The pedal-to-the-metal drive behind the 141 tackles linebacker Alex Singleton has made for the Broncos is fueled by the memory of long, slow and painful rides home with his mother. Without fail and with a smile that wouldn’t quit, she would pick her son up at the airport after each of the 15 times Singleton was cut by an NFL team, when a general manager dared him to give up on his football dreams.
“I’ve been cut at least 15 times, and that’s not counting all the one-day tryouts where I got told ‘No, thanks’ by an NFL general manager. So there have to be at least 30 rejections by general managers, at one time or another. That’s a whole lot of general managers,” Singleton said Wednesday, with a never-doubt-me twinkle in his eyes.
In my mind, there’s no doubt Singleton has been the most valuable player of a team stuck far behind Kansas City, in last place of the AFC West. A cynic might consider that distinction as faint praise. I view it not only as a badge of honor, but an unmistakable hint to George Paton, one of those NFL general managers slow to figure out how a team seeking that elusive winning culture absolutely needs Singleton on its side.
What makes Singleton the MVP of these Broncos goes far beyond how a veteran free agent signed on the cheap to a one-year, $1.1 million deal has became a one-man wrecking crew for a proud, stout defense.
There’s an infectious joy in every tackle Singleton makes. And that counts for a lot, especially during another lost season, when each of the 12 losses has sucked a little more life from the soul of Broncos Country, but the relentless energy and optimism of Singleton has stubbornly refused to surrender.
“Would you mind taking a photo of my family?” Kim Singleton asked two weeks ago, as we stood together on the sideline of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
A big, happy football family — including everybody from three grown children to grandma — was celebrating Christmas with a 29-year-old Broncos linebacker about to go to work against the Rams. I’m not much of a photographer, but I couldn’t refuse a mother’s holiday request, and happily snapped the pic.
Pins in the long, strange football journey of Singleton are stuck in the map from Seattle to Calgary to Philadelphia, with many points of sharp rejection in between, for a linebacker who grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and has always regarded football as a labor of love.
“Alex says he would play football for free, and it really is true. He loves the game that much,” recalled Kim, a mother who never let her son regard himself as a failure. “I’d drive him to the airport in Los Angeles for a tryout, he’d get cut and I’d drive him back home. It was awful.”
From the time in 2011 when he packed his bags and left home to attend college at Montana State to last March, when the Eagles decided to let their leading tackler and a captain walk away without so much as tendering him a contract, Singleton has refused to let the doubters bring him down.
“We never wanted to carry the football,” said 27-year-old Matt, who now coaches linebackers at the same high school where he and his brother once played defense. “You can ask Alex. He doesn’t care about scoring touchdowns. He just wants to hit people.”
Embedded deep in the genes of the Singleton clan is the notion a brick wall is best knocked down before dawn — a work ethic quietly inspired by Steve, a father who long rolled out of bed before sunrise to work a job in construction.
The relentless Singleton determination shines in the face of Ashley, now 31 years old, the eldest child of Kim and Steve. Born with Down Syndrome, Ashley began competing in the Special Olympics as a toddler, earning too many gold, silver and bronze medals in swimming and bowling to count. Without hesitation, the Broncos linebacker insists Ashley has always been the best athlete at the family dinner table.
“Yes, that’s true,” confirmed Ashley, who wore a T-shirt on Christmas that declared her own unwavering allegiance with these words: Little Brother’s Biggest Fan. “But I do have more medals than Alex. And I can beat him at bowling.”
Football is family, as we were powerfully reminded when the prayers of NFL nation buoyed Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin, after he collapsed from a nasty collision and medical personnel brought him back from the dead on a field in Cincinnati. The power of love knows no limits. Without the strength of his family’s support in his heart, Singleton would not enter the final game on Denver’s schedule tied with Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater for the fifth-most tackles in a single season by any player in team history.
“My family has meant everything to my football career,” Singleton said, “starting with my mom driving me again and again to LAX, sometimes what seemed like four times a week, to give me a ride for another tryout. My family has always believed in me. Mom, Dad, my two sisters and brother, those five people never stopped believing in me.”
Here’s the only statistic anyone needs to know about Singleton. On Christmas Day, when the Broncos got blown away 51-14 by the Rams, Singleton kept grinding, making 20 tackles.
True love of the game never quits.
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