It rarely happens during a player’s career.
There’s not much time to savor the moment, to stop and smell the roses, to bask in the spotlight, to get pats on the back.
Because there is always “next.” Next play. Next quarter. Next half. Next game. Next season.
If you’re lucky, there’s a next season and a next season and a next season and a next season.
By the grace of God, when you decide to walk away from the game for good, you walk without a limp and with a clear head and full bank account.
And that’s when you can finally reflect, like former University of Florida all-American defensive end Alex Brown has had a chance to do over the last year since playing his last NFL game of a nine-year career. He has been able to exhale long and deep, and realize what a beautiful ride the tall, athletic kid from little ‘ol Jasper, Fla. has enjoyed.
“I have every single game I ever played at Florida and in the NFL on disc where I can watch them anytime I want,” ” says Alex, 33, who officially retired two months ago and lives north of Chicago where he spent most of his pro career playing for the Bears. “Forty years from now, I want to be able to watch them and say, `Man, I can’t believe I used to be able to do that.
“I have no complaints with my career, at Florida and even in the NFL. I played on a lot of great teams with a lot of great people. If there’s anything I want people to remember about me, it’s that I played hard and I had fun doing it. I know I couldn’t have played any harder. I gave every single ounce of energy that I had. I loved the game. I LOVED the game. Loved practices. Loved the workouts.”
So many “what ifs?” fell into place for Alex to become Florida’s all-time sacks leader from 1998-2001, to become the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in ’01, to start 123 of 143 games in the NFL from 2002-2010 including starting all 16 regular-season games in seven of his nine NFL seasons (eight with Chicago, one with New Orleans).
What if a University of Miami player hadn’t been murdered, the reason why Alex’s mother told Alex during his college recruitment he would not take a recruiting visit to “The U,” his top in-state choice?
What if childhood friend Andra Davis hadn’t talked Alex into taking his last official visit to the University of Florida?
What if then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier hadn’t kept Alex out of the starting lineup at the start of his sophomore season in 1999 to light his fire?
What if Alex had never spotted Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin unknowingly tipping him the snap count, enabling Alex to have a memorable five-sack breakout game three games into his sophomore season?
What if the Bears hadn’t privately worked Alex out before the 2002 draft, more than happy to steal him in the fourth round knowing he’d be a starter for many years to come?
What if the 2011 NFL player holdout had never happened and a just-freshly released Alex wouldn’t have happily discovered the family time he had missed all these years?
“If I went back 15 years and did it all over again, I’d change almost nothing,” Alex says.
It wasn’t Alex’s dream to be a Gator. He was a huge University of Miami fan and loved the University of North Carolina, so much so that he and his mother visited Chapel Hill to find out why then-Tar Heels coach Mack Brown wasn’t recruiting him.
“That was the one place I wasn’t getting letters from,” says Alex, who was an all-American linebacker and three-sport star for Hamilton County High in Jasper, a town near the Florida-Georgia border 90 miles northwest of Jacksonville. “And I wanted to go there. I felt I fit in perfect there.
“Barry Gardner, my high school coach, was a diehard Florida State fan. I went to every Florida State camp I could. I also played quarterback in high school and Auburn had Dameyune Craig at quarterback at the time, so they were looking at me.”
Alex knew one thing. His college choice would not be far from home. He had an older brother who played at Maryland, and “we never got to see him play,” Alex recalls.
Miami was at the top of Alex’s list until April 1996 when Hurricanes’ junior linebacker Marlin Barnes was found stabbed to death at a campus apartment just before Alex was to officially visit Miami.
“My Mom said `No way, you’re not going there’,” Alex says. “So I said, `OK, what am I going to do now?’ I had one more paid visit I could take.”
As it turns out, one of Alex’s childhood friends, another hot college prospect named Andra Davis had just visited the University of Florida when the Gators were staging their celebration for winning the 1996 national championship.
“I known Andra since the fifth grade and he told me he had a great time on his visit,” Alex says. “We’d always played against each other, and we talked about how cool would it be if we finally played together. So I called (Florida assistant) Coach (Jimmy Ray) Stephens on a Tuesday night. He had been recruiting me and I asked if I could come down for a visit.
“A few days later, I was in Gainesville. My player host was Mike Peterson (now in his 14th NFL season, currently a linebacker for the Falcons). I was there about six hours and I knew I wanted to sign. It felt right. It felt like home. People who know me that once I make up my mind, that’s what I’m going to do.
“At that point, the only thing left for me was to call all the other coaches who recruited me that I was going to Florida. The hardest part was telling Coach Brown, because I had gone up to North Carolina and asked him to recruit me, and now I was turning around and signing somewhere else.”
Alex’s Florida career got off to a roaring thud when he broke his foot early as a true freshman and was redshirted. Depressed, Alex called home and his dad talked him off the emotional ledge.
“He just told me to spend the time getting bigger and faster, so that when I do finally get a chance to hit the field, I hit the field running,” Alex says. “But even the next year (as a redshirt freshman in 1998), I didn’t get on the field that much except for special teams and at the end of games.”
Of course, the starter that Alex was backing up happened to be Jevon “The Freak” Kearse, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year who became a first-round NFL draft choice of the Tennessee Titans in 1999. He went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and played 11 NFL seasons.
The fact to this day that Alex calls Kearse and Alex’s former Bears’ teammate Brian Urlacher “two of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen” soothed Alex’s lack of playing time. But getting increased playing time in a regular-season finale loss against in-state rival Florida State at the end of the ’98 season and making 2½ sacks with a caused fumble made him hungry for more success.
By the next season in ’99, that ’98 Florida State game took on added meaning for Alex.
In the stands that night in Tallahassee was Barry Gardner, Alex’s high school coach. He was there to watch his son, a walk-on at Florida State, as well as Alex.
Seven months later while dining with family and friends in Jacksonville, Barry Gardner died from a massive heart attack. He was just 47 years old.
“We all took a picture together after that (Florida State) game,” Alex says. “That was the last time I was with him. When Coach died, it made me realize we can be here one day and gone the next. So you just have to make the most of every day, every opportunity.”
Alex entered his sophomore season firmly convinced he was going to be “the guy” at one of the defensive end positions. But when the Gators opened the ’99 season at home against Western Michigan, he wasn’t in the starting lineup.
“(Florida head) Coach (Steve) Spurrier always had something up his sleeve,” Alex says. “I didn’t show it, but I was so mad on the inside. When I didn’t start, it burned me up. I didn’t understand why I didn’t start, but it made me work even harder. I’m thinking, `If they don’t see now that I should start. . .”
When Florida lined up in the third game of its season at The Swamp, the fourth-ranked Gators were set to play a No. 2 ranked Vols’ squad sporting a 15-game win streak after winning the ’98 national championship.
Alex was fired up for the challenge. So much so, that during the week in media interviews, his mouth was running full-gear.
“Tennessee had talked so much (in the media) that I couldn’t take it no more,” Alex says. “So I tell writers just two or three days before the game, `They (Tennessee) are going to come in here, and we’re going to hit them in the mouth. And we’re going to keep hitting them in the mouth.’
“When I was finished talking, I thought, `What did I just do? Now I’ve got to play them. Oh my God.’ ”
But Alex didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk that night, Sept. 18, 1999, like he had never walked it before or since.
“I already had decided to be very aggressive that game from the start,” Alex says. “(Tennessee quarterback) Tee (Martin) made these great play fakes on play-action passes. I asked our defensive coordinator (Jon Hoke) before the game if I would get penalized if I hit Tee if he didn’t have the ball, if he actually handed it off, and carried out a passing fake.
“It was on one of the first few plays of the game that Tee carried out his play fake. I hit him so hard that it knocked off his helmet. I got flagged for a personal foul, but it set the tone for the night.”
It got much better for Alex and a lot worse for Tee. Early in the game, Alex was settling in his defensive stance when he noticed Martin making a certain hand movement a nano-second before he took the snap.
“I don’t know how to explain, but right before he said `Hike’ he did something with his hands, maybe raise them a bit,” Alex says. “He did it a couple of times, and I didn’t think anything of it. But when he did it a third time, I thought I should use that to my advantage.”
And he did. Over and over and over. Five Alex sacks and a 23-21 Florida victory later, he had enjoyed one of greatest breakout performances in Gators’ history.
“When I got to the NFL and played for the Bears, Chad Clifton, who played offensive line for Tennessee and Green Bay, would always tell me I was offsides on those sacks,” Alex says with a laugh. “Maybe a couple of times they could have called it, because I was moving as the ball snapped. But the rest of the time, I hit it so perfect. The middle of our line was able to stop the run, so it really helped me to just go after the ball.
“After that game, people saw me differently. As I walked on campus, I could see students look at me and whisper, `That’s Alex Brown. He’s the guy that had five sacks against Tennessee.”
Alex remembers he wanted to celebrate long and loud after personally destroying the Vols.
“I wanted to stay out all night,” he says. “But I had nothing left in me. As soon as I hit the bed, it was over.
“When I woke up the next morning, I got one of at least every Sunday paper from different (Florida) cities because I knew who was going to be in them. I was like, `Wow, this is the way I want it to be all the time.’ ”
Alex was so jacked that he thought he was headed for a 20-sack season, a ridiculous goal. But two games after he ripped the Vols, he broke a right thumb against Alabama and had to wear a cast the rest of the season.
Playing basically with his left hand, Alex couldn’t shed blockers easily and when he got to quarterbacks he couldn’t wrap them up.
“That injury changed how I played the rest of that season,” says Alex, who still finished with 56 tackles, 12 for loss including 7½ sacks, and who earned the first of three straight All-SEC first team honors. “I remember twice when we played Georgia, I had (quarterback) Quincy Carter in my hands and I couldn’t yank him down. It happened against Alabama and (QB) Andrew Zow, too.”
Florida lost three straight games to end the ’99 season including a 34-7 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game – “I still don’t know what happened to us that game, but Alabama did everything right that night,” Alex says. “We didn’t do anything right.
“I was angry at the offense. We had played Alabama twice that year and both times we were on the field defensively for a long time. We only got like 100 yards against them in the championship game and Alabama didn’t have any monsters on defense.
“So me being Alex, after that game, I said what I had to say about our offense to the media. Coach Spurrier called me in to his office, and told me I couldn’t go off on my teammates. He was mad, but I understood.”
Alex and his teammates carried ’99’s bitter ending into the 2000 season preparations.
“We’d been there for three years, including my redshirt year, and we hadn’t won anything,” Alex says. “We had a lot of talented guys who were going to leave after the 2000 season. So we needed to win something.”
The Gators did, going 10-3 overall and winning the SEC championship over Auburn, 28-6. Alex, as a team captain, had another solid season with 50 tackles, 14 for losses including 10½ sacks, and he blocked three kicks.
He could have declared for the NFL draft, but didn’t.
“A lot of people told me I was ready for the NFL, but I didn’t think I was ready for it,” Alex says. “I was at about 260 pounds (at 6-3) and I felt maybe I was a step slow coming off the ball. But I was still around the quarterback like 25 times.”
As a senior in 2001, Alex helped Florida to a 10-2 record, being kept out of playing for a third straight SEC title by the Gators’ losing Alex’s last home appearance of his college career to Tennessee, 34-32. It was a game moved to December from its normal third week of September because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One of the biggest reasons that Alex came back for his senior season was he wanted to break the school career sacks record. As a consensus all-American as a senior, he had 45 tackles, including 13 sacks (still the Florida single-season record), to pass Alonzo Johnson (27 sacks from 1981-85) for the Gators’ career mark that still stands.
“I’m a history guy,” Alex says, “so I knew the record and how many I needed to break it. I wanted to be remembered for something at Florida. I didn’t want to look back 20 years later, and know I was five sacks short of the record.
“When you have that opportunity, you’ve got to take it. You can’t go back and wish you’d taken it. I was telling my 11-year-old son just the other week that you take an opportunity and you give it everything you have at that moment.”
Even with a stellar college career, Alex’s draft stock inexplicably dropped. Some critics thought he couldn’t play defensive end at 265 pounds. Other nitpickers thought he’d didn’t play hard every play in college.
Joel Segal, Alex’ agent, arranged for Phil Emery, now the Bears’ general manager but back then a scout, to privately work out Alex at Alex’s old high school in Jasper.
Emery wasn’t impressed with Alex’s 4.9 seconds 40-yard time that he ran in tall grass, but Alex had extraordinarily long, quick first step. That fact and Alex’s long arms that could quickly shed blockers is why the Bears drafted him in the fourth round (104th pick overall) of the ’02 draft.
“At the time, I was really disappointed about being drafted in the fourth round,” Alex recalls. “It’s like what I did in college didn’t matter, and I couldn’t believe it. I’d showed progression and consistency my entire college career.
“But again, drafted in that spot motivated me to prove everyone wrong. I looked at the 10 defensive ends that were drafted in front of me and it helped me play with a chip on my shoulder my entire pro career. It bothered me to a point where I never forgot it. When I finally retired, only two of those 10 guys had played longer than me.”
Alex was consistent as a Florida late afternoon summer rain. The guy who fell to the fourth round once had a string of 143 straight NFL games played. By year two in 2003, he was a full-time starter. Two years later, he was selected All-Pro by Sports Illustrated and was a first alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Towards the end of the fifth year in ’06, he was standing on the sideline, counting down the final seconds of the Bears’ 39-14 victory over the Saints in the NFC championship game. And then two weeks later, Alex had the surreal moment that he dreamed of all his life – in uniform watching flashbulbs explode like fireworks as the Colts kicked off to the Bears’ Devin Hester to start Super Bowl XLI in Miami.
“When we were about to beat the Saints, it finally hit me with five minutes left in the game that `I’m going to the Super Bowl, I’m going to the Super Bowl,’ ” Alex recalls, “and I had chills through my whole body.
“Then growing up, I always remembered watching the Super Bowl opening kickoffs and see all those flashes and thinking `Gee I wish I could be part of that.’ And I’m standing there watching Devin return that kickoff all the way for a touchdown with all the flashes going off.”
Though the Bears lost to the Colts, 29-17 after leading 14-6 at the end of the first quarter, one of the things that Alex is still most proud about is the Bears had four Gators in that Super Bowl – Alex, quarterback Rex Grossman, defensive tackle Ian Scott and safety Todd Johnson.
Even with Alex’s pro success, the one thing is has never forgotten and always treasured was being a Florida Gator. That’s why even in the NFL, after he made a big play, he’d mime the `Jaws’ chomp as a shoutout to his beloved Gators. He remembers 2006 as the year he went to the Super Bowl, the year Florida won the BCS national football championship and the year the Gators won their first of two straight NCAA men’s national basketball titles.
“Florida is a part of everything I am,” Alex says. “It was a place that changed my life. That’s another reason I came back for my senior year. I loved playing there.”
After his Super Bowl appearance, Alex spent three more seasons with Bears with no dropoff in production before he was traded to the Saints in 2010 as they were coming off their first Super Bowl title.
He started every game and solid numbers for a playoff team, yet was released in training camp just before the start of the 2011 season, because the Saints were able to clear $3 million in salary cap space.
Amazingly, Alex didn’t have withdrawals from the sport. The NFL players’ lockout that forced players to report to training camp several weeks in late July a month before his release was a blessing for Alex.
“I didn’t understand being released and I didn’t think I should be released, but who does?” Alex says. “But the lockout showed me what I was missing with my kids growing up, going to my son’s baseball games or to my daughter’s gymnastics.
“Once you get to see what you missing, you want to be there. I was mentally checked out of football. It was over. I knew I had to be all in to play this game. I never played any other way.
“My wife still thinks I could go back and play, and I probably could if I trained for three months. But I decided I’d rather stop playing two years too early than two years too late. I didn’t want to end up with a knee replacement or a hip replacement. I wanted to be able throw baseball pain-free with my son in the front yard.
“I never thought I could play forever. Once I knew it was over, it was over. I had saved my money to last for the next 50 years.”
Just two months ago on August 12, Alex signed a one-day contract with the Bears so he could immediately retire as a Bear.
He’s plunged head-on into the business world, working for Coyote Logistics, a Chicago-based transportation and logistics provider. And of course, he’s co-host of a sports radio talk show in Chicago on ESPN 1000 where he’s never at loss for words, and he also does TV work. He and his wife have two girls and a boy, and he says he wouldn’t mind “adding one more great kid to make it four.”
Just this past April, Alex was inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame. He dreams one day of maybe being the school’s Ring of Honor, reserved for elite Gators’ players and coaches. And surely, the SEC will honor him sooner or later as one of its football legends, and celebrate him at its annual championship game.
“I can’t even imagine being honored any more,” Alex says. “I almost started crying at the (Florida) Hall of Fame induction. It just overwhelmed me. If I ever get in the Ring of Honor, I may cry all day. If I’m known as the guy who cried getting inducted into the Ring of Honor, I’m good with that.”