On Monday the adrenaline is still coursing through Alex Boone’s body, enough that he doesn’t really feel the damage — except for the fingers, jammed and stepped on to the point where his ongoing pet peeve is fools who want to shake his hand.
Tuesday is when it hits, when his body throbs like a tuning fork, and he immerses himself in a cold tub for as long as possible. “You feel like shit.”
Wednesday is time to move. The first half-hour of practice feels stiff and sore, but by the end Boone’s mind and body are turning the corner.
Thursday and Friday he’s timing his progress back to full speed, minus the remnants of the hip pointer, the various shoulder stingers, and that nasty concussion from a couple weeks back. They are distractions to be walled off.
On Saturday Boone pronounces himself 100 percent, his 6-8, 305-pound body gathering itself for the coming mayhem.
“People say I maybe take the games more seriously than I should,” he says, gripped in testimony. “I don’t believe that. I believe it is a way of life.
“The best way to feel on Sunday is so nervous that — I won’t say scared — but you don’t know what to expect. You feel like you have to throw up, take a shit, and piss all at the same time, through-the-roof banana balls. It sounds like hell, but it is the most exciting experience of your life.
“My trainer always tells me to stay in the moment. His career was cut short and he reminds me that you never know when it is going to be over. So in pregame, I’ll just stand there and take it all in, and that causes me to go even crazier. It’s hard because there are so many things going through your head, but I try to think, ‘I did it. I have earned the right to be here.’
“Then you hit somebody, and somebody hits you, and everything calms down.... That first hit clears everything up. Then we can get down to playing like savages.”
By the time kicker Blair Walsh shanked a field goal to end the Minnesota Vikings’ 2015 season, coach Mike Zimmer was fed up with his offensive line. He fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and replaced him with Tony Sparano.
The 2008 NFL Coach of the Year when he held the head job in Miami, Sparano came with a reputation for promoting prototypical “tough guys” who never back down. It wasn’t surprising that on the first day of free agency, the Vikings’ splashiest move was landing Boone, a guard who had been with Sparano the previous season in San Francisco.
“I felt we needed an alpha in that room. That’s Alex,” Sparano says. “It doesn’t matter the circumstances. He is upbeat and positive. He talks tough and plays tough and that’s exactly what we wanted.”
The terms of the contract, $26.8 million over four years, with $10 million guaranteed, made it the Vikings’ largest free agent investment on offense. For Boone, an undrafted player who didn’t make his NFL debut until the final game of his second season, it was sweet validation. He had clawed his way back after torpedoing his career with alcohol.
Profane, brutally honest, acerbically funny, and seemingly in constant rehearsal for the self-made role of gladiator with the barbed tongue and sensitive soul, Boone immediately became a go-to quote machine on the Vikings media beat. His reputation was well established.
In previous seasons he’d stirred the yahoos by proclaiming he’d like to punch Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews in the mouth, and opining that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, a man he loves dearly, is “clinically insane.”
Within the first two weeks of this season, Boone called Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem “shameful,” and said the fans at U.S. Bank Stadium who make noise when the offense is listening to the snap count need to “shut up,” proving he can alienate folks across the political and social spectrum.
The side of Boone that doesn’t delight in pushing people’s buttons is more subtle, but crucial ballast for his more wanton and maniacal tendencies. Told that Sparano called him “the leader of that [locker] room,” he replies, “I’ve always loved being an offensive lineman. You’re the sheepdog; you protect the sheep from the wolves. There’s honor in that. That’s how you love this fucking brutal job, by being born to it. You’re molded that way.”
Boone grew up in Irish Catholic Lakewood, Ohio, a working-class suburb of Cleveland, with 150 bars and five churches packed in five square miles. Mother Amy remembers him as the perfect baby, always smiling and sleeping like a stone.
He was huge and funny. There was an “Alex rule” in flag football: He had to count to five before moving because he was so much bigger than everyone else. He used the time to play air guitar.
His parents divorced when he was six and older brother J.J. was eight. They moved in with Amy’s parents a door down the block. His father, Jim, left to work in California.
Alex’s grandmother Noreen grew up one of 13 children during the Depression. Amy earned her master’s and ascended to director of surgery at Euclid Hospital as a single mother raising two sons and a daughter, Julianna, born years later.
Alex intensified the yin and yang of his nature through two dominant relationships. Grandfather Richard was a devoutly religious accountant — the archbishop used to visit his home — who tutored Alex in math at the kitchen table, engaging the boy in conversation beyond his years about morality and ethics.
The yang relationship was with J.J., a notorious hellraiser and protector. “If anybody dared mess with Alex, J.J. would beat the tar out of him,” grandmother Noreen says, laughing.
“My brother was always my best friend and, except for my wife, he still is,” says Alex.
Growing up they were inseparable and, when it came to sports, extremely competitive. Once, while playing H-O-R-S-E, Alex attempted a shot while jumping from the roof of the garage, breaking both feet.
Richard died the summer before Alex’s freshman year of high school, a resonant event at an impressionable age. “He was my real dad. He taught me how to be a man,” Alex states.
About a decade after the divorce, Alex’s father made a concerted effort to reenter his sons’ lives, but it was too late.
“I had a lot of animosity toward Jim early in my life because he was never there and I know how that felt. He never said he was proud of me, never came to my games. He came to the Michigan game my senior year and left at halftime. That fucking hurt. And he never told me he loved me, ever.... The example of my grandfather taught me how I wanted to be a good dad.”
Says Amy: “It always surprises people how sensitive and very emotional Alex can be. Like, he really loves creating handmade gifts, and if he doesn’t hear from you soon after you get it, it crushes him. You don’t expect that from a guy who is so tough and accountable and balls-to-the-wall as he is.”
Alex claims he always “felt shy, like my grandfather,” until he careened the other way as a high school and college football star.
A turning point came his sophomore year at St. Edward High, an Ohio Catholic powerhouse, when J.J. was becoming an All-State linebacker as a senior. In practice, Alex was called upon to block his brother. He used his size and nervous energy to wipe him out.
“I fucking trucked him!” says Alex. “The whole practice just stopped and went, ‘Holy shit!’ That was the day I came out of his shadow. I was much bigger but people had always still called me Little Boone. I became Big Boone right there.
“And what I remember is my brother going home and telling my mom he was proud of me. Because more than anything I still wanted my brother to fucking love me.”
Alex’s size and athletic notoriety made it easy to hang with his brother’s friends. Given his personality, it’s no surprise he became an epic drinker who pushed the party to extremes.
Alex describes the “wild shit” that went down like a play-by-play announcer. Holes in walls. People going through those holes. Mere horseplay that escalated into brawls.
Through it all, Alex remembered Richard telling him that when things go wrong, people look to the biggest guy as the problem or the solution. Alex often decided the solution was to become other people’s problem.
He committed to Ohio State while still a sophomore, and eventually became one of the best offensive tackles in the storied program’s history. “He became an expert on using his hands when he blocked,” says offensive line coach Jim Bollman, now co-offensive coordinator at Michigan State. “I coached offensive line for 29 years and have training films teaching guys to block with their hands. Alex is a big part of those films.”
But the drinking got out of control. Motivated by 9/11, J.J. enlisted in the Marines and saw brutal combat in Fallujah. He came home scarred. “Alex may have been looking to me for guidance, but when I got back I was a lunatic,” J.J. says.
By then, Alex had gotten his first DUI in Columbus. He was cleaning clocks on and off the football field, bouts intersected by literally dozens of beers at a time. OSU played for the national championship twice in Boone’s college career. Bolland and head coach Jim Tressel brought Amy and other family members down to intervene with his drinking, to no avail.
“It was just an accumulation of me constantly being a dumb motherfucker,” Boone says. “I constantly remember Jim Tressel and Jim Bollman and my family telling me to slow down. And I was like, ‘Fuck that, I need to speed up. I want to get to the edge of the world, just close enough not to fall off.’ But when I would drink, I would get angry at everybody, crazy fighting, chairs through windows. I was an agent of chaos. And I thought that was totally fair.”
At a post-Super Bowl party three weeks before the NFL scouting combine in 2009, a soused Alex objected to a car being towed. He ended up shot twice with a stun gun and arrested.
It was cause for NFL teams to ignore him in the draft — a shock to Alex and his family, who figured his antics would knock him down to the middle or late rounds.
The league was right to disbelieve Boone’s vows that he had his drinking under control. After the draft snub, he got into fisticuffs with an uncle at J.J.’s wedding. Besmirching his brother’s treasured moment was the impetus for him to quit drinking.
That autumn, he signed with the practice squad of the San Francisco 49ers. Coach Mike Singletary told him one lapse and he would personally see to it that Boone was out of the league. He never once set foot on the field during a game that year.
He went home to Lakewood during the offseason and found two wellsprings of strength.
He met his wife, Dana, in a gambit cleverly arranged by his mother. “Not many people can say they chose the mother of their grandchildren,” Amy Boone says proudly, explaining how she knew Alex would fall for the smart, funny lady in human resources at the hospital.
She set up a social occasion after work and asked Alex to swing by. After his mother convinced him Dana wasn’t “out of his league,” they embarked on a whirlwind courtship, and she found the gentle giant inside the outsized personality.
“Alex makes up a different story any time someone asks how we met,” Dana says with a laugh. “He told the realtor that he rear-ended my car, we exchanged numbers, and the rest was history. He told my hairdresser we went out on date once and nine months later we had a son. He sees if he can create an awkward moment. Alex loves awkward moments.”
That same sense of goofy play makes him a magnet for children and a wonderful father. “The kids just come running when they see him and he’s actually a really calming presence. Even when he’s got film study to do, he’ll ask if they want to come in and watch, be with him,” Dana says. “On Friday he went into my son’s school and read The Monster Wears Underpants. This huge guy had all these five-year-old kids rolling around with laughter.”
But as the kids keep coming — three in six years — there is a serious undertow to the loving family. “My wife has never seen me drink, which is one reason I know she will never see me drink,” Alex says. “The same thing with my kids. I am proud to say that is something they will never see. It’s just not worth it.”
With his mind settled, Boone began working on his body. He solidified his relationship with LeCharles Bentley, who grew up in Cleveland and played at Ohio State.
Bentley was a Pro Bowl center with New Orleans before injuries suddenly derailed his career. In high school, Boone had lifted weights with him at a gym where all the tough-guy pro athletes congregated.
Now Bentley was starting a training program for offensive lineman. “Almost everybody I’d talked with who played with him told me that LeCharles was the meanest, nastiest motherfucker they’d ever seen,” Boone raves. “I found we believed the same thing about football — that it is a privilege to be in the game, not a right.”
They also shared a desire to stay away from alcohol. As Bentley taught Alex ways to train and tone his body, he also was giving him a center’s perspective as the play-caller for line assignments, how on-field awareness could improve his play.
Told that Boone credits him with staying sober, Bentley brusquely demurs. “With Alex, it is all about channeling. He has an extremist approach to life. He loves his wife. He loves his children. Training, the same thing — his work ethic is off the charts.”
After that first offseason with Bentley, a toned and sober Boone made the 49ers roster, escaping the practice squad. Even so, it wasn’t until the second half of the final regular season game that he actually got to play.
Bentley’s tutelage and Boone’s focus provided greater flexibility. He became a “swing” tackle in 2011, capable of playing on either side of the line. But one week before the 2012 training camp, the 49ers decided to make him a guard.
At first he was resistant: At 6-8, he was extraordinarily tall to be playing the interior, where the behemoth nose tackles and their low center of gravity held sway. But Bentley invoked a macho challenge, asking if he was badass enough to handle the smaller confines of the position.
“LeCharles looked at me and said, ‘All you really need to know will take about two minutes. You are going from a lot of space to a little space. You’ll find out whether you’re a badass or you’re not. You can either do it or you can’t.’ And he was right.”
Alex grew to love it. It’s “like a bar fight.”
Consensus is that 2012 was his best season. Jim Harbaugh had taken over for Singletary and was a proponent of smash-mouth football. A hungry Boone seized the dangling carrot and slid in at right guard alongside three first-round picks and 34-year-old veteran center Jonathan Goodwin.
All five started all 16 regular season games, creating that synergistic teamwork that comes from intimate familiarity as a unit. The 49ers line graded near the top of most rating charts, propelling the team to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Baltimore. Pro Football Focus graded Boone as the third-best guard in the NFL, lauding him as a “secret superstar.”
The plaudits didn’t flow so freely after that, though Sparano maintains Boone has steadily improved. He has become a thinking man’s savage within the pit where men violently collide.
He’ll watch cues from the safeties, which indicate coverages and give him clues to the pass rush or run alignment. But reality compels Boone to downplay the individual linemen in favor of the group. Along the line, the game is a blend of chess and melee, with adherence to assignments and a penchant for absorbing and meting out punishment almost equally important to the outcome of fluid situations that arise on every play.
The caprice of pro sports has been thrown into especially sharp relief with the Vikings offensive line this season. In training camp, the plan was to have a surfeit of veterans competing for spots. Along with Boone, Minnesota had signed tackle Andre Smith from Cincinnati, re-signed guard Mike Harris, had tackle Phil Loadholt and center John Sullivan returning from injuries, along with holdover starters Matt Kalil at left tackle, Joe Berger at center, and Brandon Fusco at guard.
Then Loadholt retired, Harris contracted a season-ending illness, and Sullivan was cut to save salary, all before the season. The rest began dropping like flies.
Kalil and Smith, the starting tackles, are out for the season. Jake Long, an emergency signing in October, tore his Achilles. In all, the Vikings have deployed 10 different offensive linemen this season, with the all-important tackle positions especially hard hit.
Add in injuries to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and top rusher Adrian Peterson, and it’s remarkable the offense was able to function enough for the Vikings to win their first five games.
Since then it has crumbled, with opponents stuffing the run and causing quarterback Sam Bradford to throw quick, short passes to avoid getting clobbered. Sparano thinks Boone has had an excellent season under the circumstances, but six losses in the past seven games make that a moot point.
Not surprisingly, Boone’s best insights into his fellow linemen were conveyed near the peak of good feeling, when the 4-0 Vikings were readying to play Houston.
Boone had played beside left tackles Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings for two games apiece after Kalil suffered a hip injury that cost him the season. Asked to compare the two, he replied: “This is going to sound bad — it always does — but Matt takes more chances, more risks. If you want somebody to maul you, he’s your guy. He’s a killer. T.J. is more by-the-book; he knows what he is good at and sticks to it.”
Boone prefers the Kalil method. “I enjoy the savagery and as long as I know what you are thinking I can make it work. Sometimes I screw T.J. up because I think more like Matt. T.J. is like, ‘We’ll get vertical and then use our hands.’ But T.J., somewhere along the line we have to go kill somebody.... So I’m trying to get him to come over to the dark side a little bit.”
The days of the single man-on-man matchups are over, lost in the stunts, gaps, and disguises of modern defense. Alex runs it down with elan, explaining the moves and countermoves. He’s no longer the guy who marveled at Jonathan Goodwin’s ability to decode secrets. He’s now the guy who hangs most with 34-year-old center Joe Berger. They speak the same intricate language.
Boone believes the more he knows about the intricacies, the freer he is to play with the controlled rage he prefers. You don’t waste time thinking too much.
Boone’s best attribute is using his height and breadth of arms. His weakness is getting low enough to dislodge the nose tackles at the epicenter of the pit.
“If you enjoy playing through a lot of pain, having a lot of fun, swearing, talking shit, and just killing people out on the field, then this is for you. But one thing about the offensive line: At the end of the day, your weakness will always show. You can’t ever fake something or you’ll be exposed. You’ve got to be tough every single play. Which is why I love it.”
On Halloween Night at Soldier Field in Chicago, Boone suffered the injury all players dread — a concussion.
It looked like an ordinary play. Boone pulled from his guard position and became the lead blocker on a power play off tackle. As he collided with 6-5, 330-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks, he turned his head slightly and was jolted.
He stayed in the game for another handful of plays until the Vikings were forced to punt. Coming off the field, he grabbed the hand of Berger, something he doesn’t remember. Berger reported him to the trainer.
A woozy Boone was soon walking up the ramp to the locker room, one hand on the shoulder of a trainer, his other arm extended to the tunnel wall to keep his balance.
“I got a shoulder stinger on the same side; I felt the zing go down my arm and tingling into my hand,” he remembers. But that wasn’t the main damage.
“The truth is you know when you have a concussion. You’re not all there. The night was iffy for me after that.”
He repeated himself constantly on a call with his family after the game, but doesn’t remember the conversation. The next day he awoke with a massive headache and uncontrollable emotions. He’s had other concussions, but this was the worst.
“You feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience and you’re just not all there.”
Then, catching himself in what might look to others like self-pity, he clarifies. “Look, there are different levels to being a man in this game. You get hit and it rattles you a little. That happens all the time. That’s football. And we wouldn’t play football just for the money — that wouldn’t make sense. You have to really love this game to endure that shit.
“But then there are times you get hit and you know something’s wrong. And that’s when the dad in me and the husband in me has to come into play. It’s funny, as I was getting the concussion protocol, I remembered what my son’s doctor said to him recently at a checkup. She said, ‘There is one thing we can’t fix and that’s the brain. So if you take a fall you have to catch yourself because if you hurt your brain there is nothing we can do.’
“And that doctor was right. So I thought, ‘I’m not going to rush back. I don’t want my kids and my wife having to clean up my drool when I’m 35.’”
Boone wound up missing one game. Dana says she and Alex have talked about how it takes longer for his body to recover as the years go by, but that he is determined to push through. There is always game day on the horizon.
The night before every game and right before he heads out on to the field, Alex calls LeCharles Bentley, who would do anything to be able to play again.
Bentley tells him to stay in the moment, to drink in his accomplishment. So Alex stands there, ready to vomit, shit, and piss, waiting.
On his right forearm is a tattoo that reads No heroes, no leaders, no idols fallen. It is in honor of J.J.’s nine friends killed in combat. On his other forearm are the words Send me, in honor of the biblical verse from Isaiah: And then I heard the voice of the Lord say whom shall I send, who will go for us? And I said here I am, send me.
On the other side of his right arm are the Four Horsemen, “because they are the only four crazy motherfuckers taking me off this earth.”
Says Bentley: “What you see is what you get with Alex. You can either love him or hate him; I am in the boat of loving him.”
“A lot of players truly aren’t ready for this game — emotionally, physically, spiritually.... On any given snap this could be your last time playing football — worst-case scenario, your last time walking. A player has to accept that going in and then during the game forget about the danger in order to react properly.
“That takes a special kind of preparation walking across those lines onto the field. Alex understands that.”