Shaun Alexander: Everybody’s All-American
September 13, 2011
By Scott M. Johnson
Shaun Alexander’s mind was blank. Face down, with only his facemask protecting him from the turf, he couldn’t think of anything at all. All the excitement and pressure that weighed on an entire city had gone away, and now there was nothing. Only Alexander, the turf and the voices of a few trainers.
In the biggest game of his professional career, Alexander found himself unable to continue. After promising the Seattle Seahawks that he would take them to the promised land, Alexander was on the brink of doing just that but found himself facedown, knocked out, finished for the day.
It marked the first time in Alexander’s career that he felt hopeless. With his engaging giggle and his wide, gap-toothed smile, Alexander always gave off a shrug no matter how hard the times would get. Just about every time Alexander needed to back up his words, he proved to be up for the task. He played his best in nationally televised games, he showed a remarkable nose for the end zone, and he helped carry the Seahawks from pretenders to contenders in his first few years in the league.
But when it finally came time for Alexander to deliver on that promise by giving the Seahawks a chance to go to their first Super Bowl, in the first round of the 2005 NFL playoffs, a concussion ended his day early and forced Alexander to rely on others. This time, someone else would have to carry the load.
In the beginning, Shaun Alexander only really asked one thing from the game of football. It came to him the first time he played an organized game as a 10-year-old boy.
Alexander was a defensive player back then, living in the shadows of an all-everything older brother named Durran. Young Shaun Alexander played a solid game on defense, but all anybody wanted to talk about were the two kickoffs he returned for touchdowns. He quickly realized that getting into the end zone was the most glamorous part of the game.
Scoring touchdowns was all Alexander wanted to do.
And so he switched positions, becoming a running back who would eventually set records at every level.
While Durran Alexander went on to concentrate on academics and the marching band, younger brother Shaun became a scoring machine on the gridiron. He scored 42 touchdowns as a junior at Boone County High School in Florence, Ky., earning a place in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.” As a senior, he set the state record by adding 54 more touchdowns to his resume. His 110 career touchdowns ranked fifth on the all-time list of high school running backs. Along the way, he also rushed for 6,657 yards, including 3,166 as a senior.
After earning Mr. Football honors in Kentucky, Alexander was receiving attention from schools all over the country – despite an unimpressive physique and the kind of loping gait that seemed to lack burning speed.
Alexander really liked the University of Michigan, but decided he couldn’t go there when he attended a game in which the Wolverines couldn’t contain a Penn State receiver named Bobby Engram. Alexander eventually settled on the University of Alabama, having been won over by Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings.
He went to Tuscaloosa and redshirted his first year before being listed as No. 3 on the depth chart as a second-year freshman. In what would be a trademark for his playing career, Alexander made the most of his opportunity when he finally got on the field. One of his first games at Alabama saw Alexander come off the bench and run for a school-record 291 yards and four touchdowns against LSU.
By the time his days at Alabama were finished, he was the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher, with 3,565 yards. The scoring machine also set a school record for rushing touchdowns, with 41.
While he was the Southeastern Conference player of the year and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, Alexander found himself waiting longer than expected on draft day of 2000. Virginia’s Thomas Jones was selected seventh by the Arizona Cardinals, Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne went 11th to the New York Giants, and then the interest in running backs all but dried up. Eight more picks passed before the Seattle Seahawks selected Alexander at No. 19 overall. Not only had Alexander been passed up by 18 other teams, but he also went to a city that already had an established running back. Veteran Ricky Watters was coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season, and it was pretty apparent that Alexander would have to wait in the wings before getting his shot.
But his out-of-this-world goals never wavered. He and brother Durran got together shortly after he was drafted and looked at some of the Seahawks’ franchise records, telling each other they would all one day be rewritten.
“From Day 1, when I came in here, I said: OK, I need to see all the Seahawks record books,'” Alexander later remembered. “I said, ‘We are going to gobble those up.’
“So then I said, ‘Show me all the NFL record books.’ From Day 1, I was comparing myself to Emmitt (Smith), Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett and Marcus Allen, guys like that.”
That would all have to wait during a rookie season that saw Alexander rush for just 313 yards in spot duty as a backup to Watters.
Alexander got his big break when Watters suffered a shoulder injury in a Week 3 loss to the Oakland Raiders in 2001. As the media waited for him following a practice that week, the charismatic Alexander broke out in a grin, lifted his arms into the air, and addressed the throng of reporters with the playful words: “Finally, my people have come!”
In typical Alexander fashion, he then took over as starter and became an instant star. He rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns in his debut as Watters’ replacement, helping to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. He added another 100-yard performance the following week and continued to shine as the Seahawks’ feature back in just his second NFL season.
On Nov. 11, 2001, while playing in a nationally televised night game at Husky Stadium, Alexander put on what was his most impressive performance to date. He lit up the Raiders for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a record-setting performance that immediately established him as one of the NFL’s best young running backs. Even after Watters returned from the injury and temporarily got his starting job back, Alexander continued to outshine him and was eventually named the permanent starter.
While Watters was displeased with the prospect of losing his role, he and Alexander remained close through their time together. In fact, Alexander would continue to give Watters credit for helping him become a star in the NFL.
“I wasn’t too excited about (being a backup),” Alexander recalled in 2006, “but once I got in there and met Ricky, I couldn’t have had a bigger mentor for my career.”
Watters retired following the 2001 season, while Alexander continued to make a name for himself. In another nationally televised Sunday night game in 2002, he scored an NFL-record four rushing touchdowns in the first half of a win over the Minnesota Vikings, then added a fifth TD in the second half. He recorded his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and was establishing himself as one of the best runners the franchise had ever seen.
But the Seahawks continued to struggle on the field, missing out on the playoffs for a third consecutive year. While Alexander’s teams at Boone County and Alabama always had success, his Seahawks were falling short of expectations. The personable running back’s confidence and Alfred E. Neuman, what-me-worry attitude helped inspire teammates, but it sometimes rubbed the fans the wrong way. Alexander’s running style also took time to win over the Seahawks’ faithful. While the fans had admired Watters for his hard-nosed approach, some groused over the way that Alexander sometimes went down too easily in an effort to avoid injury.
Eventually, those fans would appreciate Alexander’s longevity. His running style helped Alexander avoid injuries, and he started putting up numbers the franchise had never seen. After going to the Pro Bowl and helping take the Seahawks to the playoffs with another 1,000-yard season in 2003, he ran for a franchise-record 1,696 yards in 2004 while scoring 20 touchdowns along the way. He went to Hawaii for the second consecutive year, and the Seahawks were back in the playoffs.
Once again, Alexander’s personality overshadowed his numbers because of what happened in the regular-season finale. Needing only one yard to tie Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title, Alexander watched as teammate Matt Hasselbeck scored on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line late in the game. Alexander slumped off the field, then watched from the sidelines as the Falcons held on to the ball until the end of regulation. Alexander would fall short of the rushing title, and after the game he told a pair of reporters that he felt like he’d been “stabbed in the back.” A firestorm of controversy ensued, leading Alexander to make an apology in front of reporters the following day.
But all of that was forgotten after what Alexander did in 2005. During what would become the greatest season in franchise history, Alexander put on an all-time performance that cemented his place as one of the best ever to put on a Seattle uniform. He not only beat his own Seahawks record by rushing for 1,880 yards, but Alexander also broke an NFL record by scoring 28 touchdowns. Behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, Alexander led Seattle to a 13-3 record, the best in franchise history. For his efforts, he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
“The way I always looked at MVPs was it was a player that did really, really good on a really, really good team,” he said after receiving the award. “That is why I am even more excited about this year, because I have put together some great numbers, but we have a great team.”
But Alexander’s work was far from done. As he had been saying since the time he arrived in Seattle, he would not be satisfied until the Seahawks went to a Super Bowl. So after the MVP award and a season that included an 11-game winning streak, Alexander admitted all would be for naught if not for an NFC title.
The Seahawks drew the Washington Redskins in a playoff opener at Seattle’s Qwest Field. Washington was on a six-game winning streak, led by a talented defense that could conceivably give Seattle’s No. 1-ranked offense troubles. Alexander got off to a forgettable start, fumbling on his first carry. A few minutes later, after taking a knee to the side of his helmet as he was being tackled, Alexander was momentarily knocked unconscious. The NFL’s MVP was unable to continue, his night brought to an abrupt halt before the first quarter was over. While the Seahawks went on without him, winning their first playoff game in 21 years, the post-game celebration was tempered by concern for the star running back.
The concussion lingered into the beginning of the next week, but the Seahawks were optimistic about the playing status of their league MVP. With the mighty Carolina Panthers coming to Seattle for the NFC Championship game, all eyes were on the health of Alexander. Several national television stations and newspapers sent reporters to Kirkland just to chart Alexander’s progress throughout the week, and while coach Mike Holmgren continued to spread optimism, there was plenty of public concern when Alexander was held out of practices.
Needing just one win to deliver on Alexander’s promise by going to their first Super Bowl, the Seahawks were staring down the possibility of having to take the field without their star player.
Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers
Jan. 22, 2006
As told by Shaun Alexander
I had gotten knocked out for the first time in my life the game before, and I only had three days to recover before the first practice. I didn’t practice, and the coaches told me: ‘We’re going to plan on you playing, but we won’t know until Sunday.’ I felt like if I had a good game, we were going to be playing in the biggest game of the year, so I really wanted to be out there. There were a lot of things that made that game against the Panthers special. It was so big, yet there was so much of an unknown about whether I was going to play.
I could tell every day that the headache would go away a little bit. I was kind of queasy, and then I’d be like: ‘Man, I must be 80 percent now.’ I knew I wasn’t at 100 percent, but I thought I might be at about 80. The next day, I’d be like, ‘My goodness, I must be 80 percent now, and that means I was only 60 percent the previous day.’ Then I woke up Thursday and said, ‘Wait, now I must be 80 percent.’ That’s just kind of how it was. Every day I felt a little bit better. It was just weird. For me, it was a personal gut check for my own self.
So by Sunday I was ready to go. It was such a big game, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way we were taking things in stride before kickoff. That’s what we were good at that year: taking every game as it was. All year, we were like: ‘OK, what do we need to do in the first quarter?’ Then: ‘Now what do we need to do in the second quarter?’ And on like that. ‘What can we do in the second half?’ That’s how we were that year. We were just playing. I wasn’t even thinking of the possibility of playing for the Super Bowl; I really wasn’t.
It was kind of different because I didn’t really get to practice that much; they wouldn’t even let me put my helmet on. So that made it a little bit different. But at the same time, I was still carrying that swagger. I was still like: ‘Hey, I’m going to help get there. I’m going to control the clock.’ The offensive line likes to hear that. That’s just kind of how it was. We were a really confident group. Everybody did their job that season.
As the Carolina game went on, I got more and more confident. I think it was like the second or third play of game, and they ran a safety blitz. The guy ran smack up and right into me. It was definitely a helmet-to-helmet hit, and I looked around like, ‘Oh, OK. Here we go.’ And then after that, I started to carry the ball a little bit, and I juked somebody out and made a nice run. Then I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do it.’ Those two things happened in that first quarter, and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the game.
I can’t even remember how the scoring went, what the score was or any of that. I don’t even remember their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, completing a pass. I just knew that when our defense knocked out the Panthers’ running back, backup Nick Goings, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they got him. Lofa Tatupu came running right up under Nick Goings, in the first quarter, and when he did that, I thought: this thing’s over. I had total confidence right then that we were going to do whatever we wanted to do.
At halftime, we were up 20-7, but it was still close enough for me that anything could happen. It was like: it’s still football. Then Darrell Jackson scored on a touchdown pass in the third quarter, and we started to pull away. I added another touchdown, my second of the game, midway through the fourth quarter. I remember falling into the end zone, rolling over and thinking: Wow, we’re going to the Super Bowl! Wow, this is in our reach now.
We ended up beating them pretty handily, 34-14, and I had 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Afterward, offensive coordinator Gil Haskell came out of the press box and was hugging coach Mike Holmgren, and it was like: Wow, we are really going to the Super Bowl. We did it. It’s what I thought it would be like, and that’s what it was like. There was definitely a huge celebration.
I ran around the stadium with the NFC Championship trophy before settling in and watching the post-game scene. Of course, I was really excited. It really hit me that I was going to the Super Bowl. But for me, I kind of figured it was going to happen. I was really thinking about some of the other guys. Like, now Coach Mike gets to take some of that pressure off of his shoulders. He had come all the way up to Seattle from Green Bay, and people were saying, ‘What? You’re going to try to take them to the Super Bowl?’ I could feel all that pressure he had. And after we won, it was gone.
And I felt for Mack Strong, our great fullback, who pretty much lived and died for Seattle. When he came here, we were the laughing stock of the league. And then for him to go through all that and see us turn it around and go to the Super Bowl, I was like – man, that is so exciting for Mack.
I was looking around at everyone’s story. I was thinking of Matt Hasselbeck being the errand boy for Brett Favre in Green Bay, not being drafted, and then to have Coach Holmgren believe in him. For him to take us there, it wasn’t easy. I was excited for Matt, for Mike, for Mack Strong. I was excited for Bobby Engram. Here was the guy who I’d watched beat Michigan while I was on a recruiting visit. He’d worked his butt off to make it in the NFL, then came out here to Seattle and he became the glue for the team. He was really the guy everyone looked up to. I was happy for him. It was just great.
Even Lofa Tatupu, this undersized rookie linebacker who got drafted in the second round and everybody said: ‘Ooh, did they make a mistake?’ And then he comes in the first year and kicks the door down.
So I was just happy all the way around. But for me, I always knew we’d get there. I’d been telling people we were going to get to the Super Bowl from the time I got to Seattle. And when we beat the Panthers and made it, it felt so good. It felt so, so good. I don’t think you can ever get to the top of the mountain until you think you’re already there. But at the same time, it still feels so good when you accomplish something like that. Then it was just like: OK, now we have to go take the next step. It’s just like any mountain you climb: you take that step, and then your first thought is that you have to take the next step.
But getting there was definitely a great accomplishment.
That storybook season wouldn’t have a happy ending, as Alexander and the Seahawks lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL. But it still went down as the greatest season in franchise history, and Alexander was a huge part of that success.
His follow-up season didn’t go quite as well, with a foot injury sidelining him for six games and halting his streak of 1,000-yard seasons at five years. While the Seahawks still found a way to win the NFC West title for a third consecutive season, Seattle fell one game short of the NFC Championship game after Alexander was stopped on a key fourth-down play late in regulation and then watched Chicago’s Robbie Gould hit the game-winning field goal in overtime.
The 2006 season also saw Alexander’s impressive touchdown record go down. San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson eclipsed Alexander’s 28-touchdown performance by scoring a remarkable 31 TDs in a single season.
The Super Bowl was a disappointment, the record was gone, and Alexander’s career had started a downhill slide that often seems to happen to running backs after their 30th birthday. He struggled with injuries, and by 2007, when he was 30 years old, he was splitting time with backup Maurice Morris.
But no matter what happened to Alexander’s career after that memorable 2005 season, he would always have the memories.
And, despite a temporary setback in the Washington playoff game, Alexander would be able to deliver on his promise of taking the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl.