On October 1, 1922, Alexander made football history while playing for the Milwaukee Badgers against the Chicago Cardinals. In that NFL game, he became the first person to ever play the outside linebacker position. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported Alexander's unique positioning, but did not know what to call it. The paper wrote: "...Alexander introduced a new style of playing defensive tackle that should work wonders for a man in condition, but with the tall easterner in the condition, or lack of same, he was yesterday, it appeared a bit strenuous and tiring." Alexander responded by saying: "I did get a little tired, but I was in shape."
According to Mike Wittpenn, an assistant coach at Rutgers University in 1919, Alexander began evolving from a defensive tackle to outside linebacker during his college days at Rutgers. He said: "John was big and fast and moved on the line and hit as the ball was passed. Shortly after being on the line, Alexander decided to back off the line and move fast and hit the offensive end as the ball was passed...we stood up on defense from tackle and end but did not get off the line until John did it and made quite a name for himself as a rough and tough tackle."
Alexander always credited Paul Robeson (who was an assistant coach at Rutgers) with encouraging the change. He said that Robeson told him: "I want you to re-define the tackle position. Play it as you see fit. Don't be concerned with the way others play it. Don't worry what others tell you." Against the Cardinals, Alexander took Robeson's advice further than he previously had. He later said: "...it was in this game that I remembered what Robeson had told me about 're-defining' that tackle position. Oh, I'd experiment a bit...nothing drastic. Just widen the space between me and the end. Or sometimes shift closer to the center..."
Alexander continued and said,"...(against the Cardinals) I decided to do something a little different, maybe a lot different. You see, in those days, linemen would just put their heads down and charge straight ahead. The game was almost a tug-of-war in those days...the teams were really bunched up, and nearly every play was a running play...Remembering what Robby said, I left my normal tackle position on defense. I took a step back off the line, which would have been pretty radical itself back then, but I went another couple of steps farther. I left my regular tackle 'hole', too. I moved outside of our defensive end...nobody really knew exactly what it was I was doing while I was doing it. Certainly no one called me an outside linebacker at the time...the Cardinals -- didn't know what I was doing. I did have some big plays, because what I was doing -- where I lined up -- was totally unexpected...I didn't think that much about it. I just felt we linemen looked pretty stupid with our noses stuck in the ground...we couldn't see a thing. That is why I moved. To get a better view. To see what was coming at me. It didn't seem like much to me at the time...but it definitely did lead the way for what is known today as an outside linebacker."
Birth and Death Dates:
b. July 4, 1896 - d. August 5, 1986
In 1919, Alexander enrolled at Rutgers University after receiving two honorable discharges from the U.S. Army. That season, Alexander met former Rutgers All-America Paul Robeson (future singer, actor, and political activist) who was an assistant coach for the Scarlet Knights. It was Robeson who suggested that Alexander experiment with his positioning as a defensive tackle. That year, the Knights had a record of 5-3-0, but Alexander's season with Rutgers was only part of his football education. That year, Robeson took Alexander to Ohio to play for a professional team, the Massillon Tigers.
Alexander later said of the experience, "In 1919, there was no National Football League. There was no league, period. Oh, all the stronger teams always seemed to play one another, but there was no formal league before 1920...that 1919 Massillon Tigers team was something. Like all pro teams, there were a few college boys...'Ringers,' I guess you'd call them. Some played under assumed names. Others didn't even bother changing their names. I didn't. Hell, I was a tackle. Who'd ever heard of me?"
In 1920, a formal professional league called the American Professional Football League was finally formed; it would change its name to the National Football League in 1922. Alexander, however, was not among the charter members of this new league as he explained: "What you have to recall is that the National Football League was no big deal then...It wasn't the only place you could pick up a few dollars for playing a game of football...In 1920 and 1921, I played on non-league teams. Teams that certainly were on par with the NFL teams of the day."
Finally in 1922, Alexander decided to join the NFL and with Robeson, went west to play for the Milwaukee Badgers. Alexander said: "We didn't make a big deal of it at the time, but we had two of the first Negro players in the NFL -- Robby and Fritz Pollard. And I was Jewish. Pollard was even our coach...once you proved you could play football, and I like to think that Pollard, Robeson, and I did that, we didn't hear that much about being black or being a Jew. You ignored the early taunts, played a little harder, and let things take care of themselves."
Although the Badgers only had a record of 2-4-3, Alexander made history by playing outside linebacker, a move that would eventually change football. He said that following the game against the Cardinals (the opening game of the season), "...I don't think many realized what I was doing. Pollard, our coach, didn't have much to say either. And since no one told me not to, and since it was pretty effective, I just continued to play that way -- a yard back and a yard outside."
After playing with Milwaukee in 1922, Alexander spent the next few seasons on non-league teams in the New York Metropolitan area. In 1926, he returned to the NFL to play for the New York Giants. He said: "Joe Alexander coached when I got there. I think some of the players thought we were brothers, or at least related. We weren't. We were both Jewish, but that was it." That season, John played in nine games for the Giants, who had a record of 8-4-1. Although he liked playing for them, John did not return for the 1927 season because: "...they told me I'd have to take a pay cut...I liked New York, but not that much. I could, and did, make more by playing on non-league teams...In a way I missed the Giants, but we did play NFL teams in exhibition..." Alexander continued to play pro football until 1930, when tuberculosis forced him to retire. In his two seasons in the NFL, he played in 17 career games.
New York City
Alexander played tackle for the University of Rutgers in 1919. He played tackle in the NFL with the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922, and for the New York Giants in 1926.
6'4", 234 pounds
In the NFL:
Touchdowns: 1 (on a fumble recovery in 1926)