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Heaven couldn't wait

Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2003

In the old macho days, a football player wouldn't dare miss a kickoff to coach his wife through childbirth. That was women's stuff, and a man's got to do what a man's got to do, which on Sundays in the NFL is to suit up and bang helmets and pads with other men.

Even if a guy wanted to be there for his wife and baby, trying to be sensitive and caring and all, there was a time when his coach would have growled at him for even thinking about missing a minute, and his teammates would have snickered, and he would have been forced to say, sorry, honey, got a game to play.

Times and attitudes change and, fortunately, more players are realizing their priorities have to change, too. Seattle's Shaun Alexander wouldn't play Sunday until he felt Heaven in his hands and looked into her eyes.

She was all of 6 pounds, 12 ounces and felt lighter than a football. Her timing was impeccable for the daughter of a running back, arriving at 12:37 p.m. 28 minutes before kickoff.

As big as the game was for the Seahawks against the NFC West division rival St. Louis Rams, Alexander was willing to skip it to be with his wife, Valerie, for the birth of their first baby.

''I said to Valerie, 'If we're going to do this, let's do it early so we can watch the game,''' he said. ''I mean, my wife is laughing, she has such a great sense of humor, and we had the baby. The game hadn't even started before she was born.''

Alexander had a feeling it was going to be an ''awesome'' day, but then again he calls a lot of days awesome. It's one of his favorite words, maybe because awesome things keep happening to him. There was one particular awesome day two years ago when he ran for 266 yards, then the fourth highest total in NFL history, against the Oakland Raiders. Jamal Lewis' record 295 for Baltimore last week dropped Alexander on the single-game rushing list to No. 5.

Alexander is as macho as anyone on the field, with a little swagger in his strut. He's a student of the game, trying to run like Walter Payton, Gale Sayers and Marcus Allen, with touches of Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett thrown in. Those are the guys he watched sitting around with his father as a kid.

''That swagger,'' he once said, ''is important in football.''

So, too, he knows, are other things in life. Family comes first.

The most awesome of all days for Alexander started with his wife's contractions early in the morning. He was with her at her bedside at Evergreen Hospital, coaching her through the pain of natural childbirth without drugs, holding hands and waiting for the great moment.

He was there to pull his daughter into the world, cut the umbilical cord and look at her eyes for the first time perhaps the most thrilling moment in a man's life.

''It was my first catch of the day,'' the proud papa said.

When he knew Valerie and their daughter, Heaven Nashay Alexander, were all right, he climbed into a car that followed the lead blockers of a police escort, sirens blaring, to Seahawks Stadium, 15 miles away.

Alexander stretched along the way, stretched some more on the sideline after he suited up, and got into the game with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left in the second quarter. The Seahawks had been stagnant on offense and they quickly gave him the ball.

Alexander got them going with gains of 12 and 17 yards on his first two carries and finished with 58 yards rushing on 14 carries, plus three catches for 8 yards. His 5-yard run late in the fourth quarter set up Seattle's winning touchdown in a 24-23 victory over the Rams that kept the Seahawks perfect at 3-0.

It was a sweet finish to Alexander's awesome day, with lessons for other players and coaches about getting their priorities straight.

''It would have been considered unmanly not so long ago for a guy to be by his wife's side during childbirth, but now it's something we're going to see a lot more of in the future,'' said sports sociologist Richard Lapchick. ''And not only the player wanting to do it, but the coaches and the teammates supporting him.

''I think it's a reflection of what's going on in society with families being closer together in the wake of Sept. 11. I hear that pretty consistently among not only athletes but also people in general.''

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, for one, knew what was most important for Alexander on this day.

''Clearly,'' he said, ''the birth of his daughter is a special occasion and he had to be there.''

The rest of the Seahawks understood, too, and, as quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, ''Nobody freaked out.''

That made it easier for Alexander.

''I'm not a guy to get nervous about things,'' he said. ''Coach Holmgren said that, 'We'll win the game when you get here,' and that was the attitude everyone had. It made everything go smooth.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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