visits from CPS. Visits from lawyers. Psychiatrists. And nothing was on the same day. Sarah missed who knows how many days of work making sure she was present for the visit.
Finally, Sinhue said, he decided the state’s financial assistance wasn’t worth it, declining the extra help and putting the two McAlisters on his insurance.
But none of that eased the transition. Especially for Eric.
“He wasn’t happy,” Sarah said. “He just stayed to himself. He didn’t really want to talk or anything like that. … After he realized we weren’t gonna go anywhere, (that) he wasn’t going to go anywhere else, that we wanted him to be here, I think that was maybe his biggest thing. Like getting taken away, he maybe felt like we wouldn’t want to keep him.”
The Finneys did not just want to keep him, but help him. Yet, help for kids includes structure and structure includes rules, a foreign concept to Eric at the time.
And Sarah and Sinhue weren’t asking him to abide by some dress code. It was the simple stuff: Be home when the street lights come on. Get your homework done. Do your chores. Things like that.
“There are rules because I do love you,” Sarah would tell Eric, “and I do care about you.”
One day about two weeks in, Eric had an outburst. He stormed out of the house, walked down the street and into the house of Sarah’s brother, Jonathan. He, of course, called Sarah and she came to pick up Eric.
This 11-year-old kid began cursing out the woman who took him in. He was mad. Angry. He wanted to leave. Heck, his sister wanted to leave, too. But then Eric heard that Jonathan was willing to take Eric in if he left the Finneys’ house.
Eric never left. Something clicked.
“I kind of felt a structure like more than one person cared about me at that time,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna stay here.’
Almost a decade later, Eric’s eyes light up talking about the moment he realized people cared about him.
“It felt different,” he said with a grin. “It felt like I could actually be a kid again, if that makes sense. Even though I was 11, it felt like I could be a kid again. Not worried about anything else.”
Added Sarah: “I wouldn’t trade him for the world. I know I didn’t give birth to him but he’s my kid. That’s my son.”
To Sinhue, Eric was like an alien.
“I really didn’t know how to act towards a boy. All my kids were girls,” he said. “It was a learning experience for both of us. He wasn’t used to having anyone around that, I guess, really gave a crap about him.”
The feeling-out process was long. Sinhue was learning how to talk to a young boy. Eric was learning how to listen to a male authority figure and how to actually trust people.
“Probably the last thing I’ll do is trust somebody,” he said at the time.
Their bond teeter-tottered for months, until Eric’s first Thanksgiving with the Finneys.
They drove to an assisted-living facility to visit Sinhue’s grandmother (Eric’s great-grandmother) and exited the car blabbing back and forth at each other. Nothing serious, just guys talking about who could beat who at what. Eventually, things needed to be settled.
Imagine the scene. In the middle of an old folk’s home parking lot, Sinhue — a towering 6-foot-5, 300ish-pounder in his mid-30s — lined up against his lengthy 12-year-old nephew for a foot race.
“I beat him,” Sinhue said. “And after that, the challenges between the two of us — it was fun.”
Said Eric: “That’s when my uncle knew like, “OK, he’s comfortable around me.”
Like his nephew, Sinhue was once a promising football prospect. He was a big lineman at Brewer High School in Fort Worth garnering “looks” from some colleges. Perhaps those would have turned into offers, but he’ll never know.
“I did some wrong things as a teenager and it cost me,” he said. “I played some semi-pro (football) when I got out of trouble. Basically, when I got out of prison.”
Sinhue was a tight end and defensive end for a handful of minor-league football teams across the region, suiting up for squads like the North Texas Stampede, Dallas Vipers and the DFW Heat. He never received a dime to play.
To see Eric smile after scoring a touchdown is to know Sinhue and Sarah are at his home in Texas with even bigger grins. They watched Eric acclimate to a new youth team when he moved. They saw him go into high school as a high-flying basketball player who also played football. Watched him transform into a crisp wide receiver at Azle High who, as Miller often says, was a frisbee-catching dog pulling down 50-50 balls.
They saw him reel in collegiate offers and earn a Division I scholarship. Talked to him when Eric redshirted at Boise State, standing on the sidelines for the first time. Then witness him finally blossom in college.
On Saturday, Sinhue had to work while Eric and the Broncos played against North Dakota. Sarah recorded the game and didn’t watch a snap until her husband got home. Be sure that they rewound the TV a dozen or so times to keep watching Eric’s touchdowns.
“I’m living through him basically,” Sinhue said. “He’s doing everything I wish I could have done.”
A few years after Sinhue and Sarah became Eric’s legal guardians, they approached him with an idea.
“Hey, do you want us to adopt you?” They asked. “You can change your name and do all that stuff.”
Then in high school, McAlister thought about it for a second but declined. Eric Finney sounded weird. And Eric McAlister-Finney was too long. Eric McAlister just sounded better and nicknames don’t get much better than E-Mac.
They didn’t mind. A name change wasn’t going to actually change anything. He’s already included in all their financial documents and Christmas cards.
“You’re gonna be mine no matter what,” Sarah told Eric.
“They’re basically my mom and my dad,” Eric said. “I treat them as that.”
Just last year, Sarah asked Eric again. He passed again. Everyone already knew him as Eric McAlister. A name change would get too confusing.
“I mean, I just like the name Eric McAlister,” he said.
Perhaps there’s also something deeper about it all. In the same way changing his name to Finney would be a reminder of those who love him so much, the” McAlister” name plastered on his locker and his jersey and shown on ESPN is an ode to all that he’s overcome.
Asked about this, McAlister doesn’t push back.
“I’ve been through way too many things to not carry myself as I am. So when I do things, I always try to do it with a smile on my face,” he said. “I try not to let my past creep in on me.”
Back on the stone wall, Eric is shown a grainy video. He’s seen it plenty. It’s the last race between him and Sinhue. They sprinted countless times, in the middle of the street or in the parking lot of a retirement home. This one is at a soccer field.
Eric was in high school at this point. Sinhue was 38, pushing 315 pounds. But he is flying. Eric thinks that Sinhue could walk on Boise State’s campus right now and beat any linemen in a sprint. He’s probably right.
This race is still contentious. It was so, so close. The reason it’s the last race is because Sinhue knew if they lined up again, he might actually get beat. Eric has always said he won the race. On the stone wall, he watches it one more time. It’s impossible to tell who crossed first.
“Yep,” Eric says, “that’s a dub for me.”
He leans back. And like it always has, his smile beams.