Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander says it’s been 11 months since he last used marijuana.
He used to return from practice and unwind at his uptown condo by smoking weed. He said it helped him heal and relax, and he compared it to someone having a glass of wine after work.
That was before Alexander spent 16 days in rehab last summer and sat out 14 games in 2014 while serving two suspensions for violating the NFL’s policy on drugs of abuse.
The suspensions – covering four and 10 games – cost Alexander $470,000 of his $570,000 base salary last year and put him in what he called a “do-or-die” situation as he enters the final year of his rookie contract.
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As he prepares for his fourth season, Alexander has much to gain, and much to lose.
He is among the candidates to replace defensive end Greg Hardy, who signed with Dallas in March after the Panthers decided to move on from his domestic violence situation.
But another failed drug test will trigger a one-year-suspension for Alexander, who says he’s learned from his mistakes and is grateful to the Panthers for sticking with him.
“There’s still more out there for me to do. That’s why I was disappointed last year that I couldn’t go out there and play,” Alexander said. “I know I can do a whole lot better than what I’ve been doing. It’s just a mindset thing, confidence and believing in yourself.”
Trading pot for PlayStation
Alexander, the Panthers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2012, met with an Observer reporter Friday at a Starbucks not far from his residence. During an hour-long interview, Alexander offered his most candid comments about his suspension and revealed his stint in a Boston-area rehab facility that has treated other NFL players.
He said the treatment was recommended by substance abuse counselors who work with the NFL. Alexander arrived on July 2, 2014, about a month after what he said was his fourth positive test for marijuana.
“It was supposed to be anonymous, but there ain’t too many 6-4, 270-pound males coming in there,” Alexander said.
Because of his multiple failed tests, Alexander is subject to random drug tests that can happen nearly anywhere and at any time. Alexander says he’s been tested as many as five times a month, and has had officials contact him around 5 p.m. on a Saturday evening to collect a urine sample.
Alexander says he’s also been tested when visiting family in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. He said the unannounced tests do not unnerve him.
“Ain’t nothing to be nervous about if you don’t smoke,” Alexander said.
Alexander says he hasn’t smoked since returning from rehab last summer, and points out he never used pot before showing up for practice or workouts at Bank of America Stadium.
“I didn’t do it before I went to work. I didn’t do it at work. It was simply like after I got out of practice, I wanted to kind of relax and chill. It kind of healed my body up,” he says. “It wasn’t like a thing I was doing all the time. I didn’t need it to get up and go.”
Now when he gets back to his condo, Alexander says he spends his idle time playing video games on his PlayStation.
Among his go-to games are Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, NBA 2K15 and Madden NFL. Alexander’s video-game likeness in the current Madden edition is unimpressive, he says.
“He ain’t doing too well,” Alexander said. “I’m trying to get my ratings up.”
Signs of maturity
Alexander, 25, was allowed to work out and attend meetings with his position group while he was suspended. Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington told Alexander to prepare mentally for games as though he were playing.
“He wanted me to still take notes. He’d ask me questions on the gameplan just to make sure I was still sharp,” Alexander said. “I felt like I had a whole year to just look at the defense. I feel like I know the defense now, back and front.”
Washington, like Alexander a Louisiana native, said he saw signs of maturity in Alexander last season.
“He was at every meeting. He was an active learner at all of the meetings and he kept himself involved to the degree that he could,” Washington said. “So that right there suggested strongly to me that Frank understood what was at stake in terms of his career and he started the process of trying to make amends from that point.”
Alexander would lift weights at 6 a.m. with the team’s practice squad players, attend meetings, then do drills on the practice field with Panthers strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn.
Walking back to the stadium, Alexander would pass his teammates on their way to practice.
Sundays might have rough on Alexander if not for the support of his parents, who traveled to Charlotte for home games to be with their son.
“Knowing he wasn’t going to be on the field, it was just so important to be there for him,” his mother, Juanita Alexander said. “We sat right there with him and watched the game in his living room and cheered the team on.”
Alexander said he also felt the support of Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera.
“They kept it real with me about the consequences if I make another mistake. But all in all, they were real supportive,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of like what Mr. Gettleman told me, ‘I’ve got a son your age. I know y’all can make some bonehead decisions.’
“Coach Rivera was the same way. ‘We’re going to stick behind you.’”
Rewarding the faith
Alexander wants to reward the organization’s faith by raising his performance on the field and making good decisions off it.
He’s been attending Elevation Church in Charlotte and handed out medals this month after the Panthers’ Keep Pounding 5K run, which raised more than $45,000 for pediatric cancer research at Levine Children’s Hospital.
Alexander is in the process of starting a charitable foundation to raise money and awareness for all types of cancers after watching his mother battle breast cancer last year.
Juanita Alexander, 52, who has worked in IT for the state of Louisiana for 26 years, had surgery last June to have a mass removed. She’s been cancer-free since.
Juanita said 2014 was a trying year for the entire family.
“There were lessons learned and we all learned something from the experience,” she said. “And we realized this was testing us and we came through with flying colors.”
Alexander started three games each of his first two seasons, but has only 3.5 career sacks. He had 8.5 as a senior at Oklahoma in 2011 when he shared Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors with Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein, then a junior at Iowa State.
Rivera last summer called Alexander the team’s training camp MVP, but suggested Alexander’s time in Charlotte could be nearing an end without a breakthrough season in 2015.
“I think Frank’s doing a nice job. He’s showing that he’s hungry,” Rivera said. “He’s got a lot to prove personally. I think he feels that way and he’s been working that way. I think this is his make-or-break season.”
Time to seize the position
The Panthers used a committee approach last season when Hardy was sidelined for the final 15 games, with Kony Ealy, Mario Addison and Wes Horton all getting repetitions. Rivera said he would prefer to have one player seize the position this season.
Alexander says he’s ready to become a full-time starter.
“It’s not you being selfish or anything like that, (but) now is time to take that step,” he said.
Washington, the defensive line coach, said Alexander can create matchup problems with his quickness when lined up inside, while still being effective as an edge rusher because of his length and athleticism.
Washington says Alexander also has expressed “a commitment to handling adversity in a more constructive fashion.”
“And that’s a work in progress with everybody,” Washington said. “It’s not something that happens overnight.”
Alexander still keeps in touch with Hardy, saying he would never throw a friend or teammate who’s dealing with adversity “to the curb.”
But Alexander’s primary concern is himself.
“When you get something taken away from you that you love, it does something to you,” Alexander said. “You don’t ever want to feel that feeling again.”
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