COLUMBIA — Danario Alexander’s left knee is a mangled wreck, swollen to the size of a softball. The joint sticks out from his withered muscles. Two scalpel wounds are stapled shut and covered with bandages caked with blood. The pair of three-inch scars looks refined in comparison.
It’s been two weeks since Alexander’s latest surgery. The former Missouri wide receiver has returned to the familiar surroundings of the sports medicine center in the Missouri Athletic Training Complex to complete his rehab. He's sitting on one of the room's padded tables when Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe walks over and asks the question that Alexander will get nearly a half-dozen times this morning: What happened this time?
“Did you get hit?” Moe asks. “Because you went all year takin’ all kinds of hits.”
“Nah, it wasn’t nothin’,” Alexander says.
He can’t remember how it happened, exactly. A jump ball, maybe. He just knows that during one of the practices at the Senior Bowl, a postseason college all-star game, he landed strangely and the result was a piece of chipped cartilage and a trip to a Miami surgeon.
The surgery to repair the cartilage is the fourth operation he’s had on his left knee in less than three years. The first three were all ACL tears. ACL injuries aren't the career-enders they were 20 years ago. Nine in 10 athletes will recover after tearing the ligament the first time. It's the second time that does people in. Only three or four Missouri football players in the last 20 years have continued their MU careers after tearing an ACL twice. No one has come back after three. More than the physical trauma that surgery brings, it's the mental anguish of recovery that's often too much.
With each new injury it seemed that Alexander's talent would never overcome his luck. That his career would end with questions about what might have been. Then he spent his senior season leading the nation in receiving yards and breaking every single season receiving record in Missouri history. And now, while players around the country work to help their chances in the NFL draft starting on April 22, Alexander will be on the crutches propped against the partition next to the training table. He will be back where he's been so many times, forced to overcome what he cannot control.
There's only one road back, and he knows it well.
Missouri head athletic trainer Rex Sharp returns to the table with a pair of pliers. The smaller of the incisions is ready for the staples to be removed. He slides the tool between the metal and skin and pulls. Beads of blood emerge from each of the tiny holes.
Sharp finishes and turns his attention to the longer cut near the outside of the knee held together by seven staples. He removes the bandage. The area around several of the staples looks inflamed.
“Did they give you any antibiotics?” Sharp asks.
Alexander shakes his head.
Sharp continues to prod the bottom few staples. He lingers too long.
“You scarin’ me now, man,” Alexander says.
Sharp decides that they should go see the team physician. He slides a sleeve designed to prevent infection over the knee before Alexander pulls the leg of his Under Armour sweatpants back down. Alexander reaches for the crutches and moves toward the door.
Jeremy Maclin: Friend and rival
On an afternoon in early March, a machine pumps ice-cold water into a sleeve contracted around Alexander’s left knee as he takes a long look at the screen of his vibrating iPhone. He doesn’t recognize the number.
“Hello,” Alexander says. “Yeah, this is Danario.” He exchanges some pleasantries. His tone is professional.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with my past injuries,” Alexander says.
The man on the other end of the line is Philadelphia Eagles wide receivers coach David Culley. The Eagles are the first team to reach out to Alexander following the NFL Scouting Combine. Alexander knows that he has someone to thank for that. Philadelphia selected former MU wide receiver Jeremy Maclin with the team’s first pick in last year’s NFL draft. Maclin had 762 receiving yards in his rookie NFL season.
As Alexander’s dominance during his senior season proved to be consistent, it became clear that he would threaten the records that two-time All-American Maclin set during his final season at Missouri. In an effort to explain what had previously seemed impossible, many turned to the simple version of the story: Back in 2007, Jeremy Maclin was Danario Alexander’s backup.
Alexander was one of the last players recruited in Missouri’s 2006 class. Maclin was one of the most sought after players in it. But when the Tigers took the field against Illinois for its first game of the 2007 season, Alexander trotted out with the starting offense.
Late in the fourth quarter, already with eight catches for 49 yards in the game, Alexander hauled in a 33-yard pass to maintain the drive that solidified the Missouri win. As he went to the ground, his right wrist caught underneath his body. It was broken. He missed the next three games, and by the time he returned, Jeremy Maclin had become Jeremy Maclin. Alexander caught 28 passes including two touchdowns for the Tigers after his return, but his role was never the same.
The first knee injury came in the Big 12 Championship game at the end of that season. It came after he took a handoff up the left sideline. The damage was almost identical to the injury Maclin suffered before the previous season. The ACL was torn, and there was additional damage to a set of ligaments on the outside of the knee. The same doctor, team physician Pat Smith, performed the surgery. He used the same method for both. Maclin returned to begin an All-American career that turned him into a first round draft pick. Alexander tore the same ACL two more times.
The call winds down, and Alexander begins repeating the number Culley gives him aloud. He stops when he realizes it’s the one from his caller ID. He says thank you and hangs up.
The beginning agony
Alexander’s massive hands grip both ends of the towel looped around the ball of his shoeless foot. He pulls back toward his body until his toes point straight upward. He releases. The action is repeated about 15 times. During each repetition, the foot looks like it has a mind of its own. He talks with an assistant athletic trainer about customized mouthguards as he works. The motion looks like an afterthought.
“I’ve done a million of these,” Alexander says.
After his first ACL tear, Alexander was in the training room every day for nearly two years. He had a towel in his hands on that first day of rehab, too. That one was draped across his face to muffle the screams.
It was early January. There was snow on the ground, and his roommate, current Missouri cornerback Kevin Rutland, had to drive him to the complex in his Ford Mustang. Part of his rehab that morning involved wall slides, a common exercise for knee injuries that helps restore range of motion. Just a few days after surgery, the fluid filling the knee causes a tremendous amount of pressure.
The workout began as Alexander positioned himself flat on the floor and raised his legs up the wall in front of him. He started bending his left knee.
Rutland says he had walked away for a moment when he heard the noises. A mix of agonized groans, grunts and crying.
“I’ve never heard a grown man make sounds like that,” Rutland says.
Rutland walked back in the room to see Alexander on the floor, towel draped across his face, the sound of crying stifled, but hardly silenced by the fabric. Former Missouri players Lorenzo Williams and Pig Brown stood over Alexander and yelled bits of encouragement. This was the only way back, they said. He had to fight through it. The cries of pain continued, along with the tears. Finally, he finished the set. His legs dropped to the floor. For at least the moment, the pain lessened.
Rutland drove back to their off-campus apartment for the short break before Alexander had to be back for more rehab. Alexander had drifted off on the couch for maybe 20 minutes when Rutland shook him awake. Alexander waved him off.
It took Rutland a moment to realize that his roommate wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t going back. He wasn’t crutching back out into the snow. He wasn’t squeezing into the passenger’s seat of that cramped Ford Mustang. He wasn’t doing any of it. He was done.
Alexander says that it was Rutland who convinced him. He had to go back. And finally, he relented.
Team physician Dr. Pat Smith makes his rounds through the training room following a Saturday morning Missouri spring football practice. Alexander is seated on a training table among the current players waiting for Smith to see them. Smith has already inspected the knee once, but as the doctor moves down the row of tables, Alexander grabs his attention.
“Dr. Smith, I’m tired of these crutches, man,” Alexander says. He says it a few more times, loud enough for Smith to hear him each time. Patience is one of the hardest lessons learned by elite athletes returning from injury. They’ve spent most of their lives convincing their bodies to ignore limitations. When you can jump 46 inches into the air, limitations are just the things you haven’t yet accomplished. After Alexander’s ACL tore for the second time, limitations were not an option. Neither was patience.
ACL reconstruction surgery involves the manufacturing and attachment of a new artificial ligament to take the place of the ACL. The new ligament is often comprised of one or more other ligaments or tendons from cadavers or other areas of the patient’s body. After surgery, the hope is that the host body accepts the replacement ligament and the knee adapts. There are times, however, where the body rejects the new graft, and it never reaches the strength necessary for extended use.
Smith has looked back at the video of Alexander’s first surgery wondering what he could have done differently. From what he can see, the procedure was without any glaring flaws. But over time, the ligament stretched, and that spring it tore again.
The surgery was scheduled for June 9, 2008, a little more than two months before the season began. Alexander came out of surgery with one thing in mind — he couldn’t miss this season. Not with what was at stake. This season meant top-five rankings and Sports Illustrated covers. This was it.
Sharp scheduled a rehab session for the day after Alexander’s surgery. Alexander walked through the training room door the next morning, crutches in hand, one day after having his left ACL reconstructed.
“That doesn’t happen,” Sharp says.
“Superhuman.” That’s how Smith describes the next three months. Alexander would arrive at 7 a.m. each day, spend three hours rehabbing, move into the weight room to work out his upper body, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d return to the training room in the afternoon.
Most returns from a torn ACL take seven months to a year. By August, two months after surgery, Alexander could run. By early September, he passed every strength test Smith requires for medical clearance. And on Sept. 13, he was back on the field against Nevada, three months after surgery. The knee wasn’t at full strength, but it held, and he had at least one catch in Missouri’s next nine games. Then came the trip to Arrowhead Stadium for the Border Showdown with Kansas.
Missouri’s final regular season game against KU that season lacked the implications of the year before. There was no national championship at stake. The weather was terrible that day. Snow beat down across Missouri, and the flakes fell thick onto the sod at Arrowhead.
It happened quietly. There was no dramatic limp off the field with the help of a few teammates, or a cart ride back to the locker room with a polite wave to the crowd. But when the game ended, Alexander knew something was wrong.
Smith and Sharp took him back into the locker room for X-rays. He sat and waited. He had a feeling. About 10 minutes later, the film was developed, and Smith held the image up to the light. He noticed a small chip in a bone of Alexander’s left knee. That kind of chip only has one cause. The ACL was torn.
Overcoming psychological barriers
Across the training room, Alexander notices MU women’s basketball player Bekah Mills having her knee examined. Mills tore her ACL late last year. Alexander asks if she can run yet.
“Not until May,” she says. Her surgery was in October. Alexander does the math. Seven months. He nods. That’s about right. Alexander forced himself to rest for seven months after his third surgery. He had learned his lesson about rushing back.
“All that Superman stuff,” he says to Mills. “That’s gotta get out the door.”
The exchange is brief, but his voice is authoritative. He’s experienced in giving these small bits of advice. Sharp often asks him to call an athlete who tears or re-tears an ACL. He says that Alexander’s positivity affects everyone around him. Everything is better when Alexander is involved.
The advice Alexander gives comes from someone who has seen nearly every possibility when it comes to his knee. Sharp jokes about how one of these days, Alexander will be rehabbing someone else. He tells a story about a practice last season when Alexander landed awkwardly, and before Sharp could make his way over, Alexander was doing tests on the knee. Physically, he knows more about his own body than any athlete Sharp has dealt with. The 146 pages of records in Dr. Smith’s files have made that part easy. But it’s the mental side that sets him apart.
Alexander chose to wear a brace on his knee and play in the Alamo Bowl after tearing the ACL against Kansas. About a month later he was back in the prep room waiting for surgery. The anesthesiologist had come and gone, and Alexander was alone in the silent, antiseptic room, staring at the ceiling, asking the question he’d avoided for so long — was he meant for something else?
He called his mom following the surgery and asked her the same question. She wouldn’t hear it. She told him to sleep on it, that he was still under the effects of the anesthesia.
He woke up the next morning and the questions of the night before had faded away. It was time to get back to work.
Sharp says that he had never seen a bit of doubt in Alexander’s face until the third injury. The psychological barriers to recovery are the last ones that athletes have to overcome. They go through the grieving process. Denial, anger, frustration. Eventually, there is acceptance and the final move forward.
“I can’t begin to tell you,” Sharp says. “When I compare his injuries and the things that he’s had to go through with other athletes and their response to a much less severe injury, he’s just not normal. It’s not a normal reaction.”
Alexander has never spent much time questioning. He’s done all that he can control. Things just happen, and there is reason to be found in them. He’s more patient now. His will is stronger. He says he doesn’t know what it would take for him to walk away, but he never could before.
“I didn’t have a choice to quit or not,” he says. “I had to keep going.”
Relying on hope, fighting for respect
He balances on the crutches stuck into the turf of the Daniel Devine Pavillion and takes a bite of a meatball sub. It looks easy, but so does him moving through doorways by wedging the rubber tip of the crutch between the door and the floor, or goofing around by lifting his legs off the ground and using the crutches to launch him forward. A few bites in, he puts the sandwich back in the bag and tosses it aside. He stands at the far end of Missouri’s indoor practice facility as the players participating in Missouri’s pro day for professional scouts run their 40-yard dashes right at him.
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel walks by and asks if he would rather sit in the bleachers in the middle of the field for the players. He shakes his head. He’d rather be alone.
There’s nothing harder than watching his teammates compete while he's on crutches. This was supposed to be his day. Even after 1,781 yards and an All-American season, he knew that there were questions that pro teams had about him going forward. Now he’s helpless in answering them.
“I could’ve put myself in a good position,” he says. “Now, I’m just hopin'.”
Hoping that the show he put on all season is enough to coax a team to take a chance on him. No one outside the Missouri program could have predicted the season Alexander had as a senior. He scored 14 touchdowns to go along with his nation-leading yardage total, but he wasn’t even eligible for the Biletnikoff Award for the best receiver in the country because he wasn’t on the preseason watch list. Alexander dominated throughout Missouri’s Big 12 games, but it was Missouri’s win over Kansas State that defined his comeback.
He finished the game with 10 catches for 200 yards, and showed off every part of the game he has when fully healthy. He outran and out-jumped defenders for three touchdowns. He ran for a first down after having his helmet torn off. Television announcers spent the game comparing him to Randy Moss, the New England Patriots wide receiver whose poster is plastered to the wall in Alexander’s bedroom back in Texas.
After the game Alexander told reporters that the win saved the integrity of the Missouri season. It also saved the integrity of his career. Danario Alexander was no longer a “what might have been.” A Sports Illustrated writer who showed up at the game to write about the success of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder ended up writing about how he might have just seen the best wide receiver in the country.
Alexander thinks he still is, and that’s what confuses him most about all the draft rankings that have him listed below more than a dozen other wide receivers. They say he’s not fast enough, even though he routinely outran opposing secondaries all year. They say he has poor hands, even though he dropped only a few passes the whole season.
“I’ll never understand that,” Alexander says. “They question speed. They question certain other things, and I’m like, ‘All right … maybe I didn’t do enough on my film?’ Maybe they didn’t see the film.”
He looks at the players ranked higher than him. One quit his college team. Others played on teams that Missouri beat in games where he was the best player on the field. When MU was in the national spotlight in 2007, 1,700 yards would have had every football fan in the country saying his name. Two years later, he was the star of a team in transition that was quietly bowl-eligible, and it's left him scraping for respect.
“You get mad,” he says. “It pisses you off a little.”
The word “fair” comes up. He shakes his head. He doesn’t know fair. Doesn’t care about it, either.
“That’s just how it is,” he says. “I’ll fight however long. However long I have to fight, I’ll keep fighting.”
The 86-degree water reaches a point just below the tops of Alexander’s still-sculpted shoulders. His upper body hasn’t faded much. In fact, he did 17 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at Missouri’s second pro day. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to compete.
Today the only competition is the 5-foot-deep water in the small pool in the back of the training room. He hates the pool. Not today as much. But when he has to start running in it, and they turn the current all the way up. Today the current is slower, and he’s testing his range of motion for the first time since the surgery.
The hum of the water is the only noise. He pushes up and down off the balls of his feet positioned on a ledge at one end of the pool. The first look of discomfort moves across his face. His legs burn. Two days later, his calves will still be sore. The sky outside is a dreary gray, and the only light in the room trickles in through four small windows, but when it hits his face at a certain angle, the beads of sweat on his forehead create a subtle shine. It’s a sweat that he loves. It’s a sign that it’s begun again. He’s on his way back to where he hopes to be.
He had a meeting with several doctors almost immediately after the injury at the Senior Bowl, and when they said that the surgery was scheduled for a week later, Alexander had only one question: Why not tomorrow?
The draft is a few weeks away. There is talk that teams know the type of reward behind the risk, and it will only take one to reach up into the middle rounds and give him an opportunity. He's just not sure where and when it will come. All Alexander wants is a chance, just like the one he got at Missouri. He says that training camp will be just like arriving at college.
“I’m the underdog, man,” he says. “Lowest recruit in our class. I had to fight the whole time. I feel like I’m always going to have to fight to get to where I need to be. Ain’t nothin’ gonna be handed to me.”
But why does he always have to fight?
“I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “I can’t explain it. It’s just something that I have to do. I can’t stay down. I’ve got to get back to where I want to be.”
He moves to the other edge of the pool and lifts himself out. He slides his sweatpants back on. He throws the sweatshirt back over his head. He grabs the crutches and moves back toward the training room. Ice is next.