GREAT FALLS, Va. — All eyes are on Shaun Alexander as he kneels on his living room floor and draws a chalk figure of a man on a small blackboard.
Alexander then draws a watch on the man’s wrist, a squiggly line next to him and a staircase in front of him. When he is done, he turns to the young children watching and asks them to name words they can associate with the drawing.
“Timing!’’ one shouts.
“Yes, timing,’’ Alexander says. “That’s from the watch, right? So, what’s timing?”
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In unison, the children reply: “Doing things in the right moment.’’
Alexander nods in agreement. “A lot of times,’’ he tells them, “there are many things we’d like to do and want to do. But if people do it at the wrong time, they set themselves up to not get what they really want. Because, guess what? If we do it at the right time, it actually works.’’
For Alexander, the past five years have been all about the timing. Whether it was accepting he’d played his final down in the NFL at age 31, or deliberately avoiding the public eye since, Alexander says it was about him making the right choices at the right moment.
And so, when the first running back to help the Seahawks into a Super Bowl watches Marshawn Lynch and the current team play the Denver Broncos next Sunday, Alexander says he’ll cheer them on with no regret. That withdrawing from view and focusing solely on his home life became his No. 1 priority, even if some wondered how a onetime NFL MVP and former season touchdown record-holder could vanish so quickly.
Alexander’s daylong job hasn’t changed the past five years. He has turned his suburban mansion into a classroom as he and his wife home school their expanding family of seven children. That’s four more children than during Alexander’s playing days — the seven range from three months to 10 years in age — and the couple hopes to add to it.
In fact, Alexander says things are now secure enough at home that he and his wife, Valerie, a Seattle-area native and graduate of South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, are even contemplating business ventures and maybe his return to football in an off-field capacity.
“It’s been five years now and what I feel is, the house is stable,’’ Alexander says. “I think the family is healthy, our marriage is healthy and I think our finances are fine. I think usually, if you can have a healthy mindset of who you are and what you stand for … then it makes sense to move on to the next thing. If all those things aren’t healthy, you’re going to be miserable, anyway.’’
Alexander takes home stability seriously.
His divorced single mother raised him and his older brother, Durran, in Florence, Ky., housing projects. They had seven half-brothers and sisters via their father and three other women.
Alexander can rattle off statistics showing 78 percent of NFL players go broke within two years of retirement. He’d been cautious when settling his family in this rural Washington, D.C., suburb of 15,000, shortly after a forgettable four-game final season with the Redskins in 2008.
His mansion has six bedrooms on an acre of property, but is relatively modest compared to some athletes’ abodes. Alexander had contemplated a bigger home with significantly more acreage, especially after signing an eight-year, $62 million deal with the Seahawks in 2006.
But Alexander and his wife held off on too big a splurge, wanting to make sure they could handle the expense longterm. That proved prescient, because not all the money was guaranteed and Alexander’s career lasted fewer than three more seasons.
Only now do they feel comfortable enough to move, which they’ll attempt next spring as they seek additional space to accommodate their growing family.
If Alexander gets back into college or pro football, it won’t be in coaching. He has scheduled an exploratory meeting with an NFL team and envisions a front-office role where he can offer guidance to players — on money, family, football and spirituality — in a similar, expanded fashion to how he teaches his children.
“A natural fit for me would be to put my arms around some of the rookies and even some of the guys who are some of the elite players and make a little more money,’’ Alexander says. “I’d try to help them walk through all of it. Not only the league, but the fact that it’s almost over. I’d want to show them how you become healthy when you leave.’’
And that health, he adds, starts at home.
Alexander doesn’t dwell on his career, though he says “our team” to describe nervously following the Seahawks these playoffs. And they remain his team, despite his admitted disappointment with how they released him in April 2008 and the “offensive” things some fans said about his avoiding contact and running out of bounds as his production declined to just 716 rushing yards and a career-low 3.5 yards per carry in 2007.
He’d been dealing with a fractured wrist and sore knee at the time.
“I know during some of the rougher times people will say things,” he says. “They think we’re like a video game, where other people realize we’re human and we’re doing our best.
“When you leave that way, it’s kind of sad. I think some people — and I’m one of them — want to get to a Super Bowl, win a Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset like John Elway. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
He still feels the sting of the Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh eight years ago, but is grateful he endured eight-plus NFL seasons with only a fractured wrist, fractured foot and a lone concussion as serious injuries. He has also accepted that his Seattle ending was “just business” and won’t let it overshadow the good times he remembers with his teammates, the organization and the team’s fans.
“I always tell people,” he says. “I loved playing in my 20s.”
His children know little about his playing days, other than rare videotape viewings. That’s the way Alexander likes it, despite 9,453 career rushing yards, 112 touchdowns and a selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s all-decade team.
To them, he’s a father and teacher first. Watching Alexander draw chalk figures on the blackboard are daughters Heaven, 10, Trinity, 8, and Eden, 6, and sons, Joseph, 4, and Justus, 2. His youngest daughters, Temple, 1, and newborn Honor, are napping upstairs as Alexander asks his class to associate more words with the chalk drawing.
“Order!’’ his oldest daughter, Heaven, calls out, pointing to the stairs drawn on the board.
“And what is ‘order?’ ’’ Alexander asks her.
“Order is doing things in the right steps,’’ she replies.
Moments later, his 4-year-old, Joseph, offers up the word “boundaries” while pointing at the squiggly line next to the chalk-drawn man.
“It’s like a gate that no one can cross unless he asks,’’ he says.
The schooling is flexible, but fairly regimented, with a schedule posted at the kitchen entrance.
Wake-up is from 8 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., and bathing, breakfast, household chores and group Bible study sessions take up the morning. The first 45-minute, secular classroom lesson starts at noon and on this day sees Heaven doing math, Trinity in a separate room doing English and Spanish lessons, Eden in another working on reading and writing and Joseph doing “preschool prep” with a TV video introducing words with “gn” and “th” sounds.
“What are those?’’ Alexander asks his son, pointing to a rose bush on the video during the “th” lesson. “Remember the flowers that were outside that had little spikes on them? They were called thorns.’’
Alexander’s wife says they decided to home school after sensing his Seattle playing days were numbered. They feared having to keep pulling their children from school if he bounced around teams.
“We didn’t know at the time that he’d play only one season for the Redskins,’’ she says. “But it just seemed like the best thing to do because we didn’t really know what would happen next.’’
The children receive a 45-minute lunch break and half-hour of “free time.’’ Alexander uses the break to drive to a nearby organic foods store to fill a carload of five-gallon jugs with mineral water, which will last the family two weeks and tastes better than the well water their home draws from.
Several employees and one customer stop to say hello. Alexander is updated by the cashier about his budding music career and his plans to attend a conference in California.
The family sticks mainly to healthier, natural foods, which keeps Alexander, 36, looking much as he did during his playing days. Still, he succumbs to a craving for Popeye’s chicken in the same plaza as the food store.
Back home, Alexander helps the children through their second 45-minute lesson, followed by a third and a fourth. They rotate to new subjects, including piano sessions for Heaven and Trinity.
From there, it is random Bible assignments until 5 p.m., then dinner, evening chores and “family time” — on this night, a half-hour of the entire clan dancing together to random tunes.
Then it is “bedtime prep” where the pajama-clad children sit with Alexander on a bedroom floor. He asks each to recite their favorite part of that day and what they are thankful for.
“My favorite part was when we were dancing and playing,’’ 4-year-old Joseph declares. Even 2-year-old Justus chimes in excitedly about being thankful for a daylong storm that had dumped a half-foot of snow outside.
Alexander suggests part of the next day’s classes could involve venturing outdoors for a snowball fight. That goes over well with the group, who hug and bade each other individual good nights by name before heading off to bed.
The children appear to have happily bought in to this life together. So have Alexander and his wife, despite the commitment required.
Alexander displays a fatigued smile once the children are tucked away, but his night is just getting started. Within an hour, he will be visited by a group of 10 men, in their 20s and 30s, visiting from Ohio and invited over through an acquaintance Alexander once mentored about spiritual and leadership issues.
Part of the group had been football teammates at Bowling Green University. They’d all achieved professional success — mostly in business and finance, though one was a widely decorated Ohio state trooper and another a former track champion from Guatemala — and regularly meet to discuss their shared Christian faith and ways to have an impact on their community.
Alexander set up a meeting when he heard the group was visiting the Washington, D.C., area.
“I try to help people see that business has to be about more than money,’’ Alexander says. “I try to help people think about how they can use their business to try to help other people at the same time.’’
Most had never met Alexander and nudge and whisper as they glance around his basement den. They take in a bookcase display of his Seahawks, Alabama Crimson Tide and NFL Pro Bowl helmets. They munch on snacks spread across a large bar, behind which sat the 2005 NFL MVP trophy given Alexander after his record 28 touchdowns that Super Bowl season for Seattle.
Across the wall is an enlarged photograph of Alexander scoring the 28th touchdown against Green Bay.
There is also an oversized reproduction of a Sports Illustrated cover ahead of the February 2006 Super Bowl, showing Alexander and the words “Flying High: Shaun Alexander Soars into Detroit.’’
Alexander invites them to gather around on chairs, then, for the second time that day, uses his portable blackboard. He describes adapting his football philosophy to his off-field life, drawing “X” and “O” football play diagrams to make his point.
“I was pretty good at math and I figured the shortest way to the end zone is in a straight line,’’ he says, drawing a chalk line to demonstrate how he’d shoot through the gap and reach pay dirt.
Alexander diagrams more plays from high school, college and NFL days, all resulting in his taking the same, direct route to the end zone.
And life off the field, he adds, is no different.
“If you’ve got a plan and you actually know where you want to go, if you don’t deviate and stay focused, you actually give yourself a shot,’’ he says.
Alexander suggests setting goals involving faith, marriage and work, rather than becoming sidetracked by material desires. He emphasizes themes of “fatherhood” and setting an example, expressing devotion to loved ones and not being afraid to show “vulnerability.”
That last part prompts discussion among the group about how showing their vulnerable side might lead to being taken advantage of. But Alexander suggests vulnerability is key to showing honesty and who you truly are.
They talk for hours, wrapping up just before 2 a.m. Alexander admits afterward he and his wife had debated the wisdom of allowing a reporter such access to their home and lives.
“I’m still a very private person,’’ he says.
But in the end, they opened themselves up to the story request. Perhaps, the timing was right for the former touchdown-maker to show the world his more vulnerable side.
“This is who I am,’’ he says. “This is what I want my life to be. And whatever else I may wind up doing, that’s not going to change.’’
|Shaun Alexander was the 2005 NFL MVP with the Seahawks.|
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Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners