Lorenzo Alexander: The Most Interesting Man in the NFL

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 25:   Lorenzo Alexander #97 of the Washington Redskins celebrates after sacking  Chandler Harnish #8 of the Indianapolis Colts during a preseason game at FedExField on August 25, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

When it comes to the Washington Redskins, we all know who Robert Griffin III is, better known as RG3. But few of us are fully aware of perhaps the NFL’s most interesting man; and no I’m not talking about Griffin III, I’m talking about the guy known as the “One Man Gang.”

Lorenzo Alexander has traveled quite possibly down the rarest and most unique road to the Pro Bowl of any player I’ve ever heard of in the modern era of the NFL. I can assure you stories like the one you’re about to hear are as rare as they come in this league.

I’ve had the fortuitous privilege of observing the origins of this man’s journey while also getting a glimpse into how he was able to accomplish unthinkable achievements. Accomplishments such as holding true to his dreams, outworking everyone around him, and shining through consistently as one of the most genuine people I will ever come to know.

Rare is the man who embodies humility, pride, purpose and commitment simultaneously. These are all pieces to the enigma who is aptly known as the aforementioned “One Man Gang.”

Lorenzo was born and raised in and around Oakland, Calif. where he went to St. Mary’s High School located just north of Berkeley in a city called Albany. It was here where he played tackle football for the first time.

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His uncle, Steven Moore, was very much a father figure to him during that time in his life while his father was neither around or involved.

It was Moore who taught Lorenzo the foundations for hard work, accountability and how to push himself to constantly redefine the limits of what’s possible. Through his uncle's mentorship, Lorenzo was able to excel both in the classroom and on the football field, which earned him the rare honor of being named high school Parade All-American, as well as a scholarship to the school of his choice. His preference would be his hometown in Cal despite a weak reputation as a true Pac-10 (as it was named at the time) contender.

Lorenzo and I played together for two years at the University of California as proud members of one of the best defenses in school history. Zo and I were locked away in the same meeting rooms and practice fields together for most of our waking time throughout our college career.

During which time Zo established himself to be a kind-hearted guy with a memorable ability to laugh at himself, even as a guy who always held his head high and had natural leadership qualities. He wasn’t the preachy or in your face type, but he always led by example first and foremost.

Through such example, one would be privy to a man always thinking of the task at hand. One who attacked his obstacles head on with the intent to do the best job he possibly could at all times. He is any coach’s dream player.

In fact, I can’t recall a single day in two years where Lorenzo missed a practice at Cal. The man was always available, dependable, and one you could count on to implement and utilize every single coaching point taught to him. It’s this amazing quality that allows him to turn his entire mind and body into an open vessel, a clean slate if you will.

During his four years at Cal, Lorenzo shaped those tools to specialize in all things needed to be a dominant defensive tackle. This highly specialized skill set can vary greatly, even from other positions on the defensive line. By the time he finished his senior year he amassed a lineman’s share of body mass, weighing in over 300 pounds despite measuring in at a modest 6’1” tall.

Heading into the NFL draft, Lorenzo was expecting to be a mid-round draft pick falling somewhere between rounds three or four. Come draft day, Lorenzo sat anxiously by his phone, and it did ring, he received call after call from coaches of various teams who assured him they were going to draft him, yet for whatever reasons, they never did.

For Lorenzo, seven of the longest rounds of NFL draft history came and went yet his name remained uncalled. I can assure you from personally experiencing the dreaded draft slide, you can either lose tremendous amounts of confidence from it, or you can use that chip on your shoulder as motivation to work harder than ever before. As usual for Zo, he would end up choosing the latter; I on the other hand cannot confidently say as much.

Immediately following the draft, Zo signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers where he was determined to prove everyone wrong. That year he failed to make the active roster and was resigned to the team’s practice squad that September, he would remain there the rest of the year.

Heading into his second year with the Panthers, he ended up being released yet again, this time he was signed to the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad only to be released five days later.

After Baltimore, Lorenzo was called to a few tryouts which yielded no results. These are tough times for any NFL athlete, relegated to flying all around the country with a pair of cleats crammed in your carry-on luggage, while your life’s ambitions lay in the hands of a few coaches stepping away from tape study and game planning just long enough to catch a quick peek at you running some agility drills and a 40 time.

If you were lucky enough, this could be followed by a chalkboard interview where the position coach tests your knowledge base and, more importantly, your ability to retain information and be coachable.

This auspicious beginning to an NFL career would’ve broken the spirit of even the most determined guys out there, but not Lorenzo.

On October 3, 2006, he was brought into the Redskins organization for a workout with several other potential candidates. He felt the workout went well but the Redskins ended up choosing one of the other guys to fill their open spot on the practice squad.

A scout would later tell Zo that the original guy they picked for the spot actually ended up pulling his hamstring, which subsequently opened the door for them to go with Zo instead. From there he was signed to the practice squad and had seemingly found a home in the nation’s capital. Perhaps it was a call towards destiny.

When asked what it's like being cut so many times while trying to kick-start a career, he simply said, in a matter-of-fact tone, "It stung me a bit, but also inspired me to work just that much harder.”

He added, “Those other teams might have cut me because I’m too short or not what they were looking for, but those are reasons I can’t control. I can’t change how tall I am.” As he tells his story, I can hear his kids in the background vying for his attention as he calmly answers their questions, but is mindful to remind them he’s talking on the phone and will be with them in a minute.

This sends him and I into a brief conversation about the trials of being a parent and family life in general. Instantly I’m hit with a sense of pride in realizing the man he has become in both his personal and professional life.

For those who may feel nice guys finish last, I offer up Mr. Alexander as evidence to the contrary.

While on the Redskins’ practice squad, the coaches began to use him in numerous ways. He was asked to play nearly every position, which actually allowed him to acquire some much needed tools he would later utilize to his advantage.

When training camp for the 2007 season arrived, Lorenzo was grateful to still be a member of the Redskins organization, but was also happy with the idea of moving back to the defensive side of the ball which is where he eventually made the 53-man roster for the first time in over two years of professional football.

He saw his first action in Week 5 of season against the Detroit Lions playing special teams.

From then on, Lorenzo began to establish himself as a reliable special teams player despite weighing a hefty 297 pounds at the time. This is a lot of weight to be running up and down the field on punts and kickoffs with, let alone to effectively make plays against shifty ball-carriers in open space. But somehow, just as he always has in life, the One Man Gang found a way to excel.

As far as he was concerned, special teams was a great opportunity to get on the field and show what he could do. He did not disappoint, to say the least.

Following the 2009 season, Alexander was awarded the Redskins' top special teams award. Mike Shanahan would later be quoted in the Washington Post saying this about Lorenzo:

Well, you don't find many guys like Lorenzo, from top to bottom, he's the best special-teams player that I've been around of the guys that make plays consistently, both kickoff, kickoff return, special teams in general. He can run, he's a big guy; he's got a great attitude. He wants to make every play. He doesn't want to come out. If he's not in the Pro Bowl on special teams, I don't know who it'll be.

During his first three years in Washington, Lorenzo’s unique versatility continued to be used as he saw action as an offensive linemen, fullback, tight end and defensive end. It was during this period when he was given the nickname One Man Gang by his teammates.

In 2010, upon the arrival of Shanahan as head coach, it was time for Zo to switch position yet again. He was asked to transition to outside linebacker in the team's new 3-4 system. This would prove to be a major adjustment for Lorenzo after having played with his hand in the dirt his entire career. Not to mention that he was probably the furthest thing from the prototypical frame of a 3-4 outside linebacker.

As usual, this didn’t stop Alexander for a second.

He proved his value as perhaps the most versatile man in the NFL that season, though few even knew his name. But the coaches and guys in the locker room new all too well the type of teammate they had in the One Man Gang. By the midway point of the season he was named the special teams’ captain.

He even received the team’s nomination for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which goes to the player in the NFL most dedicated to giving back to the community and to charities. This honor, which transcends his football acumen, would find its way back to him for two consecutive years.

I worked with Zo one year for his Aces Foundation Youth Football Camp, which he created “To support youth through emphasizing self Accountability, taking pride in our Community, striving for Educational excellence while promoting a healthy mind and body through Sports.”

His genuine care for the kids he worked with and willingness to give his time is commendable.

By 2012, it was time for Mr. Versatility to learn yet another new position. This time he was asked to make the transition from outside linebacker to inside so that he could serve as a backup to London Fletcher and Perry Riley. He was quick to expound on his thoughts about his mentor London Fletcher and how much he learned from him over the years.

London was able to instill in him some valuable pointers as one of the smartest guys Alexander has ever been around. He learned that as a defense you can’t stop everything an offense wants to do to you; you have to pick and choose what you want to shut down.

He also learned the value of slowing down and being patient on defense. Playing middle linebacker is all about having vision. The two of them would sit together and watch film as London would break down the tape like a mad scientist—this allowed him to know exactly when and what the offense was going to.

London also taught him the value of taking care of your body and keeping in top-notch shape. If anyone could preach on these matters, it would be Fletcher. London has played in an astounding 240 consecutive games in the NFL.  

One of the most impressive components to the many roles Alexander has had throughout the years is a willingness and ability to transform his entire body from that of a defensive tackle into a fast, lean, yet still just as strong, middle linebacker.

He said losing the weight was a matter of self discipline and hard work. He completely changed his diet to foods high in proteins while cutting back or eliminating fats, carbohydrates and sugars. He gave up alcohol completely and started the intense home-TV workout known as P90X.

Zo also combined this with cycling and a weekly routine of Pilates, which he attributes to tightening up his core, all while keeping up with his standard NFL-style workouts.

When he entered the league, he was over 300 pounds. By the time he started playing outside linebacker, he had dropped down to 285 pounds and had 23 percent body fat. Then his body fat went down even more to 18 percent before finally bottoming out at 12 percent and weighing an astonishing 244 pounds.

Zo would continue to thrive on special teams for the Redskins, leading them in tackles in that discipline for two straight years. In 2012, he was voted into his first career Pro Bowl after leading the entire NFL in special teams tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.

Personally, I always struggled with finishing tackles on special teams and had to know what his trick was to making so many tackles in that area. His answer was simple, he told me that he would always try not to let the ball-carrier have any space. He learned how to approach guys while being under control then knowing exactly when to strike and take his shot.

I promise you, it’s much easier said than done, which explains why he was more successful at it than anyone else in the NFL this year.

Just before the start of the season, I asked Lorenzo what his season goals were. He said he would like to win a championship, first and foremost, then make the Pro Bowl and be a solid backup to Fletcher and Riley. Well, he managed to hit on his two personal goals, but unfortunately came up a bit short on the championship.

His desire to improve not just every year, but every day has been the single-most defining characteristic for his success in the NFL. This has allowed him to thrive in every new endeavor he takes on in life, from football to family.

Lorenzo Alexander is truly the most interesting man in the NFL.