SANFORD, Fla. — Dressed in a black blazer and blue jeans, NFL running back Shaun Alexander stood before a crowd of about 175 people at City Church this week and spoke about his Christian faith.
”I bought a Dora the Explorer bike for my 4-year-old daughter Heaven and placed it behind my back,“ Alexander said. ”I said, "Heaven, look what Daddy has.' She said, "Wow!' Then she ran toward me, past the bike, jumped into my arms and I said, "God, please let her be like this forever.' “
The message was simple. Love the giver more than the gift.
This principle is partly what makes Alexander a pillar in his community and a pariah to some NFL general managers.
Football is not Alexander's first love.
The Florence native and former Kentucky Mr. Football led the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl and was voted the NFL's MVP for 2005, and he graced the cover of Madden 07.
Now he is unemployed. Alexander said he is in communication with seven teams but did not identify them.
”I'm asking God to close doors that need to be closed and open up whatever needs to be open so I can go there, win a Super Bowl, impact the team, impact the community,“ Alexander said. ”That's been my goal.“
Maybe if playing football was his only goal, some GMs wouldn't have called Alexander, 30, washed up.
Clark Judge, a senior reporter for sportsline.com, wrote a story last week in which he polled unidentified coaches and general managers as to why Alexander's stock dropped.
”He's never been known as a very tough player, and there have always been questions about his attitude,“ an NFC general manager said. ”I'm not saying that because he's out there (unsigned) now. I would have told you the same thing four or five years ago. Basically I don't like him (as a back), and I don't trust him.“
It's logical to question the veteran running back's durability or even debate style since his numbers dropped off in 2006 and '07.
But what has a running back with nearly 10,000 career rushing yards, who never has been arrested or embroiled in law-breaking drama, done to engender mistrust?
It's wrong for anyone to question Alexander's motives, given what he has accomplished, and this one reeks of a personal attack. It, however, does reveal a larger problem in sports culture. Athletes are ridiculed if they develop or nurture outside passions equal or, in some cases, above their sport.
If Jason Taylor has a bad season, it will be because of Dancing with the Stars.
If Serena Williams does not win Wimbledon, she spent too much time designing clothes.
Alexander said his critics, at times, have drawn wrong conclusions about his relationship with football because of his faith.
”Because I don't carry football around everywhere I am, it kind of throws people off. They're never really sure,“ Alexander said. ”I've never made football my identity, and that's where God has graced me.“
He mentors 13 young men during the off-season and six during the season. His wife, Valerie, said he brings mentorees to out-of-town church revivals and occasional business trips.
”(Saturday) we were at Bay Hill playing golf, and I'm supposed to be the one mentoring all these thousands of young people,“ said friend and Seattle youth pastor Judah Smith. ”But Shaun's the one out there on the phone teaching men how to pray while I'm putting golf.“
Every athlete will retire at some point. The smart ones realize this and make future plans. The great ones plan to make everyone's future better.