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Sunday, January 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks

Alexander rushing to judgment

Seattle Times staff reporter

FLORENCE, Ky. — Shaun Alexander grew up in the kind of place where high-school football meant cramming half the town into a stadium not big enough to hold it. The kind of place where on that field, under those lights, boys with little dreamt of having much.

His hometown shaped the smile and the swagger and the scar under his bottom lip, shaped Alexander into a man of unwavering belief in himself and in his teams and in his future — a belief that Alexander understands rubs some the wrong way.

"We've always been content with who we are," Alexander says. "That's why I laugh when anybody says anything about me being a malcontent. Worried about the rushing title. Worried about the contract."

And there it starts. The dichotomy of Alexander, the content and the malcontent, one man people often see as two.

Durran Alexander shares this hometown with the most valuable player in all of football. He also shares his brother's facial features, his smile, everything except his size. Durran jokes that God built him to play drums and Shaun to play football.

Growing up in Florence, they shared a bedroom in the apartment complex on Shenandoah Drive. Durran parks his sedan in front of building 6850 and walks up a flight of stairs to apartment No. 6. This is where Carol Alexander raised both sons in a two-bedroom apartment.

"We had that main room, that little room, and that was everything," Shaun Alexander says.

On different nights the room served as a theater, a tent, a dining room, a runway for a fashion show, a home for the Christmas tree. Mom played at least that many roles as well. Which is why Alexander says he never knew he was poor until he went to college at Alabama and witnessed real money for the first time.

The Alexanders no longer live in that apartment, so Durran is pointing to a field behind the complex, its boundaries marked by trees and concrete. This is where the brothers celebrated touchdown dances with the Ickey Shuffle.

"[Shaun] definitely was the sorest of losers," Durran says. "Even dating back to our days of playing Nintendo. He was the one who would throw the controller, storm out of the room."

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That's Florence for you. Big enough for about 25,000 people and two exits off the interstate. Small enough to be noted most prominently for its proximity to Cincinnati, Ohio, and two sports folks love above all others — Kentucky basketball and high-school football.

Boone County High School still draws standing-room-only crowds that swell between 10,000 and 15,000 fans. It runs a Power-I. And it expects to contend every season for the state championship.

Alexander learned to embrace the pressure, revel in it and draw strength from it. He also learned to take the confidence to a level where it can be interpreted as cocky.

He says the pressure "carved a lot of us into who we are." The confidence taught him to feel comfortable aiming for records and championships and rushing titles. Made him comfortable telling everybody within earshot that he expects nothing less than greatness.

Durran drives by the pee-wee football field where all those expectations started. Where Alexander wore Army surplus glasses with huge lenses and a support band across the back, the first of many fashion statements that included red cleats in junior high. Where in one game, he bit through his lip and left a scar. Where Alexander played defensive end and scored a touchdown and decided, right then and there, that touchdowns would be his forte and adulation would serve as fuel.

Alexander scored so many touchdowns — then a national record of 110 — at Boone County High School that it's hard to imagine he didn't become the featured back until midway through his junior season, and only then because of injury.

"He hadn't scored a touchdown in the first quarter [of a Boone County playoff game]," Durran says, "and people were coming up and asking me if anything was going on at the house that they should know about."

Alexander compares his childhood to a movie — the death of a close friend on their high-school soccer field, the two losses in state-championship football games, the teammates who fooled around with police sirens and asked the local diner to put their food on the coach's tab.

This is the town that gave Alexander confidence and the family that shaped his swagger. The place that gave him "a body and mind of his own," as Seahawks running-backs coach Stump Mitchell puts it. Go there to understand where the belief came from, then go elsewhere to see how it's interpreted.

* * *

Alexander is holding court behind a ramp at The Coliseum in Nashville after the Seahawks toppled the Tennessee Titans earlier this season. He's shaking hands, kissing babies, catching up with friends and family — pretty much the usual. So many people surround him that the group spills out into oncoming traffic.

On the outskirts of the group stands Alex Page, a 13-year-old boy Alexander met last January. Alex made a wish to attend the Seahawks' last regular-season home game against the Falcons. Alexander made a friend.

And there is Alex in the parking lot in Nashville, Tenn., nearly a year later. He's talking about the year he just endured, the surgeries for all the ailments — Crohn's disease, epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis.

He's also talking about how Alexander helped him start his own foundation — Al's Pals: Helping the People that Help Me — how they talk once a month during the season, how they swap Bible verses, how Alexander came to his golf tournament last summer.

"I didn't expect all that," Alex says. "I didn't expect any of that. It's the mental thought. If I'm not feeling too good, then I think of Shaun and what he's doing. His support helps get me through the pain."

Never before were opposite interpretations to Alexander's life more poignant than on that one. Because the day he first met Alex, after the game finished and the Seahawks wrapped up the NFC West title, Alexander said that Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren stabbed him in the back.

Shaun Alexander, malcontent, made headlines all over the country. Riding shotgun in Alexander's Lincoln Navigator the other day, Seahawks rookie quarterback David Greene recalls seeing stories at the University of Georgia.

"They made it sound like you killed somebody," Greene says.

Alexander offers a lengthy explanation. He's telling Greene about how much the rushing title — he fell a yard short — would have meant and to how many people. To his offensive line. To his coaches. He's saying that the quotes were blown out of proportion, part of a longer interview. Fifteen minutes later, Alexander is parking his car at the bottom of the Seahawks' practice facility.

The writing on the curb that marks his parking spot? HOLMGREN. The Seahawks coach allows Alexander to park there, since Holmgren has another spot at the top of the facility.

"See that?" Alexander says. "I'm probably closer with Mike than anybody on the team. Definitely closer than people think."

* * *

True story. A pastor, the MVP of the NFL and a friend walk into the bar of a restaurant. True punch line. The MVP, Alexander, gets asked for his ID.

This happens at an Applebee's near Southcenter a couple weeks ago. And it isn't the only time Alexander is interrupted while talking about perceptions and misconceptions over chicken wings and nachos.

The second interruption comes shortly after. A child walks up to the table and asks him for an autograph. Only he doesn't want him to sign a hat or a piece of paper. He wants him to sign a dollar bill. Alexander laughs and grabs a napkin.

The third interruption comes during dinner. A man walks up with his girlfriend.

"I just wanted to say thanks, man. I've been a Seahawks fan for a long time. Thank you. Thank you so much. The rushing title is yours, baby. And please stay — we want you to stick around."

This is exactly what Alexander is talking about at dinner — three interruptions that can be interpreted in 300 different ways. Is the dollar bill ironic? Is he anonymous because the waitress asked for his ID? Famous because the man gushed at the table? And most important, in the eyes of Seahawks fans: Is he leaving? Or staying?

"You take any story, and you can get confused," Alexander says. "You can make the bad guy look like the good guy. You can make Cinderella look like the wicked stepsister. You can make Snow White look like a drug head. You can make the dwarves look like kidnappers. That's just reality. I understand that."

Questions persist. To his offensive linemen, to Durran, to Holmgren, there's always that first question.

What's different about Alexander this year?

The "finer points" of his skills when not carrying the football, teammate Steve Hutchinson says. The effort he gave in training camp, Stump Mitchell says. The drive to be the best all-around back in the NFL, fullback Mack Strong says.

Nothing, Alexander says, except the usual progression.

In a different eatery, in Kentucky about a week earlier, Durran holds the same discussion. He is rolling now, between bites of barbecue, dissecting every critique ever launched his brother's way. And there have been many.

"Because Shaun's style and the way he is, it's so not like anybody else," Durran says. "When he runs, is he really running? Is he trying hard? When he cuts and because he's smiling, does he like the game? Does he not like it? Because he's willing to slide here or just go down if five guys are on him, does he really care?

"People won't let him be his own worst critic. There are so many people who already want to claim that spot. They say, 'Well, that's the same old Shaun.' Well, look at the numbers. Is that so bad?"

Perception has always shaped Alexander, for better and for worse. Perception that he doesn't try hard in practice, that he doesn't get the tough yard, that he isn't a good teammate. Perception that he doesn't block in the backfield or catch out of it. Perception that he is arrogant or cocky or conceited.

Perception that he's all about the money.

Content? Or malcontent?

Teammates and coaches run when asked to confirm or refute any of these perceptions. Perception turns one man into two.

Alexander looks in the mirror and sees (drum roll, please) himself.

* * *

Shaun Alexander is at his church, Christian Faith Center, located near Sea-Tac Airport. Following a Christmas concert, pastor Casey Treat holds a bobblehead doll of the church's most famous member and brings him on stage. Alexander is warm, engaging, funny.

Treat asks his congregation to pray for Alexander. People hold their arms above their heads as Treat concludes, "We pray to God, for a championship, in Jesus' name, amen."

It's impossible to separate Alexander from his faith. Take his contract situation last summer. After watching the Seahawks come to terms with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and left tackle Walter Jones, after listening to those who felt he should be angry about the franchise tag and letting their opinion seep into his head, Alexander says he opened his Bible and flipped to a random page.

Here's what Alexander says he found there: God told Abraham he would have a son by his wife, and that son would change the world. Only his wife could not get pregnant. So Abraham had a child with his wife's handmaiden, and they raised that child like a king for 13 years. Then God came to Abraham and told him he would still have a child by his wife, and that child, not the first, would change the world.

This is where Alexander compares the first child's point of view with his contract situation.

"He had a right, according to what the world says, to be upset," Alexander says. "But according to what the Bible says, he had another choice: He could fall in line and be obedient."

Alexander says he called his agents shortly after and told them to work out the one-year deal. The results of this season, the best in franchise history, are a direct result of that choice and choices made by others, Alexander says.

This is, first and foremost, how Alexander defines himself. As a righteous man, a man of God, headed toward the promised land. He knows that may chafe some people.

"I know how it sounds," Alexander says. "There he goes talking about Jesus again."

Alexander prays first thing in the morning. Often, the first thing he says is, "You know who you are, Shaun. Now go be you."

That's the part about him he says people don't get. That he is "myself everywhere I go." That he is "the most consistent — probably more consistent than anybody you know. Not just on the football field, but anybody you know, period." He disagrees with stories that label him enigmatic.

What's clear is that Alexander is more than comfortable in his own skin. That's clear at the Seahawks' practice facility, at church, even at a recent community appearance he makes at Kirkland Heights Apartments.

About 100 screaming kids are packed into a small room. Total chaos, even before he pulls up in a silver Range Rover. Everybody wants something. Alexander obliges each request, smiling for each cellphone snapping pictures of him, signing the arm of a young girl.

"Sometimes, people want to put Shaun in a box," says Strong, who is there as well. "They want to be able to control what he says and what he does. This is what he says and what he does. He's as personable guy as you'll find in this business. He's able to go into a crowd of people, and he doesn't go in with body guard stiff-arming people. He's right at home."

To this, Alexander says, "I have yet to meet a person that's been around me for a moment of time that's confused about who I am."

* * *

Back in Florence, there's a sign outside the building, formerly the Tri-City YMCA, that reads: "Coming soon! Durran and Shaun Alexander Community Center." Inside, there are basketball courts — "Shaun thinks he can shoot the three," Durran says — a pool, a gym, locker rooms. Outside there are tennis courts and soccer fields sitting on about 10 acres.

Growing up, the Alexander brothers rarely ventured inside these doors because they couldn't afford the membership fee. Now? They own it.

Alexander purchased the center and the land for $1.8 million recently, and he plans to pump $500,000 or so into renovations. The brothers see this as a true community center, built for the many single-parent families in Florence that mirror the one they grew up in, "a more tangible way," Durran says, "to show what the foundation does and where its heart is."

For those who paint his brother with a brush colored money green, Durran contends they should at least know where that money goes.

"It kills me, man," Durran says.

A significant chunk of Alexander's money goes to things like this, to his youth foundation, to his church in the form of tithing, which would be $632,000 of his current one-year, $6.32 million contract.

Alexander says money and football don't and won't define him, but right now, money at least partially defines everything he does in football. His contract is the biggest unresolved issue as the Seahawks head into the playoffs.

At the beginning of the season, Alexander says Seahawks president Tim Ruskell told him he wanted to get to know the team, then make a decision about how to do the contract. By midseason, the sides were talking and both submitted proposals.

The gap between the proposals is still several million dollars, with length of contract and signing bonus the most important factors, and Alexander says Ruskell put the brakes on in-season negotiations.

"If he thinks it's best for the Seahawks to talk after the year's over, I'm fine with that," Alexander says. "He's been honest since the beginning."

Durran isn't as diplomatic as his brother. He points to large offseason contracts given to Hasselbeck and Jones, and says, "It's like trick-or-treat. Everybody else is getting giant candy bars. And the Seahawks want Shaun to take an apple."

Alexander is getting to an age (29 this offseason) where long-term production for running backs generally takes a nosedive. He does play in a West Coast offense, behind a Pro Bowl fullback, a Pro Bowl quarterback and two Pro Bowl linemen. Some take that to mean he can be replaced.

"What I have done in Seattle has been way more dominant than what I did in high school or college, but it seems like part of this town, especially part of the media, would almost look at that negative," Alexander says. "Like it was my fault for having a great offensive line. Or my fault for having the best fullback in football. And my fault for me jelling with them and us putting up big numbers."

Adds his brother: "Why are you going to keep acting like what he's doing is average? Some people confuse that thought with 'he wants to leave' or 'he wants the money.' That's any job, dating, whatever. It's like, 'If you aren't going to feel me, I'm not going to stay here and just be happy I've got a girlfriend.'

"People look at it like this: Either the Seahawks are crazy. Or Shaun is crazy."

* * *

Visions. Shaun says he has had them since he was 11 years old. For football and for life.

"They're the same," he says. "You have to see something happen before you do it. I don't know how you can break records without seeing yourself breaking them, without even saying it. Maybe that's because of our upbringing. That's what I said I'd do — change poverty for my family, become great.

"Who speaks out like that? I did. It was good for me, medicine for me. I was speaking life into my own life."

Alexander says he had a vision last summer that he would remain in Seattle. That's why he and his wife, Valerie, decided to buy a house in order to accommodate the six children they hope to have. (They already have two girls, toddlers Heaven and Trinity, but Alexander wants four more boys.)

That's why, when they couldn't find a house that fit their specifications to their price, Alexander left for New York City and a vacation anyway. He went with a friend in the music business right after the Seahawks franchised him. They hung out with popular artists Ruben Studdard and Mario Winans.

And when he returned to Seattle, Valerie had somehow found the perfect home at the perfect price, just like in his vision. She heard two women talking about it at a yard sale she didn't even plan to go to.

Alexander also sees visions of the future, what he will do with his football fortune and what fortunes he will amass that don't even come from football.

"I will be a huge businessman," he says. "I will be a huge philanthropic person. I will do things that will help change a lot of people's lives for good. And I will have a few business things that will be more lucrative than the business I'm in right now."

He sees himself writing books, owning car and limousine companies, owning property and hotels. He says he'll call it "The Alexander Empire, and pretty soon, it will just be called The Empire."

Told this could also come across as arrogant, Alexander shrugs.

"When people say, 'Shaun is really confident,' they're right," he says. "I understand. They say, 'Who does he think he is?' too."

From Florence to dinner to church to a community appearance to the football field, the belief and the smile and the swagger never change.

Confident? Or cocky?

Content? Or malcontent?

Alexander doesn't care. He's comfortable with how he's shaped.

He smiles. He winks. He has one more vision to pontificate.

"Oh," he says, "I see us in the Super Bowl."

Amen.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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