25 questions with a former first-round pick of Cleveland
The Browns had a very good team in 1994. That year Cleveland went 11-5-0 and won a playoff game against the New England Patriots. It was Bill Belichick’s Browns against him mentor Bill Parcells, then head coach of the Patriots.
In the pro football issue of Sports Illustrated the following summer, they predicted the Browns would meet the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl. And if they actually had, it would have been their last game as a franchise from Cleveland.
Early in that 1995 season, there were rumors that Cleveland was leaving town. Browns’ owner Art Modell had waited for the City of Cleveland to build him a new stadium. The baseball Indians had a new stadium. The basketball Cavaliers had a new arena. The Browns would be next, right? However, that decision drug out and eventually Modell had lost his patience.
The City of Baltimore made him a pitch, and he took it. The rumors had been swirling which affected the 3-1-0 Browns. Suddenly, the players, coaches, front office and everyone involved with the Cleveland Browns became more focused on what was about to transpire than how to win football games. The bottom fell out, the Browns finished at 5-11-0, Belichick was fired and then the Browns began packing for their move to Baltimore.
But during that 1995 season, it wasn’t all bad news. The year before, Cleveland had the ninth pick in the 1994 NFL draft and selected CB Antonio Langham out of Alabama. The Philadelphia Eagles had two first-round picks: Number 14 and 29. The latter was a compensatory pick. As the draft unfolded, the Browns saw one of their prized draft board names was still on the board as the end of Round 1 approached: WR Derrick Alexander from Michigan. Cleveland then made a trade with the Eagles to get Alexander with the final selection in the first-round. It cost the Browns two second-round picks, but in the end they took Alexander with pick #29.
Alexander (6’-2”, 195 pounds) was a standout athlete. At Benedictine High School in Detroit he played baseball. He was a long jumper in track, won the Catholic League finals in the 100-meters plus was a State Champion in the 200-meters. He played running back, safety, receiver and returned kickoffs and punts on the football team. His best sport was basketball where at the forward position he averaged 19 points a game.
He eventually focused solely on football because of the amount of attention he was receiving from a slew of colleges across the country. In the special high school football tabloid published by the Detroit Free Press for the fall of 1989, Alexander was ranked Number 2 in the list of Top-50 football prospects for the entire state. The line for his college career decision was out the door and down the street. Eventually, he chose Michigan.
When he graduated in 1993, his Wolverine career included 125 receptions for 1,977 yards with 22 touchdowns and a 15.8 average per catch. He also returned 42 punts for 534 yards and had scored four touchdowns, including one in his final game with Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Alexander had been named First Team All-Big 10 (1992, 1993) and Third Team All-American (1992).
In 1993, the Browns had Mark Carrier and Michael Jackson as their primary receivers for the 7-9-0 Belichick coached roster. But Cleveland lacked speed at the receiver position and so they selected the former track star Alexander in the 1994 draft with the 36” vertical leap.
Now for 1994, Alexander became the starter early on and had replaced Carrier. That year was magical in which Cleveland began 6-1-0 and finished 11-5-0, one game out of the division league leader Pittsburgh. Two of the Browns’ losses that year were to the Steelers.
Alexander was part of that Cleveland roster that moved to Baltimore beginning in 1996. He played two seasons in Cleveland, then two with Baltimore before signing with Kansas City for four years before finishing out his playing days in Minnesota for a single season before an ACL injury and subsequent surgery ended his career.
For his NFL career, he had 102 starts in 126 games, 417 receptions for 6.971 yards, a 16.7 yards per reception average, scored 40 touchdowns, a mere six fumbles, 11 punt returns for 171 yards (15.5 average) with one touchdown, plus 22 kickoff returns for an additional 432 yards (19.6).
After hanging up his cleats, he worked in the information technology field for a few companies while former Michigan teammate and standout running back Tyrone Wheatley had been a college and NFL running backs coach. The two men had kept in touch throughout the years. Alexander mentioned to Wheatley that if ever got the chance to become a head coach to give him a call and work together.
After Wheatley’s last gig with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he became head coach at Morgan State University located in Baltimore, Maryland. In filling out his staff, he contacted Alexander. Today, Alexander is the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach for Morgan State.
DBN caught up with Alexander between practice sessions to find out what coach Bill Belichick is really like, how difficult that 1995 Browns’ season was with the expectations of the move to Baltimore, and how he was able to wear the fabled Number 1 jersey while he was with the Michigan Wolverines.
DBN: In high school you played many sports but was a basketball star. What made you pick football over basketball?
Alexander: I loved playing basketball and I thought that I was going to play basketball in college. During my senior year I started getting heavily recruited for football. I felt that I had a better chance to excel in football so I chose to stick to it.
DBN: You ran a 4.4 in the 40 and won the Class B Michigan high school track championship in the 200-meter. Where did this athletic speed come from, and did you ever consider going into the Olympic trials?
Alexander: I really don’t know where my speed came from. I was the youngest of four boys in my family. My oldest brother ran track and he was fast as well. I remember him jut grabbing my hand and running and I had to keep up or fall down. Maybe that had something to do with it. I never really thought about the Olympic trails. I ran track, played baseball, basketball and football, so I was always looking forward to the next sport. Maybe I should have thought about it!
DBN: You were a very good football player as well and played several positions. How many colleges contacted you, name some of them, and why did you ultimately choose Michigan?
Alexander: I was recruited by almost every school in the country. I was receiving 20 to 30 letters a day in the mail. I really couldn’t keep up with it. I was contacted by Miami, Notre Dame, Florida UCLA and Ohio State to name a few. At the time, Michigan was more of a running team, but they had QB Elvis Grbac and WR Desmond Howard on the roster. Gary Moller, who was recruiting me, kept telling me that it was going to be changing. Michigan was only about 40 minutes from my house. Moller sold me on my family being able to watch me play. Michigan had just won the Rose Bowl. A lot of factors, but I had Moller promise me that they would be getting me the ball. He promised and I committed.
DBN: The Number 1 jersey is a receiver status symbol at Michigan started by wide receiver great Anthony Carter. It is worn by only the best receiver on the roster and considered an honor. Yet, they let you wear that number in just your sophomore year. Did they just throw it to you and say “here wear this”, or was it a presentation moment?
Alexander: I grew up watching Michigan football and I was an Anthony Carter fan. When I arrived at Michigan, Greg McMurty was wearing #1 and they gave me #40 after John Kolesar graduated. I was not a fan of the #40. When Greg graduated it was my chance to change numbers. I went to Coach Moller and asked him if I could change to #1. He asked me if I knew what it meat to wear that number. I told him that I grew up watching Michigan football and I knew that I could be as good as Carter. I said that I didn’t do a good enough job I would give it back. The rest is history.
DBN: What is the difference in being a punt returner versus a kickoff returner?
Alexander: I think punt return is much easier than kickoff return. At the time I was playing the kickoff team I could get the biggest running start they they could. The guys that were on kickoff were NUTS. They had to run through double-team blocks and some of them were wedge busters. They would be down there fast and take big shots. On the other hand, punt returners have the option to fair catch and guys don’t get off the bll as fast. The hardest part of being a punt returner is reading the ball in the air. I was really good at reading the ball and judging how much time and space I had to make the catch and get going.
DBN: Besides yourself, there have been quite a few Michigan receivers go into the NFL that have had great success including Mario Manningham, Amani Toomer, Anthony Carter, Chris Calloway, Mercury Hayes, Braylon Edwards, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and of course Desmond Howard. Is there something that is added to the Gatorade that makes this position group crank out outstanding athletes?
Alexander: I think the guys that go to Michigan and play wide receiver know the history of the position. I had the pleasure of playing with a lot of guys that you mentioned, and there was a standard at the position that had the be upheld. We were football players and not just WR’s. Blocking was always our first responsibility and we took great pride in it. Once we get the DB’s worn down, going deep was easy.
DBN: You were taken by the Browns in the first-round of the 1994 NFL draft. What was your first training camp like, and what rookie hazing were you forced to do?
Alexander: In my first days of training camp I was very nervous. I was a first-round pick and I knew that there would be a lot of expectations for me. I was around some people that I had only seen on TV and now I was a part of it. It took me a few practices to realize that I did belong and I could do some of the same things that I did when I was in college. One of the first things that I was forced to was was entertain the team with a song. I chose “Paid in Full” by Eric B. & Rakim. The got into the song and rocked with me. I didn’t have to sign again. I was also forced to bring the veteran WR’s breakfast each Saturday from Bob Evans.
DBN: The Browns are close to Ohio State. Many Michigan players are drafted by the Browns. Was it tough being a Michigan Wolverine while playing in Cleveland or did OSU fans give you a hard time?
Alexander: I don’t think it was hard. The Browns fans were great and they didn’t care where you were from. I think it also helped that when I was drafted by the Browns, I had never lost to Ohio State, so they wouldn’t have much to give me a hard time about.
DBN: Bill Belichick drafted you. What type of coach was he?
Alexander: He seemed like he was mild-mannered, but he had a really tough side to him. He was a very smart coach and I learned a lot from him. He always made tapes of things that showed how we could imporve by just doing our job – which is something that everyone today knows him for. He is a thinker and would point out things that I never would have thought of. Of course, now we see how great he is.
DBN: How much was your rookie contract worth?
Alexander: Wow, I don’t know exactly but I think it was around $3 million.
DBN: The rumors are you did not get along with Belichick. What happened? Your thoughts?
Alexander: That was just a rumor. I was a starter as a rookie from the third game on. I led the team in receiving yards, so I had a good rookie season. They brought in Andre Rison in my second year and we still had myself and Michael Jackson. Not sure what happened but I wasn’t playing my best and I was coming in as the third WR. Then I had a few injuries that kept me out of a few games. When you get hurt in the NFL sometimes it’s hard to get your spot back. But I never felt that we were not getting along. I finished out the year playing better.
DBN: While playing for him, did it ever dawn on you that he would become one of the greatest NFL coaches ever?
Alexander: I knew he was a good coach, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that he would have that much success. He has done something that will be hard for any coach to ever match.
DBN: Which Browns game was your most memorable?
Alexander: I would have to say the first game that I became a starter. It was the third game of the year. WE were playing the Arizona Cardinals and I had a chance to play against Aeneas Williams. I scored my first touchdown (which was 81-yards) on him and had over 100-yards. I ran into the Dawg Pound and the fans were going crazy!
DBN: That 1994 Browns team was good and finished 11-5-0. The next season Sports Illustrated picked the Browns to meet the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Going into the 1995 training camp, was the vibe going that this team could make a deep playoff run?
Alexander: We were definitely feeling good going into the ‘95 season. We had won a playoff game the year before. We had a similar team and added a few pieces. Even the ‘94 season felt good to us. We were gelling an felt that we should be even better in ‘95. We started that season in a similar fashion as ‘94 winning our rirstg few games. We felt that we could make a Super Bowl run.
DBN: Where were you when you heard the Browns were moving to Baltimore, and what were your thoughts?
Alexander: I was still in Cleveland. I’m not sure exactly when the announcement was made but it didn’t seem real. We had to finish out our season so I never really felt like we were leaving. Until I actually had to drive to Baltimore I still felt like Cleveland was my home.
DBN: That 1995 season Cleveland began 3-1-0 and then the roof caved in. It must have been difficult to concentrate on the season at hand knowing you and your teammates now had to sell your homes, find new homes, find schools for your kids in a different city and on-and-on. What were some of the worst moments of that season?
Alexander: The rest of the season was tough. They removed all of the advertisements in the stadium and not a lot of fans were showing up for the games. It was an eerie feeling playing home game. I think the hardest part of the move was that it was a full team move and no one knew what to expect. Where should we live? Where is the practice facility? There was not an established team there to guide you. We had to figure out everything on our own.
DBN: Did you have any encounters with irate or sympathetic fans out in the city regarding the move?
Alexander: We had loyal fans and I know it was tough on them losing their team. Leaving the stadium at times, I only remember th fans that were still supportive and there were a lot of them. They still came by the practice facility and hung out for autographs. That’s what I remember.
DBN: How do you think Browns’ owner Art Modell could have handled this situation differently?
Alexander: I’m not sure. I know when I arrived in Cleveland the Indians and the Cavs both had new stadiums. We were stuck in the old stadium. The first time I played there I really couldn’t believe this was an NFL stadium. Coming from Michigan it was a bit of shock.
DBN: Now you were suddenly in Baltimore. How are those fans different than Browns fans, and how was Coach Belichick different than new Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda?
Alexander: It was a little bit of a different feel, but the fans embraced us. They were really for another NFL team. We didn’t have the Dawg Pound, but we had a band. The fans were excited to have us there and we were glad to be there. I remember our first game there in Memorial Stadium against he Oakland Raiders, the fans showed up and it was loud. That gave me a great feeling and I knew Baltimore was going to be a great place to play. Ted Marchibroda has the same intellect as Belichick, but ted was more of an offensive coach and Belichick spent more time with the defense. Ted always came to offensive meetings with great film tips that helped us figure out what the defense was doing. His practice schedule was also a little bit lighter. Bill has us in pads and hitting as much as possible.
DBN: You shined in Baltimore. What changes were made to get you more targets and touches?
Alexander: When we got to Baltimore I was healthy and in the best shape of my life. I shined because I put the work in. Our team got very close, we all hung out together. In the off-season I spent a lot of time with Michael Jackson and we got together with Vinny (Testaverde). I think us just hanging out built a bond and we knew we could trust each other. During the season our offensive guys made it a point to go out to eat as least once a week. The camaraderie that we built up helped the offense put up big numbers.
DBN: While with the Ravens, you were forced to play against the Steelers which you had never beaten while in Cleveland. In the first game with Baltimore you lost another. Yet, in the second contest Pittsburgh was 9-3-0 and seemed to be very cocky towards your Ravens and even dismiss the franchise even being snooty and at one time called you the “Baltimore Browns.” How did that attitude pump up your team and why were there so many Steelers fans in attendance to an away game?
Alexander: We were tired of losing to those guys. In ‘94 with the Browns we played them three times and lost all three. That’s the team that put us out of the playoffs. When we got to the second game in Baltimore I had lost to them six times already. We were confident that it was not going to happen again in our house that year. We were not the same team. They may have been overconfident but we played hard and refuse to let them beat us again. Steeler fans seem to ve everywhere. I don’t think Baltimore knew the history of the Browns and Steelers’ rivalry because when the Colts were there, Pittsburgh was not in their division. After we played that game I think our fan s realized that they could not let another team try to take over their home stadium. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry was born from there.
DBN: After two very good seasons in Baltimore, you signed a huge contract with Kansas City. Did the Ravens not attempt to sign you or was the Chiefs’ offer just too good?
Alexander: The Ravens were always good to me, the were trying to negotiate with me but at the time Kansas City was a much better team then we were. Kansas City also had my college QB on the team (Grbac) which they used to convince me to make the move. In Baltimore, I knew we had the pieces to be a great team, but it wasn’t happening. As we all know, a couple of years later the Ravens won their first Super Bowl.
DBN: The year 2000 was your breakout season. You had 1,391 yards with a 17.8 average yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns while setting a Chiefs single-season record of most yards. How did you not make the Pro Bowl that year?
Alexander: That’s a good question. I have no idea how I didn’t make the Pro Bowl. I was leading the AFC in receiving yards. But I think a lot of people just vote in who they know – the usual guys that have been going every year. I really felt that I would make in that year.
DBN: After football you got into coaching and are now the pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach at Morgan State. What got you interested in coaching and how is Derrick Alexander the boss versus Derrick Alexander the big man on campus different when you were a player?
Alexander: I am a competitor but when I stopped playing, I tried to relax and get away from the game. After a few months and a new season coming around I missed the game. I still felt like I could play. I still stayed away from the game and even tried working a non-sports job in information technology. I did that for a few years but my competitive juices were still flowing. I wanted to get back on the field and the best way that I could do that was to become a coach. I started reaching out to people that I knew and I was able to do a couple of internships and now I have been coaching for the last seven years. A lot of my players have heard that I played but have never seen me play so I’m really not the big man on campus anymore. That are some videos out there of me so they will check them out and come back and say you were pretty good back in the day. The boss side of me sets the standard. I expect them to play hard every play. We have to play just as hard in the run game as the passing game. I know what the players are going through so I try to relate my experiences to them. I can give them real live examples of what I have already gone through tin order to eliminate mistakes and be smarter football players. At the end of the day, I will do anything I can to help them because successful players and great students.
DBN: What are your fondest moments of being a Cleveland Brown?
Alexander: My best memories are just being there, being around the guys and being able to play the game that I love. I remember draft day and getting the call from Ozzie. It was one of the best days of my life. Cleveland was close to home and I have a lot of family in Ohio. I knew that I would have a lot of support there. I loved walking to the stadium locker room from the parking lot on game day. All of the fans there being excited to see me. I remember playing in my first Monday Night game there. I couldn’t waiti to check out the Dawg Pound by scoring a touchdown in that end zone. I loved going to the Astrodome and playing the Oilers I love the rivalry with the Steelers. There are so many thing I can’t list them all, but I’m glad that I had a chance to play in “the Land.”