NORMAN — Running down the Cotton Bowl tunnel for pregame warmup, Frank Alexander heard the roar of the crowd swell. It grew louder and stronger until it was an indistinguishable wall of sound.
That's when he heard a familiar whistle.
“Man,” he thought, “that's my daddy.”
He looked into the crimson-filled stands, and sure enough, there was his father, arms raised, hands waving.
Alexander isn't even sure how his dad makes the sound — a pattern that is so special to the two of them that the elder Alexander refuses to reveal exactly what he does — but the father always gets the son's attention.
“He's been doing it since I was a little boy,” Alexander said. “No matter what, I know it's him.”
Hearing that whistle and seeing his dad made Saturday all the better — if that's even possible. Alexander had a career day in OU's blowout of Texas. Three sacks. Four tackles for loss. One forced fumble. One fumble recovered.
On a day that the defensive end earned Walter Camp national defensive player of the week honors, nothing was more special than having his dad in the Cotton Bowl stands.
That's because he wasn't there last year.
He was recovering from a heart attack.
Alexander's parents, Frank and Juanita, were on their way to Norman last season for the Air Force game when he starting having chest pains. Juanita wanted to take him to the hospital, but Frank waved it off as indigestion.
He suspected, though, it might be something worse.
“God might be telling me my time here on Earth is coming to an end,” he remembers thinking. “I may go ahead and watch my son play if that's to be my last game.”
He was in pain the rest of the weekend. Before the game. During the game. After the game. Even on the 10-hour drive back to Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday, the discomfort continued.
Early Monday morning, the chest pain turned into a full-blown heart attack.
The Alexanders rushed to the hospital where doctors determined that he had six blockages and a blood clot. He would need open heart surgery.
Juanita called her son from the hospital.
“I need to be on the first plane,” he insisted.
“The best thing you can do for your dad right now,” she told him, “is continue to do what you do.”
That was hard enough as it was. Alexander had big plans heading into last season. Playing opposite of Jeremy Beal, they were going to terrorize opponents and tear up the Big 12.
Then the week before the season opener, Alexander sprained his ankle. He missed the opener, and even though he returned the next week against Florida State, the injury hampered his speed and slowed his pursuit.
“I didn't want to be one of those players that just came through OU,” Alexander said. “I wanted to leave a mark, put my names in the books.”
What had seemed so likely early in his career was no longer so sure. Had it not been for Sam Bradford's famous flip in the 2008 edition of Bedlam, Alexander might've had the play of the game. His rumbling return of a botched Cowboy two-point conversion was an exclamation mark on an honorable mention All-Big 12 season.
His sophomore season, he was more of a marked man, and his numbers dropped.
His junior season, that slow-to-heal ankle would eventually cost him his starting spot.
“I got down on myself — ‘Man, I can't do nothing,'” Alexander said.
His on-field frustration was only compounded by his off-field worry about his father. Alexander has always talked daily with his parents, but during the month or so that his dad was in the hospital, the calls became even more frequent.
“It was harder for him than for me and his little sister,” his mom said.
Harder still was the fact that none of his family was able to travel to the Cincinnati game later that week. His family, after all, has always been there. From the time Alexander started playing tee ball as a 2-year-old — any surprise that the 6-foot-4, 255-pound granite block of a man was always the big kid showing his birth certificate to prove his age? — his family has attended everything. Soccer. Basketball. Football. Track. Whatever the sport, they were there.
There were playoff games in high school when Alexander had 50 family members in the stands.
But there would always a minimum of three.
“We tell him that even if nobody else in the crowd is cheering for you, your mom, dad and sister are there,” Juanita said via telephone from Louisiana.
For much of last season, though, his dad wasn't able to be there. He missed half a dozen games as he recovered from his surgery, and even though someone from the family was at every game after Cincinnati, not having his dad around was tough.
Even though his dad made several games at the end of the season, including the Fiesta Bowl, he had a setback in April.
Another heart attack.
Slowly but surely, Alexander's dad has recovered again. The 55-year-old changed his diet, eating more whole grains and vegetables and losing 35 pounds to slim down to 205 pounds, he uses exercise bands to stay active, and he takes 17 pills a day.
He hasn't missed a game this season.
“God has allowed me to come back and watch him,” the elder Alexander said of his son. “All of these things are blessings that I don't take lightly.”
Neither does the younger Alexander.
“He could've died,” he said. “He was having minor heart attacks as he was driving back from the game. Then, he had my mom, my sister and other family members in the car with him.
“That's why I feel everything has just been a blessing. Everything that's going on right now ... I just feel like I'm being blessed.”
This season has brought the kind of success that his parents prayed he would have. Alexander has been terrorizing offenses since the start — he leads the Sooners in tackles for loss, sacks and quarterback hurries heading into Saturday's game at Kansas — but what they witnessed against Texas left them with tears in their eyes.
Juanita came down by the field after the game, pulled her son into a hug and refused to let go.
“I'm so proud of you,” she said.
His dad feels the same way. He was still riding the emotional high of Saturday's game two days later.
“Every week, he seems to be getting better, a little more forceful, a little more focused,” said the father on the mend of the son on the rise.
“It can't get any better, to tell you the truth.”