Alex Kroll was born in 1937 in the small western Pennsylvania steel mill town of Leechburg. His father worked as a laborer in one of the mills. Kroll remembers the support system he had growing up with a large extended family that included “an aunt and uncle on almost every block.” He adds, “I was never sure if we were rich or poor. We didn’t have a car or a lot of other amenities, but it didn’t seem relevant because I had these wonderful supporters.”
Driven to succeed in athletics, Kroll put himself on a rigorous physical training program. He was captain of the football team his senior year. His talent on the field won him several football scholarships, but he turned them down. Ranked second in his class academically, Kroll chose to attend Yale on an academic scholarship. He played on Yale’s varsity football team, but a fight with a young associate professor got Kroll expelled during his sophomore year.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Kroll served two years in the military police and finished his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University. While there, he captained the football team and played center on the school’s first undefeated football team, making all seven All-American teams in 1961 and becoming a Henry Rutgers Scholar along the way.
Kroll played professionally for the New York Titans (later the Jets). In the off-season, he worked as an advertising trainee with Young & Rubicam (Y&R). By the time he was 33, he was creative director of Y&R Worldwide. Four years later, he became president of Y&R USA, and in 1985, the company named him chairman and CEO. By the time he retired in 1994, Y&R had 360 offices worldwide.
Since then, Kroll has developed a pilot program called Play It Smart, which uses sports as a way to improve academic performance, college or career readiness, and community spirit by placing a trained academic coach on each team to help players develop both personal and team goals.
Kroll’s work with youth leads him to give this advice: “Tithe your talent. Put 10 percent of time and your best skills to work for other people to help them achieve their true and best potential.” Kroll says that he believes some people will always suffer from poverty, prejudice, disability, poor parenting, or poor schooling. “But with good role models or boosters, tutors or mentors, doctors or nurses to intervene, most of them can rise above those constrictions and add their creativity and productivity to our society,” he says.
He adds that his Horatio Alger membership has been a moving experience for him. “It is the only honor I have received that touches the very center of my life and beliefs. No matter where you start, if you have pluck and persistence, you will achieve and even surpass your grandest childhood goals.”