The sun was going down.
After the Detroit Lions held a grueling, physical practice on Tuesday night, most of the players and coaches walked off the field and headed to the locker room.
But Maurice Alexander — an undrafted rookie — stayed to get extra work.
Trying to make the most of this opportunity.
Savoring every second.
It’s hard not to root for somebody like him — a true longshot who worked two years to get to this moment.
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Nine months ago, Alexander was sorting boxes on the night shift at UPS. When the sun came up, he went to a local park to train; he ran routes — sometimes without a quarterback, working against an imaginary defender — chasing this crazy dream.
And now, everybody seems to be chasing him. Through the first two weeks of the preseason, Alexander leads the NFL with 174 kickoff return yards. His 34.8-yard return average ranks second and his 61-yard return against Indianapolis is the third-longest of the summer.
"At the end of the day, what you’re looking for in the preseason is guys who make explosive plays,” Lions special teams coach Dave Fipp said. “Obviously, Maurice (Alexander) did that a week ago for us, so that was intriguing.”
Intriguing — that might be the best way to sum up Alexander.
He has performed, in a small sample size, during two preseason games. But what would he do in a real NFL game? Is he better than other options the Lions have? Can the Lions trust him to perform?
The Lions are facing those questions with several players — far more than last year, which is encouraging in the big picture.
“We’re a lot farther ahead than we were last year,” Lions coach Dan Campbell told reporters Friday. “We’re much more competitive. The talent has been upgraded, and it’s tough. … You’re juggling the durability, the dependability, all these they do it right, but are they good enough? Are they truly good enough? Versus the talent, flash player, can’t trust them. And it’s — but you know they’ve got the talent to do it if the light comes on, and so, it’s hard. It’s hard, but that’s the task that we’re given.”
'I'm football fast'
After Alexander finished his workout, he walked off the field as a crew from “Hard Knocks” followed behind him, filming him and another player. It wouldn't be surprising if Alexander is featured on an upcoming episode that focuses on roster cuts.
One way or the other.
I spent a few days watching Alexander do drills. He seems to maintain top speed as he makes cuts, seemingly going the same speed straight ahead as he does side to side. Not everybody can do that.
“What’s your 40 time?” I asked him.
“I never ran a legit 40,” he said.
Yes, that’s crazy on its own. He never went to a combine. But that’s getting ahead in the story.
“I run fast with equipment on,” he said, smiling. “I’m football fast.”
Alexander might be football fast, but he has taken the slow road to the NFL.
He played quarterback from Pop Warner through high school.
“I played in three national championships,” he said. “I won two of them and lost one.”
Alexander was a great high school quarterback in talent-rich Florida, leading Booker T. Washington in Miami to a state title as he was named All-State. He went to Florida International — as a quarterback — and played for coach Butch Davis. He got into 13 games over his first three years, completing 54.8% of his passes for 787 yards, two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“My college career was kind of up and down,” he said. “I had to adjust a little bit, but it wasn't as good as my high school career.”
Just 5 feet 10, he figured his future wasn’t at quarterback. So after spring practice in 2018, he decided to switch to receiver.
“I was undersized at quarterback,” Alexander said. “I went to Coach Davis and I told him that I felt like I would be able to help the team more at receiver and he was excited about it. He said I could play returner, have different packages, even run wildcat sometimes.
“It just kind of took off from there. That whole summer I just worked at it, perfecting my craft. That was my first time running routes, but I had a good feel for it just because I was a quarterback. I knew what I would want in a receiver.”
He started playing receiver — with 40 catches for 474 yards and five touchdowns — and returning kicks and punts for the first time in his life, averaging 15.5 yards on kick returns.
“This dude here, he just has an ability to make people miss,” said Tim Harris, who coached Alexander in high school and at FIU. “Then when he straightens up, they're not catching him, he's outrunning angles.”
Friends in high places
Then, everything went wrong.
During his senior season, he broke his ankle while blocking for a teammate. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled his school’s pro day and the NFL scouting combine.
“It was like a double whammy,” Alexander said.
Even though he was not invited to a training camp, he didn’t give up the dream. He spent the next two years working out on his own, hoping an opportunity might arise.
"He has a chip on his shoulder every single day,” Harris said. “It doesn't surprise, anything that's happening right now."
To make extra money, he trained local high school football players, and he started working with the son of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, according to Outkick.com.
“He was basically done,” Rubio told Outkick. “He was training my son on routes. He doesn’t have a car. But now they are putting a mic on him for 'Hard Knocks.' ”
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Rubio tried to find Alexander an agent, according to Outkick.
“Mr. Rubio was reaching out to some people for me,” Alexander told me.
Alexander isn’t entirely sure how it happened, but he received an invitation to the USFL draft pool.
As the USFL draft was taking place in February, he was working at a high school.
“I was working intervention,” he said. “It's kind of like a substitute, kinda, but like, not a substitute.”
He was following the USFL draft on his phone.
“I'm sitting in a classroom and the draft is going on,” he said. “And then I see a tweet.”
He was taken by the Philadelphia Stars with the second-to-last wide receiver selection. (The USFL drafts by position group.)
“I was just blessed, man, for the opportunity, because I always knew that I could play, and I always knew I had the game to play,” he said.
He had a great year in the USFL, catching 20 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns over 10 games. But it was his kickoff returns that drew notice from the NFL; he led the league in kickoff return yards (787) and kickoff return average (31.5).
“It went great,” he said. “We end up making it to the championship game. And it was a great opportunity. Great coaches. Great people. Man, I'm so thankful for that league."
After the USFL season, he worked out with the Dallas Cowboys but didn’t get an offer.
The Lions invited him to a tryout, then signed him to a contract on Aug. 3.
“I thank these coaches and this organization for giving me the opportunity to show my talents,” he said. “I always knew that I could play at a high level and it’s just getting the opportunity.”
He is listed as a wide receiver, and is learning that position, but he’s behind because he missed minicamp and part of training camp.
“I’m just trying to grasp bits and pieces,” he said. “Picking up things on the daily.”
'He's got his shot'
It’s such a crazy story.
A guy working at UPS, training on his own for two years, finally getting his chance.
But Harris isn’t surprised.
“He is from the Florida City area of Miami, which is Deep South,” said Harris, now an assistant coach at Central Florida. “It's hard-working people. He’s got a really good family support system. And that's what I think helps drives him. His mom, his dad, his stepmother, all the sisters, everybody. They're extremely supportive of him. So he's always had that backbone, which keeps him going, even when things don't look good.
“He has a lot of friends who are very athletic and they had a lot opportunities, but for one reason or another, they might have not worked out. I think that also motivates him to try to walk a straight line. He’s got his shot and he’s going to finish this thing. His job isn’t done. But it’s no surprise to me at all.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Maurice Alexander went from the USFL to the Detroit Lions