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One-on-One Coverage: Lorenzo Alexander on uncertain future with Bills, NFL longevity

Lorenzo Alexander recognizes he’s nearing the end of his NFL career.

His contract with the Buffalo Bills is due to expire after the season. That has prompted the 35-year-old linebacker to wonder whether he’ll be on the team next year, on another club or out of the NFL altogether.

“I mean, it's obviously on my mind,” Alexander said. “I’m just talking through a lot of that with my wife. I think we'll know more once the season's over, but I'm obviously getting close to the end. Whether it’s this year, next year, I don't know yet, but that is in the air as far as us just trying to figure out what's best for us and our family.

“At the end of the day, I would love to be able to retire here.”

Alexander is in his 12th pro season and third with the Bills, whom he joined as a free agent primarily to contribute on special teams but who ended up emerging as a difference-making force on defense.

Of his 30 career sacks, 21 have come with the Bills, including 5.5 this year, which ranks second on the team behind the six of end Jerry Hughes. Alexander’s 12.5 sacks in 2016 were the second-most by a player in his first season with the Bills, behind Bryce Paup’s 19 in 1995.

In this week’s “One-on-One Coverage,” Alexander touched on a variety of topics with The Buffalo News. Besides his uncertain future with the Bills, he also addressed the key to his NFL longevity, his childhood in Oakland, his friendship with former teammate London Fletcher (who also played for the Bills), and his influence on younger teammates.

Buffalo Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander has a pilates session at Symmetry Pilates Studio in Orchard Park Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.  (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Buffalo News: It's no secret you take incredibly good care of yourself physically. Where does the drive to put in the necessary conditioning work and follow a fairly strict diet come from?

Lorenzo Alexander: I've had important people throughout my career, probably starting with my Uncle Steve Moore, who coached me at Pop Warner in Oakland. He's my mom's brother. He coached me in baseball and was my high school football coach, so I never could get away from that coach mentality, no matter where I was. And he was constantly on me about never being complacent, regardless of my talent, always constantly pushing me. He probably put me through the hardest work I've ever had in my lifetime.

Then, along the way I had Coach (Ken) Delgado; he was my D-line coach at Cal. And I've had various NFL players, from London Fletcher to Renaldo Wynn to James Thrash, different guys who were important to me to kind of help me understand what it takes to have some longevity in his league. And I've just continued to kind of adopt different things from people that I see that have worked and kind of add them to my own daily process and just trying to figure out different ways to continue to improve and tweak things.

Even this year, I was doing some of the things, but it was more just doing them because I thought they worked. But this year, with our huge sports science department, we really put a why behind it and really became more dialed into how I ate on days that I played games or practice or rest, and then how I also recovered, not just getting in the ice tub every day. I'm switching things up and that's definitely helped me. Always trying to grab information, always trying to grow, trying to learn.

And that comes with the defense as well. Always trying to learn other people's positions. "OK, where can I make a play here? How can I cheat (over to the anticipated point of attack)?" It's more of a way of life than me actually having to think about it. It's become what I do and who I am versus something that I have to do.

BN: At this stage, you have to be playing this game for more than the money.

LA: Oh, I love it. You can't play this game, especially the way I feel, and not love it. You have to really enjoy the people you're with – this locker room is awesome – and then love flying around and laying it on the line every week. You can tell the guys that don't, because you just don't see the passion and the drive when you turn the film on.

BN: You've always put a lot of stock in what London Fletcher tells you. Why is that?

LA: We're really tight. He's kind of like my big brother. I played with him for six years in Washington (2006-2012), so he's my mentor in a lot of ways. Obviously, from a football sense, Xs and Os, understanding the game, how to study film, how to break things down. From off the field, a community guy; he had his London Bridges Foundation. Married, has three kids, he showed me how to be a father and make all that work (while) being so busy. And now that he's transferred into broadcasting, that's something that I want to do, kind of talking to him about that as well.

He's just a real good friend I can call and talk to because he's been there and done it. He was a guy that I confided in when I was in Washington. We used to ride to the games together all the time, so it was just a natural friendship that was kind of created when I was in Washington.

Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) sacks Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) in the fourth quarter at New Era Field in Orchard Park on Sunday, Nov. 25. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

BN: When you joined the Bills, you were basically just seen as a special-teams guy. How were you able to elevate your profile as much as you have?

LA: I think there's a lot that goes into that, because when I was in Washington, I was a pretty good special-teams player, a Pro Bowl player. With going on defense, some guys get more opportunities than others. It's just the way the league works. But when you get it, what do you do with it? So I was productive with what I had. I just never was a 50- to 60-play-a-game guy, where you can rack up multiple sacks in a season.

When I went to Arizona in 2013, I was supposed to have a breakout year, but I tore my Lisfranc [ligament in the foot] the third game. In Week Two or Three of the 2014 season, my body was still in shock because I missed 13 games the year before. My foot still wasn't right and I couldn't make plays. Mentally, I could see things happen, but just couldn't get there. I couldn't change direction, didn't have the speed, I was waking up sore, I (was struggling to go to) sleep because I was sore. So I called London and said, "I think I'm about to retire." He kind of talked me off the ledge and said, "Just wait." And as a season went, I felt a little bit better. My body just kind of rejuvenated and I forgot what I felt like and just continued on.

When I got here, obviously, my role was going to be to play special teams. Some guys went down and I had an opportunity to play and was healthy again. And, obviously, I thrived in Rex Ryan's defense. Playing next to Kyle (Williams) helped, too. Rex actually had wanted me with him on the Jets in 2013, when I went to Arizona (instead). His scheme was just a natural fit for my skill set and what he does on defense is what I'm capable of doing just because he moves guys around, likes to blitz linebackers, dials up some things, much like when he had Adalius Thomas (when Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens) – how he used him, similar body type, similar type of play, how we were both physical, big 'backers.

BN: You never seem to take any of this for granted, do you?

LA: No, I don't. Because I've been undrafted, I've been cut a couple of times. I mean, when you start at the bottom and then you have some success, you realize where you're at. I was on the street even when I first started and I thought about retiring and my mom and my uncle kind of talked me off the ledge then. I made Carolina (in 2005) and in 2006, I got cut from Carolina and didn't make the practice squad. Then I was bouncing around the country, doing the tryout thing, and I was like, "I went to Cal, I got my degree (in legal studies), this ain't for me. I'm about to go to law school."

Even when I made Washington, I wasn't the guy they chose initially. There was another D-lineman there and he pulled his hamstring in the workout. They saw him limping off the field and then decided to go with me. So there's never been a real direct path for me.

Indianapolis Colts head coach and former Bills quarterback Frank Reich listens as Bills linebacker Lorenzo ALexander answers questions during a State of the NFL roundtable at the 17th annual Call to Courage award breakfast at the Hyatt in April. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

BN: You seem to see a much larger picture, beyond your own career or football in general, and don't hesitate to involve yourself in the bigger issues of the day.

LA: I just try to stay connected to what's going on and current events, whether it's watching CNN, Fox News, talking to people in the community since I am involved. But I think a lot of it just has to do with how I came up, single-parent (household), grew up in the inner city. So a lot of things that are going on culturally right now, I grew up in, I was subjected to. I saw friends and family in gangs, the violence, some of the police brutality, some of the things that we're talking about. So I've seen it with my own eyes.

Being an NFL player makes everything enhanced. I think there's a lot of value in using this platform and utilizing my voice, because people listen when I speak just because I'm an NFL player. Now it's my job to make sure that I'm educated and come across in a way that's bringing people together and not divisive. I try to utilize that as I've gotten older, wiser, obviously feeling more comfortable with my career and being OK without having ball. Through my faith, football is no longer the number one priority in my life.

Some guys shy away from that because they don't want to tank their football career, (thinking), "If I say this, I may not be here." I'm at the point, (and have been for) probably the last five or six years, where I'm going to stand up for things that I believe in, even if it's at the risk of maybe not being on this team or another team. I'm comfortable with that. I'm just past being insecure. I think my skill set and what I bring to an organization is sufficient enough to where people want to keep me around and I also try to pride myself on bringing people together. I'm not trying to just say something to be divisive and just make noise.

BN: How did you manage to escape those childhood surroundings that could have prevented you from reaching the lofty heights you've achieved?

LA: My mother and my uncle. I mean, they put the fear of God I me, as far as not wanting to do anything crazy but they gave me stability and love. I have a cousin that I wrote a blog about. He easily could have been me and I could have easily been him spending 10 years in prison for attempted murder. And, really, the difference between me and him was instability that he had at home. He was moving around a lot, his dad was doing some crazy stuff where on the other hand, I had my mom, my uncle, really stand firm, sacrifice and show me the right path and didn't allow me to fall into the hands of people that were trying to get me to do things that are illegal.

I'll even give my cousin credit, too. He's older than me by a couple of years and growing up I was probably a lot softer and insecure than who I am today, and he would say, "I will beat your butt if I ever catch you out here doing any of this stuff” that he was doing. So he was aware enough that he knew what he was doing was wrong. That's just the life he chose, but he would not allow me to fall into it.

BN: How do you avoid being discouraged by a season in which the team is a real long shot to make the playoffs?

LA: Staying in the moment. What I like about our team is that we're really tight-knit, we have a lot of young guys on this team, but they are all showing improvement. ... You see personal growth in a lot of them and you understand that they're trying, so I've really just tried to be a mentor.

I've been on a team that started 3-6, we won out and made the playoffs, so I have faith that we have the ability to do that. Obviously, it's a hard challenge to win six, seven games in a row, but Houston has just done it and we were toe-to-toe with them and probably could have beaten them if one ball bounces our way. I've been around long enough to know that you can't give up and give in and start pointing fingers because you always have a chance as long as you're eligible and we're still mathematically in it.

BN: What's your relationship like with so many teammates who are significantly younger?

LA: If you follow Twitter, (cornerback Tre’Davious White) kind of refers to me as his uncle. He calls me “Unk.” So I think that is the view of who I am (within the team). I think they understand the things that I stand for and what I'm not going to go for. There's some things that I think they try to avoid around me or won't bring my way because they know I'm going to say something about it. There's a line there. And I think the good thing about it is that I'm just trying to help them. It's not just me speaking about football. It's about being a man, too, and what does that really look like? In football and sports culture a lot of times, we get a false presentation of what that really means and I've had to mature into the man I am today.

I've had guys help me with that process, too. I like to be that person in their lives and if I hear something that doesn't sound right, I'm going to give them the other side of the coin. It's like, "Have you thought about it like this if you're going to do that?" And the thing I try to do every day is the same thing I do on a football field: not just talk about it, but show it, be genuine. I'm a Christian, I'm a big faith guy. I remember coming up, I had guys tell me the same things I'm saying (to younger teammates), but then I would go to the club and they'd be out there doing the same thing I was doing, and I'm like, "This doesn't add up." So I've tried to do that both on the field and off the field, where the things that I say, I'm living them.

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