On one of those steaming-hot Florida days, when the sun seemingly sliced through his work clothes while he climbed a ladder to pick oranges or hunched over to gather tomatoes, Mackensie Alexander concluded that football needed to be more than a hobby if he wanted to outgrow blue-collar Immokalee.
Wearing thick work gloves and heavy boots, Alexander joined his immigrant parents in the fields on weekends during his teenage years, sometimes working 18-hour shifts harvesting crops just to take home a modest payday.
Football practice, which took place on a much different type of field, initially offered a distraction. Eventually, it provided an opportunity to escape.
“As a young guy, you’re watching kids go home and play video games. I didn’t have those things. We didn’t have any time for relaxation. It was always work, work, work,” Alexander said at Friday’s rookie minicamp. “My way out was to be good at football. I really cared about it and pushed myself to be good.”
That passion for the game along with the tireless work ethic instilled in him by his parents, and to some extent his entire community, shaped Alexander into arguably the most driven and talented cornerback in the 2016 NFL draft. In the second round last Friday, the Vikings grabbed the quiet but immensely confident cover man, a football “junkie” determined to be the hardest worker in the building.
“He’s always had a dream of playing in the NFL and wanting to be the best on the planet,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brett Venables said of his former shutdown corner. “He’s got enough humility to know that he’s still got work to do. But he’s not afraid of the work that’s involved.”
Long, hard days
Immokalee is a small agricultural town in South Florida’s Alligator Alley. The farming goes on year-round there, but in the harvesting months, the city’s population swells as seasonal workers, many of them immigrants, come to earn a hard living picking oranges and tomatoes.
“People come out of the woodwork,” Alexander said.
Alexander’s parents, Jean and Marie, along with his older brother left Haiti in the 1980s in search of a better living in the United States. They settled in Immokalee, joined the swarming, underpaid masses in the fields and in 1993 they welcomed twin boys, Mackensie and Mackenro, into the world.
The typical workday in the field for his parents, whose native language is Creole and who still speak little English, started at 4 a.m. and grinded on until between 8 or 10 at night. They worked six days a week, the two of them earning $50 per day combined. Marie also worked at a packing house.
“If I wasn’t up late, I wouldn’t see them,” said Mackensie, who plans to use part of his NFL earnings to buy his parents a house and try to convince them to work a little less.
When the twins were 10 or 11, they started joining their parents in the field on weekends to help them pay the bills. Years later, even after he became one of the top cornerbacks in college football, Alexander returned to those fields whenever school was out of session.
“I’m just so used to working so hard,” Alexander said. “It wasn’t something I ran away from. It’s something that I embraced. [My upbringing] taught me how to work. When I went to football, it was so much easier because I worked so hard in the sun.”
Alexander started playing football in sixth grade and fell in love with it right away. A natural athlete, fast and fluid, he made the varsity team at Immokalee High before his sophomore year. It didn’t take long for his defensive coordinator, Allen Williams, to realize he had something special.
In spring ball heading into that season, when Alexander was still a freshman, Immokalee matched up with South Fort Myers and their star junior wideout, Sammy Watkins, who went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014.
Alexander shadowed Watkins the entire game. Watkins caught some passes against the underclassman. But Alexander kept him out of the end zone.
“I knew right then,” Williams said. “If he could cover that kid, he was going to be good.”
Alexander, whom Immokalee entrusted to lock down top pass-catchers, got his first scholarship offer from an SEC school during his sophomore year. Alexander’s supreme confidence started to surge that season. By his senior year, ESPN ranked him as their No. 4 overall recruit in the nation.
But even though Alexander, who boldly declared at February’s NFL scouting combine that he was the best corner in the draft, had developed a strong sense of self-belief, Williams described him as “very quiet, humble.”
“He was always by himself, just doing his own thing,” Williams said. “When kids would go out on the weekend, he would be at home putting in some extra work.”
Alexander had exceptional practice habits even then and was a tone-setter in the weight room. He ran track, too, and Williams, who also coached him in that sport, said Alexander would log miles with the long-distance runners, then stick around after practice so he could do sprinter drills with Williams.
Immokalee has produced a number of NFL players, including former Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James. But Williams believes Alexander’s work ethic stood out “because he was so determined to get out of here.”
Alexander, after much deliberation and one high-profile de-commitment, finally signed on to play at Clemson. But he made the Tigers work for him.
He grilled them with question after question, often repeating the same ones in every conversation to make sure the answers didn’t change just because they were telling him what he wanted to hear. What did they like about him? What did he need to work on? How would he fit in their defense?
Venables described the experience an “interrogation.”
He meant it as a compliment.
“It wasn’t drama. He was just trying to make sure,” Venables said.
Venables soon found out that Alexander was just as engaged and thorough when it came to football. Venables called him “as hard of a practice player I’ve even been around.” He was obsessed with film study and preparation, too. Venables often found Alexander in the film room at night and made him leave to go grab something to eat because he had skipped dinner.
In a 12-minute phone conversation, Venables described his former player as “one of my all-time favorite players, “a different cat” and a football “junkie.” He said that Alexander is “just wired a little bit different” than most young players and added that he wished “we could have a whole team of him.”
Jayron Kearse only needed a few minutes of drills on a slippery hill to also conclude that his new teammate and roommate at Clemson, was different.
Stir-crazy because the Tigers had still not conducted their first football practice, Alexander asked the fellow freshman defensive back to join him for a workout. The two sprinted up and down that hill, sliding and at times falling in tennis shoes because they had not been issued their cleats yet.
“I actually said, ‘This dude is crazy,’” said Kearse, whom the Vikings selected in the seventh round of this year’s draft. “He’s a hard worker. Me just being around him, it brings the best out of me. So I’m glad to have the opportunity to play with him again. It’s going to make me a better player.”
After sitting out his first year on campus because of a groin injury, Alexander became a starter as a redshirt freshman. In 27 career games in two seasons at Clemson, he broke up a dozen passes but recorded zero interceptions.
Alexander didn’t allow many completions, though, while helping Clemson get to last season’s national championship game, a loss to Alabama. He did not allow a touchdown in man coverage in 2015, according to CBS Sports.
Projected to be an early-round draft pick and confident that he would be the first cornerback selected, Alexander declared for the NFL draft early.
Now a pro
The first round of the draft passed without Alexander hearing his name called. Late in the second round, the Vikings called him to tell him they were picking him.
Williams, waiting along with him, embraced him in a hug.
“I’m very proud of him,” his former high school coordinator said. “When you come from Immokalee and you don’t have anything, and then you earn a college scholarship then you get a shot to get to the NFL, that’s a huge accomplishment.”
After drafting Alexander, General Manager Rick Spielman said he “just loved the kid’s confidence.” But despite Alexander’s boasts about being the draft’s best cornerback, Venables said he never had to keep his ego in check.
“It’s not like he’s combustible. He’s very controlled but very passionate on the field,” Venables said. “I think you’ve got to be careful about handcuffing that. That’s one aspect of his game that helps him play at a high level.”
The Vikings initially project Alexander as a slot cornerback in their defense. He could push veteran Captain Munnerlyn for playing time in their nickel package and with a strong rookie year could make Munnerlyn expendable.
Alexander, the seventh cornerback selected in the 2016 draft, plans to one day show all of the teams that passed on him that they made a mistake.
And to the surprise of no one who witnessed all the work Alexander put in to get this far — the long days picking oranges in the sun, the countless hours in the film room and on the practice field — he is champing at the bit to get started in the NFL.
“I am extremely excited to be a Viking and to get ready to know [my teammates], to have fun, compete and win games,” Alexander said.