Coming off a season full of highs (his first Pro Bowl appearance) and lows (a hamstring injury that kept him out for four weeks), linebacker Kwon Alexander is hyped for the start of the 2018 season. The former fourth-round pick has made a quiet but undeniable impact in his three seasons with the Bucs, starting all 40 games he’s played in and becoming one of only five NFL players to record more than 95 tackles and three interceptions in 2017.
Around Tampa, he’s become a fan favorite thanks to his head-down, no-nonsense work ethic even in the face of tragedy. His beloved 17-year-old brother, Broderick, was shot and killed in 2015, two days before Alexander was to help the Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons just 90 minutes away from his Alabama hometown.
With the support of his family, Alexander played and had the best game of his career, recording two interceptions, a pass-breakup and 11 tackles.
“I think about him every morning when I wake up,” Alexander says. “Any day you can be gone, so I appreciate every day that I wake up. Every day I grind and go get it. I just know he’s always there with me, so I feel like I’m undefeated.”
Now, Alexander is looking to make a name for himself both on and off the field. He sat down with TAMPA Magazines to discuss expectations, community, and what happens when you combine a lion, tiger and gorilla on the football field.
Tell us about the hair. What inspired the red?
I wanted to brand myself. I love red, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are red, so I said, “I’ll try something different and dye my hair red.” Everybody loved it, so I kept it. I dyed it last year before camp, and we had the TV show [HBO’s “Hard Knocks”], so I wanted to do something to get my name and face out there.
Second, how did you come up with your nickname, LiTiRilla?
It happened at pregame. We were on the field, and it just popped into my mind: LiTiRilla. I just said it in the camera. It’s the mix of a lion, a tiger and a gorilla. They’re all top dogs in the jungle. It just became a name, and now people are wearing my shirts. It’s name branding. I’m having fun with it. That’s the mindset [going out on the field].
What are the aspects of each animal you’re trying to emulate on the field?
The lion is like the king of the jungle. I’m a Leo, too, so that’s a big point. A gorilla is a mean animal. It doesn’t take anything. It’s a big, swole animal that will knock you out [laughs]. And a tiger is a finesser. He finesses. Whatever he wants, he’s going to go get it. That’s what I like about them.
What are some of the lessons you learned during your time at LSU you now apply as a Buccaneer?
They taught me a lot — how to take care of myself. Especially coming out of high school, I had to learn fast. Anybody who comes out of high school and goes right to college has to learn fast. They were treating us like NFL athletes, so we had to have our heads on straight, be on time, be prepared for everything that came at us. It was a big experience for me, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
You’re getting a nice little salary bump this year thanks to an NFL policy that rewards young players who exceed expectations in their first few years of playing. When you entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick, did you feel like you had something to prove?
It was a big process with the draft. Going fourth round and seeing people get drafted ahead of you who you knew weren’t better than you, I just felt disrespected the whole time. I told my mom, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to go ahead, and I’m going to start. I’m going to do it because I have to. I just did. I came in with the mindset to start. That’s just the way I am. I always do everything right and just try to better myself. That was my mindset when I came in, and I got the job. Here I am now [laughs].
There’s been some talk that you’re a player to watch this year. What did you do differently during the offseason to elevate your game?
Something that played a big part this year was that I started eating healthy. I used to just eat anything. I like food, and I like sweets and cakes and stuff like that. I really changed my mindset on that to better myself and see how that feels. It feels great. I have a lot more energy than I did.
On Twitter, when it comes to the Bucs, you’re like a hype machine. What do you think is different about the team this year that you think will bring you guys to the next level?
A big thing about this team that I feel this year is that we have a lot more energy. Guys really want more than what we’ve been doing. People are going out to work. They’re taking it seriously. Coaches, everybody else is taking it seriously. Everybody is getting to the main point of what we want to do. I feel like everybody’s on board with that.
Who are some of your football inspirations or role models?
I didn’t even really watch football that much when I was growing up. We didn’t have cable and stuff like that. But I liked Brett Favre, and I liked the way he played. He didn’t care. He was always going to go hard, 110 percent. I liked Green Bay because he played on the team. It was cool just to watch him and how he prepared and how we went out there and did his thing on the field. It really turned my mindset, and I thought I could do it too, so that’s what I went and did.
Who did you look up to when you got to the Bucs?
Derrick Brooks. He’s a great guy. Him and Lavonte David, when I first got here. He was one of the guys who I looked up to who helped improve my game a lot. I went and talked to him as soon as I got here as a rookie. He helped me. He wasn’t a mean person or someone who didn’t want to help me. He always helped whenever I needed it.
I know you and Lavonte David are close. Tell me about what that relationship means to you.
It means a lot. It’s like I’ve got a big brother here that I know I can depend on whenever. Whenever I need to talk I call him, and he always answers the phone. It just feels special when you have somebody right there for you — not being lonely.
This past season, you went to your first Pro Bowl. What did that honor mean to you?
That felt great. It was a big compliment for me. Coming fourth round, people were doubting me because of my size and all kinds of things. Then I get a phone call like that. I’m happy that all the work I did has paid off. But I’m not finished yet. I have a lot more to do. I’m just ready to go back again and show the world and get ready for the season.
Where were you when you got that phone call?
I was at home. I didn’t know who was calling my phone, but someone told me to answer it. When they told me, I was like, ‘huh?’ I didn’t know if I was going to go or not. They called me, and I was like, whoa, for real? Are y’all playing with me? [laughs]. I got chills when I realized it was serious. I called my mom and dad, and everybody was happy. It was an amazing feeling.
In May, you started the Kwon Alexander Foundation. What are some of the causes that supports?
The cause for my foundation is really to help kids — prepare them and change their mindset. A lot of kids’ mindsets are pretty average, and I’m really trying to preach greatness and tell the kids they can do whatever they want to do. They have to work for it. It’s not just going to fall into their hands. They have to hang around the right people, successful people. They have to keep their heads on straight and keep their grades straight, and they can do it. You just have to focus in on one thing, and you never know what can happen.
Why is giving back so important to you?
Giving back is very important to me, especially for people where I come from. We didn’t have anybody to give back [when I was growing up], so every time I go home I give back. Kids like to see that. If they see a positive role model and you come back and show your face, it’s a big thing to them. Especially seeing someone in the NFL, especially if they want to go to the NFL, it’s like a big thing for them. It makes me feel great to give back because where I’m from, it’s hard. When I go home I give whatever I have because a lot of people don’t have that much.
The last two years you’ve participated in My Cause, My Cleats, one week each season where the NFL allows players to speak out on the cause of their choice with words and designs on their cleats. You’ve used it to speak out against gun violence, which I know is something very close to you. Why do you think it’s so important for figures like athletes to speak out on these issues?
People need to see it. Especially with gun violence. I’ve seen a lot of gun violence, and it gets really critical at times, and scary. There are some things I just don’t like. Guns are just for our protection; that’s how I feel. They’re not to go around just to kill or rob. That’s why I want to stop gun violence, stop the killing, and bring each other together. Be successful instead of being nothing. We’re big guys to a lot of people, especially to kids. When they see that, they change their mindset as well. We try to preach that. All the other guys, they preach their causes and what they have going on. It’s a big platform for us to have kids and even grown people look at it and change their mindset.
You wrote an article for the website The Player’s Tribune about losing your brother to gun violence just two days before a game during the 2015 season. Tell me a little bit about how your love for your brother and his memory has changed how you approach the game and even your day-to-day life.
It changed a lot. I think about him every morning when I wake up. I think about him every day. It changed the way I approach things — just to be happy I’m alive. Any day you can be gone, so I appreciate every day that I wake up. Every day I grind and go get it. Football is something I love. I just know he’s always there with me, so I feel like I’m undefeated. I can’t be touched. That’s my whole mindset, and that’s how I go in on every day.
Changing gears: You have a lot of tattoos, including one on your back dedicated to your brother. Do you have a favorite? How about one you wish you had never gotten?
I got a couple of wish I had never gotten [laughs]. I got some when I was younger on my arm. I didn’t really have anything then, but now that I have money I can go to a real professional tattoo artist. Back home, you’ve got to get it how you can get it [laughs]. Most of those guys are not that great at home, but you know how that goes [laughs]. I have the one for my brother and one on for my son on my leg, so both of those are my favorites.
You’re very much into fashion, and you even have your own T-shirt line. How did you get into style? How did the line come to be?
I just love fashion. I love clothes. I love shopping, period. I like to look very, very clean. It’s just something I love to do. I’ve got a passion for it. When I’m done with football, I want to do fashion. I’ve got to go to Paris. I want to go to all those places to see those fashion districts and things like that. For my T-shirt line, I did the LiTiRilla shirts because that’s my brand, and I wanted to do something creative. It’s been going well.
Who are some of your favorite designers to wear?
I like a lot of designers. I like Rude. I like Balenciaga, Gucci, Versace, Saint Laurent. I can go on and on about this [laughs]. It’s all kinds of different things. Those are the main ones, but a lot of the dope designers are the ones who haven’t come up yet; the ones that are still kind of under-the-radar. I love it.
You’ve talked a little bit about your son. What are some of the lessons you’re trying to instill in him at a young age?
He’s only 1 right now, so it’s kind of hard to teach him anything [laughs]. He’s not really listening. But I want to teach him how to be a real man. To be successful, to think positively. It’s the same thing as with my foundation — help him out. I’m doing this right now to show him how to be successful and how to take care of yourself and not ask anybody for anything. If you want something, go get it on your own. Just think positively because it plays a big part in your life. When he grows up, he’ll know those things. I’m going to start it in his mind as much as I can. I just feel like he’s going to be great, regardless. That’s just how he is. The things that he does just naturally is fun to watch.
What are some of your favorite things to do with him for father-son time?
I like going shopping with him. I like just being around him, period. It’s just a great feeling. I love to play basketball with him. Like I said, it’s just natural things he does. I don’t even have to tell him to go dunk the ball. He goes and dunks the ball on his own at 1 year old. The other day he dunked it like five times on the high goal. I was like, wow. I didn’t even teach him that. He’s just doing it on his own strength. It’s some amazing things that he’s doing. That’s why I can’t wait to be able to talk and do all kinds of other things. It’s going to be fun.
When you have some time off during the season in Tampa, where do you like going around town for a great meal?
I like going to Fleming’s, Ocean Prime, Ruth’s Chris. Those are probably my top favorites. I like steak, but I like seafood too, so those are a good mix.
You mentioned sweets and sugar being a weakness of yours. What are some of your favorite indulgences?
My weakness is red velvet cake. Cupcakes, anything with red velvet in it, I love it. That’s one of my favorites. We’ve got some guys in the training room who bring in cupcakes all the time, and one of the trainer’s wives makes the best sweets. They’re amazing.
Where are your favorite spots downtown?
I like going to Tampa Bay Lightning games at Amalie Arena. It be live. That’s probably my favorite thing to do downtown.
This is also our back-to-school issue. If you hadn’t made it to the NFL, what career path would you have taken after you left LSU?
I would have tried to own my own business, especially something with fashion, then work my way up to the top. Build something that I love and just set my mind on it. I would pick out one thing and go hard at it and be the best I can.