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How Pilates turned Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander into a Pro Bowler

Sweat begins to collect on Lorenzo Alexander’s shaved head.

The only sounds in the spacious room come from his deliberate, deep breaths and the soothing encouragement of his female instructor. The only source of light filters through the frosted double glass doors in the back, revealing a Pilates reformer machine and neatly arranged exercise balls, barres, mats.

Flat on his back with his sculpted arms at his sides, the Bills’ veteran linebacker slowly raises his legs toward the ceiling. Then he carefully peels his lower back off the reformer mat one vertebra at a time.

Alexander holds his position for a few beats, relying on the strength of his core to keep his body perfectly aligned and his rear end suspended in air.

Legs outstretched. Heels together. Toes pointed outward.

“Bend your knees down for me … and then roll through your spine,” says the instructor, Judi Donner, a bubbly mother of two whose face and physique belie her true age.

Alexander dutifully follows her direction as she guides his feet downward with her hands. In one slow, steady motion, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound tackler lowers his knees to his chest, flattens his back against the mat — again, one vertebra at a time — and then lowers his pin-straight legs to a 45-degree angle.

“Nice … good …” Donner tells him.

The pair is only a few minutes into their 50-minute session, but Alexander — a certified Pilates trainer instructor himself — already can feel his muscles burning.

He knows the pain is temporary. It’s the payoff that he’s after.

NFL players will try any and every type of training method, even something more commonly associated with women, in a never-ending quest to prolong their careers one more play, one more game, one more season. But it’s far more challenging for veterans to defy Father Time and the physical toll the game takes on their bodies.

In a sport in which no player is spared from injury, any advantage, any edge, is needed. And the 34-year-old Alexander has found his.

Long before he joined the Bills, he was introduced to Pilates, a conditioning program focused on building core strength, flexibility and endurance through low-impact stretches and movements.

Since then, he’s adopted a new lifestyle, shed more than 80 pounds, switched positions and emerged as a trusted asset on the field and inside the Bills locker room. It showed Sunday, when he recorded a sack, two tackles for loss and nine tackles overall in Buffalo’s 9-3 loss to Carolina.

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This is the best he has ever felt — physically, mentally and spiritually, he says. And he credits Pilates for being “a huge tool” in his transformation, which began in 2008.

Buffalo Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander stretches out at the end of his pilates session with Judi Donner. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“I think it actually elongated my career,” Alexander says.

That’s why he can be found here every Tuesday morning during the season: Symmetry Pilates Studio in Orchard Park, which Donner owns.

Looking at Alexander’s chiseled frame now, it’s hard to fathom that he once was a 315-pound defensive tackle when he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2005. And listening to him rave about the benefits of Pilates, it’s hard to believe he once was a nonbeliever.

“I think that's for women”

After bouncing from Carolina to Baltimore in his first two years, Alexander landed in Washington in 2006. He didn’t know at the time that it would be his home for the next seven seasons, nor did he realize that a suggestion from a teammate would have a lasting impact on his health and his NFL longevity.

Kedric Golston, a fellow Redskins defensive tackle at the time, had already discovered the benefits of Pilates. “He said, ‘Hey, Zo,’ you need to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Uhhhh, I think that’s for women,' ” Alexander says, smiling.

Golston pressed the issue, refusing to take no for an answer. Eventually, Alexander caved.

“I tried it and ended up loving it,” he says. “I lost a lot of weight over my career, but I was still able to maintain the strength because Pilates helps you engage your core. You’re able to do things without using as much energy.”

After Alexander and Golston became certified instructors, they and their wives opened a Pilates studio in Ashburn, Va. Soon, teammates such as London Fletcher and Ryan Kerrigan were regulars in the establishment.

Alexander tries to sell his teammates on the benefits of Pilates and other workout approaches has the ear of Preston Brown. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“During the offseason, we had a class with just Redskins,” Alexander says. “And during the season, those same guys would still come.”

Though he no longer teaches Pilates, he’s discussed the health and fitness benefits with his current Bills teammates. In particular, 24-year-old linebacker Preston Brown.

They sit only a few stalls away from one another in the locker room, but their bond extends well beyond the facility. Alexander, a married father of four, is the the older brother, mentor and friend Brown can talk to about anything — whether it be football, life, relationships or religion.

“He just has such a great aura. You just want to be around a guy like that,” says Brown.

When he heard cycling was a part of Alexander’s training, Brown joined a weekly spinning class. And after his mentor shared the benefits of Pilates and “eating clean,” Brown hired a personal chef to live with him during the season and added hot yoga to his offseason regimen.

“I’m trying to not be the silly guy who doesn’t listen to the advice until he’s 30,” Brown says.

Alexander also encouraged close friend and longtime Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams to try Pilates too.

“If you’ve ever had a back injury, they’re terrible, and you’d be willing to do anything that you think would help,” says Williams, 34, who did Pilates “a couple days a week,” from February to late May, to supplement his regular training.

He soon learned it was harder than it looked.

“I did some private lessons on the mat with an instructor, and that crushed me. That was hard,” he says. “She comes in and the first thing she does is she sits on her rear end and she lays her forehead on the floor and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m in trouble. This isn’t my cup of tea.’ ”

But he, too, came to appreciate the end results and plans to continue doing Pilates in the offseason. “It was harder, early on, than I expected,” says Williams. “But my body got used to it and I enjoyed it.”

The key is to invest in his longevity. “You have to invest in your business,” says Alexander, “and essentially your body is your business.”

Alexander continues to keep age at arm's length. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

A different man

The linebacker has played practically every position there is (including offensive line and blocking tight end) and has alternated between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive fronts during his 11 seasons with five teams. More impressive, Alexander has gone from a self-described “utility guy” to a special-teams stud and a two-time Pro Bowler and Pro Bowl defensive MVP.

But while he continues to defy the conventional shelf life of NFL players, Alexander doesn’t want to be viewed as someone who suddenly reinvented himself in Buffalo.

“The ‘Benjamin Button’ thing kind of bothers me because it discredits what I did before last year,” Alexander says of the fictional character who has a condition that causes him to age in reverse. “I mean, I get it, but I don’t get it.

"Obviously, perception is reality in a lot of cases. In the NFL, even more so. So if you haven’t been a star player or a household name nationally, people assume that you haven’t been a productive player or that you’ve been just a guy that stole money for 11 or 12 years — which you can’t do in the NFL.“

His versatility and production in Washington earned him a three-year deal with the Cardinals in 2013. But a Lisfranc injury, which results in pain throughout the middle of the foot, derailed his stay in Arizona and threatened his career.

Alexander entered the NFL with a frame 80 pounds heavier than it is today. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“Mentally, I could see what I wanted to do, but my body wouldn't react. Or I couldn't do it. It was just too painful,” says Alexander, who contemplated retiring before latching on to the Oakland Raiders in 2015. “I could barely make it through practices. My body would just shut down like, ‘I’m done.’

But in those moments, he leaned on his inner circle and his faith.

“I didn’t want to go out like that, not under my own terms or kind of being — disabled is not the right word, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it,” he says, chuckling. “Essentially, being hurt and limping out of the league.”

In Oakland, he reestablished himself as a standout special-teamer, paving the way for his next stop: Buffalo.

“I disappeared for a couple years because of my Lisfranc. So it was like, ‘Ooh, where did he come from? We haven’t heard his name in a while,’” Alexander says, insisting that he’s been the same player all along.

Years later, he’s still impressing.

After Rex Ryan’s Bills signed him to a one-year deal for the veteran minimum salary ($885,000) in 2016, he recorded 12.5 sacks (tied for third-most in the NFL), along with 76 tackles (56 solo), six passes defended, three forced fumbles and one interception. In March, he signed a two-year deal to remain in Buffalo.

But a new head coach and a change in defensive scheme hasn’t curtailed his production.

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He admits that the old Lorenzo wouldn’t recognize the man Bills fans see flying around the field wearing No. 57.

“Have you seen pictures?” he says, letting out a belly laugh.

“(My wife) couldn’t wrap her arms around me. As I got smaller and smaller and smaller, she was like, ‘Man, where is my Lorenzo?’ It’s just night and day. A healthier lifestyle. A different lifestyle.”

Daily example

On this particular Tuesday, Alexander arrived at 8:30 a.m., a half hour before his weekly workout with Donner begins.

He pulled his black 2009 F150 Platinum truck, perched atop 35-inch tires, into the strip mall parking lot on West Quaker Street and then hopped out of the massive pickup.

Sporting gray Nike basketball shorts and a blue “26 Shirts” Tee featuring a charging white buffalo, he smiled as he walked toward his guest.

“You ready?” he asked.

Within minutes, he’s inside the modest Pilates studio, sliding off his sneakers.

Rule No. 1 here at Symmetry: No shoes allowed.

He followed Donner through the main room where a group class consisting of five women, mostly middle-aged, is taking place.

(Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

His private session began, as always, with a quick warmup on the reformer. Then the workout — which is tailored based on how banged up Alexander’s body is during the season — segues to “lengthening exercises” that address “spinal articulation” and abdominals.

“Good … beautiful … awesome,” Donner tells him, carefully eyeing Alexander’s form on the machine.

Even at his age, retirement is never far from his mind.

But for now, Alexander is focused on the here and now — and striving to be at his best, mentally, physically and spiritually. Not only for himself, but for his family and his teammates.

His role on the Bills is simple, he said: “It’s really just to give an in-life picture of what a professional looks like, that daily example on and off the field. I think a lot of times, coaches say they need professional guys, guys to be accountable and hard-working, but it’s hard to paint a picture where guys can grasp on to.”

Alexander knows eventually his body will betray him. It’s an inevitable reality, especially at his age. But in this moment, he’s not thinking about the future. He’s only focused on his breathing, his engaged core and Donner’s encouraging words.

“Whenever (my body) decides to hit the wall, it's going to hit the wall,” he said. “But each year, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better.”

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