PORT ARTHUR — Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was first published in the Port Arthur News on Jan. 30, 2008.
Eric Alexander plays a mostly anonymous but important role for the undefeated New England Patriots, using his speed to rush downfield on kick coverage. He’s done that job well enough during an 18-0 season to rank fifth in special teams tackles, and post team highs against Buffalo twice, Denver and Minnesota.
Alexander relishes and appreciates the contribution he’s asked to make, but one of these days the 6-2, 240 pound former Stephen F. Austin High School great hopes to be an every-down linebacker for the NFL’s reigning dynasty. Until then, he’s content being a special teamer and learning behind veteran inside backers Junior Seau and Teddy Bruschi.
“My aspiration, like everybody in this league, is to be a starter,” he said, prior to a Patriots pratice. “For now, I have a role as a special teamer and all I’m thinking about is doing the most I can to help us win in that role. Not being a starter doesn’t bother me one bit.
“Especially when you look at the people who are in front of me.”
Actually, the two-time Port Arthur News Super Teamer has made one start, and that came in the Patriots biggest game of 2006. With his team’s linebacking corps banged up, head coach Bill Belichick played a hunch that Alexander’s speed could help in pressuring Peyton Manning.
Like most of Belichick’s hunches, it was right on. Alexander made 10 unassisted tackles, had one sack and help put the Patriots in position to win. But New England, after leading 21-6, fell victim to a Manning-led comeback and watched its arch-rival go on to win the Super Bowl.
“People said a lot of nice things about the way I played, but honestly I don’t think I played that well,” Alexander said. “We lost the game. We didn’t get to play in the Super Bowl. It made for a long off-season.”
Despite the impressive showing against Indy, he didn’t get much of a shot at being a starter in what was his fourth NFL season. For openers, a shoulder injury slowed him in training camp. Beyond that, the 39-year-old Seau wasn’t ready to step aside.
Plus, Alexander admits he’s still learning Belichick’s complicated defensive scheme.
“I don’t know how it compares to other teams. But our defense is always evolving, always changing,” he was quoted as saying in training camp. “Once you think you know it, we’ll tweak something here or there, and it’ll be totally different. It’s always a learning process.
“I don’t think you ever fully learn the whole system. You just have to keep learning as they add on.”
Sunday’s game against the New York Giants will be Alexander’s second Super Bowl since signing with the Patriots out of LSU as a free agent. There is, however, a big difference for him in Super Bowl XLII, as compared to Super Bowl XXXIX won by New England over Philadelphia.
In the game against the Eagles his rookie year, he’d been put on injured reserve and didn’t suit up. He received a Super Bowl championship ring to go along with his national championship ring from LSU. But, as a non-participant, he was left with somewhat of an empty feeling.
“It’s definitely more exciting for me this time, because I’ll be playing,” Alexander said.
Typical of the Belichick shroud of secrecy that blankets everything the Patriots do, he would not say if there will be a bigger role for him Sunday than playing on special teams.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “We just put in the game plan today (last Thursday). But one thing I’ve learned is that anything can happen on any play and you have to stay ready. I’ll be prepared to play in the game as a linebacker, if that’s what I’m asked to do.”
Alexander, meanwhile, said he had no idea of Port Arthur’s history with the Super Bowl, or that claiming a second Super Bowl ring would thrust him into the city’s elite fraternity of multiple ring winners that includes only Lincoln’s Tim McKyer (3) and TJ’s Jimmy Johnson (2).
Other former Port Arthurans who own one Super Bowl ring include Lincoln’s Aaron Brown (Chiefs), Leroy Leopold (49ers) and Joe Washington (Redskins). Those who played in a Super Bowl and lost include Lincoln’s Jordan Babineaux (Seattle) and SFA’s Duriel Harris (Dolphins).
Harris is the only SFA player besides Alexander to make it to the NFL.
“I don’t know much of the history,” he said. “We didn’t move to Port Arthur until I was 12, so I didn’t follow it as much as the people who grew up there.”
Alexander, though, is well aware of one other fellow Port Arthuran in the NFL — Kevin Everett.
“I know of him, said Alexander, who is two years older than Everett. “I think I played basketball against him in high school. Of course, I’ve kept up with his progress. He’s always been in my prayers. It’s amazing what he’s done.”
As for the Super Bowl, Alexander says he expects the Patriots to play much better than they did in a 38-35 December comeback victory over the Giants that put their unbeaten season in jeopardy.
“There were three games — Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Giants — where we didn’t come out and play like we’re supposed to,” he said. “They were pretty much all the same game. I expect to us play much better in the Super Bowl.”
To that end, Alexander will be doing his best to make a momentum changing play whenever the Patriots kick the ball. Watch for No. 52 flying down the field trying to create a lasting memory in the biggest game of his life.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.