Homecoming special for Butte brothers
Chris Alexander never really looked up to a hero when he was growing up. That’s because his brother Jason was always sitting in a wheelchair
The one person Chris Alexander looked to for inspiration more than anyone was born with spinal bifida. That is a congenital disorder that — aside from a little time getting around with braces as a young boy — kept Jason Alexander from walking. He has no feeling from his knees down.
“Without my brother,” Chris says, “I would not be where I am today.”
Where Chris Alexander, 28, is today is roaming the sidelines as the defensive line coach for the Montana Tech football team.
Saturday, the Orediggers will celebrate Homecoming when they take on Southern Oregon at Alumni Coliseum.
That will be a very special Homecoming for the Alexander brothers and their large family in the Mining City. Saturday will be the first homecoming the brothers have lived in the same town since Chris was a senior at Butte High during the 2001-02 school year.
“I love it here,” Chris says. “I’m glad to be back with my family.”
Chris Alexander came home when Tech head coach Chuck Morrell hired him to be the defensive line coach in July. He slid into the paid full-time coaching position that opened when Skippy Sims left coaching to work in his hometown of Malta.
“I was excited to get back to Butte,” Chris says. “Ever since I started coaching my goal was to get back to Butte.”
Jason, 32, was excited, too. For one thing, he was happy to save on the gas.
Last season, Chris Alexander was the defensive coordinator for head coach and good friend Travis Blome.
Jason drove around the western part of the state following the Broncs and his brother, making it to all but a couple road games.
“I’m saving a ton in gas,” Jason says as he lets loose one of his well-known laughs.
Jason has spent a lifetime watching his little brother play. Though he couldn’t play most of the sports Chris competed in, the older Alexander still very much had a love of all things sports.
When Chris played basketball or baseball, Jason was there. When Chris went golfing, Jason was there. When Chris was winning three state titles in AAU wrestling, Jason was there watching.
“I played basketball in grade school,” Jason says. “They were worried I was going to hurt somebody, so they wouldn’t let me play anymore.”
If not being able to compete was hard on Jason, he never let it show. He always had a smile on his face and a booming laugh in his voice as he watched from the sidelines. He still does.
“Seeing his attitude every day has made me a better person, I know that,” Chris says. “He’s always upbeat.”
“I try to keep a good attitude,” Jason says, though he admits that isn’t easy. “Yeah. It’s really hard. It’s really hard because I like sports so much.”
So, Jason watches sports. A lot of sports.
Unless it falls on the two days a week he works at the Connections Program for Butte’s Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services, Inc., if there’s a local sporting event you can bet Jason Alexander will be there.
He’s such a regular at Butte High events that activities director Chuck Merrifield started putting him to work.
He has ran the scoreboard or announced at Butte High softball, volleyball and basketball games.
“I’ve done it all for Chuck,” he says with a laugh.
When he was at Western in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jason was always involved with Bulldog athletics. He was a fixture at the Straugh Gymnasium, Vigilante Field or the practice fields.
“I managed all the sports,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first day at (football) practice I got run over. Then I got left out in the rain.”
Even though he went to Montana Western, Jason hardly ever misses a home Montana Tech football game
— even before his brother came home.
During games at Alumni Coliseum, Jason can be found on the west sideline at about the south 20-yard line.
“I don’t cheer at all. I’m just neutral,” he says. “I don’t say nothing to nobody. If I see some bad calls, I don’t say nothing. I have the best seat in the house.”
Chris makes sure to stop by for a visit.
“There’s always one thing that I’ve done when I played and when I’ve coached. I always make sure I go and shake his hand before the game,” Chris says. “It’s something that I’ll always remember is shaking his hand before the game. He’d say, ‘You going to get any sacks today?’ or ‘You going to get your D line playing today?’”
“When they played at Western,” Jason says of the Sept. 15 double-overtime Tech win, “he walked by (at halftime) and we both rolled our eyes.”
Chris is used to getting feedback from his brother, it wasn’t always positive. It was an educated opinion, too.
After graduating from Butte High in 2002, Chris accepted a scholarship to play football at Montana Western. Jason was almost always there watching with a careful eye.
“He went to every game. My senior year he went to every game, even the road games,” Chris says.
“When I played he paid attention to me. When I’d come to the sideline after a game he tell me everything I did wrong.”
That makes Jason laugh.
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I don’t know about that.”
“I was supposed to get that done in film, not right after the game,” Chris says. ” I know he’s very knowledgeable, too. He’s not just watching it as a fan. He’s also known the game.”
There probably wasn’t a whole lot to critiquing to do. At a sophomore at Western, Chris saw a ton of time on the defensive line, where started as a junior and senior. He earned second-team all-conference honors and was a captain during his senior season.
Alexander, who weighs about 185 pounds today, has lost more than 50 pounds since he played his last college down.
“Grandma has a picture of him when our niece (Addie, now three) was three days old, and he looks like a tank,” Jason. “He took up the whole thing.”
After his playing days ended, then-coach Tommy Lee asked Chris to coach the defensive line at Western. He coached in Dillon for three years starting in 2008.
“He was unbelievable,” Chris says of Lee, who is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Hawaii. “He was very good at schematics and very good at teaching his coaches how to coach. One thing that taught me — and it will always stick with me — is that you have to coach every play. In practice and games, whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be a coaching point, just something positive.
“Coach Lee has always helped me out,” Chris says “I talk to him every couple of months. I call him or he calls me. We have a really good relationship with him, and it’s really nice to have him on my resume. He’s a well-known guy, not only in Montana, but around the nation. I learned a ton from him.”
After Lee retired as Western coach after the 2008 season, Alexander stayed on for two more years under coach Rich Ferris, who was his defensive coordinator as a player.
In 2010, Alexander took a coaching job and a teaching position at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif. A year later Blome, a former Western quarterback, left his job as Butte High offensive coordinator to become the head coach at Hamilton. Alexander jumped at the chance to join him.
During his two years in high school, Alexander looked for a way to get back to Butte and back into college football.
He got that chance this summer.
“We were down at the Western camp and we heard the defensive line job opened here,” Chris Alexander says. “I told my brother right then that I was probably going to apply for it.”
Chris was working as a special education teacher at Missoula Sentinel while coaching at Hamilton. He had to take a cut in pay to follow his dream of getting back in college football.
“I took a huge pay cut,” he says. “Coaching has always been in my blood. I always told my brother that I always wanted to get back into college football, and college football is hard to get back into. Once I got that opportunity, I took it.”
Alexander, who has a girlfriend attending Montana Tech, says convincing the rest of his loved ones he made the right move wasn’t easy.
“I don’t know if my family was too happy with me at first,” he says. “But they kind of realized that was always my dream to coach.”
Chris says he’s enjoyed his first few months at Tech, where the Orediggers take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s game.
“Working with Coach Morrell is awesome,” he says. “He’s one of the best defensive coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s a defensive mastermind. I’ve learned so much from him already.”
Morrell is also happy with addition of Alexander to the coaching staff.
“He’s done a great job,” Morrell says, adding that Alexander is a great translator from the head coach and defensive coordinator to the players.
“He does a great job of relating the scheme stuff to our guys, putting it in their language,” Morrell says. “Chris takes the things I’m looking for from a technical aspect and does a good job putting it in terminology that those guys understand.”
The result has been big-time play from the defensive line over the first four games of the season.
“It’s kind of a no-name crew of guys who just produce with a super effort,” Morrell says. “They stay in attack mode all the time, which is a great mentality to have up front.”
Alexander is an asset to the Orediggers in many ways, Morrell says.
“Not only is he doing a great job on the field, but off the field he has great tie ins to the community,” the Tech head coach says. “He understands how to recruit the area. Those are equally as important things as on the field.”
During the season, the job takes up more than 12 hours a day, every day. Chris says he’s looking forward to being able to help his brother more once the season ends.
Jason lives alone in a house that is pretty much designed for someone in a wheelchair. It has a ramp to the door and lowered counters and appliances.
Of course, it also has a nice big-screen television so he can watch more sports.
“My grandparents usually help him, but they’re getting older. Obviously I can’t help him (too much) now because we’re averaging 15 hours a day,” Chris says. “After the season, though, I’ll be able to take care of him a little more. I usually clean his house and stuff. He drives. He’s got a lift in his truck. He pretty much does everything on his own.”
“I’m not a very good driver, but I drive,” Jason adds, again with a laugh.
The brothers attribute Jason’s independence to their father, Bill, who died at 49 on Sept. 9, 2005. Jason lived with their dad while Chris attended Western.
“My dad and my brother were pretty much best friends,” Chris says. “They did everything together — hunting, fishing. They went to sporting events every Friday and Saturday night. They’d go out and eat, go out and have a couple of drinks every once in a while.
“My dad was always good with my brother, teaching him to be independent. I think that’s where my brother got it. That’s why he drives now and has his own house. He does all his own stuff.”
Jason was never babied in the Alexander family.
“My dad taught him to be independent,” Chris says. “If he ever complained about doing something he could do on his own, my dad would say ‘No, you’re doing it on your own.’ He’d always say ‘What are you going to do when I’m gone?’ He became pretty independent doing that.”
After his father’s death, Jason lived with his uncle Marty for a while before moving into an apartment in early 2007. He’s been on his ever since.
Jason hunts and fishes, usually with his grandpa Art Carle. He started bow hunting a few years ago. He has the evidence mounted or framed throughout his house.
“I like the outdoors. I just like being outside,” Jason says. Sometimes that means Jason simply sits outside on his porch.
The Alexander brothers, who have a sister, Britney (Addie’s mom), in between them, have a huge family in town. That includes their mother, Pam King.
Nobody, though, was closer to Jason than Chris, who says he used to terrorize his big brother.
The brothers each have their own stories of childhood fights. One time Chris hit Jason in the face with a baseball. Another time, Jason hit Chris in the eye with a pop can.
To Chris, Jason was simply his older brother, and his job was to terrorize him.
“I loved being around my brother,” Chris says. “I didn’t ever treat him like he was handicapped. I was just always around him. He was always my brother. He was always just like my best friend. We always played basketball together and did whatever we did outside. We went to the lake together and camping together. I always treated him like my best friend. Other people kind of look at him sometimes as if he’s in a wheelchair, but I never have.”
Through it all, Chris learned a lot by watching his brother live his life. While Jason might have been dealt tough hand in life, he’s never let it slow him down.
Chris paid attention. To him, Jason has been an inspiration.
“My brother is my biggest hero,” Chris says. “He is truly the most amazing person I have ever met in my life.”