Sept. 16, 2017

by Jim Daves

Being a student-athlete and full-time student is a challenging load. Adding the requirements of the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) life into the mix is a true test of time management. Virginia senior fullback Alec Shifflett relishes all three roles.

Shifflett is usually at the McCue Center preparing for practice at 6 a.m. before heading to his classes around 10:30 a.m. As an assistant platoon leader, his ROTC demands include weekly classroom meetings to learn Army doctrine and tactics and then a “lab” where the unit holds training exercises. As a fourth-year in the program, his commitment includes additional individual planning and group meetings to coordinate activities. All told, that adds a minimum of 10 hours to his weekly schedule

“You have to be very good at time managing so I have learned to write out my plans,” Shifflett said. “I’m still learning, even in my fourth year doing this, so I think it’s just a process you have to get through every day.”

Starting as a basic cadet and then cadet private, Shifflett now holds the rank of (cadet) lieutenant. He is an assistant platoon leader, helping to oversee a unit of approximately 50 ROTC members. Following UVA’s Final Exercises, he will begin a four-year commitment in the Army that will be followed by a role in the Army Reserves.

Students frequently opt to join a ROTC program because of the financial assistance with tuition, books and living expenses that is provided in exchange for military service. It was a commitment to service and a chance to grow as a leader that drew Shifflett to the ROTC

“It’s just a great honor to serve in the United States Military, especially with all of the tradition and everything that it has,” Shifflett said. “Serving in the Army, you give a lot of yourself to the country. You know you will sacrifice a lot. I think that’s a great honor.

“Sometimes it can be a big burden but I think if you learn from it, the responsibility they give you is great because you’re basically learning by doing from the Army,” Shifflett said. “You have so many people and resources you have to cover, and so a lot of times it’s not going to go your way, but I think doing it is the best way to learn from it.”

Shifflett’s personal drive and determination have been important character traits that have helped him overcome some potential personal setbacks.

Shifflett played fullback and linebacker at nearby Nelson County High School. He earned all-district honors as a junior and senior, but not the attention of major college football recruiters.

He hoped to attend the U.S. Military Academy, but when that did not work out, he opted to enroll at Virginia with hopes of joining the football team as a walk-on. He tried out for the team during his first and second years at UVA. He was told no thanks.

After two years as a regular college student, and two years of rising through the ROTC ranks, it would have been easy and comfortable for him to give up on his dream of playing football. But when Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach, Shifflett opted to give it one more try. In the spring of his junior year, he finally made the team.

“It was very intensive. It was very hard,” Shifflett said of his tryout session. “I think they wanted to make sure you know why you’re trying out and why you want to be on the team.”

In some ways, it was perfect timing for Shifflett. Mendenhall has said he has a special affection for walk-on players who are promised nothing. They fit in well with his “Earned Not Given” mantra.

“I grew up in a very blue-collar area and my family is very blue collar,” Shifflett said. “Everything’s earned in the Army. It is an organization where the son of a ditch digger, who didn’t graduate high school, can work along side someone like Bill Gates’ son or daughter and do the same thing. And that ditch digger’s son could achieve higher superiority because they can earn it. The Army is a very meritocracy and that’s what I really appreciate about Bronco and his staff. Everything’s earned.”

The epitome of that philosophy came to fruition for Shifflett in August. During the team’s annual jersey selection ceremony, Mendenhall announced Shifflett and two other players had earned scholarships. The room erupted as teammates celebrated the moment.

Several days earlier, Shifflett suffered a broken elbow during fall camp and he thought that had diminished his opportunity to get a full ride.

“That was a pretty cool moment,” Shifflett said. “It was just a fulfillment of everything so far that I’ve been here and done here.”

For last week’s game against Indiana, on Military Appreciation Day, Mendenhall called on Shifflett to lead the team out of the tunnel with the American flag.

“Being able to represent America’s symbol of Military Appreciation Day meant a lot to me,” he said. “It is something I will always remember.”

His focus is now on making that same run in full uniform.

When Shifflett broke his elbow during fall camp, he was told he probably would not be able to play this season. That prognosis has shifted and he believes he might be physically able to return to practice in the final third of the season. That would be the perfect ending for his storybook college experience. Or, as they say in the Army, Hooah!