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November 18, 2009

Powered Up: A feel-good story

I considered weighing in on the whole Mark Mangino situation here, tossing my two cents in with everyone else's. And then I thought, why? It's not my place. It is what it is and we'll see what happens. The whole situation has, in my mind, exposed the ugly side of college sports which is, quite simply, that when you win, you can get away with anything. When you lose, everything you do is wrong.

But again, there's not much point for me to get into that. Instead, how about we talk about what should be one of the feel-good stories in the entire country this year? And this story has the advantage of actually having something to do with the team you pay me to cover.

Everybody has spent a lot of time and bandwidth bitching that Danario Alexander is not on the list of finalists for the Biletnikoff Award. And, yes, it's ridiculous. What is dumber-Martin Rucker being a finalist for the best tight end in America while not even being acknowledged as the best in his own conference or Alexander having a chance to finish in the top two in catches, yards and touchdowns and not being one of the top ten receivers in the country? They're both stupid.

But again, let's not spend our time whining and complaining here. Let's look at the bright side for a moment (I know it's far less controversial and often less fun, but I can be Pollyanna for a day right?) And the bright side is this: If you're a fan of sports, hell, if you're a fan of people, what Danario Alexander is doing this year is one of the best stories in the country.

We all know the stories of great careers derailed by injury or off-field problems or any number of things that aren't related to football. How good would Bo Jackson have been without the hip problem? What if Sandy Koufax had been able to pitch like the greatest hurler on the planet for more than six years? Closer to home, what if Tony VanZant hadn't blown out his knee in a meaningless all-star game, or even more, what if he'd have done it 15 years later when torn ACLs didn't end careers?

By all reason and logic, Danario Alexander should have gone down as one of those stories. Well, probably not even one of those, because few really understood how good he could have been. Two knee surgeries, a broken wrist, and more time spent with Rex Sharp in the training room than Chase Daniel on the football field. One injury, yeah, it happens. After the second one, I'd probably have said, "You know what? It just isn't meant to be." After the surgery didn't take and Alexander virtually wasted his 2008 season and had to have knee surgery again, I'd say the vast majority of people would have quit.

But Alexander didn't. He kept going to the training room. He kept lifting, sweating and perservering. He did it all to play on a team that everyone KNEW was going to be at least a little bit worse than the last two. Think about this for a minute: Danario Alexander was a starter in the Illinois game in 2007. He had caught nine passes in three quarters. He had made it. The nearly unrecruited kid from Marlin, Texas was about to be a star. It was painful enough, I'm sure, when he got hurt. But even more painful, Alexander had to take a back seat for the most successful season in school history. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm sure he enjoyed the run, but in the final 13 games of that 12-and-2 campaign, Alexander started just once and caught 28 passes for 335 yards. Meanwhile, the guy that replaced him in the starting lineup, Jeremy Maclin, went on to become an all-American as a freshman.

In 2008, the Tigers were again supposed to contend for a national title. And Alexander started the season on the shelf. He played in 12 games, but again started just one. He caught 26 passes for 329 yards and could do little while the national title hopes slipped away.

After playing the role of supporting actor and fourth or fifth receiver, 2009 was finally Alexander's chance to be the man. But gone was the Heisman-finalist quarterback. Gone was the all-American on the other side to take the pressure off of him. Gone was the tight end that opened up the field by catching anything within three zip codes. The Tigers had Alexander-and he had his health-but they didn't really have a whole lot other than that...at least not a whole lot that was proven.

I was about to say I'm not trying to make you feel sorry for Danario Alexander. But then I realized that's not true. I probably am. I mean, the kid was this good MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO. When Gary Pinkel says that the old Danario is back, he's completely right. He's not miles better now than he was then. Alexander was the best player on the team in fall camp in 2007. And it was a hell of a team. So, you know what? Go ahead and feel sorry for him.

And deep down, somewhere, maybe while he was lying on that table in the training room, maybe when he called home at night, maybe when he saw Maclin picked with the 21st selection in last April's NFL Draft, maybe he felt a little sorry for himself too. But we don't know. He never showed it and he never talked about it.

What he did was go back to the training room. He buckled up his knee brace and tried to regain the confidence in his body that had failed him so many times. He worked.

And now, finally, as he gets ready to play the final game of his career in front of Missouri fans, everybody understands. They know how good he is, how great he can be.

If they didn't know before last Saturday, they certainly do now. Against Kansas State, Alexander did every single thing a receiver can possibly do in a game. He went up in double coverage and snatched a deep ball away from a safety, literally reaching over the defender's head. It wasn't a perfect pass, but Blaine Gabbert has learned that when you're throwing to Danario Alexander, it doesn't have to be. Later, he embarrassed a defensive back with a corner route that could not have been run more perfectly. After that, with his team trying to gag up another second half lead, with thoughts of "Here we go again," inevitably in everyone's minds, he took a 10-yard pass over the middle. He stopped on a dime and cut the other way-something you maybe shouldn't be able to do on a knee that's been twice repaired-and made the entire Kansas State defense look as if it was running through wet sand on his way to an 80-yard touchdown. He wasn't done. With the Tigers needing a first down to ice things and truly put the game away, Alexander took a short pass on third down. He was hit two yards behind the marker. As he battled, his helmet came off. He reached out, stretching every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame and got a first down. He paid with what Gary Pinkel called "a helmet to head" hit. But he got the first down on the last of his 200 receiving yards. His team got the win. Numbers-wise, it wasn't even his best game in the last two weeks. But if you saw it, you knew it was an effort you'll remember years from now.

And finally, in the hours after the game, everyone understood just how good he was. A reporter asked Pinkel if Danario had been healthy whether Maclin would have started a game in 2007. Sports Illustrated scrapped the plans for a Bill Snyder lovefest and wrote a Danario gusher instead. The Big 12 made him the first receiver ever to win player of the week honors twice. Football writers across the country began writing him in on their Biletnikoff ballots that would have been a sham had they not.

And Saturday, for the home fans, it comes to an end. One last chance to see a guy that might be putting together the best individual season in Missouri history.

It's the last chapter in what could have been a novel, but was abridged by injury to a one-act play. What an act it was. The first three years of this story had a lot of heartache and hurt. It was another tale of all that potential being wasted. As he gets ready to write the final pages, we don't know how Danario Alexander's Tiger story ends. But we know what a great read it's been. We know how good he is. We've seen it with our own eyes.

Finally.

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