Editor’s Note: Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was named the first annual FWAA Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year at the FWAA’S Annual Award Breakfast on Jan. 7 at the San Jose Marriott in conjunction with the CFP National Championship Game.
By Ron Higgins
When Shaun Alexander became the namesake of the FWAA’s Freshman of the Year Award several months ago, the Alabama and NFL star was honored.
But he also felt like it was something bigger than just an award. He believed the honor and its influence would touch many great athletes and families as they all traveled their sports and life journeys.
His involvement with the players could become an immense help to others and would be a natural fit for him, just like the day in the fourth grade he decided to become a running back after returning two kickoffs (and nearly a third) for touchdowns.
“Until that day, I was happy playing defense because I wanted to be a defensive playmaker like Deion Sanders,” Alexander recalled. “But because of all the attention after the game I got from friends and family, I asked my brother Durran what position scored the most touchdowns. When he told me `running back,’ then that’s
what I was from that day on.”
Durran, who later became a drummer in the famed Notre Dame marching band, probably thought he was just answering a question for his younger brother. But it turned out to be solid career guidance for Shaun, who became the all-time leading rusher in the history of Boone County (Ky.) High School, Alabama and the Seattle Seahawks.
“I’ve had great people around me all my life,” said Alexander, a successful 41-year-old entrepreneur, public speaker, and advisor to leaders in business, ministries, and philanthropy for the last 10 years since a barrage of injuries led to his quiet retirement from the NFL after one final season with the Washington Redskins. “It started with my family, some wonderful people at the University of Alabama and my Seattle mentors running backs coach Stump Mitchell, along with teammates Ricky Watters, Mack Strong, and Cortez Kennedy. I’ve been extremely blessed.”
Which is exactly why Alexander is thrilled to announce the FWAA’s first Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year in San Jose.
The winner receives a gold coin with the traits associated with the award displayed on one side: “Talent, Character, Ambassador, Legend, Faith, Passion, Focus, Leader.” On the other side of the coin, the phrases “Carry the Coin” and “Finish the Game”; are inscribed.
“If this award is named after me, how can I add who I am to it?” Alexander said when he was pondering how to make the honor significant.
Alexander answered his question by looking in the mirror.
The winners each year will have Alexander as a resource for advice and guidance for the rest of their careers and lives.
Alexander’s career is well documented. But almost every player on the 2018 FWAA Freshman All-American team was still in diapers when he permanently jumped into the national sports spotlight his freshman year at Alabama in 1996.
For about 10 seasons – two at Alabama and eight in the NFL with the Seahawks – there were few running backs on the planet better than No. 37.
No player in SEC history still has scored more rushing touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons combined – 32 – than Alexander did in 1998 and 1999.
Alexander’s 28 TDs (27 rushing, one receiving in 2005) still ranks at the second best in NFL history and he’s tied with Priest Holmes (Kansas City, 2003) for the second most rushing TDs (27) in an NFL season.
Alexander is the first and only Alabama running back ever to win the NFL rushing title (1,880 yards) in 2005.
He was the first running back in NFL to score 15 or more TDs in five consecutive seasons.
He was the first NFL running back to score 19 TDs (rushing and receiving) in only
10 games (2005).
He, Jim Brown and Jerry Rice are the only players in history to score five or more touchdowns in a game in college and in the NFL, and Alexander is believed to be the only player to score five TDs in a game in high school, college, and in the NFL (all TDs in the first half of a 2002 Sunday night game vs. Minnesota).
He was first Seahawks player ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He holds 20 Seahawks records (all-time leading rusher 9,429 yards), 14 Alabama records (all-time rushing leader 3,565 yards and most yards in a game with 291 as
a freshman vs. LSU) and two Kentucky high school records.
Alexander is in a select group of nine running backs to win the rushing title the same season they were named the AP’s NFL Most Valuable Player and AP Offensive Player of the Year. The others are Pro Football Hall of Famers O.J. Simpson (1973), Walter Payton (1977), Earl Campbell (1978-79), Marcus Allen (1985), Barry Sanders (1997), Terrell Davis (1998) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) as well as Adrian Peterson (2012).
Alexander is the one of four former SEC running backs Jim Taylor (LSU/Green Bay), Emmitt Smith (Florida/Dallas) and Terrell Davis (Georgia/Denver) to be named the AP’s NFL Most Valuable Player. He’s also just one of two Alabama players (QB Bart Starr, Green Bay 1966) to win an AP NFL MVP honor.
Through all the success, Alexander kept his perspective, his sanity and his faith.
“When you finally become ‘the guy’ it happens so fast and is so big it can overwhelm everyone involved,” Alexander said. “My goals were to enjoy the moment, be thankful, still love the game, and get out of it still alive in life.
“It starts with faith and discipline and it all runs together. Faith is the substance of things that you hope for and the conviction of things that you don’t see. I could only put my true, faith and trust in things that were bigger than life, which is Jesus.”
Because of his strong religious faith that started with a solid foundation provided by his mother, Alexander has always had a servant’s heart. He established a foundation a month after his final college game, the 2000 Orange Bowl.
His biggest post-career mission, besides home-schooling and raising his nine children along with his wife Valerie, is providing career and life advice to others, including a special place in his heart for athletes taking same roads he once traveled.
It’s a major reason why Alexander is honored and eager to be the namesake of the FWAA’s Freshman of the Year.
“When you have been taught well, you don’t mind teaching,” Alexander said. “When somebody puts their arms around you, you don’t mind putting your arms around others. You use what you have been given.”
Alexander understands being a freshman in today’s college football is different than when he played.
“Kids now are positioning themselves for high school like it’s college, trying to find the high school that best benefits their careers,” Alexander said. “They understand at an early age the sacrifice it takes to be great.
“They lift and train and do drills with purpose and intensity. They study playbooks and schemes and break down film. They are more athletic. They have to deal with more criticism, especially from social media.”
The fact more and more incoming college signees are playing and starting as freshmen just speeds their thought process towards an NFL career after three years of college.
“Because college football is so big with all the lights and constant media attention, kids are sometimes deceived that more players are going to make it to the pros,” Alexander said. “That number is still small.
“And for the guys who do make it to the league, statistics show almost 80 percent of them are broke and/or depressed just two years after the end of their careers. They wrestle with their identity. They don’t understand football is just something they do, but it’s not who they are.”
It’s an area of life that Alexander is eager to help winners of his freshman award navigate.
“Freshmen are so young, they’re still teenagers,” Alexander said. “I got some help when I was young, but I would have loved to have had a little more insight on the field, off the field, how to handle fame, family, friendships, finances, and how to make plans for the future.
“I, my team of advisors from Legends Access, Living Well Family Office, and Soma along with my family, will walk the winners of my award through finding the answers to big questions, which are `Who am I really?’, `What is success?’ and `What are some good next steps to take?’
“Those answers are a little bit different for everybody on the planet. That’s the uniqueness of man.”
And of the FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award.