The Bills were up by three touchdowns and had downed a punt deep in Vikings territory with less than two minutes remaining in a stunning upset victory last Sunday in Minneapolis, when Jordan Poyer drew the ire of Lorenzo Alexander.
Poyer, the Bills’ safety, had taken a moment after the change of possession to talk smack to Vikings fans sitting just beyond the end zone.
“We’re on the field at like the 10-yard line, so all the fans are right there,” Poyer said, “and I’m just kind of waving at them. Like, you know, ‘Have a good ride home or whatever.’ And Zo was like, ‘Stop that (stuff). Don’t pay them no attention.’”
But Poyer pressed the issue.
“I’m like, ‘Zo, man, you’ve got to enjoy the win now,’” he said.
“Man, act like you been here.” Alexander barked.
“And I was like, ‘Aight. You right.’
Of course, he was right.
Of course, Alexander, the 35-year-old do-it-all linebacker, would know how to respectfully celebrate the largest upset in the NFL in a quarter century.
And, of course, he was a major reason why the Bills, 17-point underdogs, strutted out of U.S. Bank Stadium with a decisive victory, their first of the season.
Alexander, a man who has risen from practice squads to Pro Bowls, one of the 10 oldest undrafted players in the NFL, excluding kickers, is playing some of the best football of his life, whether lining up at outside linebacker, along the defensive line or playing special teams.
“I be asking myself that same thing,” Shaq Lawson said.
“I’m trying to figure it out,” Trent Murphy said. “If you find it, let me know the answer. He found the Fountain of Youth years ago and ever since, he’s been humming.”
“I think it’s just a testament to how smart he is with his body,” Jerry Hughes said. “You see what he does off the field, or at least a lot of us do in the locker room, how he spends the right amount of time eating the right amount of food, coming in early to the training room, working with strength coaches for stretching, and you see someone who’s able to play that long, what they’re doing, you kind of start to just mimic him.
“And not only just me, but a lot of the young guys are doing that, too. We have rookies getting massages and taking advantage of all the resources that our ownership and trainers have provided, just because of Lorenzo’s doing.”
Alexander’s on-field contributions are a big the reason the Bills have staunched the bleeding after allowing the most points in the league through two weeks.
And his longevity not only grants him great wisdom and an aura of respect among his teammates, some of whom are younger than his oldest child, but serves as an inspiration, as well.
“He’s a leader, man,” Poyer said. “You got a guy like that in the locker room, it makes you want to play harder and do right by him.”
WHATEVER IT TAKES
Lawson can’t help but notice as Alexander is swarmed by reporters and TV cameras on Wednesday in the Bills locker room.
A first-round draft pick, it was Lawson’s shoulder injury his rookie season that thrust Alexander into a starting job in 2016.
Alexander, a career special teams standout then in his first season with the Bills, responded with a breakout, 12½-sack campaign and a trip to the Pro Bowl, where he was named defensive MVP.
He was 33 years old.
“You look up to someone like that because you know how this league goes…” Lawson said. “He always did the right things. He waited his turn. He was always patient.
“Lorenzo tells me stories, how he came from getting cut, all that, changed positions, but he stayed the course and stayed successful, and you see it now, at the age like LeBron, he’s out there still looking like he’s 22, 20 years old, out there playing football, because of the hard work and dedication he put in.”
To hear Alexander tell it, he only needed a shot.
“It’s all about opportunity in this league, and I didn’t get my opportunity until later in my career,” Alexander said.
The Bills’ uniform is the sixth Alexander has worn since he initially signed with the Panthers out of California in 2005, making stops in Carolina, Baltimore, Washington, Arizona and Oakland.
Before arriving in Buffalo, he struggled with a painful Lisfranc sprain in his foot, an injury that took two years to fully heal and had him considering retirement.
But his faith, family and friends helped him push through.
Alexander was never one to give up. He’s played multiple positions since turning pro, including offensive guard, tight end and fullback, all along the defensive line and linebacker, always trying to make himself useful to stick around.
“I called myself an athlete,” Alexander said.
He credits his uncle for his pragmatic outlook, and years scrapping for a roster spot for checking his ego.
“Is it about where you want to play or do you want to play?” Alexander said. “And you need to make your decision. What’s more important? Playing in the league was more important than being the star or the guy or maybe being the three technique. I just wanted to be in the league. I didn’t care how or what it looked like.
“I’ve always been a guy, ‘Hey, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.’ And that’s what got me in the league, and that was my niche. So I’ve just kind of been that guy this entire time.”
That in-depth knowledge of the game contributes to his on-field savviness. And he said he feels more comfortable in the Bills’ 4-3 defensive front this season, after transitioning from a 3-4 and from the right to the left side a year ago.
Even though Alexander is now an off the ball linebacker, he understands what the defensive linemen are thinking on first and second down when they’re playing the run, how he fits into the larger picture and can help them by playing downhill.
He sees the game from both sides of the ball and understands the protections from playing offense.
And he’s watched several Pro Bowl players up close, particularly during his time in Washington from 2007-12, when he was behind London Fletcher, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
Now, part of his value is imparting his relentless, selfless mindset and wisdom on his teammates.
“My testimony gives it a little bit more validity,” Alexander said, “and me being able to speak it to younger guys, especially taking special teams seriously, because then it gives you time to develop as a starter on offense or defense. And if it doesn’t, what’s wrong with playing 10-plus years on special teams? That’s a great life.”
MAINTAINING HIS HEALTH
There seems to be a combination of reasons for Alexander’s ability to compete alongside and against far younger players.
He credits changes to the collective bargaining agreement for reducing wear and tear during the week, pointing out that Joe Gibbs’ teams in Washington used to practice with pads from Wednesday through Friday. But plenty of guys came into the league when he did and are long retired.
Alexander’s dedication to strengthening his core through Pilates workouts is well documented.
He says he eats well, but has no personal chef, crediting his wife for making healthy meals.
He says he sleeps well, always in bed by 10 or 10:30, and that he’s a morning person, awake by 5:45 and at the practice facility by 6:10, when he eats breakfast, gets treatment and lifts before attending a 7:30 meeting for signal callers.
He says he takes approved supplements – nothing against the rules – but admits that LeSean McCoy and other teammates occasionally bust his chops.
“I ain’t hiding nothing,” Alexander said. “They might mess around (with me). Shady will – ‘Oh, what is that? Give me some of them pills! That must be them pills!’ – but most guys don’t. They just let me be.”
Age isn’t McCoy’s favorite topic of conversation.
“You call him 30, he gets upset,” Alexander said. “Even though he is.”
Alexander, on the other hand, relishes his standing as the oldest player on the team – 10 days older than defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2006.
“I think it’s just pride to still be able to play in this league and be competitive,” Alexander said. “And people respect you. For me, it’s not really about the media and the fans. But having peers and coaches respect what I’m doing out there, that really means a lot to me, that I have their respect and I’m not just a guy out here just to be out here. I’m actually being productive, and I’m a guy that they talk to or show their young guys on their teams like, hey, this dude is 35 and still covering punts, you know? You don’t get that all the time. So that’s probably the thing that I take closest to my heart and cherish the most.”
Wednesday is an off day for Alexander, a maintenance day for some veterans as the Bills attempt to manage the workload.
“It doesn’t mean you’re soft,” Alexander said. “We’re being smart about it so that you’re ready to go again on Sunday.”
But instead of sitting and watching practice, he’ll warm up on the track for 20 minutes and get in some individual work to keep sharp and his body moving.
He remains engaged with what’s happening on the field.
“I’m still locked in,” Alexander said. “I almost become like a coach, in a sense. They give me the call sheet and I look at it, look at my spot, look at maybe a couple of young guys and I’m talking to them. ‘What do you see? Maybe you could have done this better.’ And then also running through some mental gymnastics.”
He’ll finish the day with additional treatment to recover from Sunday’s punishment, and ramp up his activity level as the week progresses.
Murphy said he was surprised when he arrived to the Bills’ facility last Friday, typically a shorter and easier day of practice, and heard metal clinking on the field.
Alexander was running sprints with two chains dragging behind him.
Everyone else was just arriving.
PASSING IT ON
Alexander hasn’t yet discussed his story with rookie first-round linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, like he has with Lawson and many others.
“But it’ll come out,” Alexander said. “It normally does organically at some point, whether coach asks about it or I’m saying it.”
The reactions are often the same.
“It’s like, ‘You played what? No, you didn’t,’” Alexander said. “And I’ll pull up an old school picture of myself when I was 300 pounds, and they’ll be like, ‘Whoa!’
“And you end up sharing your story with them.
“But Tre is great. He’s going to be one of the good ones. He actually listens and does a great job of observing and is trying to add things to his routine now, just because he sees me doing it or Kyle doing it or somebody else doing it that’s been in the league for quite a while.”
Edmunds and Matt Milano, the team’s starting linebackers last week when the Bills opened in nickel defense, have two years of NFL experience combined.
That youth makes Alexander’s experience critical.
“It’s great for us, because we’re really young at the linebacker position,” Hughes said. “So to have someone back there who has that vet savvy, who understands the game of football, it goes a long way, because things happen a lot faster when you’re in here working on the chalk board early in the morning with the coaches versus being on the field with Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers, and the play clock’s counting down from 10 and they’re making their audibles and you’ve got to remember not only your play but what the secondary’s calling.
“So he’s able to kind of help them out, simplify the game for them, allow them to kind of play fast but also understand to play with no fear. If you make a mistake, make a mistake at 100 miles per hour, kind of like him. He plays at 100 miles per hour. Just go and just ‘BSU.’ Just blow stuff up. And we’ll worry about getting things fixed on the film side. I think by him having that mentality and showing those young guys to come down hill playing fast, it’s great and a lot of fun to see.”
The young guys follow Alexander’s lead off the field, as well, particularly when it comes to taking care of their bodies, which can be a challenge at first.
Rookies are accustomed to playing far fewer games during a college season and bouncing back quicker, so understanding what’s required to properly care for their bodies can take time.
“Zo always says our bodies are like sports cars, you just don’t drive your Ferrari all around and throw it in the garage,” Hughes said. “You’re always constantly fine tuning it, working on it, maintenance, things like that. I take the approach of being like a NASCAR. Those guys have their own pit crew, they have their specialist who they go and see and we kind of use that analogy. And when you have someone that’s been doing it for so long and so well, you can’t help but sit there and pick up notes.
“And he’s not only out there for the duration of the defensive snaps, but he’s also making an impact on special teams, being a true leader. I think you pick up on that and see that someone at the age of 35 is running around like he’s 23, by all means follow that guy.”
Edmunds said he appreciates all the guidance Alexander is able and willing to offer.
“He’s been a good mentor and I’m just going to continue listening to things that he says,” Edmunds said, peeling off his jersey after practice.
“I’m about to get in the tub in a few.”