How I Got Here

Jan 28 2017
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Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

Before this year, all people knew me as was a special teams guy, and as a player who does not possess elite measurables, but who plays with tenacity and heart. All of that is still true. But suddenly, this season, at the ripe old age of 33, I was also among the league leaders in sacks. I won the AFC Defensive Player of the Month award in October. I’m a Pro Bowler for the second time — but the first time as a position payer.

And most people don’t understand how I did it.

I guess I don’t really understand, either. Sometimes I look back at my career and I have a hard time wrapping my head around how I got to where I am today. My career has been … unusual. It has not been a fairy tale. But the trials and tribulations that I’ve endured have made me so appreciative of the opportunity to play in the NFL, regardless of my role.

And I have had many, many roles.

As a kid, my NFL dream didn’t include going undrafted, playing for multiple teams, losing 75 pounds and playing numerous positions. There was nothing uncertain in my NFL dream. In fact, it was pretty clear.

I used to imagine sitting at a table in the green room at the NFL draft with my mom and my family. Commissioner Tagliabue would call my name in the first round, and then I would kiss my mom and make my way around the table, hugging each of my family members. Then I would walk onto the stage, shake the commissioner’s hand and hold up a bright red San Francisco 49ers jersey with the number 1 on it.

I grew up in Oakland, California, and for most of my childhood the Raiders played in Los Angeles. So I was a huge fan of the team across the Bay, the 49ers. And when I dreamed about getting drafted, I dreamed about the Niners.

But this is how the draft really went down: I was surrounded by my family, but we weren’t in the green room. We were at my uncle’s house. I didn’t get to walk across a stage. Still, I was pretty confident that I was going to get drafted, even after the first few rounds passed without my name being called. I even had one team call me late in the draft and tell me they were going to draft me with their next pick. I hung up the phone, excited to see my name on television. Ready for my dream to come true.

Suddenly, the team that called was on the clock, and their pick was in. And they selected….

Somebody else.

I just sat there on my uncle’s couch in complete disbelief. The team had said they were going to draft me, but they didn’t. I just couldn’t comprehend how somebody could straight up lie to me like that.

Now that I’ve been in the league for a while, I know better. I’ve heard stories. Other guys have told me that the same thing happened to them. And I’ve learned more about the dynamics of a draft war room. Odds are, the coach that called me wasn’t lying to me. Maybe, at the last second, somebody with more power had decided to go with somebody else, and the coach who wanted to draft me got overruled.

That was my introduction to the business of football.

Lorenzo Alexander

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Images

I got another call right after the draft was over. It was from my agent. He said that there were three teams interested in signing me as a free agent: Buffalo, Carolina and San Diego. He told me that this was actually a better scenario than if I had been drafted in the sixth or seventh round.

Once again, I understand that now. But at the time, I thought he was just trying to make me feel better.

Fifteen minutes later — because if I had waited too long, those teams would each have signed somebody else and forgotten all about me — I decided to sign with the Panthers. I thought their scheme was a good fit for me, and they had only drafted one defensive tackle. It was a position of need for them, and I felt like I would have a good chance to make the roster.

Today, I’m happy that my introduction to the NFL started with a slice of humble pie. Nobody could tell me anything when I was 22. I was the big man on campus — a star player for the Cal Bears, the No. 8 team in the country.

I guess God thought I needed a reality check, so He gave me one.

But as much as going undrafted hurts, getting cut will really mess up your ego.

The Panthers cut me twice — the first time, they re-signed me to their practice squad That’s where I spent my first year in the NFL. They cut me again before the 2006 season — this time for good. Hoping to catch on with another team, I signed with the Ravens.

Five days later, they released me.

When that happens, you start to reflect on what you’re doing with your life. You consider what your other options might be. You begin to think, Maybe this isn’t going to happen. But I wasn’t quite ready to stop trying. Playing in the NFL had been my dream for so long. And my ego may have taken a hit, but my confidence was never shaken. I signed with the Redskins and joined their practice squad.

In the back of my mind, though, I thought that if it didn’t work out in Washington, my next stop was probably going to be law school. I told myself that I would give it everything I had, but that I was also going to be realistic.

My first season in Washington was the most physically demanding year of my life. I had a chip on my shoulder, so every day I came to work to prove that I belonged — that I could compete with the guys on that roster. And as a member of the practice squad, I took every single rep in practice on offense, defense and special teams.

And these were Joe Gibbs practices. He was old school. We practiced in pads Wednesday through Friday, every week, and we were always banging. So my body took a beating.

Some days, I would walk into my townhome after practice and I wouldn’t even be able to climb the stairs to my bedroom. I would literally get down on my hands and knees at the foot of the stairs and crawl to the top. My legs would be that dead.

The league is different now. Teams don’t practice like that anymore. They don’t hit as much. I try not to be one of those “Back in my day” kind of guys, but I laugh at the young cats that come into the league now, talking about how hard they think they got it. I’m like, “Boy, you’re lucky … you don’t even know!”

But I’m glad I was pushed as much as I was and worked as hard as I did, because that’s what opened the door to my first real opportunity. And little did I know, but playing so many positions on the practice squad was making me a valuable asset. I was like a Swiss Army knife.

Before the 2007 season, my third in the league, the Redskins coaches asked me if I would move to offensive line. I didn’t want to, but I knew it was an opportunity to make the team. So I switched. I worked with legendary coach Joe Bugel, and All-Pro linemen Chris Samuels and Randy Thomas took me under their wings and taught me the ins and outs of playing offensive line.

But that was just the first of many moves.

I spent all of OTAs and minicamp transitioning to offensive line, but when training camp started the coaches asked me to move back to defense because that would give me a better chance of making the team. Then, in Week 1, after a couple of injuries on the offensive line, I found myself back in the offensive meeting room.

During that season, in addition to playing multiple positions on the offensive line, I also played fullback, defensive end, defensive tackle and special teams. Before long, I gained a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades, and the guys started calling me “One Man Gang.”

But I wasn’t trying to earn a nickname. I was just looking for an opportunity. In the NFL, you’re fortunate if you get one. If you get more than one, you’re really lucky. It’s a cutthroat business. There’s always somebody gunning for your job. And for most of the early part of my career, I was the gunner.

I was lucky to have even been playing for the Redskins in the first place. I have a good friend in the front office, and he told me years later that I hadn’t originally made the team. But the guy they had signed instead of me suffered a hamstring injury. That’s what opened the door for me.

That’s how small the margin for error in the NFL is.


Win McNamee/Getty Images

What turned out to be the real turning point in my career didn’t come until 2010, when the Redskins hired Mike Shanahan as their coach. Coach Shanahan and his staff were going to transition our defense to a 3–4. And after they saw my versatility as an athlete — and my ability to make plays in space in kickoff and punt coverage — they told me that I could really thrive as a linebacker in their new scheme. So they asked me to make yet another transition. This time, to linebacker.

I was a 315-pound defensive tackle when I entered the league in 2005. Over the years, I had had to cut some weight because my role on special teams was growing, and I needed to add speed and quickness to help me get downfield to cover punts and kickoffs. So I stopped drinking alcohol and cut out fast food. I put myself on a strict diet, and I started doing exercises and following training programs, like cycling and MMA workouts — things I had never done before. To be an effective linebacker, though, I needed to drop even more weight. And so I really ramped up my training. I eventually got down to 240 pounds, a solid playing weight for a linebacker.

But I think the real x-factor in my successful transition was London Fletcher.

I already knew a lot about Fletch. I knew he was a sideline-to-sideline player. I knew he was a physical, dominant presence. But once we started playing together in Washington, I found out that he was a great leader, too. He was so intelligent. He’s probably one of the only players I have ever been around who I think could coordinate a game and play in it at the same time. He’s that in tune with what’s happening on the field. So to now be in his position group and to have the opportunity to pick his brain and just learn from him was incredible. He taught me a lot about playing linebacker, but it was the other stuff I learned from him that really had a lasting impact on me. He taught me how to take care of my body. There’s more to it than just cutting out alcohol and fast food. It’s about listening to your body and giving it what it needs. There’s a science to it.

I learned a lot from Fletch at Redskins Park, but the time I cherished most was when we drove to the team hotel together the night before home games.

We lived near each other, about a one-hour drive away from the team hotel. So Fletch and I would drive to the hotel together. And on those car rides, I got to really know him in an intimate way. We’re both men of faith, so the conversations would range from God, to family, to football.

I became a better football player because of what he taught me on the football field.

I became a better father, a better husband and a better man because of what he taught me on those car rides.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Like I said, in the NFL, it’s all about your opportunities. In Washington, I was playing behind Fletch, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo — three Pro Bowl linebackers. So even though I was progressing, with the help of Fletch’s guidance and great coaching, my only real opportunities to shine were still on special teams.

In 2013, I made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer. That was something really special for me. I was an undrafted guy who was bouncing from practice squad to practice squad, and seven years into my unlikely career, I was recognized as being among the best in the game at my position.

But then the business of football came back to bite me again, and the Redskins did not re-sign me after the 2012 season.

Toward the end of my time in Washington I was getting about 15 to 20 snaps a game at linebacker, so other teams knew what I was capable of doing on both defense and special teams. And that off-season, I signed a three-year deal with the Cardinals.

Lorenzo Alexander

Ross D. Franklin/AP Images

It had been eight years in the making, but I finally had the opportunity to compete to be a full-time starter. I couldn’t have been more excited.

But as brutal as the business of football can be, the game can be equally cruel.

In my third game with the Cardinals, on the road against the Saints, I was covering Jimmy Graham when my foot got caught in the Superdome turf and I felt a pop.

I had suffered a torn lisfranc tendon in my left foot. It was a freak, noncontact injury, but it landed me on injured reserve. My season was over.

It was the first time in my career that I had missed significant time with an injury. I realized that it was out of my control, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty. The Cardinals had paid me to come in and contribute and be a part of their team, and I couldn’t do that for them. I was getting paid to sit around and do nothing. I felt like I was stealing money.

But when I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I started the rehab process. I was back on the field for 2014, but something was wrong. I couldn’t cut off of my right foot the way I used to. When I turned to the right, even in drills, I didn’t have the same explosion. It got to the point where I felt like maybe I couldn’t play anymore — like my career was coming to an end.

I played sporadically that year and didn’t make as much of an impact the Cardinals and I had hoped. And just before the 2015 season, I got cut.

At that point, I didn’t have many options. I felt like I had lost my explosiveness, and not many teams want to bring in a 32-year-old special teams guy coming off a lisfranc tear.

At one point I said to my wife, “Even if somebody picks me up, I think next season will be my last. I think I’m going to retire.”

That was in 2015.

Then, the Raiders came calling, and I signed a one-year deal to play in Oakland.

This is it, I thought. My last chance.

But as the season progressed, something happened … I started to feel better. My explosiveness started to come back. I felt like my old self again — like I still had something left in the tank. Like it wasn’t over. So when I became a free agent after the 2015 season, I decided not to retire. I wanted to take one more shot at extending my career. The Raiders hadn’t really let me play on defense — I was strictly a special teams guy. So I decided that if I was going to keep playing, it would be for a team that would let me mix in on defense. All I needed was one team to give me that chance.

And in the end, there was only one.

The Buffalo Bills.

Now, the question I get asked the most is, “What changed when you came to Buffalo?”

The answer? Nothing. Rex Ryan said he wanted to bring me in. He also said that not only would I make the team, but that he also wanted me to play special teams and rotate in with some defensive packages — just like I had done in Washington. So the only thing that really changed was that a team saw in me what I had always seen in myself. A lot of things came together at the right time. Rex was looking for guys to come in and compete, and I was ready to do just that. The Bills run a 3–4 defensive scheme that allows somebody with my particular skill set to thrive. Throw in a couple of roster moves and an unfortunate injury to Shaq Lawson, and the door was open. All I had to do was step up.

It’s all about opportunity.

Now at the ripe old age of 33 and in my 12th year in the NFL, I’ve just wrapped up the best season of my career. Throughout my time in this league, I’ve realized that everybody can play. Everybody at this level has an incredible amount of talent. But sometimes the situation doesn’t afford them the opportunity to display their talents.

And that’s really what I’ve been doing for my entire career: Preparing myself for my opportunity.


Al Tielemans/AP Images

I didn’t get a real shot with the Panthers or the Ravens. It didn’t work out in Washington because the Redskins had such a talented linebacking corps. There just wasn’t room for me. A freak injury robbed me of an opportunity in Arizona. And I didn’t get the chance to shine in Oakland.

I guess the sixth time’s the charm.

Most people don’t understand how I’ve done it. But after reading this, I hope maybe you do. My career has not been a fairy tale, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

This is the plan God has for me, and I’ll trust in that.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

I’m honored to be in the Pro Bowl for the second time in my career. Even at 33, I feel like I have a few more years left, and that I can continue to play at a high level. I’ve spent my entire career preparing myself for the opportunity that the Bills gave me this season, and I took advantage. Now, I have a new challenge to prepare for: To prove that I’m not just a one-hit wonder.