ATLANTA — This should have been a joyous time, a day to celebrate, an afternoon to rejoice and remember with family.
The Bucs had just beaten the Falcons in overtime Sunday, and rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander was the star of the day, having played the best football game of his life 90 minutes up the road from where he grew up.
This was supposed to be a homecoming.
Instead, Alexander stood in the locker room, visibly shaken and emotionally empty because of a nightmare from which he could not wake. His eyes tried to hold back tears as his voice quivered.
"I'm just ready to get back to my family now," he said.
Alexander and his family will never be the same.
Broderick Taylor II, Alexander's 17-year-old brother, was killed Friday night in Anniston, Ala., close to where Kwon and Broderick were raised. A 24-year-old man has been arrested and charged with shooting Taylor in the chest during a fight. Taylor was pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m.
"Been hard, man, losing my little brother, but I know he'd want me to be strong for him," Alexander said. "I came out here and dedicated this game to him."
What a game Alexander had. He led all players with 11 tackles. He intercepted a pass. He caused a fumble and recovered it. Broderick never left his thoughts.
"Every play," Alexander said.
For four hours Sunday afternoon, Kwon Alexander might have been the best football player in the world. And he played spectacularly with the type of grief that no 21-year-old should ever experience.
"When you talk about the true definition of a man, it's the way he overcomes adversity," Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. "The way he took the field, we saw it in his eyes."
It's remarkable that he even stepped onto that field and played.
"He would want me to," Alexander said, referring to his brother. "He would want me to be strong. I know he is looking (down) from up there. He's smiling and happy right now. I just did it all for him."
Alexander didn't talk on the way to the game. He sat on the bus, silent. He wore his headphones, listening to music, alone in his thoughts and wrapped up in a world that was crumbling around him. Just a day earlier, on Twitter, Alexander had heartbreakingly begged for his brother to come back.
"I'll do anything," he wrote.
On Sunday, as he rode to the Georgia Dome, he had but one mission.
"He was doing this for a purpose," Winston said. "It's different when you look into a man's eyes and he's doing it for a paycheck or because he likes football. … Family is a strong thing. When something happens to your family, when you're a true man, you go out there and represent your family like that? That says a lot."
The Bucs gave Alexander the choice not to play. No one would have blamed him if he had gone home to Alabama. A few players wondered if they would have had the strength to play if they had lost a loved one.
"I can't imagine losing your 17-year-old brother when you're fairly young, too," coach Lovie Smith said. "I can only imagine what the family is going through. But football is a haven for you sometimes. It's a place for you to go to get away from this mad, mean world sometimes. I'm just glad we, his teammates, were there for him."
Often — especially more recently with stories of concussions and domestic violence — football is viewed as a savage game made up of cold-blooded bullies whose lone intent is to cause brutality and carnage. But Sunday, in the aftermath of one of the best victories in recent Bucs history, players spoke in somber tones, all of them referencing their hurting teammate.
In moments like these, football is more than just a business, and teammates are more than just co-workers.
"This is one family," linebacker Lavonte David said. "We let him know: 'We have your back.' "
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said, "Instead of being individual fingers, we expect us to be a fist. This is what we do. If one man goes down, we all pick him up. He showed incredible courage today. Pure perseverance."
Alexander credited his teammates — also referred to as his family — for helping him through the weekend.
"It meant so much to me that they were there for me," he said.
What Alexander didn't know is what his courage meant to his teammates. Offensive lineman and longtime NFL veteran Logan Mankins gave Alexander the game ball. Many spoke of his perseverance and maturity in the worst moment of his life.
"He loses his brother and then to come out and play like that, it's inspiring," David said. "Us older guys, we look at that. We have a great deal of respect for Kwon Alexander."
Before leaving the locker room, Alexander talked about the kid he called "Brod."
"He was a goofy guy," Alexander said, mustering a faint smile. "Tall, goofy. Loved to make people laugh. Just a good person."
Alexander stopped, then started again. "Oh … just …"
He couldn't say more. Overcome by emotion, he walked away. A short time later, he took to Twitter.
"This one was for you lil soldier," he wrote. "I love you baby boy."
Under it was a photo of his little brother with the words "R.I.P. Brod."