In the early afternoon of March 12, the day NFL free agency started, Lorenzo Alexander sat in his room at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, where he was taking part in the NFL Players Association’s annual meetings, running up a phone bill of almost $1,000 on calls back to the States about his football future.
In the big picture, Alexander — undrafted out of college, cut by Carolina and released from the Ravens’ practice squad before becoming a Pro Bowler with the Redskins — felt gratitude for how his perseverance was about to be rewarded.
But in the prism of just that day, one phone call hit Alexander as hard as he has leveled kickoff returners from Philadelphia: His employer told him it could not pay him what he was worth.
“If that’s what it is, Bruce, that’s what it is. I’ll talk to you later,” Alexander told Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen before hanging up and beginning to weep in his hotel room.
“I knew then, right then, I wasn’t a Redskin anymore. It hurt. I really got emotional.
“Even now, I’ll be working out with Ryan [Kerrigan] or Perry [Riley], someone says, ‘Are you guys Redskins players?’ ‘No, I’m a Cardinal.’ The whole dichotomy is weird. I sometimes gotta be real careful because those emotions pop up occasionally.”
There’s nothing quite like the sting of rejection from a family who first believed in your talent — validated and promoted you, made you finally feel like you belonged in your chosen profession — showing you they aren’t really a family at all; they’re merely a business who used you like you used them.
The NFL churns out special teamers a dime a dozen, but Lorenzo John Alexander is anything but a dime a dozen. He is the finest of people, the type of stabilizing influence organizations who hope to go from bad to good to great need through their most chaotic transitional phases — a glue guy when so much else is coming apart.
’Zo is the type of person who makes sure ridetoprovide.org, his fourth annual charity bike ride that benefits underserved youth, will go off without a hitch next Saturday at Reston Town Center along the W&OD trail — because he keeps his commitments.
He’s also keeping his house here and the Pilates studio in Ashburn that he co-owns with friend and former teammate Kedric Golston.
“I just don’t work here anymore; that’s the difference,” he said Friday afternoon as his daughter Zoe crawled all over him, begging for attention.
From the bling-ing life of young NFL dads last fall: While we were eating lunch at the Fish Shack in Ashburn, Alexander’s 18-month-old son Mason needed his diaper changed. Golston, realizing his defensive brethren was plumb out of disposables, dashed to his truck in the parking lot, producing a Winnie the Pooh Huggie in the nick of time. Never had a player had his teammate’s back more.
It’s seeing those kind of everyman qualities in elite athletes that would make me a lousy general manager. I wouldn’t move players fast enough that others deemed expendable. I would run right past talent and right toward heart, to the good souls who brought intangibles such as character and genuine belief into locker rooms.
I would field teams of people who did charity bike rides in the offseason, who connected with the community the way players used to before every 22-year-old signed with a talent agency to ensure they didn’t forge authentic human connection outside insulated Athlete World.
My teams would be older, wiser and, sometimes, blown out on Sundays. But we would win hearts and minds, and no one could say we were big-headed and didn’t work as hard as we could.
And every now and then I would be rewarded for holding on to a player for his loyalty and dedication, because Lorenzo Alexander would knock down walls for me when I compensated him the way he should be after a Pro Bowl season.
I wouldn’t use excuses if I didn’t have room for him, either; as hard as it might be, I’d just be honest and tell him he wasn’t in our plans.
“If they really wanted to get creative, they probably could,” said Alexander, who had been with the Redskins since 2006. “Obviously the cap was an issue. But after talking to some people, there were ways they could have pushed money to later years. My number isn’t a huge number in the grand scheme of things. I was never going to really keep them from going out and getting bigger free agents.
“Hey, they made their decision. They have good, young players that play my position they have confidence in. I’m an Arizona Cardinal. No hard feelings. Dan Snyder even called me and said I was his guy, that if things were different, I’d be back. He didn’t have to do that.”
Two weeks after he signed a contract with Arizona that guaranteed him a $2.8 million signing bonus and, with escalating clauses, could amount to $9.5 million, Alexander returned to Ashburn for closure.
He wasn’t sure if the team would let him through the security gate when he pulled his white Yukon Denali into the practice facility. But ’Zo had to say goodbye to the people who gave him his first real job in the NFL.
He cries at movies, especially the father-son genre because his own father didn’t become involved in his life until later. He cried when he was cut in Carolina.
“You should cry more; you’ll live longer and enjoy your family,” he once told me. “That’s why women live longer. They show their emotions.”
And though he wept when he learned he no longer played football in Washington, he kept it bottled up as much as he could when he visited Redskins Park two weeks ago.
“I was trying to make sure I didn’t cry in front of nobody; I didn’t want to make a scene,” he said. “I knew this was a business a long time ago. But it’s just leaving people you love. That was the hardest thing you have to come to grips with.”
He thanked Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan. He looked for Allen but couldn’t find him. The toughest goodbyes, he said, were reserved for the people who helped him be a modern-day gladiator each Sunday in their own little way.
He hugged Miss B.J., the front-office manager for life, and Miss Tammy, and he walked out to his truck and wept again.
“I said goodbye to some in the organization that people tend to not think about but are so important to the daily running of the ship,” he said. “They made us go. We wouldn’t have nothin’ without them.”
Figures, no? One role player was making sure the other role players knew of their value. ’Zo was really saying goodbye to himself that day, to a relationship with a former employer who once felt like family before it moved on without him.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.