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Alex Boone’s journey: Rock roadie, rock bottom … rock solid

Alex Boone was destined for center stage long before the charismatic left guard became the Vikings’ new 6-foot-8, 310-pound tattooed block of offensive granite. Imagine this hand-to-hand combatant as an elf and roadie for his rock ’n’ roll Uncle Rich, the erstwhile “Singing Santa of Cleveland.”

“Yeah, that was rough,” Boone said Thursday with a grin. “Once you outgrow Santa, you’re not really an elf anymore.”

Boone is now charged with protecting NFL quarterbacks, but not as hired help. He was the star of Minnesota’s offseason signing class, earning a four-year, $26.8 million contract in March to fortify left tackle Matt Kalil’s inside flank and galvanize Minnesota’s offensive front.

When he arrived in Mankato last week, he unpacked an outsized personality seasoned by his extended Irish-German Catholic family and shaped by painful life lessons from an alcohol addiction that almost wrecked his career before it started.
Besides his mother, Amy, there were his late grandfather, Richard, and several doting uncles, including a Cleveland police captain.

Of course there was his grandmother Noreen Sulzer, the high school secretary who bailed Boone and his older brother J.J. out of trouble by day but played the heavy at night.

“She’s the toughest (person) I know,” Boone said. “There were a lot of frying pans flying across the room. Every one of my relatives, they always cut it straight and never lie. That’s what I love about them.”

Boone, 29, consumes conversation as if it were the steak cheeseburgers and German potato salad his grandmother learned to make at a bygone malt shop, which he can taste by mere mention.

He was not always this brash. Boone’s body outpaced his shy disposition. He was an oak tree in elementary school and grew into a sequoia as a high school freshman.

“When he was in fourth grade, he was 6-1 and they had to bring in an eighth-grade desk for him to bend his knees under it,” recalled Sulzer. “He was a nice kid. A real sweetheart. But I had to punch the hell out of him once in while.”

No wonder Boone credits “Nana” for teaching him the art of profanity, which he subtly uses to spice chatter. Noreen was the youngest of 13 Sullivan children born to a second-generation Irish clan as boisterous as one would imagine.

“Alex always told people he learned how to swear from me, but that’s not true,” she said. “I learned from them. I didn’t swear much until I had to deal with them.”

THE BOONE BOYS

“Them” is Boone and brother J.J., two years his senior. J.J. was a 6-foot-1 linebacker in high school before he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served a tour in Iraq hunting insurgents in Fallujah.

“If I had to go back to Fallujah, I would take him with me,” J.J. Boone, now a geologist in the oil and gas industry, says about his little brother. “He doesn’t give up. If you don’t kill him, he’s going to stand up again. That was bred into us. You’ll never see him get carried off the field.”

Boone grew up in the inner-ring Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. His parents divorced when he was 6. His father moved to California. Amy moved her two sons next door, where her parents, Richard and Noreen Sulzer, became surrogates to the Boone brothers as Amy built her career in nursing management.

Grandpa Richard sang in the church choir and challenged his children to belt out hymns from the pews. Uncle Keith, the future cop, was the drummer while Amy played the tambourine in the family band, which traveled northeast Ohio in a motor-home playing fundraisers like a latter-day Partridge Family.

Uncle Rich, the Singing Santa, leveraged those experiences into a successful music career. He was lead vocalist in several bands that played classic rock and country covers and built a cult following on the Cleveland club circuit. He also produced several albums.

The Boone boys came of age surrounded by creative extroverts and no-nonsense service workers, and they found no shortage of ways to entertain and agitate their relatives. Testosterone-fueled competition between the brothers was relentless. Wrestling matches so routinely destroyed furniture that mom and grandma learned how to plaster walls.

“They were playing horse one time, and J.J. was winning, so Alex gets on top of the garage and jumps to sink a basket and broke both feet,” Sulzer recalled. “He showed him up, all right. He was in a wheelchair for a while.”

It did not take long before security at the local shopping mall called the house to report Alex was staging wheelchair races in the corridors.

“When he came back, there was no rubber left on the wheels,” she said. “It was a rented wheelchair. I wanted to beat the hell out of them then.”

There was the time Alex stole a keg of beer from the backyard of a neighbor who owned a bar but failed to cover up his crime.

“The guy knew it was him because he said the footprints in the snow were so big they only could have been made by Alex Boone,” Sulzer said. “I was mad as wet hen over it.”

Boone got his first tattoo at 14 as he became a stud athlete at St. Edward, the all-male Catholic preparatory school in his hometown. The partying lifestyle took root.

ROCK BOTTOM

Boone told an interviewer in 2006 he routinely guzzled “30 to 40” beers during binges as an Ohio State freshman. Boone was cited for driving under the influence of alcohol before his sophomore year with the Buckeyes.

Rock bottom waits for addicts to crash. Sometimes the addict insists on drilling deeper.

Three years after Boone’s DUI, he was Tasered not once but twice by Orange County, Calif., sheriff’s deputies after jumping on cars and swinging on a tow-truck rope with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.

Boone’s high-profile outburst after a Super Bowl party was two weeks before the scouting combine, which prompted 32 teams to shun the toxic first-round prospect at the 2009 draft.

But it took Boone getting into a drunken fist fight with his uncle Keith at J.J.’s wedding in June 2009 for him to finally get serious about sobriety and seek treatment.

That year, the San Francisco 49ers signed Boone as a free agent and buried him on the practice squad. Then-coach Mike Singletary pointedly showed Boone the thread by which his career hung.

“You’re getting on the wagon or you’re getting the hell out,” Singletary reportedly told him.

Boone was inactive the first 15 games of the 2010 season before relieving an injured starter at halftime of San Francisco’s season finale. He played all 16 games in 2011 and earned a starting job in 2012, helping the 49ers reach Super Bowl XLVII, where they lost to Baltimore.

From undrafted knucklehead to NFC champion, Boone had finally harnessed his demons and talents that made him a coveted offensive lineman and teammate.

“It’s great that we don’t have a 6-8 giant idiot running around anymore,” said Uncle Keith, a police captain who commands Cleveland’s Second District. “We’re happy he’s figured it out and turned everything around. I know I’d be the guy getting a call something went wrong, so we’re happy don’t have to worry about him. His wife rules the roost.”

That would be Dana, who is pregnant with the couple’s third child and due later this month. They have a son, Johnny, 4, and daughter, Carmyn, 2 1/2.

“I take the good from everybody and try to use it,” Boone said. “I try to love my kids like my grandfather loved us and try to discipline like he did. ‘You disappointed me’ was one of those things that always taught me. Even now, when coaches say it, it hurts.”

Boone’s run-blocking tenacity was on full blast against the Vikings in the 2015 season-opener at San Francisco. He helped bulldoze lanes for unheralded running back Carlos Hyde to rack up two touchdowns and 168 yards, part of a 230-yard rushing attack that was the most Minnesota’s defense allowed all season.

His full-frontal honesty is rubbing off on a retooled unit coach Mike Zimmer called out last season for lacking toughness and accountability. He was the marquee acquisition, along with tackle Andre Smith from Cincinnati.

“He has been vocal in a good way,” Zimmer said. “I was actually just talking to Chad Greenway about how Boone was in the locker room, and he said, ‘He’s great. People respect him.’ He has kind of changed the mentality of the offensive line room, him and coach (Tony) Sparano, and that’s a good thing.”

Leadership courses through the Boone family, from J.J.’s service in Iraq to Uncle Keith in the police department to his mother, Amy, director of surgery at University Hospitals of Cleveland.

“First and foremost, I have to be all in every play; and if I screw up, I have to be the first to take accountability,” Boone said. “When it comes to fixing the problem, you have to fix it. If you’re asked to do a tough job, you’ve got to do it. That’s how I was raised.

“I’m up at 5:45 (a.m.) and I love it. I know I could be doing something else and probably wouldn’t like it as much. I don’t want that. I want to be out here working, showing guys I’m accountable and have fun.”

Amy Boone was standing on the field at the Superdome in New Orleans before Super Bowl XLVII when 49ers tackle Joe Staley approached her.

“He said, ‘I need you to know that I know Alex is the reason we’re here,’ ” she recalled. “I wasn’t really a big Joe Staley fan, but he said, ‘Alex has taken us from mediocre to great because he’s honest and holds people accountable.’ “

Amy Boone paused for a moment over the phone.

“I’m very proud of how Alex overcame addiction at an early age, in such a public way, while most of his friends are still (drinking),” she continued. “But the thing I’m most proud of is his propensity for leadership. He’s exactly what you think he is. He says what he means and means what he says.”

The Vikings are eager to listen.



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Neil S. Schwartz

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