BEREA - The casual fans who abandoned their seats at Cleveland Browns Stadium or flicked off their televisions when the starters were pulled from the Browns four preseason games probably don't know the name Richard Alston.
Even those who were pleasantly surprised by his last-second, game-winning touchdown grab against the Kansas City Chiefs or the short slant he turned into a score in last week's exhibition finale against the Chicago Bears couldn't have guessed that the young wide receiver actually had a shot at making the Browns final roster.
In fact, when Sunday's final cuts passed with Alston's name remaining on the Browns roster, it probably surprised everyone in northeast Ohio except the head coach at Kent State University.
"People in Cleveland might not know much about Richard Alston, but I'm telling you, he can play," said Kent State coach Doug Martin. "I couldn't be happier for Richard. This is an example of good things happening to good people."
It was Martin who moved Alston to a receiver position at H-back in 2001 after originally recruiting the Warrenton, N.C. native to East Carolina as a quarterback. Alston flourished in his one season as a receiver, starting the final eight games of his senior year and still finishing as the Pirates leading receiver with 31 catches for 443 yards.
He showed just enough to encourage the Browns to give him a look in 2003 with an invitation to training camp as an undrafted free agent. And while the Browns saw flashes of potential during the preseason, they thought Alston was just a bit too raw to play receiver at the NFL level.
With no other teams showing an interest, Alston returned to his North Carolina home and tried to find a way to earn a living.
"I ended up selling cars at the Leith organization out of Raleigh, N.C.," said Alston. "I sold used cars from eight in the morning to eight at night. Right after I got cut here, I went there and started selling cars from September through the end of January when (the Browns) brought me back.
"I was pretty good, too. I usually sold about 15-to-20 cars a month."
But that was still a difficult existence for a football player who had been harboring a pro dream.
It was a life most of Alston's new teammates couldn't even begin to imagine.
"Man, I've never had a real job in my whole life, so there is no way I can understand what that was like for him," said Browns wide receiver Quincy Morgan. "I'm sure it was humbling. He obviously worked very hard to get back here, so he should be very proud of himself."
Alston kept working out and kept his NFL dream alive by keeping in touch with Browns director of pro personnel Jeremy Green.
"I kept in contact, and kept asking what I could do to get back to Cleveland," said Alston. "I told him I'd go to Europe. That's what I really wanted to do. I just wanted that chance."
The Browns gave Alston that shot, re-signing him to a free-agent contract Feb. 2, then allocating him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe. He made the most of his summer opportunity, finishing tied for second in Europe with six receiving touchdowns, and even adding a 60-yard touchdown pass to help Berlin beat Frankfurt in World Bowl XII.
"That was a blessing for me to go over there because I was still so raw as a receiver," said Alston. "Last year, in training camp was just my second year playing receiver. Going to Europe gave me a third year. Now I feel like I'm in my fourth year - I know I still have a lot to learn, but playing in Europe helped me become very confident at this position."
When Alston returned to Cleveland for his second training camp with the Browns, his coaches and teammates could see the difference.
"He was a pretty good player when he was here last year, but when he came back from Europe he was a totally different player," said Morgan. "Being over there and being one of the league's top receivers and winning a championship did a lot for him. He also looks totally different, physically. He went over there and got ripped up. He got those six-pack abs. It all made him more confident, and he battled during camp."
Alston finished the preseason as the Browns third leading receiver with six catches for 121 yards and two scores. He also showed he can make an impact on special teams with a 30-yard kickoff return and a 16-yard punt return.
"He is a great example of a player coming to training camp, being positive and having a great attitude," said Butch Davis. "The more chances he got to play in NFL Europe, he took advantage of it and had a great training camp. His effort and intensity helped him earn a spot on this team."
After he learned he had made his first NFL roster, Alston's first phone call was to his mother in North Carolina. Soon after that, he called the auto dealership in Raleigh to let them know he wouldn't need his old job.
"Everybody there was really happy for me," said Alston. "They just told me to keep working hard, and when I'm ready to buy a car, come see them."