During Alabama’s current dynasty, there have been two constants ever-present despite the changing personnel or the eddying currents of college football. On any Nick Saban team, defense will always be dominant…that much is certain. But the other trademark of Saban’s Alabama’s teams has been the punishing running game, a rushing attack that prominently features a premiere, Heisman-contending tailback (or two).
But the presence of a dominant running back is not just a Saban characteristic, as Alabama has counted numerous all-star runners in the school’s storied history. Though the fog of years has possibly diminished (for some) his contributions to Tide football, especially during this era of Saban’s Heisman winners Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry (not to mention Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy), few Alabama tailbacks can match the accomplishments of the man from Florence, KY who wore number 37.
Aggressive, powerful, fleet of foot, agile, smart…these are all descriptors that well fit the man who sported that unusual running back number for the Crimson Tide during the transition years between the championship tenure of Coach Gene Stallings and the debacle that was much of Mike DuBose’s career. Shaun Alexander was an athlete with the prototypical measurements for the position he played. He was as close to a sure thing as any coach could hope to find as a senior at Boone County High School. While his physical presence was strong, it was his heart and determination which struck fear in his opponents. When the Tide had its back against the wall, Alexander would find a way to rise to the occasion, a square-shouldered standard-bearer for the Tide who could be counted upon to perform on the biggest stages in the sport.
In recognition of the 37 remaining days until the kickoff of the 2016 college football season, we’re taking a look back at this legendary fan-favorite from the Stallings-DuBose transitional era, namely Shaun Alexander.
The High School Years
Born in Florence, KY to Curtis (a Morton Salt employee) and Carol (a teacher) Alexander, Shaun didn’t fully discover his own athletic talent until he enrolled at Boone County High School and decided to go out for the football team. Coaches, however, immediately saw his potential, and he made the junior varsity team as a freshman. A natural leader and multi-sport athlete (he also lettered in baseball and basketball), that same year saw Alexander run for class president, a position he won and held in all four of his years at Boone County High.
During his sophomore season, he made the varsity squad as the second-string tailback, but before the year was halfway done, he took over the starting role as Boone County’s featured back. Despite only being the designated starter for half of the season, Alexander managed to accrue 1,095 yards and 14 touchdowns, setting the stage for what would be a legendary final two seasons as a prep star.
As a junior in 1993, Alexander caught the eyes of college coaches nationwide with amazing season that saw him run for 2,396 yards with 42 touchdowns. Alexander even had the distinction of being one of the few players in the history of prep football to score seven touchdowns in a single game. His performance in 1993 propelled his team all the way to the state semi-finals, though their run fell short of a state title.
Though opponents were well aware of Alexander and his exploits by the time his senior season rolled around, there was little opposing defenses could do to stop him. Alexander was a juggernaut as a senior, tallying amazing numbers as the centerpiece of the offense. He improved upon the previous campaign with a 3,166 yard performance with 54 touchdowns in 1994, earning Parade All-American honors in the process. Alexander was named Mr. Football in Kentucky in 1994, and honor that was later held by another former NFL pro, Tim Couch. His 6,657 yards and 110 touchdowns over the course of his high school career respectively remain in the top 10 nationally in the prep record book.
The College Years
Given his exemplary high school career, Alexander’s services were a hot commodity among college programs. He was recruited by the likes of Michigan and Notre Dame (where his brother Durran was in the band), but it was ultimately Alabama that won the Alexander sweepstakes by appealing to Shaun’s love of the Tide’s dedicated fans and the college-town vibe of Tuscaloosa. Then-coach Gene Stallings probably had something to do with his eventual commitment as well, though Alexander only ended up playing half of his career for the championship-winning coach.
Alexander took a redshirt in his first year in Tuscaloosa (1995), but it was as a redshirt freshman in 1996 that he began to prove that his high school career was not a fluke. The 5-11, 225 pound tailback was a third-stringer behind starter Dennis Riddle and his seasoned back-up, Curtis Alexander. As expected, Riddle carried the load for the Tide…that is, until a November evening in Baton Rouge when the freshman back showed exactly what he was capable of doing to SEC opponents.
Alabama dominated the 1996 game against LSU both offensively and defensively in front of the home crowd. While Alabama’s defense was solid as always, holding LSU to a mere 248 total yards (and 52 yards rushing), it was Alexander who put a boot on the neck of the Bayou Bengals on their home field. The redshirt freshman simply put on a clinic of power running against LSU: he ran off tackle, he powered through power sweeps, he sliced the Tigers with speed and agility. Alexander was unstoppable en route to a historic 291 yard, four-touchdown performance that put him in the record books as the single-game rushing record-holder at Alabama at the time. He scored on runs of 17 yards, 73 yards, 72 yards and 12 yards, displaying speed, balance, athleticism and power that would hint at what was to come in his Crimson Tide career. (To relive it in some small measure, follow this link.)
Always the conservative, Stallings didn’t use Alexander much more that season, sticking instead with his seasoned upper classmen in the back field. But the secret was out, and though the young tailback finished with a mere 589 yards and six touchdowns, his performance against LSU announced him as a force to be reckoned with for seasons to come.
Alexander experienced the proverbial sophomore slump in 1997, rushing for only 415 yards and three touchdowns as the Tide struggled to a 4-7 record in its first year under new head coach Mike DuBose. However, Alexander and the Tide got back on track in the subsequent year, as the running back was part of a resurgent Alabama squad that went 7-5. During that season, All-American left tackle Chris Samuels and Alexander formed the spine of a formidable running attack. The Kentucky-bred running back rushed for 1,178 yards and 18 touchdowns (plus an additional four touchdowns through the air), earning All-SEC honors in the process.
Alexander elected to return to the Capstone for his senior campaign, and unfortunately, he was forced to grind out an injury-riddled season that saw his production limited for most of the year. Alexander sustained an injury against Tennessee and wasn’t at 100 percent throughout the rest of the season. However, a sub-optimal Shaun Alexander was still a hell of a weapon for the Tide, as he returned for the Iron Bowl and helped Alabama overcome a three-touchdown deficit in a 28-17 win over the cross-state rival. Against Auburn, Alexander had one of the best games of his college career, gaining 199 yards on the ground.
The Tide, at 10-3, represented the West in the SEC Championship Game. Alexander was once again at home on the big stage against Florida, and he was the primary offensive weapon for the Tide, leading Alabama to a crushing 34-7 win over Steve Spurrier’s Gators.
Alexander left Alabama following his senior year with the hearts of Tide fans in tow, and with many of the Tide’s rushing records to boot. At the time he graduated, Alexander was the career rushing leader at Alabama with 3,565 yards, and he owned 14 other records as he finished his college career.
The NFL Years
After an impressive career in Tuscaloosa, Alexander’s draft stock soared. He was taken 19th overall by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2000 NFL Draft, as the ‘Hawks saw the career of their leading rusher Ricky Watters winding to a close and needed a premiere back to feature in their pro-set offense.
In his rookie season, Alexander was used sparingly in relief of Watters, picking up only 313 yards and two touchdowns. However, in 2001, Watters announced his retirement, and Alexander represented the next man up. He didn’t disappoint the Seahawks’ executives who had put their faith in him, as he rushed for 1,318 yards and 14 touchdowns, second behind only Rams (and Colts) great Marshall Faulk in the league. Alexander had a statement game against the Raiders that same year, rushing for a franchise record 266 yards on 35 carries against the Silver and Black, including an 88 yard touchdown run.
Alexander came into his own as a featured back the next year, starting all 16 games in 2002. He scored 16 touchdowns to lead the NFC, and had a break-out game against the Minnesota Vikings in which he rushed for four touchdowns and hauled in an 80 yard touchdown pass…all in the first half. Alexander set an NFL record that day with the most touchdowns (five) scored in a single half of football.
The Seahawks back had another banner season in 2003, tallying 1,435 yards and 16 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season that saw his team reach the playoffs. In 2004, he was second in the NFL with 1,696 yards rushing, with Curtis Martin him beating him out for the league rushing title by a single yard.
Alexander had what was his best season as a football player at any level in 2005, as he was named the NFL MVP after rushing for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns. The former Bama star led the NFL in rushing yardage, rushing touchdowns, Pro Bowl votes and points. He broke the Seahawks record for most yards in a season. He was the first running back to score 15 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons. His nine 100-yard rushing games set a franchise record, and he recorded two four-touchdown games. Alexander’s 28 total touchdowns set a single-season touchdown record for the entire league.
Alexander’s MVP season marked the pinnacle of his career, as he smashed numerous NFL records, claimed the rushing title, and etched his name in Seahawks lore. His performance was enough to help propel Seattle to Super Bowl XL, where they eventually fell to the Pittsburg Steelers.
Following Alexander’s banner season, his professional career hit a rough patch. His 2006 campaign was riddled with injuries, including a broken foot in Week 3. After three consecutive seasons of over 1,400 yards rushing, Alexander only accounted for 896 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games. Despite the hardship, he did manage to score his 102nd touchdown, breaking Seattle great Steve Largent’s record for most career touchdowns. He also willed his way to a 201 yard performance against Green Bay in November while still nursing a semi-healed broken foot.
The 2007 season was the final year of consequence for Alexander as a professional football player, as he again suffered early injuries. He broke his wrist in Week 1, sprained his ankle and knee in Week 9 and was cut by the Seahawks at the end of a season that saw him only gain 716 yards.
Alexander landed with the Redskins for the 2008 season, but never saw any action of consequence in Washington. He only accounted for 22 yards on 11 carries, and he retired from the professional ranks at season’s end.
Whether at the college or NFL level, Alexander was the type of player who not only endeared himself to his fans and teammates through his on-field exploits, but through his work ethic, high character and leadership. Alexander was at the crux of an Alabama squad that had to rebuild in the wake of Stallings’ departure, and he performed at his best when on the biggest stages throughout his career. As a pro, Alexander was jokingly unrecognized early on despite his accomplishments, but as he continued to excel, even the most ardent doubters recognized his greatness at the tailback position.
(To see a few highlights from Alexander’s time at the Capstone and in Seattle, click this link. Click here for more Alexander highlights from his Bama playing days. To watch highlights of Alexander’s greatest season of football in 2005, click here. And finally, just for fun, here is Alexander and the Tide ripping Auburn a new one in the 1999 Iron Bowl. Enjoy!)