Sam Mellinger

Alex Totta, KC Star Scholar-Athlete of the year: ‘My calling is to serve this country’

In two weeks Alex Totta will pack a toothbrush and running shoes and not much else into a backpack. He will board a United Airlines flight to Washington, D.C. that will change his life. Totta is 18 years old and has spent most of that time preparing for this moment.

His mother will sob. His father will try not to. Alex will arrive at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, with little more than the clothes on his back, which will be sent back home with his parents. He won’t need them for a year.

This is a childhood phase turned into an obsession and now into a literal mission. Totta felt drawn to the military so long ago he can’t remember otherwise. Every Halloween he dressed like a soldier. He and his grandpa spent hours watching war movies.

He is grown now. Legally, an adult, with muscles growing and a heart open to the world and a mind that won’t stop. He applied to all four service academies and received a four-year full-ride scholarship offer to attend The Citadel. He did not seriously consider any civilian university.

A year ago, he spent a week at the Naval Academy. It’s sort of a dry run for interested teenagers. A way to weed out those who would quit later. He came home with stories of waking up early and being yelled at.

“That sounds awful,” his mother said.

“No, Mom, it was awesome,” he said.

Totta wants to be a Navy SEAL. This isn’t some lark. He’s read books, pored through articles and watched everything he can find on TV and YouTube. Ben Totta, Alex’s father, sneaks away alone to his room every now and then to think about what this all means.

Parents see these things differently, and not just the potential danger. Seems like last week that Alex wouldn’t go get extra Popsicles because the basement freaked him out. Wouldn’t go across the street for the mail after dark, either.

Sometimes, Ben has this thought: THAT kid is going to be a SEAL? That kid’s post-high school ambitions require me to plan life insurance, death benefits and designate next of kin?

“My calling is to serve this country,” Alex said. “I feel like there’s nothing more in your life you can do than serve your country and help other people. That’s the biggest thing in life for me, to serve my country.”

Every now and then, Jennifer approaches her son with a request.

“Promise me nothing is going to happen,” she’ll say.

“I can’t promise you anything,” he’ll respond.

Jennifer can’t tell the story without dropping her head.

“Do you know what that does to me?” she said. “Like, ‘Just say it! Just promise!’ That’s hard. Now I have to share my son. He’s not just mine anymore. I have to give him to the United States, and that’s hard.”

Maybe this makes it better: Her son is among the best Kansas City has to give.

Totta graduated from Blue Valley High and earned an A in every class he ever took. He earned nine letters in three sports. His teammates voted him captain four times, and his classmates voted him homecoming king.

He earned All-Metro honors as a linebacker, placed at state wrestling twice and made perhaps the game’s most important play when Blue Valley won the state baseball championship last spring.

For that and more he is The Star’s 2019 Boys Scholar-Athlete award winner.

Totta has been on this path as long as anyone can remember. In the beginning, Jennifer thought her third child might finally be the wild one. Instead, he turned outgoing, but in the good way.

He’ll clean dishes when he’s at someone else’s house, and be the one to push in or fold up chairs after an event. On baseball trips, he’d sit shotgun, the ride filled with conversation with his coach about books, movies, the military, whatever. Every time the van went into park he’d thank his coach for driving.

“I have to tell you I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never had kids thank me for driving them to a game,” Blue Valley baseball coach Tony Scardino said.

That play he made in last spring’s championship game? Totta was playing third base. He was actually more of an outfielder, or truthfully a courtesy runner. Scardino called him the best baserunner he’s seen in high school: fast, smart, aggressive, great anticipation, the whole bit.

But then the starting third baseman came down with appendicitis the Monday before the state tournament. So Totta filled in. Blue Valley made it to the final and led rival BV Northwest 1-0 in the sixth.

A runner reached third, Blue Valley pulled the infield in, and a sharp grounder game to Totta’s left. He fielded it cleanly, read the runner’s break toward home and threw him out. They started celebrating in the stands.

“The game was virtually over at that point,” Scardino said.

Afterward, in an interview with a reporter, Totta said, “If Luke were in the lineup he’d have done the same thing.” Totta is the only player Scardino has broken down talking about at the postseason banquet.

A million stories like this exist about Totta. Once, long after a tough loss in football a coach walked into the locker room and found Totta alone cleaning up.

“Everybody left fast,” he said. “Just thought I’d help.”

Parents are constantly disappointed when they ask Ben and Jennifer for the secret.

“Really, we don’t know,” Jennifer said. “We don’t know. He’s always done that stuff on his own.”

Totta has an ornery side. An umpire ejected him from a game this spring for muttering something about a called third strike, and there’s this thing he does in wrestling.

It’s called the gator roll, and Totta’s coach, well, Totta’s coach hates it. The move requires you to roll onto your back. The point of wrestling is to stay off your back. But every few matches, when the situation felt right, Totta would catch coach Kale Mann’s eye and wink.

Then came the gator roll.

“He never got in trouble with it,” Mann said. “So I couldn’t really get mad at him.”

Here’s a pretty good illustration of where Totta is in his life right now: The closest he’ll come to expressing even a crumb of reservation about joining the Navy is that he laughs a lot and that’s not always welcomed in the Navy.

Seriously. That’s it. That’s the only thing. He thinks he laughs too much.

By all appearances, he is as prepared for this next part of his life as much as an 18 year old could be. He is smart, committed, athletic, fit and focused. No experience in high school can match actually being in the Navy, and certainly not the process of becoming a SEAL, but what more could Totta have done to prepare?

What more could he have done to know that walking onto that flight with a lightly packed backpack is the best decision he can make for himself and his country?

The answer is nothing, a fact that Jennifer now understands as well as her son. That is why she’ll cry dropping him off in 16 days, but on the way back she’ll know we’re all a little better off.

“I know how bad he wants this,” she said. “I’m proud. I’m scared. I’m happy. I’m excited. I’m nervous. It’s all the feels. But I have to let that go. I have to. Because I know this is his dream.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.