Shaun Alexander’s revelation came in a suburban Virginia supermarket.
It was the winter of 2008. The veteran running back’s four-game, 11-carry stint with the Redskins had fizzled out without much fanfare. His growing family had relocated from Seattle to the D.C. area, and was now waiting to see whether Alexander’s pro football career would resume. On this day, out-of-town relatives stayed home with the kids, while Alexander and his wife went out shopping for groceries.
And as they filled their cart, something remarkable happened: nothing. No stares. No conversations. No autograph requests.
“This is kind of weird, you know?” Alexander told his wife. “Do you like this feeling?”
“Oh, you already know I do,” Valerie responded.
This area is littered with ex-Redskins, men who stayed in Washington to trade on their continued popularity, their name recognition and local fame. Alexander’s case is the opposite: He stayed here despite amassing almost no on-field capital, and he stayed precisely because no one much cared who he was.
He’s still a folk hero at Alabama, a celebrity in Seattle, where he won an NFL MVP award and earned the biggest running back contract in league history to that point. In Washington, he gained 24 yards — a fraction of what undrafted rookie Rob Kelley recorded in his recent starting debut. And then he never left.
“What am I doing in D.C.?” Alexander, 39, asked with long laugh this week. “It doesn’t quite make sense for me not to be in Seattle, where I’m so loved; or to be in Alabama, where I’m so loved; or to be in my hometown of Florence, Kentucky; or to be in Cincinnati, where I’m so loved. That doesn’t make sense. But I felt like when I got here, that in a weird kind of way, I was supposed to be here.”
To understand that feeling, you’d have to understand what came before it. When Alexander was setting high school records in Florence — where he had the 10th-best rushing season in national prep history and scored 110 career touchdowns — he was followed around by ESPN cameras, offered free meals at mom-and-pop restaurants and honored with a jersey retirement ceremony the day he committed to Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, he wanted to get “BAMA 37” on his license plate, until a DMV employee warned him that fans would start following him home. As a sophomore, a senior citizen told him that if the Tide beat Auburn that season, “I’ll die a happy woman.”
“I’m 19 years old, you know what I mean?” Alexander said. “Why does your life depend on what a 19-year-old does?”
Seattle became just as crazy. He made three Pro Bowls, became the team’s career leading rusher, and had that bananas 2005 campaign, when he scored an NFL-record 28 touchdowns, ran for a franchise-record 1,880 yards, and led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl. He saw kids in tears if he didn’t give them an autograph. He saw strangers follow him and his wife to their house.
“I mean, my face was on billboards,” he said. “I remember walking through crowds and seeing kids overwhelmingly just crying out of control. And so for me, I was like ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a little much.’ That kind of passion, I’m thankful for. But it’s a lot.”
Then, after years of being underpaid, he signed that blockbuster eight-year contract: $62 million, with more than $15 million guaranteed. Right away, the injuries started, and the fallout began. There was a broken foot at the beginning of 2006. A broken wrist the next year that had to be realigned after every game, leading to complications in his back and his hips: “the worst pain I ever had,” he called it. His production dipped. The home fans booed him. The Seahawks released him before the 2008 season, and he left feeling bitter about the end.
Midway through the next season, the Redskins — whose offense then was run by a couple ex-Seattle men in Jim Zorn and Stump Mitchell — signed Alexander to be their third back, behind Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts. He was barely used, and in Washington’s late-November trip to Seattle, he never touched the ball. When the Redskins needed a roster spot later that week, they let Alexander go, telling him they might eventually want him back.
The Redskins were 7-4 at the time, and Alexander figured “they’ll let me rip this thing up in the playoffs; they ain’t silly, you know?” But the Redskins didn’t make the playoffs, and they didn’t ask him back.
With his career over, Alexander turned introspective. At that point, he figured, he had been a celebrity for more than half of his 31 years. He also had seen the statistics about how many NFL players wind up broke, or divorced, or depressed after they leave the league. And he was unsure what his identity was, if it wasn’t Star Football Player.
“You’re like, ‘Why am I talking about myself so much,’ and then you realize ‘Oh, it’s because everybody always wants to talk about me.’ They always say you talk about what you love the most, and then you’re like ‘Wait a minute, do I really just love me that much?’ ” Alexander remembered thinking. “I needed to sit still and kind of really reflect: Who am I and what am I doing? So thank God I made enough money to be able to do that.”
Over the next few years, Alexander traveled around the country with some younger players he had mentored. He spoke to men’s groups and churches. He wrote a book about his faith. He slipped into Washington culture and the political scene, becoming friendly with leaders from both parties: Republicans such as Rick Santorum and Ben Carson, Obama Administration officials such as Eugene Schneeberg and Joshua DuBois. He became involved with the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Day of Prayer.
He also put down roots in the area. His family moved from its Ashburn rental, buying a home in Great Falls. He and his wife got involved in the active Northern Virginia home schooling movement. Their family kept growing — they now have eight kids, ages 1 through 13 — and Alexander spent much of his time teaching the older children.
Eventually they bought a farmhouse near Leesburg. Alexander now wakes up to horses in his backyard. He hears stories from his kids about the chickens they’ve fed. He continued to mentor younger NFL players such as Alfred Morris, the former Redskins back, who stored his belongings in Alexander’s house after he signed with Dallas.
He reconciled with the Seahawks and now is a regular at both Seahawks and Alabama games, but his faith told him not to wonder what he was doing in Northern Virginia; that life has seasons. One season you’re a superstar in Seattle. The next season you’re living on a farm in Loudoun County, slapping hands with the occasional fan who wants to relive your fantasy football exploits, but who doesn’t need anything from you in order to die happy.
“Home is where you want it to be, you know what I mean, and so I’ve made it home,” Alexander said. “There’s just good stuff I like about it here, and this is where I want to be. And so does it feel like home [where] I can go down the street and get mom’s cooking? No, she’s in Kentucky. Can I run down and see some college buddies that moved to Birmingham? No, they’re in Birmingham. Can I walk out there to the Seahawks facility and go watch them practice because I just want to take my boys to go watch the Seahawks? I can’t do that; they’re in Seattle. But home is home.”
In recent years, Alexander has gotten more interested in venturing out into the public. He’s speaking to church and men’s groups more frequently, and he recently started a podcast about football and faith, called Finish the Game. (He’s had conversations with the Christian group Focus on the Family about partnering on the show.) The latest episode, taped at WFED’s studio in Northwest D.C., veered from the Alabama-LSU game to the problems of sex trafficking to the panicked reaction some of his friends were having after Donald Trump’s election.
“This is still America; we’re the greatest country in the world,” Alexander said. “America, I just challenge you all: Whether you voted for Hillary Clinton or whether you voted for Donald Trump, we can all disagree inside the house, but the rest of the world needs to know that we are fully together, all of us. … And our job now is to actually make America great again.”
After the episode, we sat around and talked: about football, about his health, about politics, about our families, about how he could have grappled with his post-football identity in Boise, or Omaha, or Scranton, but how he he figured he might as well just do it here. Then he zipped up his backpack and headed back to Loudoun County. His family has big news to announce this weekend. A ninth child is on the way.