After year lost to suspensions, Carolina’s Frank Alexander seeks comeback _lowres

Associated Press photo by Chuck Burton -- Carolina defensive end Frank Alexander, left, jokes with quarterback Cam Newton at an organized team activity earlier this year in Charlotte, N.C. Alexander is trying to make an impression after marijuana use cost him most of last season.

Frank Alexander’s second chance hits a critical juncture Friday.

That’s when the Southern University Lab product opens training camp for his fourth season with the Carolina Panthers in the final year of his rookie contract.

Alexander, a defensive end who sat out 14 games last season because of two suspensions for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse, understands what’s at stake.

“Feel like I’m overly excited right now,” Alexander said. “I’m just ready to get back to being able to play again. It’s been a long time since I actually played in a real football game. If it was on a scale of 0 to 100, it motivated me 110.”

Alexander freely admits the mistakes that cost him all but a cameo appearance in the season finale last season.

The Oklahoma product used to use marijuana to unwind. His habit cost him, first in the form of a four-game suspension to open the 2014 season. He returned to the team for two days only to be handed a 10-game suspension for the same offense.

Alexander had been a player on the rise. He’d been one of the Panthers’ training camp MVPs, a young player who might have had a chance to break out in the wake of the Greg Hardy maelstrom that enveloped Carolina last year and the injuries that kept Charles Johnson on the sideline.

Now, Alexander said he’s given up use of the drug altogether.

“Messing with the marijuana, can’t mess with it no more,” Alexander said. “That was something I definitely had to take out of the things that I did. That was the main one that was stopping me from being on the field.”

When Alexander got back to Charlotte this summer, he set about finding ways to replace his relaxation ritual. Alexander bought a bike and started riding it to clear his head, finally getting a good look at a city he didn’t know all that well despite playing for the Panthers the past three seasons. If he can’t get on the bike, he flips on the PlayStation or pops in a movie. Knowing that he’s constantly tested by the NFL and subject to a one-year suspension that could effectively end his career, Alexander said he’s turned things around.

And he found a cause to go with it. Back in June of 2014, his mother, Juanita, battled breast cancer, going through chemotherapy and radiation to beat the disease. When Alexander first got the news, he was devastated.

“I broke down crying,” Alexander said. “The first thing you think when you hear cancer, you immediately think the worst. Especially if it’s your mom.”

His mom pulled through, but the experience opened Alexander’s eyes to the difficulties of dealing with cancer. This offseason, the defensive end established a new foundation, Alexander’s Helping Hands, to support fundraisers for cancer treatment and cancer treatment centers in Charlotte, North Carolina. Alexander spends some of his time visiting kids in hospitals and working with the families of those dealing with cancer.

“I know how it is to have somebody close to you go through it,” Alexander said. “Any way I can be a light to anyone about the situation, that’s what I want to do.”

Alexander said he realizes a breakout year, a second contract and the increased visibility that comes with success could help his fledgling foundation take off right away.

The opportunity is still there. Now that Hardy’s in Dallas, the Panthers have the same opening on the right side, and Alexander might be the favorite among a group that includes former second-round pick Kony Ealy, Mario Addison and Wes Horton.

The Panthers coaching staff said it still believes in the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Alexander. After Carolina finished its organized team activities, he was named an MVP again, a move that convinced Alexander the Panthers are still behind him after last year’s suspensions.

“It’s a big role that they need me to fill, with Greg leaving, one of the great pass rushers in Carolina history,” Alexander said. “We’ve got Charles on one side, so they’re looking for somebody to fill those shoes on the right end.”

And if Alexander can win that job and break out this season, the Zachary native could be one of the best turnaround stories in the NFL.