TAMPA — Logan Mankins is an NFL tough guy who's not used to fighting off tears, and rarely loses when he does. But he held a towel around his neck as he approached grieving rookie Kwon Alexander in the Bucs locker room at the Georgia Dome last Sunday.
The 21-year old Alexander, who had just recorded 11 tackles, forced and recovered a fumble and had an interception, was the biggest reason for the Bucs' 23-20 win at Atlanta in overtime. But only two days earlier, Alexander had learned his teenage brother had been killed during a fight in his Alabama hometown. Mankins wanted to recognize Alexander's courage by presenting him with the game ball in front of the team.
Alexander broke down. Mankins toweled away some moisture building around his own eyes.
"It was just the situation that he was put into and to have the type of game he had, I just felt it was something that needed to be recognized," Mankins said. "Everyone on the team recognized it, I just wanted to bring it out for everyone to applaud him so he could know everyone appreciated it.
"I'm sure a lot of people say they would do the same, but until you're in that situation, you don't know if you could. So for him to actually do it shows all the commitment in the world."
Here's what Mankins didn't tell Alexander. If there's anyone who knows what it's like to feel alone with just football and your sorrow, it's the Bucs' six-time Pro Bowl guard.
Mankins grew up fast and strong in Catheys Valley, Calif., a ranching community of fewer than 1,000 people 150 miles east of San Francisco and an hour north of Fresno in the base of the Sierra Nevadas. By the time he could ride a horse he would work with his father, Tim, repairing fences and herding cattle.
He was a good athlete who grew to be a 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end/linebacker and MVP of his league in basketball. But tucked away in tiny Mariposa County, he was unknown. Though a bright student, he didn't take the SAT, never figuring college football was in his future. But he caught the eye of a Fresno State recruiter and got an opportunity from the Bulldogs to enroll as a partial qualifier with the promise of a scholarship.
On what was called a warm, sunny day in 2000, just a few weeks before Mankins was to enroll at Fresno, Logan, then 18, and his younger brother, Morgan, 15, made their way down Mount Bullion Cutoff in Mariposa County. For that steep rocky region, it's a relatively easy 31/2-mile route that leads to the Mankins' ranch.
Logan was driving when something happened to the pickup. The steering wheel locked, and with neither boy wearing a seat belt, the truck went airborne and tumbled down a hill.
A neighbor pulled up to Tim Mankins' ranch and told him to call 911 because there had been an accident. He had no way of knowing it involved his two oldest sons until he arrived at the scene to find Logan walking around dazed, with a separated shoulder and lacerated chin. Morgan suffered a worse fate. He had flown through the rear window and landed in an unlucky position where the bed of the pickup came to rest on his head.
Logan later recalled trying to lift the truck off his brother with his one good arm. It took his father using a tire jack to free Morgan, whom he held in his arms until emergency workers arrived.
The terrible accident, which Mankins rarely speaks about, left Morgan in a coma at first and then hospitalized for six months, unable to speak because of a traumatic brain injury. He communicates through hand signals and a little writing. Even after the accident, he was the same happy, loving brother who would wear his Bulldogs hat to Fresno State home games.
But there is no way to overstate the incredible pain and sadness that enveloped the Mankins family that year. Just as difficult for Logan was the fact he had to leave while Morgan was in the hospital and fulfill his commitment to Fresno State, where he became one of the nation's top linemen and the 32nd overall pick of the Patriots in 2005.
"We were very close and we still are," Mankins said of his family. "I don't know how it is for everyone, but a lot of times tragic incidents will bring a family closer. It will either bring you closer or rip through you. Yeah, that was a tough time."
"It's tough anytime your family is going through a difficult situation, you want to be there for them. Yet, you still have other commitments, there's other people counting on you. You're sort of getting pulled from both directions. I'm sure Kwon has a very understanding family, as I did, that he made a commitment to be there and they wanted him to be there so that was great."
As Mankins knows, the road you travel to the NFL can sometimes take some tough turns.
Information from the Boston Globe was used in this report.