The former NFL player and the homeless man were both lost when they found each other.
The football player, an ex-linebacker for the Detroit Lions named Zack Follett, had seen himself slipping into a lifestyle he didn’t like and was on a self-imposed fast and ascetic retreat in an attempt to find a new path. The homeless man, Tommy Alejandrez, was addicted to methamphetamine and full of despair. He had no shelter, no food, and not even a pair of shoes since they’d been stolen while he slept.
Their meeting on a busy street corner in Fresno would change their lives.
Alejandrez would get sober, go to community college, and win a $20,000 Karl Pister Leadership Opportunity Award at UC Santa Cruz, where he is now majoring in sociology and Latin American and Latino studies. Follett would start a coffee ministry at a homeless encampment and discover he could fight his own depression by service to others. Their story would eventually be told on national TV.
Said Follett: “Tommy blessed me as much as I blessed him.”
“I was just so happy that someone saw me,” Alejandrez said.
A sign and the spirit
Their story began seven years ago as Follett drove to the coffee shop he owned in Fresno called Kuppa Joy. A devout Christian, he said he’d found himself living a too-comfortable life and falling into sin. He was sleeping on a bare mattress in an empty house he owned, fasting and reading the Bible and a book that espoused a simple life rather than the material one the American dream promised, he said.
The day he passed Alejandrez, the homeless man was holding a cardboard sign. It read: “Everybody dreams of coming here and becoming a U.S. citizen and having the white picket fence. Even Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream. Please, Lord, wake me up from this homeless nightmare.”
The sign’s message struck Follett and that night, as he read in the empty house, he said he felt the spirit of God telling him, “I want you to go there tomorrow and bring that man coffee and scones and tell him that I love him.”
The next morning, Alejandrez watched as the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Follett approached. Follet held two cups of coffee and a bag of pastries. The two settled on a nearby patch of grass and began to talk.
Alejandrez told Follett he’d had a good job as a tax preparer, but the recreational use of methamphetamine had turned into an addiction. He’d lost his apartment and was sleeping behind Dumpsters, eating out of garbage cans, using water fountains to bathe, and shoplifting or panhandling to support his habit. He’d been beaten, robbed, and jailed for petty theft and for possession of a shopping cart, which was illegal in Fresno.
He’d contemplated suicide.
So had Follett, who’d been forced out of a career he loved by injury and who said he suffered from depression.
“We all have stories,” Alejandrez said, “and all our stories are important.”
Follett drove Alejandrez to a Nordstrom Rack store and bought him clothes and shoes. Then, he took him to an organic grocery store and paid for four bags of groceries before driving him back to the corner.
“I said, ‘All right, man, it was great hanging out with you,' and I said a prayer that God would keep him and help him on his journey,” Follett said. “I told him he could find me at Kuppa Joy and I left.”
Alejandrez couldn’t forget the respect Follett had shown him.
Six months later, a desperate Alejandrez was huddled under a pile of blankets across from a McDonald's. He was trying to stay warm against a brutally cold tule fog when he had a chance meeting with his cousin, who alerted Alejandrez’s father. His dad came to Fresno to retrieve Alejandrez and enrolled him in a three-month rehabilitation program in Watsonville, where Alejandrez also found out he was HIV-positive.
“That was a pivotal moment for me. I decided I need to take care of Tommy and love Tommy,” Alejandrez said.
A new start
He enrolled at Cabrillo College, emailing Follett to tell him he was sober and pursuing a degree. Follett sent him a laptop to help him with his studies. While at Cabrillo, where he earned a 4.0 GPA, Alejandrez discovered a program called Underground Scholars. It helps the formerly incarcerated or those affected by the carceral system find success in higher education.
The program inspired him to apply to several UC campuses, and he was accepted by UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz. He chose Santa Cruz, which not only offered him the prestigious Pister Scholarship but also housing where he could take care of his father, who was ill.
Follett, meanwhile, also couldn’t forget those few hours with Alejandrez. Not only had Alejandrez’s story touched him, but also he’d seen how people looked away rather than meet a homeless person’s eyes, turning Alejandrez invisible.
He began taking 10 gallons of coffee and hot chocolate to a homeless encampment in Fresno each Wednesday with the idea that, like Alejandrez, those without houses deserved to be seen and listened to. He also discovered that serving others combatted his depression, he said.
“It’s such an incredible story of God, obedience, and perseverance,” said Follett, who played football for UC Berkeley before he turned pro.
Alejandrez plans to get his degree in 2023 and find a job that “gives me the ability to make an impact on others as well as myself. A job that has room for me to advance and grow in longevity and stability.”
He said: “I’m so grateful for the opportunities, and I want people to see … that if you take those opportunities and are willing to do the work, there might be a path to get over the barriers in your life. It’s up to you to break down the obstacles little by little” so you can succeed.
Watch a Fox Sports video about Alejandrez and Follett's story.