Mackensie Alexander is the best because he's worked for it

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The play everyone else remembers took Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander approximately 11 seconds to forget.

It was the third game of Alexander's college career, a must-win road contest in Tallahassee, Florida, with Clemson clinging to a 17-10 lead with little more than six minutes to play. On second-and-24, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene got separation downfield. Alexander worked to recover, but instead he slipped and tumbled to the ground as Sean Maguire, playing in place of suspended Heisman winner Jameis Winston, launched a bomb into Greene's waiting hands. The result was a 74-yard game-tying touchdown.

Alexander jogged to the sideline, and teammates clapped his helmet in support, but no one stopped to console him. A freshman had allowed a season-defining play, but coaches didn't pull him aside. For Alexander, this was a blip, an outlier.

"I didn't even flinch," he said.

On Alexander's next play, he lined up across from Greene again, stared down the Seminoles' star receiver and smiled.

"You ready for me?" he said.

A red zone fumble and a botched fourth-down try in overtime cost Clemson the game, but Alexander was impeccable the rest of the year. Over his final nine games, he didn't allow a touchdown. Opposing QBs completed just 35 percent of the passes thrown his way, but it was rare they challenged him at all. The Tigers' secondary finished the season as the top-ranked pass defense in the nation.

People remember Alexander's low point, but in his mind, no cornerback in the country performed better. Now, as the 2015 season approaches, he's staring down the rest of the college football world and asking, Are you ready for Mackensie Alexander?

"I want to be the best corner in the country, and I know for a fact that I am," he said. "But I want to show people. It's about showing them every day."

Until this summer, Alexander avoided the media entirely. He viewed it as a distraction, and he's not interested in publicity. Still, he doesn't hide his confidence. It's part of who he is. He is the best because he has to be.

Alexander grew up in Immokalee, Florida, a small agricultural town along Alligator Alley, about an hour inland from Naples but a million miles away in philosophy. The vast majority of Immokalee's residents are immigrants from Mexico or, like Alexander's parents, Haiti. It's a place where migrant workers banded together 20 years ago to protest deplorable conditions. They staged a hunger strike to force higher wages and rallied to change laws on human trafficking and workers' rights. It's a largely ramshackle town where nearly half the residents live below the poverty line, but there's an immutable sense of pride.

Alexander was just 10 or 11 when he first trudged through the sprawling fields of dirt and mud in boots so heavy they made his legs ache. Alongside his father and twin brother, Mackenro, he picked tomatoes and watermelon under the scorching South Florida sun, climbed ladders to harvest oranges and packed boxes of produce for shipment to the vast world beyond Immokalee.

"Nobody's really got much," Alexander said. "You do your job, you work, you clock in and clock out."

Jori Mason moved from Ohio to Immokalee with her now-husband, Kyle, just as Alexander was entering high school in 2009. Kyle coached football at Immokalee High, and he'd gushed about a quiet kid with limitless potential, and Jori, an algebra teacher at the school, soon made it her top priority to ensure Alexander had anything he needed to succeed.

She would take the Alexander boys to doctor's appointments. At the start of the season, she'd trek them to the sporting goods store to buy new cleats. She befriended each of Mackensie's teachers to keep tabs on his grades.

"They were my kids," Jori said of the Alexander brothers. "They just kind of melted my heart. I knew their family background; I'd seen all the obstacles they had to overcome and how hard-working they were. I just wanted to be a part of it."

Alexander doesn't open up to many people, and when he finds a goal, his focus is unwavering. But every once in a while on the car rides between practice and his house, Mackensie would flash a sly smile, and Jori knew he was grateful.

"He's a very sweet kid just trying to find a way to a better life," she said.

Kyle Mason eventually shifted to coaching baseball at Immokalee, and after games in the spring Jori would often glance toward the darkened football fields and notice a lone figure running laps in the distance. It was Mackensie.

"He has this focus about him that not a lot of kids have," said Israel Gallegos, a longtime assistant coach at Immokalee. "He sees how hard his parents worked, and that's where his work ethic comes from."

When Alexander returned home this summer, he was still a fixture on the school's football field, running sprints all alone. After a few hours, Gallegos' phone would beep with a text from Alexander asking his former coach to unlock the weight room or prep the cold tub or drag a ladder outside so he could practice footwork.

From Immokalee to Clemson, Alexander's work ethic is legendary.

After he signed his letter of intent to play for the Tigers, defensive coordinator Brent Venables would send Alexander a few pages of the playbook or a few clips of film each day. Alexander returned the favor by calling and texting his new coach endlessly to ask for more.

"Midnight, I'd be lying in bed sleeping, and my phone would ding," Venables remembered. "My wife would say, 'Who's texting you at midnight?' but she got used to it. It was just my nightly text from Mackensie."

After each game, Dabo Swinney would do his radio show then retreat to his office. Along the way, he'd peek in the film room and find Alexander. "I don't even think he showered," Swinney joked.

Before the team's bowl matchup with Oklahoma in Orlando, Florida, last year, the Tigers took a trip to Disney World. Alexander stayed behind to watch film.

"The coaches always know where to find me," Alexander said. "I have the same routine every day, and it doesn't change for nobody."

For Alexander, football is a sanctuary, miles from the fields where his father still earns a living pulling tomatoes from the vine. The hours are long and the work is intense, but the job is easy.

"In his mind," Venables said, "the game of football is life or death."

Everything is a competition for Alexander, a philosophy he's embraced since childhood.

"When we were born, we came out of my mom racing," Mackenro said.

Growing up, Mackenro had always been the stronger of the two -- a few pounds heavier, an inch or so taller. Mackensie was the speedster, winning every footrace for as long as they could remember. But a few months before the two would depart for college, Mackenro finally caught his brother. At least, that's how he remembers it. It was close, Mackensie agrees, but he's certain he crossed the finish line first. Eventually, they relented and called it a tie. Any potential rematch will be recorded and posted to YouTube.

"We'll let the commenters decide," Mackenro said. "We'll both lie and say we won."

When Alexander says he's the best corner in college football though, he's not lying.

His numbers -- 22 tackles, six pass breakups, no interceptions -- hardly substantiate his case. But consider that Alexander was on the field for 766 snaps -- 10th most by a cornerback in school history -- and allowed just 20 completions. Quarterbacks threw his way on 7 percent of the plays Alexander was on the field. That's a level of respect, Alexander said, that few other corners are afforded.

"They don't have what I have," Alexander said of the ACC's other elite corners. "Our skill sets are not the same. I think I bring something a little more. And they know it."

During one-on-one drills last week, Nick Schuessler took the snap and eyed his receiver downfield. Alexander had the man blanketed. The play went on for a few seconds, but Schuessler eventually relented, simply tossing the ball aside rather than even attempting a pass downfield.

Even in an early-August practice in a low-key drill against a backup quarterback, Alexander needs to be great.

"I like to dominate everything I do, win every matchup, grade myself harder than anyone," Alexander said. "I go hard every day."

It's how things are done in Immokalee. It's a place where the secret to getting out of the fields is the one best learned from working them.

"You watch your parents, the way they work, and you bring that to whatever you do," he said. "It's an easy process. You do your job. And you work."

Clock in. Clock out. Make every moment in between count.