Interview by Josh Staph
I live my life three ways: I put God first, I set high goals and I have fun. There is not a moment in my life when you will see me without that order of priorities in mind. No matter what, I am going to treat everyone with respect; I am going to be humble; and I am going to love people, which is how I put God first. Then I set high goals. I expect to be the best and expect you to be your best as well. And I don't look at myself as a failure if I don't accomplish that; I just have the attitude of expecting to be the best. Finally, I am going to laugh, crack some jokes and be silly. I am not going to be so up in the air about who I am that I can't laugh at myself.
My faith is everything to me, so it is not something I can turn on and off. I had my faith when I was 10 years old and had only one prayer: "God, I don't know much, but I know how to be obedient." For me, being obedient meant looking at what the Bible told me to do, then doing it. All of the blessings that have entered my life and all my great games have come from me being obedient-learning, growing and loving people-not judging them. Doing that every day is why I'm on top. I don't have to do anything but be myself, work hard, be obedient and have fun. God takes care of the rest for me, and that is how it has been for 18 years. If you could take a look back at me and all of my boys-my brothers, half-brothers and best friends-you'd see that I was the least concerned with becoming an NFL athlete and doing these things within the sports world. I am not the strongest, fastest or the most intelligent, but God has worked with me and said, "Shaun, watch me take you to the top."
Part of my faith is trying to encourage other people; it doesn't matter to me whether they were raised in the church. I include Psalm 37:4 with every autograph I sign. It says, "Delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart." It means the moment you begin devoting your life to finding out who God wants you to be, you will receive the greatest desires of your heart. It will really shake you up, man. For some guys, it's finding the girl of their dreams and marrying her. For others, it's becoming the best businessman ever or having the greatest football season of their lives. That's how God works; He is always looking around the world for people to bless.
My biggest asset on the field is my burst. I know that if you and I are going head to head, and both of us have our feet stopped, I can get to where I want to go before you can get there. My vision and ability to see holes develop are big weapons, too. Since I know where the hole should be, I can see it opening up when I'm running, and I know I can take one more step and bust through it.
That's how I got my nickname "The Ghost." We were scrimmaging at practice one day, and I broke a long run on the defense. Some of the guys on defense started telling each other, "Come on man, get to your gaps." One of the defensive linemen responded, "I thought he was running in this gap, and then he just disappeared." Then someone else said, "That's because he's a ghost, man!" It just stuck from that day on. At times you think you see me, then I disappear and you see me again somewhere else.
When I got the ball on my 88-yard run against Phoenix last year, I was supposed to take it around the corner, just outside of the tight end. Jerramy Stevens made a great block, and Mack Strong, the best fullback in the NFL, was in front of me. It was like walking around the corner knowing I had this ace up my sleeve. When Mack went around the corner, I saw the safety follow him, so I cut back and went at it alone. I cut between the center and guard; and when I straightened up, I saw the hole. With one safety running right and the other on the left hash, I thought to myself, "I can bust right through this hole." I bolted right between the hashes, and it turned into a straight-up foot race. I started thinking about my running technique and how I'm supposed to run fast. So I was just like, "Let's go get it," and started using my technique, breathing and arms to go faster. Once I broke out, I knew those guys weren't going to catch me. It was a great feeling to see all of my hard work and training pay off.
Opposing teams have to respect the things my offensive line, great fullback and I can do to them. Coach Holmgren has designed a sling-the-rock team, so everybody knows that we are going to throw the ball a bunch of times. I make it so that teams can't just respect our passing game. They still have to go out there and make sure I don't go off on them.
When all is said and done, and my playing career is over, I want to be remembered as the greatest of all time. There is nothing else. If you don't set that goal for yourself, then I don't know how you can expect to be great. I just set these high goals and go out and gobble them up-I am going Pacman on this thing.
Participating in sports is so important to the development of young people. The greatest thing about sports is that they teach you how to be a teammate and how to be selfless. They also teach you how to accept a role and master it, and how to be a star, if that's what you are. If you're the help guy, sports teach you how to fill that role, too. You will learn things from sports that school can't teach you. At school, it's just you and the test. With football, it's a bunch of people getting together and working hard to accomplish a goal. It's so powerful to experience that at a young age, especially if you believe in it and truly give into it.
I knew I was going to be really good at football by the time I was in sixth grade. I didn't understand why everyone was making such a big deal about it, because it came so easily to me. I could go out and score touchdowns whenever I wanted. When I got to high school, my older brother Duran was on his way to getting an academic scholarship to Notre Dame. Other guys on the team were getting recruiting letters from all these schools. One of my coaches came up to me at my sophomore banquet and told me that I was going to go to a big Division I school and then go to the pros. That's when I realized I was going to be one of those guys. It never hit me before.
When the time came for me to decide on which college to attend, I listened to my spirit-some people call it their gut feeling. I made a list of things that I wanted in a school, and Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama all had them. I thought USC was another one, but my mom told me there was no way I was going all the way out to California, so it was down to three. As I looked at these schools, it came down to me listening to my spirit to tell me which one was right for me. It turned out to be Alabama. Go with that internal feeling when deciding on a school. If there is anything that makes you feel like you won't be your very best at a school, then don't go there. That spirit is so strong, and rarely is it wrong. Many people get so used to not trusting it that they can't tell if it's right or wrong.
The mission of the Shaun Alexander Foundation is empowering young men through education, athletics, character programs and leadership training to inspire them to reach their full potential as mentors and role models for the next generation. In short, we mentor young men to change the world. We get people involved in programs that are going to grow them either in faith, vision for the future or education. It's not like we want them to go out and be Moses; we just want them to be what they have been called to be.
The idea for the foundation started when I was still at Alabama. I met John Croyle and he took me to the Big Oak Ranch for boys and girls. When I was there, I saw the power of people like John, who take time to help people. We started the foundation my senior year at Alabama and had a big event that raised a bunch of money for various causes. It just grew from there, and we ended up giving away $100,000 worth of toys one Christmas. I never wanted to see the foundation just have lots of money in its pockets. I wanted to have the power to influence and affect people. We have done some great things. Anyone can get involved by going to shaunalexander.org.
I advise young athletes to follow the pillars that I live my life on-put God first, set high goals and have fun. Make sure you don't forget that last part. In high school, you think, "If I don't rush for this, if I don't accomplish that, if I don't play in college, then it's all a waste." It's all good, man. Just enjoy the moment. It will be over before you know it, so you have to sit back a little and enjoy it while it lasts. I still remember running the table and winning the state championship at Boone County in Kentucky. I remember losses to the great Cincinnati teams like Elder, and then us winning eight straight games. You can spend your whole life worrying about whether you are good enough. Just set your goals and enjoy the moment.
I've always been the type of person who avoids consequences when possible; and with drugs and alcohol, there are always consequences. I don't know if staying away from those things has helped my success, or if my obedience has. I don't go around telling people, "You should do this," or "Don't do that." I just know that when you stay away from the dirt, you don't get dirty.
Making the ghost
After Shaun's senior season at Alabama, his agent sought the expertise of Joe Gentry, a renowned Olympic speed coach. Shaun says, "My agent told Joe, `I have this great running back who is preparing for the NFL Draft. He's already talented, but nobody has ever seen him run a 40. He's fast, but you can teach him to run faster.'"
Gentry accepted the assignment, and impressive numbers resulted almost immediately. "When I started working with Shaun, he was running a 4.68," Gentry says. "He ended up getting down to a 4.42 for his campus workouts. Now, he can cover 10 yards in 1.39 seconds."
Fast times are great, but beating smaller and supposedly faster DBs for touchdowns is even better. "I know I'm faster now. When I break out, I know I'm gone," Shaun says. "Working with Joe has taught me how to turn my speed on and when to burst through a hole. I have mastered what I am good at. Instead of just having speed in my repertoire, I know when and how to use it."
Shaun turned on his speed at all the right times in 2005, racking up a league best 1,880 yards on the ground. Defenses couldn't catch up to him; he found the end zone an NFL record 28 times on his way to being named the NFL MVP and leading the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL.
Although Gentry accepts some credit for Shaun's on-field heroics, he recognizes Shaun's exceptional raw talent. "I've been in this game for 35 years and have coached several Olympians," he says; "Shaun is the best athlete I have ever trained. He has one standard for himself, and that is excellence. He sets his goals higher than he thinks he can meet, but he goes out and accomplishes them."
Gentry's and Shaun's secret to success is an ever-growing arsenal of creative drills that train speed, agility and quickness. "Joe is a madman, which makes it so exciting to train with him," Shaun says. "You never know what new things he's going to come up with, and they all work. The more time you spend with him, the more you realize what each thing does for you."
Once again, Shaun has set some serious goals for the upcoming season. He's counting on the following drills to help him bust through holes in opposing defenses this fall. Along the way, he'll be following his coach's simple advice: "Do as many as it takes to get better."
Bring left knee up in skipping fashion
Drive left foot down into ground and quickly rebound it back up for second skip
Perform sequence with right leg
Repeat for 20 yards
The Payoff: Quicker, stronger force application into ground
Gentry: "There are two things you need to think about when it comes to force application-ground time and air time. Too much of either is bad. If you spend too much time on the ground, you will be sucking wind. If you spend too much time in the air, you will be sucking wind. The object is to obtain quickness in your force application into the ground."
In and Outs
Bring left knee up in skipping fashion
Return foot to ground and bring knee up and out to side
Perform sequence with right leg
Repeat in continuous, alternating fashion for 20 yards
The Payoff: Hip flexibility, mobility and strength
Gentry: "If you are static in your hips, you aren't going to go anywhere, and you won't be able to make good cuts."
Hurdler Stretch with Roll Over
Begin in hurdler stretch with left leg extended in front and right leg bent behind
Roll over to left and finish in hurdler stretch with right leg extended in front and left leg bent behind
Continue to roll back and forth for 10 reps
The Payoff: Hip flexor and back flexibility; injury prevention
Gentry: "You notice Shaun doesn't get hurt very often. Part of the reason is his hip flexor and back flexibility."
Weave Through Dummies
Start five yards in front and three yards to side of row of six dummies
Explode out of stance toward beginning of row
Weave in and out of dummies by quickly cutting in between each
Upon reaching end of row, run completely around last dummy and weave back through row
Sprint out of row for five yards after last dummy
The Payoff: Elusiveness and cutting ability
Gentry: "This teaches you to avoid or run around tacklers. It also trains you to stay low when you are making your cuts. We work many different angles with this so that Shaun is ready whether he has to cut or slide to get by someone. That is why he's The Ghost, because he'll slip right by you."
Perform Ickey Shuffle down length of ladder
Upon reaching end of ladder, sprint five yards through finish
The Payoff: Foot quickness
Gentry: "Some people think Shaun doesn't have quick feet, but he does, and you can see it when he goes down the ladder. Anyway, it doesn't matter what those people think when they see him in the end zone. The man is unstoppable in the red zone."
Begin in stance at first cone
Sprint to each cone in specified pattern and powerfully cut to change direction
Upon reaching last cone, break toward finish and sprint for five yards
The Payoff: Change of direction and cutting ability
Gentry: "When people ask me about Shaun's ability to cut back and change direction, this is how I respond: `He was the leading rusher in the NFL with 1,880 yards, so I think he has mastered that ability. What do you think?'"
Begin in stance at center cone
Sprint to first cone, plant and then sprint back to center cone
Sprint to each subsequent cone and plant, returning to center cone each time
Upon returning to center cone after fourth cone, plant and sprint through finish
The Payoff: Change of direction and stop-and-go ability
Originally published in STACK Magazine and on STACKMAG.com, September 2006.
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