Harvest House Publishers
To understand who I’ve become, you should know a few things about where I’ve come from, and you need to meet some of the family and friends who helped me grow up thinking big and believing big.
The best way is to start with my birth. I was born to Curtis and Carol Alexander on August 30, 1977, in Florence, Kentucky. (Florence is a town in Boone County, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.) That was about one year after my brother, Durran, was born. Aside from being near in age, Durran and I have always been close. Even today, I don’t make many moves until I bounce them off my brother.
Our family lived in a two-bedroom apartment at the Shenandoah Apart-ments on Shenandoah Drive in Florence. Yes, it was small…but I don’t remember it that way. For me, that apartment and the bedroom I shared with my brother seem more like a mansion in my memories. Maybe that’s because our mom made us feel like we had everything we needed. We knew we weren’t rich, but we never felt like we were poor.
Durran and I learned to lean on each other at an early age. Our parents separated when I was 11, and he and I stayed with our mom. In some ways Durran’s been my father figure, and he’s always been more mature than me.
Another reason I felt we had such a great home is that Mom made all my friends feel welcome there. They loved to spend the night with us.
Ironically, most of those friends lived in houses (and some of them were huge), not apartments.
During those growing-up years, there were six guys I always hung with. The two youngest were my cousin, Ben Brown, and Jason List, who lived up the street. They were two grades below me. Then there were my four best friends: Ray Arnold, Brian Maney, Josh Hays, and Scott Woodall. We became the kind of friends that—though all extremely different from each other—stuck together through the years. And we’re still close today.
While Mom and Dad were married, we also had a lot of contact with my three older half-brothers and four half-sisters from my dad’s previous marriage. They grew up in Cincin-nati, and although they never lived with us, we still spent a lot of time together.
Of my three half-brothers—Donte, Ronnie, and Tony—I always felt closest to Ronnie, my middle half-brother. He joined the army as soon as he finished high school. I was still in grade school, but Ronnie used to phone me regularly, and that meant a lot to me. It thrilled me to have him call from various places in the United States and overseas. One time he called from France, and another time from his base in Germany. He never wanted anything except to say hello, ask how I was doing, and let me know he loved me.
Donte, the oldest of the five of us Alexander boys, is bright, works hard, and constantly pushes himself to do big things in the business world. And Tony is the stereotypical middle child. People always seemed to pay more attention to his older or younger brothers. Tony is also the quietest and most private of the five of us. In his school days, he was a good football player. After I started to excel in the game, I’d tease him and say, “Tony, you’re the second-best athlete in the family.”
“And who’s the first?” he’d ask.
“You’re lookin’ at him!” I’d respond, and we’d both laugh. I
When I was growing up, my half-brothers—especially Tony—seemed to think Dad spent a lot of time with me. Maybe that was because Dad lived with us until he and Mom split up. Maybe it was because Dad would try to come to all my games when I was in high school. To tell the truth, aside from coming to see me play, Dad didn’t really spend much time with me or with Durran either—or at least not as much time as we wanted. But Tony’s feelings made him chalk up my success on the football field to Dad’s presence. He used to say, “Shaun, Dad put you in your shoes.”
I think he knows better now, and I certainly do. Dad wasn’t the one who put me in my shoes. Instead, I point to two things that carried me forward. First, I became a Christian at a young age, and that decision had a powerful influence on me in my teen years and gave me the ethical principles on which to operate. Second, I learned early that it takes self-discipline to be successful. That firm ethical base and my commitment to self-discipline pushed me forward.
My relationship with my dad did have some major influences on my life, as you’ll read about later. In fact, family played a large part in my early years. One of my favorite memories of childhood has to do with our family Christmases. We usually celebrated at the home of my mother’s parents. And no matter who you were—if you were there, you got a present. Everybody received a present—I mean everybody.
Several of my friends didn’t have big families, so they loved to go with us to my grandparents’ to celebrate the holiday. Something was going on the whole time we were there. My friends also knew they ’ d eat the best food in the world. Afterward, they’d rave about their time with us and say they felt loved at Grandma’s house. Although we were only kids and couldn’t really describe it, we could all sense the warmth there.
When we’d drive to our grandparents’ house, it seemed like our car was filled with gifts to give away. And when we arrived, the huge Christmas tree would be surrounded by presents. Toys, clothes, money—all sorts of fun gifts, everywhere. Early Christmas morning we’d open our gifts…but first we’d sing “Must Be Santa,” a song we learned when we were in elementary school.
We had a limitless number of verses, and Durran would sing them while the rest of us joined him in the chorus. The only part I got to sing by myself (ripping as if I stood on the stage of the Apollo Theater) was the names of the reindeer.
And as soon as we finished, we’d start the song again.
After that, we received and opened our gifts. My mother had six sisters and one brother, so we always had a big gathering, what with all the cousins and friends who’d come along. Mom was next to the oldest in her family, but she usually played the role of the oldest because her older sister, Aunt Gwen, had mar-ried a military man and they lived in New Mexico.
No one was allowed to open anything until all the gifts had been passed out. After everyone had their gifts we’d unwrap them, one at a time, and hold them up. We’d show each other what we’d received. That was a special time. Someone would cry out, “How did you know that’s what I wanted!” Another person would whisper, “You gave me my favorite gift.”
Christmas was an all-day affair at Grandma’s house. No one knew when it would end—and it usually went on long into the night.
Of course, there were football games on TV, but we didn’t turn on the set. Instead, we just sat around and visited—talking about what was going on in our lives. After everyone had a chance to talk, we had prayer, and then we ’d eat.
Mostly I remember that no one ever left the house without a gift. Even when friends decided to come at the last minute, they would still leave with presents. That always amazed me because it seemed that no matter who they were, they received a new sweatshirt or a toy or something else they didn’t expect. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that my grandparents always had extra gifts to give away to unexpected guests.
Perhaps it all doesn’t sound exciting, but it was more than the words, the music, or the gift-giving. It was togetherness with one grandma, one grandpa, and a dozen or so aunts and uncles, along with 30 or 40 cousins and friends. I grew up with that sense of being a family and loving one another. For me, Christmas wasn’t about presents, it was about family—our large and loving family.
That sense of being part of a loving family worked itself out in the way I felt about Durran. He’s the coolest brother anyone could have. As I look back on our childhood (and this is just as true today), I remember he was good at everything, and I always wanted to be exactly like him. For instance, when he started to play sports, I started to play sports. He set the pattern for me.
All through school, I remained “Durran’s younger brother.” I suppose I could have responded by becoming the class clown or the dumb kid—I know that happens—but I really wanted to be like Durran, and I tried hard to emulate him. Though I never did feel I was as good at anything as he was, I never stopped trying. He made straight A’s in his classes, and although I didn’t tie his record, I did get close.
Because Durran was a year ahead of me, I was constantly reminded that I didn’t measure up to him. I didn’t resent him for this. Yet I wished I had been smarter and had been able to pull better grades than he had…but I never could do it.
Here’s a typical example of the sort of thing that would happen. On my first morning in class one year, the teacher, Mrs. Rankin, arranged us alphabetically and called out our names. She pointed to the first row, first seat, and called out, “Shaun Alexander.”
When I sat down, she said, “Oh, Shaun—you must be Durran’s brother.”
“Yes, ma ’ am,” I said.
“I know I’m going to enjoy having you,” she said, beaming. “I had a wonderful time teaching Durran last year.” Mrs. Rankin went on to say what an excellent student my brother had been. I had heard that same state-ment every year on the first day of school from some teacher who already had taught him the year before. And it was true—Durran was an amazing student and one of the brightest kids in school.
As soon as Mrs. Rankin finished praising him, she paused and looked at me as if she expected me to say something. I decided to do something to change the mood, so without waiting for her permission, I told a joke. Everyone in the class laughed.
Mrs. Rankin laughed as hard as the rest of them.
When the class began to quiet down, she said, “That was funny, Shaun. Durran told us that one last year, and it’s still funny.”
It’s easy to think I might have lived my whole life as just “Durran’s little brother.” But whenever I’d start to feel that was true, I’d think of what Mrs. Walton told me when I was in sixth grade.
Mrs. Walton was our science teacher. As usual, my brother had been in her class the year before. Something happened early in the year—I don’t remember exactly what—but I think it had to do with the grade I’d received on a test. I had tried hard. My grade wasn’t very good, however. I didn’t fail, but I knew it was nothing close to what Durran had made.
When Mrs. Walton returned our test papers, I stared at my grade. My eyes began to fill with tears, and I couldn’t hold them back. I was really discouraged, and Mrs. Walton could tell. She didn’t say anything right then, but as soon as the class ended, she pulled me aside.
“Shaun, you’ll do better on the next test,” she told me.
I shook my head. “You want me to be just like Durran.”
She gazed into my eyes and said softly, “No, you don’t have to be like Durran. You just have to be the best Shaun the world’s ever seen.”
Those words clicked inside my head.
No one had ever told me I had to be like Durran—that was something I had decided. Maybe because I loved and admired my older brother, I felt I had to duplicate everything he did. I assumed everyone expected me to compete with whatever he did. But from that day on, I no longer had to be the smartest kid, the most popular, or the most charming. I never stopped loving and admiring Durran, and I never stopped trying to be good in school, but that day I learned I didn’t have to be like him or to be as good as he was.
I just needed to be the best Shaun I could be—the best Shaun the world has ever seen.
That’s been my goal ever since.