MOBILE, Ala. – Alex Anzalone’s self-confidence took him to the edge of starting his professional career. Eventually, voices of support helped him make the leap into the unknown he lives now.
The former Florida linebacker, who in January announced his intention to enter the NFL Draft after completing his redshirt junior season, knows he has the mental stamina to go from The Swamp to Sunday pomp. But he understands the grind has only begun to fulfill the destiny he desires.
“Leaving early, it’s just a hard decision,” Anzalone told SEC Country on Monday in the buildup to the Senior Bowl. “I mean, it’s something you’ve been doing for four years or a little over four years. I had already graduated. I put a good year together, and the feedback I got was all good stuff. So I made the decision to leave, and it wasn’t an easy one.
“I think I’m mature enough to do it. I’ve had people, buddies, I know in the league. So just hearing from them (was positive), and I know I can do it mentally, and I know I have the ability to (succeed). Just doing it – that’s the hard part. So it’s easier said than done, but that’s kind of the thought process I had.”
There isn’t much easy about this time for players who are fresh off kissing goodbye to college. Anzalone and other NFL hopefuls who roamed the lobby Monday at the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel smiled and chatted with team representatives in one of the most breakneck meet-and-greets you can imagine. (Picture speed dating for the NFL.)
Still, there’s no guarantee of a golden path ahead, no matter how many hands are shaken or how many eyes are impressed.
That leap? By now, Anzalone is well-acquainted with the abyss.
“You go from college where you’re guaranteed a scholarship, you’re guaranteed all these things, to entering a business where nothing is guaranteed,” said Anzalone, who named former Florida tight end Jake McGee as one of his mentors when making the NFL Draft decision. “So that’s probably the biggest thing for me.”
Staying healthy could become Anzalone’s biggest key to a long, productive NFL career. This past fall, he was second on the Gators in tackles (53) before sustaining a season-ending broken left arm against Arkansas on Nov. 5. Before that, he injured his right shoulder in the second game of the 2015 season and missed the rest of the year.
Anzalone appeared in all 12 games as a backup linebacker in 2014. But he lived through several injuries as a freshman in 2013 and only played in 10 contests. He closes his Florida career with 75 tackles in 32 games.
The injuries have been a bear. But when Anzalone’s health cooperates, the linebacker has displayed flashes of becoming a beast.
He showed potential in totaling a career-high 12 tackles in a loss to Tennessee on Sept. 24. The moment became a tease of what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound athlete can do when injuries aren’t serving as a ball and chain.
Yet there’s a riddle facing Anzalone and any NFL team interested in him: How the heck does he avoid the injury list?
Time will show if he can stay upright to keep his career trajectory moving upward. But when Anzalone thinks backs to his time at Florida, he carries positive memories, even if they come with a heavy dose of “What if?” when considering his career.
“Personally, I grew a lot,” Anzalone said. “I think I got a lot better as a player and became a student of the game. I’m not saying I wasn’t before, but it was also just learning the college level and how much goes into it. And obviously, you’ve all seen how the program has progressed these past couple years, making it to the SEC Championship Game two years in a row. So it’s headed on the right path, and things are looking good.”