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Jerry Sullivan: For 'Zo, every day is Thanksgiving

Jerry Sullivan

Like most Americans, Lorenzo Alexander will gather around the dinner table with his family today and give thanks to God for his innumerable blessings. It will be a special day for the Bills' linebacker. It will also be the same as any other.

"It's a daily thing for me," Alexander said Wednesday afternoon. "I bless the day we celebrate,  but I wake up every morning thanking God for the ability to get up, to be able to walk. I pray at night, too, thanking him for the blessings we have."

"Oftentimes, you get caught up in this world and the rat race and what I could have, and don't think about what you already have."

No NFL player has more reason to give thanks than Alexander, who is having the season of his life at the age of 33. He spent a decade as an ace special teams player and reserve linebacker, never getting a chance to fully express his football skills.

Alexander came here to play special teams for Rex Ryan, who had wanted him four years earlier. He was expected to play special teams, to be a reliable backup to rookie outside linebacker Shaq Lawson. Instead, Alexander became a star.

Lawson got hurt and Alexander was a revelation in training camp. He won the job and never looked back. After 10 games, he is tied for the NFL lead with 10 sacks, which is one more than he had in his first nine years as an active player. He has also been a mainstay on special teams and a mature voice in the locker room.

"It's a culmination of several things," he said, "finally being healthy, finally getting an opportunity, being around some great players. Kyle Williams is one of the smartest D linemen I've played with. I think I was capable of doing this several years ago, but I ended up getting hurt.

"Sometimes, it's how God plans things out. I have a unique story, and I think it's a lot better than how most people want things, to be a first-rounder and be dominant."

Alexander was undrafted out of California in 2005. He languished on the Carolina and Baltimore practice squads before landing in Washington in 2006. Joe Gibbs was impressed with his versatility and elevated him to the main roster in 2007.

They called him One Man Gang because he could play so many positions. Alexander, who was 300 pounds in those days, played linebacker and defensive line. He also filled in at fullback and tight end and was a demon on special teams.

He spent seven seasons in Washington, where he learned how to survive and accept his role on a team. In 2007, his first year on the 53-man roster, he was rocked by the murder of Pro Bowl defensive back Sean Taylor, who had been one of his mentors. It made him examine his life, which seemed empty and aimless to him.

"His death made me ask what was I living for, what kind of legacy was I leaving behind and how was I impacting the world outside myself," Alexander said. "I was still young, 22 or 23 -- an NFL guy, out partying, drinking, doing all that stupid stuff. It helped me to go all in with Christ and turn my life over to him and direct my life off the field."

The following January, he married his wife, Manjanique. They have four children -- ages 21 (from her previous relationship), 8, 6 and 2. Alexander stopped drinking, altered his diet and adopted a rigorous workout regimen that included pilates and mixed martial arts. He lost 70 pounds and became an elite special teamer.

Washington coach Mike Shanahan once called him as good a special teams player as he'd ever coached. In 2012, Alexander made the Pro Bowl on special teams. The next year, he signed with Arizona, but a Lisfranc (mid-foot) injury limited his season to three games.

He considered retirement, but returned to play 16 games for the Cardinals in 2014. Then he spent a year with the Raiders in his native Oakland. The Bills signed him for one year at $885,000. It might be the bargain of the century.

Ryan loves the guy. Too much, in fact. Rex admitted Wednesday that he used Alexander too much last week in Cincinnati. Alexander was nursing an ankle injury, but he played half the special teams plays and 70 snaps at linebacker.

"That's too much," Ryan said. "We need to get Shaq into it more, whether he's backing up Jerry Hughes or Alexander. That could also give 'Zo an opportunity to help us out more on special teams."

All things considered, might 'Zo be your MVP, I asked?

"Yeah, he is," Ryan said. "No question."

"I appreciate that," Alexander said. "A lot of that is me coming out of nowhere, that shock value. But there's a lot of guys on this team that are huge MVPs. I think of Shady" McCoy, "what he's able to do when he's healthy in the run game."

Ryan has been giving Alexander a scheduled day off from practice every week to keep him fresh. Alexander said it takes until Friday to recover at his age.

"It's huge," he said. "I'm lucky that I'm with a coach who appreciates a veteran and trusts me to still prepare mentally, because it's hard for some guys to miss practice and still play well. But I've been around long enough to where I've kind of figured it out."

He can always share notes with defensive tackle Kyle Williams. He and Williams, who is also 33, have bonded over faith, family and football. Williams has five young children, while three of Alexander's four kids are under the age of 9.

"I've naturally gravitated to him," Alexander said. "We're the same age. He always gives me a hard time about being two weeks older than him. Our sons and daughters play really well together. We hang out. They play on the same soccer team. Our wives get along and we're men of faith."

Like Williams, he is driven by the desire to play for a champion. Alexander has played in three playoff games, two with Washington and one with Arizona. He lost them all. The question is whether he will remain with the Bills next season.

Alexander will be 34 at the start of next season. It will be his last chance to cash in as a free agent, though he's probably too old to command elite money. The Bills will be inclined to give much of his linebacker time to Lawson, a first-round pick. I asked if it bothered him, not having had a chance to become fabulously wealthy along the way.

"It's all about perspective," he said. "Wealthy compared to who? I've made way more than I grew up with. I made more in one year than my mom made in her lifetime. Money doesn't make you happy. That's a byproduct. Some people are blessed with it and some aren't. But that's not why I play this game.

"It's really not like that for me. Obviously, contracts come into play. But at the end of the day, I want to be in a place where I'm wanted and respected and this place has been that for me. I love coming to work. So this really is a blessing."

Bills fans should be thankful to have him. It's not often you come across an athlete for whom every day is Thanksgiving.

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