Long Read | Brandon Alexander, the teacher

There’s a science and an art to playing safety in the Canadian Football League and when the best in the biz is detailing all the intricacies of the position, it seems only natural to lean forward and listen. That’s the thing everyone has discovered about Brandon Alexander since he first arrived at Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp in 2017: he’s not just a versatile defender with skills to cover and deliver an extra-large thump, he’s an exceptional communicator.

What makes him such a perfect fit for the safety position?

How has a teaching background helped in his transformation from eager rookie to a seen-it-all veteran?

And why has his voice become so respected in the locker room?

Read on…

“You know what makes a good safety? It’s literally right there in the name: it’s to make everybody feel safe,” began Alexander in a conversation with bluebombers.com this week. “I don’t care what type of safety you are, whether it’s an Ed Reid or a Brian Dawkins, a John Lynch or a Troy Polamalu in the NFL. With every single one of those guys I guarantee you if you went to their squad and asked ‘Did you feel safe with that man back there?’ they all would have said, ‘Yes.’

“That’s all that matters to me. I don’t have to have 10 picks or all these accolades or any of those things. If these guys look back and see me back there and they say, ‘OK, I’m good’ then I’m good.”

There have been many factors in the dominant defensive play this season by the Bombers and dating even further back to the championship run of 2019. There is the work of Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat off the edge, the toughness of the likes of Jake Thomas, Steven Richardson and Casey Sayles inside the defensive front, the overall awesomeness of Adam Bighill to the work of veterans like Kyrie Wilson, Jesse Briggs, Shayne Gauthier, Nick Taylor, Mike Jones and new faces DeAundre Alford and Deatrick Nichols.

Still, if you were to try and connect the dots to the one move that really helped bring it all together, it might just date back to the move of Alexander from halfback to safety back on October 5, 2019. The Bombers had been scorched for 847 yards and seven touchdowns through the air in their two previous games, both with Alexander still on the sidelines nursing an injury.

Funny thing about that, it was during his eight-week stint on the injured list that Alexander began watching practice from 40-50 yards deep behind the line of scrimmage. It gave him an understanding of not only what the defence was doing, but how the offence was attacking it and as that knowledge grew, the idea of moving him to the middle of the secondary crystallized.

Since his first start at safety – a 21-6 loss in Regina – the Bombers are an astonishing 16-2 and are far less susceptible to the big-play aerial strike. In fact, this year the Bombers have surrendered just three passing touchdowns. T-H-R-E-E. Roll those number around for a moment and Alexander’s role in it and then consider this: he really is just starting to get comfortable at the spot.

“It might have been a little bit difficult to learn all that at first, but it did seem to come easy for me,” said Alexander. “The thing is, anything I’m going into new, I’m studying that like no other.

“You’re looking at different things up here when you play safety compared to down south. Not only that, everybody is stationary back home, where here the two inside guys for 95 percent of the game are ‘Waggling’ (in motion) and I’m in between those two guys. My eyes have got to be quick… it’s boom-boom-boom-boom… quarterback. I’m reading from this side of the field to that side of the field back to the quarterback.

“I definitely feel like this year I’ve learned a lot. I’m happy they’ve kept me in a position where I can learn. This is actually my first year where I’ve been in one position all season. Again, I pride myself in being versatile, so I don’t mind being the guy who is plugged in anywhere, but for me to be able to hone in at a specific position for a season, I feel it’s showing right now in my play.

“Playing safety fits me and my personality, 100 percent,” Alexander added. “I like making guys feel better about themselves, if that makes sense. With me at halfback or at strong corner… I can literally only relate to one person if I’m at corner and that’s the halfback. If I’m halfback it’s two people – the corner and the Dime, sometimes the safety.

“Now, when I’m at safety I make sure I reach everybody and everybody’s good and if I can help raise their level of play then I’ve done my job. I love being that. I love being that guy that everyone looks back and says, ‘He’s back there? OK, we’re good.’”

Alexander first made his name with the Blue Bombers during a free agent camp in the spring of 2017 and then training camp that same summer as a jump-to-the-front-of-the-line rep stealer who would do anything to just to land a roster spot. All this is just part of the interesting back story that makes Alexander’s transformation into the CFL’s best safety that much more compelling.

You see before all that – before Alexander even came to camp with the Bombers – he had a decision to make. Figuring he was done with football after a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, Alexander had settled into a gig teaching algebra to high-school students when the Bombers called offering him the invitation to training camp.

Still…

“It was a 50-50 decision, no question about it,” he said. “I talked to my mom and my pops about it. It wasn’t even a long conversation, though. I had just moved out of my parents’ house. I graduated, was tutoring and getting my certification to get into teaching. I had an apartment, a car that was paid off… I was moving up in the real world, slowly but surely, and I’m feeling OK with things. Then I get this random phone call from the Bombers and the first people I went to see were my parents. I talked about finally moving up in the real world and making my way, about not being sure I want to stop this and then go somewhere and start over.

“My mom said: ‘Do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to play.’ She said, ‘Are you able to play? Is your body good?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m able to play.’ Finally, she said: ‘If you’re able to play, go do it. Whatever dreams you have, whatever you want to accomplish, go do it.’

“All dreams have their timetables, but you can also cut them short and you need to have a back-up plan. But your dreams stay as your dreams and if you don’t ‘finish’ going after your dreams it will always haunt you. I appreciate my parents telling me that because I could be back home right now saying, ‘I feel good right now. What if I took that chance?’ Then it’s woulda, coulda, shoulda, right?”

We talked about that for a moment – how one decision can be so dramatic and so impactful in a person’s life. Alexander, after all, likely would have made an excellent teacher, just based on his communication skills alone. Yet that 50-50 decision to give football one more shot has given him so much, too.

“I don’t take the time to look back at things that transpired, but now that you brought that up, back in that first camp I was just some random kid trying to make it and find my way in here,” he said. “It was guys like Chris Randle (the former Bombers cornerback) who took me in… I just talked to him a few weeks ago and thanked him for all the things he did for me and said I wish I could have shared our Grey Cup with him because he was a big part in my preparation to get to that point.

“But to go from that scenario – being a young kid trying to make it to where I am now – it’s very surreal to me. And I’m blessed to have been able to do it with one team.”

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