LOS ANGELES – This is the NFL's MVP seven years on and now he's standing in a plane crash. All around him rests a moonscape of broken seats, jagged metal and crushed houses. A suitcase rests beside his foot, a little girl's bicycle is tucked under the fuselage. Smoke surrounds him. And Shaun Alexander smiles.
Yes, it is going to be a good day.
He squints at the morning sun climbing over the mountain, clasps his hands, nods, raises his hand and …
In a world somewhere off the set of Universal Studios, free agency churned through its second day. Names flew from one roster to another. Cell phones chirped. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey – freed the afternoon before by the Oakland Raiders – kept taking calls. But inside the fake world of movies, time stood still. Only four seasons have passed since Alexander played his last NFL game. It is conceivable that had he not left the game at just 31, that might have been his name on the free agent ticker, too.
On Wednesday, he stared at the crumpled plane – leftover from the "War of the Worlds" filming – and shook his head. No he said softly, it is time for a new life now.
The man who was once the league's best running back wants to work in movies now. He has been thinking this for several months, ever since someone he knows suggested that he write films. The idea seemed a good one. He liked writing, he liked movies, so he signed up for the NFL Pro Hollywood Boot Camp, a weeklong primer on the film industry.
And on the third day, after helping to produce a short movie called "H2O" about the fight for a bottle of water in a Mad Max-like wasteland, he seemed impressed with what he had done.
"I know I'm going to write two movies in my life, for sure," he said.
To those unfamiliar with Alexander's ways, this would probably sound outlandish: ex-football player walks into a movie studio, spends seven hours shooting a five-minute short and declares that he will soon be a known screenwriter. But this is Alexander. He says these things with a knowing smile, little intended hubris and then makes them happen. It's the way he has been since he first stepped onto Alabama's campus in the summer of 1996 and said he would be the school's all-time leading rusher. Then he made it happen.
"You know me, when I say I will do something I will," he said as he rode on a bus across the Universal lot after shooting had ended. "It's like when I first got to the Seahawks in 2000. I said: 'what are the records in Seattle? Oh OK, I'll get them.' "
The thing is, Alexander might be right. He seems a natural at film. Maybe he will make movies after all. He wrote a lot of the short on Tuesday night with Heyward-Bey, New York Giants cornerback Justin Tryon and another former player, cornerback Phillip Buchanan and then spent most of Wednesday's shooting directing. A few times he shot scenes away from the guidance of the instructor assigned to the project, Roger Bobb, who produced Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Meet the Browns.
By day's end, Alexander was almost giddy, certain he had stumbled across something he might want to do in his post-football life.
"To me it's like when you play football in junior high school," Alexander said. "Is it a passing interest or do you want to do it forever? I mean this wasn't a $30 million film, it was just a short but I wanted to give it my all. And I really do like this."
The 22 current and ex-players who gathered at Universal had varying degrees of interest. Drew Carter, a former receiver for the Carolina Panthers and Raiders, has already started an acting career, appearing in a handful of commercials, but came looking for tips and any extra path into a complicated industry. L.J. Shelton, who played tackle for 10 years in the NFL, wants to learn about producing movie scores. Heyward-Bey, who has always loved movies and likes to rate movies he watches, came because it was a world he desperately wants to know.
"I still have a life outside of football," Heyward-Bey said. "For me, football is football and life is life."
And yet no one acted more comfortable than Alexander who seemed to take over the shoot. He huddled constantly behind the camera and met often with the movie's stars: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Candace Smith – a former Miss Ohio USA and a Survivor contestant who has just finished a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and agreed to serve as both an actress and advisor to the project.
Alexander pointed out mistakes, placed actors in the right position and adapted the script to the actual production. He even had to adjust when another actress, who had already shot a scene, walked off the set. He huddled with Bobb and some of the other players, re-wrote some scenes, added another and went back to work. Shooting took another hour but a disaster was averted. He even had time to direct by himself a semi-romantic scene with Smith and McCoy.
"I was surprised when it happened," he said of the actress' unexplained departure. Then he shrugged. "So this is unique. Then I had to say 'all right, how do we deal with this?' It's like when a player gets hurt in a game and he's gone. How do you deal with it?"
The former MVP smiled again. It has been seven years since he was on the cover of the Madden video game. The roar has long faded. He has spent his four years after football living outside of Washington, D.C., and helping to raise his six children with his wife Valerie. It's been a good time away. And now it is time to find something new.
On Wednesday, in the smoldering ruins of a plane crash, he might just have.
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