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‘Rudy’ In Disguise: Rams’ Danario Alexander NFL’s feel-good story of year

Imagine if “Rudy” Ruettiger had actually been an outstanding athlete at Notre Dame, but blew out a knee after his senior year. Now imagine Rudy as an undrafted practice-squad project for an NFL team. Any doubt how it would end? Meet Danario Alexander, a feel-good story with Hollywood potential.

Alexander, a talented rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, went undrafted out of Missouri after injuring his left knee practicing for last year’s Senior Bowl. But he showed he still has legs on Sunday. Alexander had his breakout game for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered most – at home with a playoff berth at stake. He caught six passes from Sam Bradford for 99 yards, including three key first-down receptions – one a sensational 46-yarder to the 49ers’ 3-yard-line that set up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter (photo to right).

Don’t be surprised if a lot more people are talking about “D.X.” after this Sunday night’s NFC West winner-take-all finale at Seattle. Why?  Everyone but the Rams gave up on Alexander, and that’s when Danario became the next Rudy.

My interest in Alexander’s story began September 2009, early in his senior season. I had attended Mizzou (School of Journalism) and later covered college and pro football for years, so I went to see the Tigers play against Nevada in Reno. It wasn’t a gimme-game for Mizzou. The Wolfpack played them tough (the nation saw the quality of the program this season in their upset of Boise State). The Tigers needed some big plays to escape with a win, and Alexander was the difference. He had nine receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns – one a 72-yarder.  

After watching him play, I came away convinced Alexander had all the ingredients to be a top-tier pro player. First, he has good height (6-foot-5) for a receiver, an important advantage against cornerbacks in the NFL, especially on red-zone fade routes. He also had good speed even for the NFL – a much faster game than college. And coaches loved his work ethic. I also saw two other strong qualities – he caught the ball with his hands instead of body and was willing to block downfield for teammates. He simply was a complete player. The result:

  • As a senior, Alexander led the nation in receiving with 1,781 yards – averaging 15.8 yards per catch and 137 yards per game. He finished with 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns, shattering most Missouri receiving records along the way.
  • He was named a 2009 first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated among many other awards.
  • He was picked to the Senior Bowl roster, but in practice the week before the all-star game he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury. That’s when Alexander showed he had more than great skills, but also great heart.

Alexander had surgery on the knee in February 2010, leaving him unable to work out for pro scouts at the NFL Combine or his pro day at Mizzou. Because of that, no team was willing to risk a draft pick on him. However, the Rams signed him to a free-agent contract on Aug. 22 – after the first two exhibition games. Three weeks later they cut him from the active roster, but then signed him to their practice squad.

 At the time, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said the team was taking on Alexander as a long-term project, not rushing his progress on the chance the long-term payoff would be worth it. While on the practice squad, he worked hard to strengthen his knee. After five surgeries, the lingering problem became muscle atrophy around his left knee – raising fears he would re-injure himself compensating. Some folks even suggested he take a year off.

“He’s moving around well, we just want to make sure that you don’t put him in a position where he’s going to injure something else,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October.

However, Alexander’s determination and the team’s playoff hunt have accelerated his progress. Measurements in October showed the left leg had caught up, and he was looking better each week on the field. When starter Mark Clayton went down with an injury, the Rams finally signed Alexander to their active roster on Oct. 11. The results: Alexander has been a major factor in three of the Rams’ victories:

  • In Alexander’s first pro game, his 38-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams beat San Diego, 20-17. He had four catches for 72 yards.
  • Against Denver, he had four catches for 95 yards – including a 45-yard reception that led to a touchdown.
  • In Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he had his best pro game when the stakes were highest. Using a four-receiver formation, the Rams were able to match Alexander in the slot against much shorter defenders – and took advantage. His leaping 46-yard reception was the difference.

“It was an awesome catch by Danario,” Bradford told Yahoo! Sports. “I think he always has great body position, seems like he can adjust to the ball wherever it’s thrown. He just keeps himself in good position and ends up getting the ball somehow.”

Though Alexander still looks stiff running routes compared with his college days, he loosened up as the game progressed and was able to get separation from defenders.  The league is paying attention as the playoffs near. By beating the 49ers last week, the Rams put themselves in position to win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle. Don’t be surprised if No. 84 is a big part of the game plan on Sunday. And don’t be surprised if a lot of people are talking about him on Monday. This undrafted rookie could help the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season – after going 1-15 last year.

 That’s when everyone will learn Danario Alexander is Rudy in disguise.

PS: An interesting side story involves Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who told Spagnuolo in early December he thought Alexander deserved more playing time. “He said, ‘put in some plays for Danario,’ ” Spagnuolo told the Post-Dispatch. “They’re going in now. They’re definitely going in. He’s got a lot of pull.” Alexander responded by pulling in passes.

 New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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