By Mark Janssen
They lined in an up-front pew of the Prestonwood Baptist Church positioned like ... well, like Little Wildcats.
This 12- 13-year-old football team - yes, named the Little Wildcats - dressed in slacks, white shirts, and purple ties decorated with the Powercat logo. They gathered for the funeral of their coach, 39-year-old Elijah Alexander, who had died six days earlier on March 24 of this past spring.
A 10-year veteran of the National Football league from 1992 through 2001 with Tampa Bay, Denver, Indianapolis and Oakland, truly, only one team, and one color, mattered to this former product of Dallas' Dunbar High School.
The team: Kansas State; the color: Purple.
Giving a soft chuckle, Kimberly said, "My school in Florida, but our wedding colors were purple, we have a purple pool table, we have purple K-State flags, and we have more pictures on the wall of Eli as a Wildcat than with any of the professional teams. Purple definitely rules in our home."
Like he battled offensive blockers in the Big 8 and NFL, Alexander gallantly attempted to ward off multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable cancer of the bone marrow, for the last five years of his life until his death on March 24.
A former 235-pound defensive end and linebacker, at one point chemotherapy and a bone marrow transfusion left Alexander to be a frail 178 pounds.
"Even in those times, coaching those 'Little Wildcats,' as he called them, was a passion," said Kimberly.
She then told the story of when Eli was going through some of his most challenging times, he still found his way to the football field where his band of 12-year-olds were playing the USC Trojans.
He never should have gone. He was sick, and it was cold. Slouched over, he sat away from everyone because his immune system was not good.
With the Little Wildcats trailing late in the game, Kimberly recalled, "All of a sudden my dad punches me and says, 'Look who's down in the endzone.' Eli was down there coaching defense. He knew we had to stop them to win the game. We not only stopped them, but we won the game in overtime.
"It was such an emotional moment. Our kids and parents were crying, and after the game the opposing coach asked Elijah to come to his sideline and asked if it was okay for his kids to pray for him," Kimberly said. "They all took a knee and said a prayer and then presented him with a USC t-shirt that they had autographed. That's the kind of impact Eli had on people."
A stem cell transplant would later allow Alexander to return to somewhat of a normal life. At the time, his attitude was one of: "Life is going to knock you down. Who is going to get up and who is going to stay down? I don't have time for pity."
Instead of limping to his personal finish line, Elijah Alexander III charged on establishing the "Tackle Cancer Foundation" which gives support and financial aid to families fighting myeloma (my-uh-low-muh), and a variety of childhood cancers.
The colors of the TCF?
"Purple and silver," said Kimberly. "What else?"
Alexander's illness was diagnosed by a blood test showing an abnormal high protein level in his blood by a doctor in Costa Rica where he was on a pleasure golf outing. Prior to that 2005 finding, Alexander showed few symptoms of any illness.
"He had pain in his feet, but when you're a football player you either ignore pain, or the doctor tells you that you're a football player and you're going to hurt," Kimberly said. "He had been to several doctors, but there was never an answer. When he was finally diagnosed, he was already in Stage 3B, which was the most severe stage."
To date, there is no answer for multiple myeloma, which makes up only one percent of all cancers and focuses only on adults. Each year 19,000 people will be diagnosed with myeloma, and 12,000 will die from it. There is no cure for the disease, but research has discovered new treatments that can lengthen remission periods.
With his personal remission, Alexander coached on with his "Little Wildcats" which included younger son Evan, and "Big Wildcats" with older son Elijah IV.
"That's what he called them. Whatever team they were on, he coached, and they were always the Wildcats," Kimberly said. "He lived it. He was so serious. He watched game film all the time. (Laughing) They called it a recreational league, but in Texas there's no such thing."
"Elijah thought he was Bill Snyder. He raised the bar of expectations with the kids," Kimberly said. "It was comical for those who didn't know him, but for those who did, they knew that it was how it was done at K-State."
Again chuckling, Kimberly said, "He liked to give grades. He would send out e-mails with grades for the quarterback, the d-backs, his coaches, and even the parents on whether their cheering was adequate."
Did the wife get a grade?
"Oh know. He knew better," she laughed. "He knew where to draw the line."
Alexander arrived at K-State as a recruit of coach Stan Parrish in 1988. His media guide bio included only three lines, but he played in each of the Wildcats' 11 games - all losses - and earned the team's Most Outstanding Freshman Award.
While Alexander had personal on-field success, it didn't equal true happiness. He strongly considered quitting the Wildcats over the Christmas break in 1988, which is when his father, Herman Ridley, unexpectedly died.
"When that happened, he just didn't have the heart to tell his mother that he was not going back to K-State," Kimberly said. "He never regretted it."
Bill Snyder arrived in 1989 and Alexander started 10 games as a sophomore. He led all defensive ends in tackles in 1990 when the Wildcats won five games, and became a co-captain in his senior season in 1991 when K-State won seven games. Alexander would later be drafted in the 10th round by the Buccaneers.
Alexander was part of the foundation that led to a run of 11 straight bowl years for Kansas State starting in 1993, but as his wife says, "Eli never regretted missing those bowl years because he took such pride in being one of the building blocks."
Today, Alexander will not see the cure for multiple myeloma, but when that day comes, the former Wildcat No. 89 will have been one of the building blocks when the cure is found.