ST. LOUIS – Danario Alexander sits in a small office at Rams Park, each day in this building an opportunity that he never takes for granted. Each practice is a chance. Each afternoon he spends on the field with coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Sam Bradford is further proof that perseverance can extend a dream.
The hard-luck St. Louis Rams wide receiver starts talking about adversity. He knows how fragile an NFL career can be. The 6-foot-5, 217-pound undrafted free agent from Missouri is 23 years old, but he already has had five surgeries on his left knee. He’s also had hamstring problems that have sidelined him throughout parts of his two professional seasons, including some time during organized team activities this spring.
“Of course, there’s a little uncertainty, a little doubt that crosses your mind, ‘What if I don’t bounce back? What if my knee doesn’t respond the way that I want it to?'” Alexander says. “That’s what made me work even harder.”
Alexander presses on. Here he is Wednesday, a little more than an hour after completing his second OTA of the week with visions of earning a roster spot in what should be a tight wide-receiver race during training camp. He likes his chances.
Alexander also likes what resilience has taught him. If there has been one constant since the Rams signed him in August 2010, it’s this: He has never wished his path were easier. In fact, he’s thankful the injuries have made him the person he is on and off the field.
He has carried that confidence throughout the spring. Alexander’s career always appears to be on the edge, seemingly one vicious hit away from ending, but he continues to work. The uncertainty is part of his identity, but it has introduced him to valuable life lessons as well.
“I feel like the adversity I have been through has made me the person I am,” Alexander says. “It made me mentally tough, dealing with certain things that a lot of guys don’t deal with. For me to be able to come back every time and basically come back stronger, it’s truly a blessing. I carry it on the field with me.”
Durability concerns are part of Alexander’s life with the Rams. He’s used to it, but that knowledge doesn’t make his past any less painful.
The problems are well documented. Alexander had four operations on his left knee in less than three years before joining St. Louis. A fifth procedure happened in October 2010 after he sustained a torn meniscus in practice a little less than two weeks after he caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Bradford in a victory over the San Diego Chargers in his NFL debut.
Last season was more of the same. Alexander impressed then-coach Steve Spagnuolo enough to make the team, but he appeared in just 10 games partly because hamstring issues troubled him late in the year.
“I learned that you can’t get down,” Alexander says. “You’re always going to go through adversity no matter what you’re doing, as far as life away from the field or on the field.”
In many ways, Alexander’s career has become about surviving. Anyone who has followed his progress has witnessed flashes of greatness: His breakaway speed when healthy, the spark he showed in earning a school-record 2,778 yards receiving at Missouri. But injuries have kept him from reaching his full potential.
There’s no guarantee he’ll ever do so either. In April’s NFL Draft, Fisher and first-year general manager Les Snead took wide receivers Brian Quick (No. 33 overall) and Chris Givens (No. 96). Both players are the lone locks to make the Rams’ wide receiving corps this fall as part of the franchise’s new vision.
“It’s tough having injuries, and with him he’s had multiple,” says Rams wide receiver Greg Salas, who had 264 yards receiving last season. “A lot of it is strenuous. You do want to kind of give up. You wonder if you’ll ever be 100 percent again. You have to trust the training staff, and he has done a good job of coming back out here and making big plays.”
Thing is, Alexander has been one of the Rams’ best deep options when he can play. He had a career-high 431 yards receiving with two touchdowns last season. Those totals followed the 306 yards receiving and one touchdown he earned as a rookie.
But nothing is guaranteed when it comes to Alexander’s future. He knows this. Perhaps that’s OK, though, because he has gained something more valuable than anything found on the field.
“He works hard,” says Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson, who had 431 yards receiving and one touchdown last season. “With a bad knee, he plays as hard as he can when he can. All you can do is cheer him on.”
Alexander continues to evolve.
He watches himself on tape and tries to find signs of growth. He doesn’t compare himself to his peers around the league as much as to what he has accomplished before. He competes against his own skill.
“Perseverance is the key,” Alexander says. “You can never stop, and you can never quit. If you quit, you’ll never know if you’ll be successful.”
That focus is an example of his drive. Everything he lives on those personal highlight reels could end soon – the routes, the athletic catches, the structure that a life between the hashes provides.
Alexander knows there will be a life after football one day. He earned Spagnuolo’s trust, but maybe Fisher will be less forgiving of a player who has combined to play just 18 games over the past two seasons. Whatever comes next, Alexander is confident the challenges he has overcome will help him in the future.
“The uncertainty is scary,” Alexander says. “You do this your whole life, and you want to continue to reach your dream and play in the NFL, and there’s a slight chance that might not happen. That makes me go even harder.”
He does so by keeping a healthy perspective. Other Rams wide receivers say they have never heard Alexander complain about his injuries. In fact, they have seen him approach his business with enthusiasm.
The Marlin, Texas, native is grateful for his opportunity. He cracks jokes on the practice field. He’s a favorite to spend time with.
“He a good guy,” Gibson says. “Everybody likes him. He’s fun to hang around and talk to.”
Says Salas: “He has always been grateful and happy to be out here.”
The fact that Alexander remains a positive presence in the Rams locker room is a personal victory for him. He’ll enjoy the role as long as he can.
“You’ve got to be able to stay tough mentally and keep your head up, because there is always a bright side,” Alexander says.
Alexander is almost through speaking in the small office, his excitement for the fall obvious. He senses change around Rams Park. He wants to be part of the new culture in St. Louis for years to come.
Sitting in the chair, his thoughts turn toward what a perfect scenario for him would look like in the upcoming season. He sees all the parts coming into place.
“I feel like we’ve got a great formula,” Alexander says. “Coach Fisher is coming in and changed everything. I feel like the whole team is excited about this year. Just being healthy throughout the whole season, going to the playoffs and making some big plays – that would be the perfect scenario for me.”
A short time earlier, Gibson and Fisher stood on the practice field and shared a similar vision. Alexander is resilient, and he can contribute in the Rams’ reconstruction if he stays healthy. Many are curious to see what he will do.
“Things happen for a reason,” Gibson said. “He doesn’t necessarily have a good knee, but he does what he can. When he is able to play, he does a very good job.”
Said Fisher: “He’s getting better. He’s pushing through it. He was slowed for a couple weeks, but he has jumped right back. He’ll keep pushing.”
Back in the office, Alexander looks ahead and considers a question about what pushing has taught him about life. He has been through a lot, but he’s sure he’s better for experiencing it all. The struggles have shaped him.
That’s how he’ll remember his life in football. He’ll recall its opportunity, not its pain. He’ll fight to make more memories no matter where it leads.
“I want to play this game until the day they tell me I can’t play anymore,” Alexander says. “That goes with anything in life. Whatever I set my mind to, I’m going to do it. There’s no way anybody is going to stop me.”