Circle of Change Stops at EWU for Alexis Alexander
Aug. 6, 2008
Medical Lake High School’s loss was to be the University of Montana’s gain. But UM’s loss was baseball’s gain, and baseball’s loss was Washington State University’s gain.
However, WSU’s loss was Eastern Washington University’s gain, and that’s where the circle of change has stopped for Alexis Alexander.
Now, the senior fullback/tailback for the Eagles hopes to make his last season a memorable one. With a confidence and selfless maturity cultivated from his experiences, the 25-year-old is ready for one last hurrah. Or is it?
"I guess I have been around the block a few times," said the 2001 graduate of Medical Lake, Wash., High School, which is located less than 20 miles from the EWU campus in Cheney, Wash. He will turn 26 on Nov. 18, just three days after Eastern hosts Northern Arizona and four days before playing at Weber State.
"I have to say the thing that has kept me going and kept me positive is that I’ve always thought my ability to play running back is so natural. I can play a lot of sports and can play them decent. Baseball was actually a side sport I played in the summer for fun. But running back was the most natural feeling and athletic endeavor for me to do. I have so much confidence in myself. You just give me the ball and give me a chance, I’ll bet I can make a play. So far, so good."
In 19 total games in his first two seasons as an Eagle, Alexander has rushed 64 times for 325 yards (5.1 per carry) and six touchdowns, and has caught nine passes for 94 yards and one more score. But the real beauty in his game is his blocking ability -- last year he helped All-Big Sky running back Dale Morris rush for 930 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"He was able to expand his role last year and carry the ball more," said first-year head coach Beau Baldwin, who was offensive coordinator at EWU in 2006 when Alexander made his debut. "But the great thing about Lex is that he wouldn’t care -- he doesn’t need to carry the ball. When all is said and done, he wants to see us compete our tails off and win ballgames. That’s what matters to him.
Alexander was originally going to sign a letter of intent to play running back at Big Sky Conference powerhouse Montana, but accepted a contract in minor league baseball instead. He spent three years in the minor leagues before getting the itch to play football again, and walked-on at Washington State.
Frustrated with having to play linebacker, he transferred to EWU and played in a football game for the first time in six years when he made his Eagle debut in 2006. He earned second team All-Big Sky honors that season, then was a Big Sky All-Academic selection in 2007 when his season was shortened because of an injury.
"He was as good a leader as there was on the team," said Baldwin of EWU’s 3-8 finish in 2006 that was followed by a 9-4 record in 2007. "And that was his first year of playing in a long time. We had lots of juniors and seniors on that team, and in my opinion, he was a better leader than a lot of those guys as a first-year fullback.
"He wasn’t touching the ball much, but I was just impressed with him as a person," Baldwin continued. "He was a guy in the locker room who was like a little bit of a big brother and somebody you could really follow. He was going to lead and he was going to do it in the right way."
Alexander is ready to take the world on after football, needing just one class to receive his degree in electrical engineering. An internship working with engineers at the utilities company Avista Corp., in Spokane, Wash., has given him some ideas for helping solve the world’s energy problems. But Alexander himself certainly has no lack of energy or ambition to perhaps further his playing days.
"Energy is a big issue right now, and I think I have some possible solutions I’ve been thinking about," he said. "But right now I want to focus on football because I know my time in football is limited."
Since returning to collegiate football, Alexander has compared his 5-foot-10, 240-pound frame to other fullbacks in the National Football League. Former Seattle Seahawk Mack Strong (6-0, 253) is one, as well as Lorenzo Neal (5-11, 255) of the San Diego Chargers and Mike Karney (5-11, 255) of the New Orleans Saints.
"I’m realistic and not everybody makes it, but I’m preparing for it and I’m going to take the best shot I have," he said. "I think I have what it takes to play fullback at the next level so I’ve been measuring myself up with fullbacks in the NFL for years. My size, my speed, my strength -- I’ve been making comparisons."
He recently looked at the weight-lifting prowess (225 pounds 30 times) and speed (4.7 in the 40) of former Furman standout Jerome Felton (6-0, 246), who was a fifth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions last spring.
"I put my numbers up to theirs and I like to think I have a shot," he said.
"He’s an incredibly good student with great character," added Baldwin. "He’s a great ambassador for this team. Some day I may be looking to him for a job."
Alexander Nearly Became a Grizzly in 2001 . . .
Alexander Nearly Became a Grizzly in 2001 . . .
Alexander’s athletic journey began at Medical Lake High School where he excelled in football and baseball.
In football, Washington Prep Football Report selected him as a first team All-State linebacker in his senior season in 2000. He also earned honorable mention All-State honors from Associated Press as a senior running back. He was the Great Northern League Offensive MVP as he earned first team all-league honors as both a running back and linebacker. He played in the East-West 2A All-State Game.
He received recruiting interest from Pacific 10 Conference schools and most Big Sky schools, but interestingly, not EWU. Eastern was in the midst of a coaching change from Mike Kramer to Paul Wulff and already had a bevy of running backs that included Jesse Chatman, who would rush for more than 2,000 yards in 2001.
Besides, baseball was still in the equation for Alexander.
"It was quite a process," he explained of his impending decisions during his senior year. "After the season was over I knew I had some decisions to make. I was coming off a good season of baseball my junior year, so I was also getting looks for baseball. I was either going to go to college and play baseball or I was going to go to college and play football -- or go to a college and play both. Then the professional scouts started coming out."
After a recruiting trip to Montana, he decided to become a Grizzly if football was the route he would take.
"I was looking forward to going there," he said. "Joe Glenn was the coach and their running back was a senior, and he told me I could come in and take over as a freshman. I was pretty much banking on that, but then a scout for the Royals came and told me about the opportunity I was going to get from them."
"It was hard -- I didn’t know which way to go," he added. "I kept asking for advice from so many people. I didn’t know if I should sign on the signing date for football."
Alexander didn’t sign his letter of intent in February of 2001, preferring to wait until the major league baseball draft that would take place nearly four months later. That was disappointing to Glenn, who is now the head coach at Wyoming.
"He got really upset with me and tried to talk my mom into talking me into signing," Alexander recalled. "It was a bad day and I felt like I let them down so bad. But I thought I had to look out for myself and my family more than them. They could get another guy -- obviously, their program was doing all right. But it was a tough decision.
"It was a rough situation," he added. "It was down to the wire and my mother told me I had to make a decision. To tell you the truth, I was looking for somebody to make it for me."
In hindsight, Alexander wishes he would have signed the letter of intent. The document is binding as far as what school he attends to play football, but didn’t have any bearing if he decided to pursue baseball instead. However, at the time, Alexander felt like if he had signed he would have been taking a scholarship from another deserving player.
"At the time, I didn’t have a clue about baseball -- the way that it worked and the minor leagues," he explained. "I was ignorant to the whole situation. The mistake I made was not signing my football letter of intent. I held out, thinking that it would mess up me getting drafted. It actually benefits you -- they draft you higher because of your other possible career."
His gamble eventually paid off and he was an 18th-round draft choice by the Kansas City Royals. Not only did he receive a salary and a signing bonus, but he received a sizable scholarship he could use whenever he wanted at a college of his choice.
"I took the first offer (the Royals) gave me because it sounded great," he said. "Financially I couldn’t turn it down -- it was a chance to help my family. They told me that no matter what (college football) scholarship I was given, they could match that and then some. I felt like I had to do it to benefit my family as well as myself."
"I don’t think my decision affected Montana too bad," he added with a laugh. "They won the national championship in 2001, so I think they were okay without me."
Baseball Helped Teach Alexander How to be a Leader . . .
Baseball Helped Teach Alexander How to be a Leader . . .
Baseball didn’t turn out to be Alexander’s passion, but he learned some things along the way -- particularly United States geography.
Besides spending the 2002 season with the Spokane Indians of the Class A Northwest League, baseball took him to places he had never heard of before.
In Iowa there was Burlington, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities of Davenport, Rock Island, Bettendorf and Moline.
In Arizona -- one of his favorite stops -- there was Scottsdale, Surprise, Peoria and Tucson.
In Florida, he spent time at the Royals’ spring training site near Haines City, which is located near Orlando.
"That was a great experience too," he said of his stop in Florida. "There was a little pond, and I’m talking about a 50-foot-long pond, and there were 12-foot alligators in there. You think they would go to bigger bodies of water, but there are alligators in little ponds everywhere. You have to be careful when you’re fishing."
In all, he hit .225 in 355 career at bats, with five home runs and 22 stolen bases. He reached the AA level, but most importantly, he learned some life lessons along the way.
"The biggest things I took from baseball were the life experiences, the lessons in work ethic, ways to handle yourself daily and how to prepare yourself to play sports," he explained. "I learned those things from veterans who I watched and played baseball with. Some were guys who had been playing 10 years of minor league baseball and some were in the big leagues.
"I would watch them wake-up in the morning and the routines they would go through," he continued. "I saw that it wasn’t what I was used to in high school. I would roll out of bed, go to class and then play a game or practice without warming up. These guys are out there taking care of their bodies and getting treatments -- I learned how important those things are to be successful and have a good career."
Lack of Passion Leads to Football . . .
Lack of Passion Leads to Football . . .
He enjoyed his time in baseball, but Alexander knew there was something missing -- a passion for the game. Actually, Alexander knew exactly what his passion was and he knew what was next.
"It was a great experience, but I was a football player," he said. "I knew that all the time.
"I saw guys that had spent 10 years in the minor leagues, so I said, ‘all right, I’m going to play football.’ When football season would roll around and I was playing baseball, it just ate me up. I’d watch football on TV saying that I could make those plays. I walked away from baseball with my head up in the sky just celebrating and happy about the decision."
He enrolled at Washington State hoping to follow his dream of being a running back. Instead, he bounced from receiver to defensive back to linebacker and spent his time in Pullman, Wash., on the scout team defense.
"I wanted to play Pac 10 football," he said. "But they wouldn’t give me a chance to play offense, which is way more natural for me. After the program went on a downhill slide, I contacted Coach Wulff and he said come on in."
But before he came to Eastern, he considered one more time to become a Montana Grizzly and join his former high school teammate and workout partner, Jonny Varona, in Missoula.
"I was thinking about it," he admitted. "I was always a big fan of the Griz more than the Eagles. That’s changed now."
In a way, his lack of selfishness led him to Eastern. His high school sweetheart and long-time girlfriend, Nicole Jones, a 2002 Medical Lake High School graduate, had endured his absence during his travels in baseball and to Pullman. He felt he owed it to her to attend school nearby after she had settled in Spokane.
"I put her through some hard times playing baseball all over the country," he explained. "For four years I was gone. When I went to Washington State I was still a little bit a ways from her. When I thought about going to Montana, I thought that wouldn’t be fair to her so I went to Eastern. She stuck by me for four years. We’re still together and have been together for almost 10 years now."
He made his Eagle debut against Oregon State on Aug. 31, 2006, when he played in his first football game in six years dating back to his senior season in high school in 2000. He earned team offensive player of the week and special teams player of the week honors as a result of his performance against the Beavers.
He carried only 12 times during the season with a game-high of 37 yards against Central Washington that came on his first carry of the game. Two of his four catches came against Weber State (11/4/06). But even with such paltry numbers, his blocking and leadership helped him earn All-Big Sky honors and accolades as the team’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Even as successful as it was personally for him, it was frustrating to finish 3-8.
"It was a long, painful season," he said of 2006. "Last year we knew we had some potential, but we didn’t know what we could do. We hadn’t proved anything yet."
That all changed in when Eastern rebounded for the school’s third NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoff berth in the last four years. Alexander began the 2007 season as the team’s starting running back, and had 122 yards and a touchdown against UC Davis in EWU’s second game of the season. He had a 57-yard run that set-up an Eagle touchdown, then scored three touchdowns on just five rushing attempts in his next outing versus Idaho State.
He also scored touchdowns against Portland State and Montana State, and was the team captain versus Montana. But he suffered an abdominal injury against Sacramento State (10/27/07) that was later diagnosed as a hernia, and he missed the last five games of the season.
"I was putting together a great season too," he said. "I convinced the coaches to give me a ball -- I was running the ball great and feeling great."
"I thought it was just a little pull," he said of the injury, comparing it to the one NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb suffered in 2008. "I put a little ice on it after the game, I was walking around and it was feeling good."
But the pain would not subside, and finally, in December, he had to have surgery.
"It turned out to be a tear in my lower abdominal muscles," he explained. "I had a really bad pain when I tried to lift up my legs really high or if I got in a lunge position. It was a sharp pain.
"I tried to come back a couple of weeks later but I couldn’t do it. I kept trying and trying, and I think I actually made it worse. I finally had to go under the knife for the first time. I thought I would never have surgery."
The five-game Big Sky winning streak he helped start against Montana State led to a first-round playoff game against unbeaten McNeese State. Eastern won that game easily 44-15, but Alexander could only watch from the sidelines and cheer on his teammates.
"It was extremely frustrating, especially during the playoffs," he said. "My specialty is inside the 10 or 15 -- I thought that was one way I could really contribute during that run."
Eastern’s season ended with a 38-35 loss at Appalachian State, which would eventually defend its FCS title. But not before the Eagles rallied and put a scare into the Mountaineers.
"At first it looked like we couldn’t play with them, but then we started to show we could play with them," he said of the experience. "We finally just put everything on the line and went for it.
"From the sideline it was tough, but I was in our guys’ faces every chance I could get trying to motivate them to go just a little bit harder and a little bit longer," he added. "It was fun to be there, but it killed me at the same time -- it killed me not to be out there."
Montana Loss the Turning Point as Expectations are High for 2008 Season . . .
Montana Loss the Turning Point as Expectations are High for 2008 Season . . .
Last season, Montana finished the regular season 11-0 and 8-0 in the Big Sky and won its 10th-straight league title before losing in the first round of the NCAA Football Championships Subdivision Playoffs. The Grizzlies have now won 16-straight league games, including last season’s 24-23 victory over EWU in Missoula in which the Eagles out-gained the Grizzlies 565-289. Eastern kicked a go-ahead field goal with 2:20 to play before top-ranked Montana kicked the game-winner with 26 seconds to play after converting a fourth-and-10 play.
That devastating loss was the turning point in Eastern’s season.
"After that game we had the choice to sink or swim," he explained. "We could have gone down from that point because we were all disappointed about the outcome. We were celebrating for awhile thinking we had it, but the next thing we knew it was taken right from under our noses.
"After that game we looked at each other -- and some people had some bad things to say to each other and started pointing fingers," he continued. "It seemed like the team was going down, but then all of the sudden everybody decided to build off of that. We chalked that up as a win even though we lost. We saw the way we handled them and knew we could beat anybody. We built on that and went on to win quite a few more games.
"Last year we proved it to ourselves," he added. "Now we know how good we are and there are expectations out there -- the sky is the limit. We know we have the personnel to become the best team in the conference."
With 15 returning starters and 43 total letter winners. The Eagles have been picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth in the NCAA Football Championships Subdivision in various pre-season rankings released this summer.
"Our expectations are extremely high," he said. "We discovered how good of a team we were last year and our confidence levels are up there. We plan on winning the Big Sky Conference -- we talk about that every day. When we’re in the weight room and running we’re talking about what we’re doing it for. We know we have the personnel to win the conference if we go out and execute."
A coaching change shouldn’t deter the Eagles at all, Alexander predicts. But there were some anxious moments after Paul Wulff left EWU to become head coach at Washington State University.
"A lot of people were nervous and we didn’t know what to expect," Alexander said. "You don’t want your senior year to be ruined. Sometimes coaches come in and change up the whole program and bring in their own guys. You never know what to expect, so there was some talk from some players who thought they should transfer. We were nervous, but when Coach Baldwin was selected we were really excited."
"It didn’t slow us down at all. The biggest hold-up was between coaches when we didn’t have a head coach. Coach Baldwin came up and said he wasn’t going to try to fix something that wasn’t broken. He liked the way we were playing already. He said he was going to pick-up where we left off and add a few things here and there to make us better. So we’re taking the momentum from last year and rolling with it."
"If I go out and break a run and get some yards under my belt, I want them to go in there and get some too," Alexander said. "We look out for each other -- I’ve got mine, now you go get yours. That’s how we like it.
"We care more about winning the games. There were times I wasn’t feeling well and I told Dale to get in there. And there were times he wasn’t feeling well and told me to get in there. Sharing playing time has never been an issue."
Alexander also knows his blocking from the fullback position will be a key to help alleviate the pressure on four new starters along the offensive line.
"There is some potential," Alexander said. "Some of the younger players realize they have a responsibility now and there is going to be a big weight on their shoulders. They are going to go from playing a couple of snaps each game when we were ahead by a lot to playing the whole game. They’ve been spending extra time in the weight room to prepare themselves."
Eastern’s opener is Aug. 30 at Texas Tech, followed by another tough game at Colorado. Much like the 2006 season when Alexander opened his career against Oregon State and West Virginia, the Eagles are opening the season against a pair of highly-regarded NCAA Football Bowl Division foes.
"We’re excited to play those games," he said. "We’ve played big games before, and most of our players have experience in playing in front of big crowds. The difference is that two years ago we were a deer in the headlights -- our team was shocked just looking in the stands and nobody knew how good our opponents were.
"Now, it’s a completely different atmosphere and a really different team. Everybody knows their potential now, so we’re going to Texas Tech and Colorado with expectations to win and play right there with them. It’s going to be a challenge, but we know we can handle it. We’ve worked this hard and come this far, all we have to be worried about is trying to beat the guy across from us."
Eastern opens its home season against Western Washington on Sept. 20, followed by the team’s Big Sky opener at home versus Idaho State on Sept. 27.
"I hope we stay healthy through it all, but it’s also an opportunity for us to gain some momentum," Alexander said of the team’s non-league schedule. "If we can show that we can play with these teams, then we can prove to ourselves that the Big Sky Conference is ours. We’re going to use them as a building block to a great season."
And coming up on Oct. 11 at Woodward Field is a certain game against a certain Montana team that Alexander could have very easily found himself playing for.
"We don’t need any extra incentive for the game against Montana," he said. "The passion to beat Montana is there -- we don’t need any more motivation for that game. I like it when they bring their fans because I just like the noise. I don’t care if it’s good or bad noise, I like it because it gives me extra energy.
"We’ll be ready for that game -- when it comes up it will be the biggest game of our careers to that point," he added. "We’ve been thinking about this game since the day we lost last year in the final minutes of the game."
But Alexander also knows that looking past Eastern’s other seven Big Sky opponents is a no-no if the Eagles have championship aspirations.
"You can’t look past any team in this conference, because if you do, that could cost you your ring," he said. "Any team can beat any other team on any given day. We were just gaining our confidence, and Portland State came in last year and beat us 28-21. We wondered what happened -- I’m still wondering what happened."
As Alexander prepares for his final collegiate season, he’ll have the hometown crowd behind him. His mother no longer lives in Medical Lake, but his grandparents, Virginia and Richard Lattimore, are ardent fans. And they are easy to find.
"They are at all the games," Alexander said with a huge smile. "My grandma puts my number (44) and my name on everything. Shirts, hats, shoes -- everything."
With all the changes he’s endured over the years, there was one other change Alexander pondered but decided against. He had the chance to change his jersey number to 34 this season, which is the same number worn by his heroes Walter Payton and Bo Jackson.
"I always loved Bo Jackson because he played for the Royals and played football," Alexander said. "I was going to switch, but everybody had 44 jerseys ready to wear at our games. They asked me to please not switch."
Yes, indeed, the circle of change has stopped for Alexis Alexander.