The buzz starts when Shaun Alexander saunters into a bowling alley in Bellevue, Wash., not far from the Seattle Seahawks' training facility. Spectators flock to the 28-year-old tailback, in black jeans and a matching jacket, as he moves from lane to lane, greeting teammates and sponsors at cornerback Marcus Trufant's charity tournament. The crowd around Alexander swells every time he stops--people shoving one another, blocking the paths of waitresses, angling to get near him, to snap a photo. He heads for the middle of the floor, where there's room to sign footballs, posters and T-shirts, and the frenzy increases. A booming voice over the P.A. implores fans to form a single line, but the throng of roughly 100 ignores it. Alexander gladly interacts with the autograph seekers for a half hour, then departs so teammates can bowl in peace. ¬∂ "You would have thought it was Michael Jordan," says quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. "It was almost dangerous." ¬∂ The center of attention is new territory for Alexander. Despite being one of the NFL's most productive runners over the last four seasons, the 5'11", 225-pound veteran had toiled in virtual anonymity in the Pacific Northwest, far from the national media spotlight. "People on the East Coast think we're in Siberia," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren says. Even after his breakout year in 2001, when he rushed for a franchise-best 266 yards (fourth-highest total in NFL history) and three touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders and finished with 1,318 yards and a league-high 14 rushing TDs he had a hard time getting noticed--in Seattle. Following that season Fox Sports Northwest signed the ebullient, personable Alexander to host a half-hour talk and variety show, Shaun Alexander Live, and one of the recurring themes was his obscurity. In one skit producers placed hidden cameras in a Seattle-area International House of Pancakes that was offering a Shaun Alexander Grand Slam Breakfast. Though seated at tables adorned with placards picturing Alexander in his Seahawks uniform, patrons rarely did a double take when the real Alexander, in the guise of a waiter, took their orders and served their food. When Alexander finally revealed his identity, flabbergasted fans often declared that he was their favorite NFL player. "That was part of the joke," recalls Alexander. "Dang, how can your favorite player not even be recognized?"
"If it weren't for fantasy football," says Hasselbeck, "I don't know if anybody would know who Shaun was."
Indeed, after averaging 1,406 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns a year from 2001 through '04, Alexander is having an MVP season for owners of some fantasy teams as well as for the Seahawks. Running for 108 yards and a touchdown in a 41-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Alexander increased his league-leading totals to 1,496 rushing yards and 23 TDs. With three games left he has a good chance to break the NFL season record for touchdowns (27, by Kansas City Chiefs back Priest Holmes in 2003); a crack at the season record for points (176, by Green Bay Packers halfback-kicker Paul Hornung in 1960); and an outside shot at becoming the fifth player to rush for 2,000 yards. What's more, Seattle is commanding attention as the team with the best record in the NFC (11-2) and its most wins since a franchise-record 12 in 1984. "Because of the [increased] national exposure, people in Seattle are now starting to say, 'What do we have?'" says Alexander. "That's how it looks to me, because I've really been doing the same thing every year."
"Sean is motivated by [the NFL greats], and he wants to reach their status," running backs coach Stump Mitchell says. "A lot of [being acknowledged as a great player] is due to media appreciation. He can't [control] that, but he can put up stats that make people say, 'Look, we can't deny this guy's numbers.'"
Alexander doesn't have the flash and polish of San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, nor does he have blazing speed. (In one 2000 predraft workout Alexander ran a 4.65 in the 40.) The qualities that make him exceptional are his uncanny field vision and his razor-sharp cuts. Walter Jones, Seattle's perennial Pro Bowl left tackle, admires Alexander's talent for slipping through a narrow opening. On long breakaways Alexander might peek at the jumbo stadium screen to see who's closing in on him from behind before he determines the gear or angle needed to get to the end zone. His touchdown numbers are prodigious--Alexander is the only NFL player to score 15 or more in five straight seasons, and he already has more career TDs (85) than Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and O.J. Simpson. "He doesn't do any one thing great, but when the game is over, you go, 'Wow, he had 100-something yards,'" says Eric Dickerson, another Hall of Fame running back, who has become a big Alexander fan in recent years. "And he finds the end zone--that's the greatest attribute to have."
Alexander has had his sights set on the end zone since his Pee Wee league days in Boone County, Ky., when his father, Curtis, doled out ice cream, candy or extra allowance as a reward for scoring touchdowns. In one game Shaun, who started out playing defense, scored twice on kick returns and relished the cheers, and treats, that came with them. When his brother, Durran, told him that tailbacks scored the most touchdowns, Shaun switched positions.
As a senior at Boone County High, he rushed for 3,166 yards and 54 TDs and was a USA Today All-America. He started mimicking Marcus Allen's slippery way of avoiding hard hits, Barry Sanders' ability to stop and go, and Emmitt Smith's peekaboo style of hiding behind blockers. "I can't do those things as well as they did," says Alexander, "but when you add all those pieces to your repertoire, you become pretty good."
In four seasons at Alabama he set 15 school records, finishing as the Crimson Tide's alltime leading rusher (3,565 yards) and scorer (50 touchdowns). He was All-SEC but not All-America. In the 2000 NFL draft three other running backs (Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones and Ron Dayne) were taken before the Seahawks picked him at No. 19. After seeing spot duty as a rookie, Alexander started his current run of 1,000-yard seasons the following year.
Strangely, Alexander made headlines last January for the wrong reason--a locker-room outburst that overshadowed the celebration of Seattle's third division title in 30 years. Following a win over the Atlanta Falcons in the regular-season finale, Alexander publicly lambasted Holmgren, saying he had been "stabbed in the back" when the coach did not call Alexander's number with the game and the NFL rushing title on the line. At the Atlanta one-yard line with 4:28 to play, it was Hasselbeck who scored on a one-yard sneak for a 28-20 lead. The Seahawks never got the ball back, and Alexander finished the season with 1,696 rushing yards--one less than the total of the New York Jets' Curtis Martin, who won the crown. The next day Alexander retracted his comments and struck a conciliatory tone. Teammates say there's no lingering animosity, that the camaraderie on the team is better than it has been in years.
Holmgren doesn't hold a grudge and has commended the tailback this season for improving his pass protection and for hitting his holes quicker in short-yardage situations. In fact, Alexander leads the NFL in third-and-one conversions this year, making 13 of 13. And though it's not as sexy as his other statistics, he also hasn't lost a fumble this season. "I've seen the natural evolution of a football player," says Holmgren, who has altered his West Coast schemes to include more I formations for Alexander. "He's always been a great runner, but over the years I've pushed him a little bit. That's my job. He knows who he is now, and he trusts me more."
How long this winning combination lasts is another matter. After Alexander and the Seahawks failed to agree on a long-term deal in the off-season, the running back signed a one-year, $6.3 million contract. While Alexander was designated the team's franchise player for 2005, his contract contains the unconventional stipulation that Seattle cannot place that tag on him next year. That means that if the two sides don't come to terms on a contract extension--they're stalemated at the moment--Alexander will become an unrestricted free agent in March. The uncertainty surrounding Alexander's future has become a subplot in Seattle's promising season, though he seems unfazed. "It doesn't distract me, it doesn't motivate me," he says. "This is my team for at least this year, and hopefully we win the Super Bowl."
Holmgren says the contract concession was a "calculated risk" by the team, and he is optimistic that the deal will get done. At home games in Qwest Field, fans wave signs imploring the Seahawks to show him the money! But NFL clubs are reluctant to offer rich, long-term contracts to veteran running backs. Holmgren concedes that Alexander's age--he'll be 29 when the 2006 season starts--will be factored into the club's final offer.
Still, Alexander's habit of avoiding tough hits appears to have kept him fresher than most other tailbacks nearing 30. He has never missed an NFL game and has been tardy to only one: against the Rams on Sept. 21, 2003, when his wife, Valerie, gave birth to their first child, Heaven. (Their second daughter, Trinity, was born last July.) Alexander cut the umbilical cord and held his daughter before hurrying to Qwest Field in time for the second quarter. Greeted by a standing ovation, Alexander rushed for 58 yards to help the Seahawks win 24-23.
These days the only public place in Seattle where Alexander can enjoy a semblance of privacy is the Christian Faith Center. At a recent Wednesday service Alexander, clutching a leather-bound Bible in his right hand, settles into the third pew among an audience of more than 1,000. A sign on a wall reads your vision is your future.
After the service Alexander hugs a few churchgoers and chats with them. Except for the occasional "Good luck on Sunday," Alexander is treated like any other parishioner. The children in the congregation have been told that the football player is not to be hounded for autographs. A half hour after the service, with no adults in sight, two boys peer over the pew from behind Alexander as he speaks with a reporter. One boy jabs fists with Alexander in greeting. After a pause the boys--eyes wide--sheepishly request his autograph. Alexander obliges with a grin, one that's growing more familiar to NFL fans across the country.
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"I've seen the NATURAL EVOLUTION of a football player," says Holmgren. "He knows who he is now, and he trusts me more."
Photograph by Peter Read Miller
BIRDSONG AND DANCE A three-yard scoring run against the 49ers on Sunday boosted Alexander's league-leading TD total to 23, only four shy of the NFL single-season record.
PETER READ MILLER
SEEING HIS WAY CLEAR Not as flashy as other backs, Alexander relies on his vision and cutting ability to elude would-be tacklers.
OTTO GRUELE JR./GETTY IMAGES
CAPED CRUSADERAlexander is looking for a new deal--from Seattle or another team--after the season.