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Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 6 Chris McAlister

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Position, years at UA: Cornerback, 1996-98

Honors, accomplishments at UA: A unanimous All-American in 1998. … Was a third-team All-American by the Sporting News in 1997. … Won the 1998 Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special-teams player. … Was a first-team All-Pac-10 player in each of his three seasons at UA.

Why he made our list: The phrase “He shut down half the field” was never more appropriate than when uttered about Chris McAlister. He intercepted 18 passes in his three UA seasons (third-best in school history), transforming the defense’s nickname “Desert Swarm” to “Desert Swipe.”

McAlister initially signed with UCLA, but the Bruins challenged his jump in SAT score. He never enrolled there, and spent a season in junior college before joining UA coach Dick Tomey, who was a longtime friend of the McAlister family. Tomey was an assistant on the UCLA coaching staff in the early 1970s when Chris’ father James was such a renowned running back/long jumper that he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 1971.

That Chris, too, was an elite athlete was obvious the day he showed up at Camp Cochise. And then he intercepted a UTEP pass on his first defensive play for the Wildcats.

McAlister just kept on making plays, including a 100-yard kick return at Hawaii on the first play of the 1998 season to start UA’s run to a 12-1 record.

Defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who has coached three Jim Thorpe Award winners (UA’s Darryll Lewis and two at Texas) and 28 defensive backs who played in the NFL, said it was “criminal” that McAlister didn’t win the Thorpe Award in 1998. Ohio State’s Antoine Winfield took home the trophy.

McAlister, though, remains the standard.

“Out of the all the defensive backs, Chris Mac is still the measuring sticks for all the pro scouts that come out,” Akina said in 2011. “They say, ‘How does he compare to Chris?’”

McAlister did win the 1998 Tatupu Award for special-teams play. In addition to his 100-yard kick return, he blocked two punts, deflected another and had a 69-yard punt return for a score. He became the seventh player in NCAA history to score on a kick return, punt return and interception return in the same season.

Life after college: McAlister was the 10th overall pick of the 1999 NFL draft, going to the Baltimore Ravens. He played for the franchise for 10 seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors three times and picking up a Super Bowl ring after the 2000 season as the Ravens beat the New York Giants. McAlister was first-team All-NFL in 2003 and 2004, as selected by multiple outlets.

McAlister, who intercepted 26 passes in his NFL career, was slowed by injuries in his final two seasons in Baltimore, released in February 2009. He signed with the New Orleans Saints during the season, but played in only two games before being released. McAlister still had an impact on the team’s Super Bowl-winning season, forcing a fumble in overtime that led to a 33-30 victory over Washington to push the Saints to 12-0.

McAlister, 36, said this month he will be working toward finishing his Arizona degree, with an eye toward getting into college coaching.

In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.

Arizona’s top 50

No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley

No. 49 — Hubie Oliver

No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski

No. 47 — Jim Donarski

No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter

No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin

No. 44 — John Fina

No. 43 — Glenn Parker

No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson

No. 41 — Marcus Bell

No. 40 — Fred W. Enke

No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey

No. 38 — Juron Criner

No. 37 — Dana Wells

No. 36 — Tom Tunnicliffe

No. 35 — Bruce Hill

No. 34 — Chuck Osborne

No. 33 — Brandon Sanders

No. 32 — Sean Harris

No. 31 — Mike Thomas

No. 30 — Bobby Wade

No. 29 — T Bell

No. 28 — Joe Salave’a

No. 27 — Eddie Wilson

No. 26 — Chuck Levy

No. 25 — Allan Durden

No. 24 — Nick Foles

No. 23 — Tony Bouie

No. 22 — ‘King Kong’ Nolan

No. 21 — Bill Lueck

No. 20 — Walter “Hoss” Nielsen

No. 19 — Trung Canidate

No. 18 — Mark Arneson

No. 17 — Chris Singleton

No. 16 — Mike Dawson

No. 15 — Max Zendejas

No. 14 — Dennis Northcutt

No. 13 — Jackie Wallace

No. 12 — Antoine Cason

No. 11 — Vance Johnson

No. 10 — Lance Briggs

No. 9 — Byron Evans

No. 8 — Darryll Lewis

No. 7 — Joe Tofflemire

Chris McAlister blocks a punt in the 1998 game against Arizona State, starting at about the 2:50 mark, and he intercepts a poorly thrown pass from Ryan Kealy, beginning at about the 8:40 mark:

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