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.