Ex-UA star scores like nobody else
Touchdowns. That's mostly what mattered to new NFL touchdown king Shaun Alexander when he arrived at The University of Alabama in 1995.
Rushing yards? Topping 100 or 200 yards in a game didn't make his day the way a couple of touchdowns would.
It always seemed so obvious, especially one day during his second year on campus in 1996.
He redshirted in 1995 and then spent much of '96 playing behind Dennis Riddle and Curtis Alexander. However, he got a chance late in that year against LSU, running for 291 yards and tying a school record with four touchdowns.
On the following Monday while Alexander talked with a couple of us reporters in the old football and basketball dorm, a student assistant in Alabama's media relations office asked him about his big game. Alexander shrugged off the student's excitement.
He had done it before, he said. He had plenty of games in high school where he rushed for a lot of yards.
But the touchdowns ... now that was something worth discussing. He predicted more touchdowns, if he got the chance to play as much as he did against LSU. Lots and lots of touchdowns.
Who knew what to make of him? Was he an overconfident backup? Was he a future superstar who finally got his chance against LSU?
Was he just another player who benefited from an unusual series of circumstances that allowed him to have one career-defining game? Was he somewhere in between?
If only we had realized.
In all these years of covering sports, I've never run across an athlete as supremely confident as Alexander who managed to back up every last boast he made.
That was Alexander. However, lest you think of him as self-absorbed, know that he willingly bragged about everyone else's abilities, too. For example, at Alabama, he played with an All-America offensive tackle named Chris Samuels, and nobody touted Samuels as much as Alexander did.
Today, Alexander owns the NFL record for touchdowns in a season with 28. Playing for the Seattle Seahawks, he is the only NFL player to score at least 15 touchdowns in five straight seasons.
As a junior at Alabama, he broke his own record with five touchdowns in one game. As a senior, he set the school and Southeastern Conference season record with 24 touchdowns, three ahead of the old record. Amazingly, he set it even though an ankle injury forced him to miss all of one game and large chunks of two others.
The injury also dampened his Heisman Trophy campaign, which Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won. Maybe some sort of reverse Heisman jinx worked against Alexander — just like so many Heisman winners fail in the NFL, maybe players destined for so much pro greatness won't win the award. In six NFL seasons, Dayne has scored 11 fewer touchdowns than Alexander has just this season.
If not for Alexander's injury his senior year and another during his sophomore season that cost him most of the last seven games, he certainly would've set the SEC career touchdown record, too. Instead, he has 50, which trail in the all-time standings by three.
As a high school player in Kentucky, he scored 110 touchdowns, which at the time was good for fifth all-time.
Alexander's infatuation with touchdowns might've worked against him in Seattle. He has fought claims that he doesn't run as hard at midfield as he does near the goal line.
In a testament to his talent, he responded by putting together a 2004 season in which he finished 1 yard shy of the NFL rushing title.
After that, he faced claims that he couldn't get along with his coach. He didn't help that matter by criticizing his coach after losing the rushing title in the last game.
He responded by winning the rushing title this year, setting the touchdown record, leading Seattle to the NFC's best record and staying quiet about his coach the whole time. To show old habits die hard, Alexander downplayed the rushing title Sunday but said the touchdown record was "pretty cool."
So if in the next week or two or three, you see a Shaun Alexander interview where he guarantees the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl and that he'll win the game's most valuable player award, believe him.
What's the old saying? It's not bragging if you can do it.