The All-22 All-Stars: Alex Boone Stands Tall
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
The phone rang just after 3 a.m. Amy Boone didn’t know who was calling, but she knew why.
A few hours earlier, her son Alex had called from California. It was Super Bowl Sunday 2009, and the former Ohio State tackle was at a party near where he was training for the NFL combine. The night was old enough on the West Coast, and in her son’s voice, Amy could hear the gathering rage that sometimes came with his nights of heavy drinking. His sentences were sharp. His words were curt. He was starting to “sizzle.”
Amy asked to speak with Alex’s agent, a younger man about whom she’d had her reservations. Her son didn’t need another friend. He needed someone to tell him “no.” She asked that he take Alex home, while he might still be able to control her 6-foot-8, 330-pound son.
When the phone rang the second time, it was the Orange County Sheriff. Boone had gotten so drunk that he started jumping on the hoods of cars and trying to pull a tow truck by its cable. When confronted by police, he fled, and after finding him hiding under a porch, officers had to use a Taser — twice — to subdue Boone. After she got the call, Amy sunk to the floor. “All I could think,” she says, “was that his career was over.”
The NFL draft came and went without Boone hearing his name, and as each round passed, he looked across the room at the woman who had to answer those 3 a.m. calls too often. “A lot of times in life, you want to say, ‘It’s not my fault,’” Boone says. “At that moment, I had to look at myself. There was nobody else to look at.”
In February, Alex left his mother with another Super Bowl memory. But this time, she was sitting on the 40-yard line at the Superdome, her son jogging onto the field as part of the best offensive line in football. Since that night in 2009, Boone has gone from an undrafted free agent to the practice squad to one of the best guards in the NFL starting in the biggest sporting event of the year. “We say it all the time,” Amy says. “We can’t cover it up. It’s who he is. It’s what happened. And it’s OK. It’s all on the way up now. We look back on it and say ‘I wish that hadn’t happened,’ but if it hadn’t, god knows where he’d be.”
In the Boone house, no one ever had to be alone. When Amy got married at 19, she bought the house next door to her parents in Lakewood, Ohio. Amy was one of four siblings, and whether it was a Tuesday night gathering for grandma’s famous cheeseburgers or a big Sunday breakfast, there was always someone around. Alex was a crowd-pleaser. At the age when most children learn that cruelty can be funny, Amy says, her son’s humor remained self-referential.
What was missing from those family gatherings — and the rest of Boone’s life — was his father, who’d divorced Amy when Alex was 6 years old. He lived in California, was mostly a stranger to Boone and his older brother. Boone was raised by his grandfather. “He was the kind of grandpa they could talk about things with,” Amy says. “He was like their dad. He was their dad, for all intents and purposes.”
Boone was 14 when his grandfather died. He served as the crossbearer at his funeral. As he walked toward the altar, Amy glanced down the aisle at her son. “The devastation on his face …” she says. Abandoned by one father and robbed of another, Boone struggled to reconcile his newfound anger. “When he died, that’s when I started going off the wall,” he says. It’s also when he started drinking.
There’s a story that Amy tells now. It happened years later. Alex was home from college, and drunk. He and Amy were on the front porch, and it was the only time she could remember him being angry with her. When his grandfather died, Alex had been home while his mother and brother visited the hospital. “He’s telling me that he can’t forgive me for not having allowed him to be there,” Amy says. That’s when it came — the sizzle. All rationality was gone. Boone walked inside and toward his room, but not before leaving an imprint of his fist in the plaster wall.
Football was a different type of outlet. Not only did Boone like the game he’d been playing since he was 6, he was good at it. By his senior year, Boone had become the best player in the state of Ohio, typically considered one of the nation’s best collections of talent. His name was mentioned alongside players like Eugene Monroe, who’d go on to be the no. 8 overall pick in the 2009 draft, as the best offensive tackle in the country. When it was time to choose a university, Boone elected to stay close to home and enroll at Ohio State.
“It was everything I expected it to be,” Boone, who started as a freshman, says, “and more. I didn’t take the first year very seriously. I drank a lot. Everybody knows that. I just really wanted to party. I thought playing football was fun, but I loved the fact that since I was a football player, I could party and get away with it. So I tried to do it as much as I could.” And he could get away with it.
The first major incident came that spring when he was arrested on suspicion of DUI after hitting a car near campus. He pleaded guilty. It had become clear to Boone and those around him that he was losing his grip. Head coach Jim Tressel warned him that one more incident would be his last. Following that night, Boone went the next several months without a drink.
“It just never worked, though,” Boone says of trying to stay sober. “I was such an addict. I always had to take it to the extreme. ‘I’m feeling good now. But I want to feel even better.’ So I’d just keep going and going and going.”
Boone had his moments for the next three years — altercations at parties, mostly — but he says that his coaches’ support was enough for him to slow down. As a senior, he finished the season on the All–Big Ten first team, but Boone’s college career never lived up to his potential. He arrived in Columbus as one of the best offensive linemen in the country, and he left a late-round prospect.
The NFL combine was less than a month after Boone’s arrest in Orange County, and no team wanted to talk about much else. It was Tennessee or Dallas — he can’t remember — but there was one assistant who laid into him hardest. I don’t even know why you’re here.
And they didn’t just know about that night. “They knew things that I thought [only] two people in the world ever knew,” Boone says.
Nothing surprised Boone about the draft. He knew what was coming. The phone did eventually ring, but not until all seven rounds had passed. It was the 49ers, who were willing to bring Boone in as a free agent. Boone’s family members sat, shocked. It wasn’t until his uncle Keith, a police commander, walked back in that everything started to come into perspective. Amy recalls: “[Keith] looked at me and said, ‘He’s lucky that he has a job,’ and I thought, That’s right. He has a job.”
He wasn’t there 10 minutes before it started. On Boone’s first day at the 49ers facility, he turned a corner, and there was Mike Singletary — known hardass and San Francisco head coach. Singletary pulled Boone into his office. “He called me and said, ‘Mom, you’re never going to believe what just happened,’” Amy says. “He told me he was going to break me like a wild horse.”
Singletary laughs when asked about the line now. “I just wanted to be honest and let him know that I’d be watching him,” Singletary says. “Everything he told me, I wanted to make sure he did that. The first time he didn’t follow through, I was going to have to get rid of him.”
And so that’s how his first training camp went, with the head coach tearing into an undrafted rookie whenever possible. “At the time, I couldn’t stand it,” Boone says. “All the time: ‘You’re not good enough. I don’t even know why we kept you.’ I just thought, This guy is just fucking driving me nuts. Looking back, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” This summer, during a conversation with a few of the players who’d been with San Francisco since before Jim Harbaugh, Boone was reminded that without Singletary, he wouldn’t be here.
“He opened my eyes to what this league really is,” Boone says. “Here I thought I was going to come in, and it was going to be college with lots of money. It really wasn’t. It was, ‘We’re going to work hard every day.’ He kind of got me back to my roots. My whole family is blue-collar. Everyone’s either a cop, a teacher, or a nurse. He brought me back.”
Boone found his next mentor closer to home. When his first season, which Boone spent on the practice squad, ended, he came back to Lakewood and reached out to recently retired NFL lineman and Ohio State product LeCharles Bentley, who was looking to start a program to train young offensive linemen.
The key when they started, Bentley says, was patience. “To sell him on the idea that I could wave a magic wand and turn him into a Pro Bowler overnight would be complete bullshit on my part,” he says. “And I do my best not to sell guys bullshit.”
Together, they mapped out the next three years of Boone’s life. There were football goals, but the overall plan was more granular. Boone’s bedtimes were already planned. Bentley didn’t just outline what Boone would eat, but when he would eat it. The days of grandma’s cheeseburgers and mom’s cinnamon buns were over, replaced with green goop that Amy describes as “algae.”
The goals were modest at first. Boone had to start by making the team, which he did in 2010. The next year, it was about actually getting to play, which Boone did, as the team’s third tackle.
Following the 2011 season, Mike Solari, San Francisco’s offensive line coach, told Boone that the plan was to move him to guard for the 2012 season. The change meant that Boone would get a chance to compete for a starting job, but it also meant reshaping his entire approach to the offensive line.
For some, the move from tackle to guard might mean little more than sliding a few feet down the line of scrimmage, but for Boone, it meant changing everything. It started with his body. Typically, guards are shorter, stockier players who are built to play in small areas. At 6-foot-8, Boone is one of the tallest guards in football, and Bentley’s task was turning that length from a detriment into an advantage.
One change was in trying to make Boone’s biceps larger, in order to lessen the distance from his long arms being fully extended to compressed. “Now, I’ve created a pillow between you and your shoulder,” Bentley says. “When you sit down on a bull rush, you’re not worrying about your arms completely collapsing.” They watched film, Bentley says, of players “better than [Boone].” That meant guards in today’s league, but it also meant tape of players like Larry Allen and Randall McDaniel.
The currency for tackles is space, and creating as much of it as possible off the snap. “Against Osi Umenyiora, you want to get back,” Boone says. “You want to see what he’s doing first.” At guard, the prize is leverage. “When you go against Vince Wilfork, you don’t want to give him three feet to get going,” Boone says. “You’d rather cut that space down. Don’t let him get his engine running.”
“The hard thing initially for tackles moving to guard is that all of a sudden, things happen so much quicker,” Solari says. “They have a tendency to overset, and in that limited space, the defensive tackle has his hands on you.”
On the first day of training camp that summer, Boone lined up across from defensive tackle Ray McDonald, and from the moment McDonald hit him with a bull rush, he knew that this is where he’d always belonged. He won the right guard job before the third preseason game, joining an offensive line that features three first-round picks.
As the season progressed, though, it became apparent that Boone wasn’t the weak link on an otherwise great line. His play mirrored his Pro Bowl counterparts, and by season’s end, he’d had one of the better years for any guard in football, especially as a run blocker. “The way he attacks and the way he plays the game is just beautiful to watch if you love line play,” Solari says.
He wants to be the best. And although the list is shrinking, Bentley still isn’t selling bullshit. “I think he’s burgeoning as the best guard in the league, but I told him this — [Ravens guard] Marshal Yanda is better than you,” Bentley says. “’I think Marshal Yanda is better than you, and until you dethrone him, he’s the king.’”
June 29, 2009. That’s the date Boone says he took his last drink. When he talks about getting sober, the humiliation of draft day comes up. But like his reasons for drinking the way he did, sobriety was about more than that. This summer, Boone spoke to his father for the first time in years, and it was a conversation that confirmed everything he’d thought growing up. “When I got sober, everyone was like, ‘You’ve got to be better than this. You’ve got to be better than this,’” Boone says. “I said, ‘Fuck that. I want to be better than him.’ I wanted him to look back one day and be sorry that he never knew me.”
It started with spite, but what keeps him going is purer. “When you’re young and immature, it’s, ‘Let’s go play football. We’ll go play football, party after, and who gives a shit about anything else,’” Boone says. “Now, this is my job. I have a wife. I have a kid. I have another kid on the way. I want to make them proud.”