Monica Alexander was telling a story that her son Jaylen had never heard before. The 17-year-old star running back with the distinctive blond topknot paid close attention as she described what was essentially the first time they played ball together. 

A three-time member of the all-state softball team in Virginia, Monica had helped lead Orange County High School to two state softball championships and graduated in 2000. She followed her coach, Mickey Dean, to Lake City Community College in Florida when he took the top coaching job there.

The centerfielder was in the midst of her first year on the college team when she discovered she was pregnant. She stayed in school and on her team.

“I was five months pregnant and nobody knew but my mom and my sister,” she said. “I was still playing softball to finish out the year. So we actually won a national championship that year when I was pregnant with Jaylen.”

As Jaylen listened to this tale, a glimmer of amazement flickered in his eyes. He comes from a family of athletes—his father, Ernest Lee, is also athletic and played football and baseball in school—but who knew his mom kick-started his competitive spirit when he was still in the womb?

A family tradition of athletic excellence

Monica Alexander said her family has lived in Orange “forever,” and there are remarkable athletes on both sides. Her father, Jeffrey Nixon, excelled in basketball, and her mother, Shelia Alexander, played basketball and softball and ran track. Her uncle, Willie Alexander, was a star basketball player. Monica and her twin sister, Monique, together were chosen most outstanding female athletes at OCHS in 2000, and both were all-state softball players.

Monica Alexander knew it was important to get her son involved in sports at an early age, because that had worked for her. When she and Monique were children, their mother coached their basketball and softball teams, and the twins played sports with their male cousins: “We were always outside with the boys playing football and basketball.”

After Monica had Jaylen and moved back to Virginia, she attended Longwood. She is quick to give her mother and grandmother credit for helping her rear her son and to say that playing sports has always been a family affair. She said she and her mother got Jaylen involved in soccer when he was 4 and took him to an Orange Stingers football camp when he was 5.

“He ended up loving it”

Monica Alexander chuckled when she recalled her son’s initial resistance to the game in which he has done so well.

“We literally took him to football kicking and screaming because he did not want to go to that first camp and then he ended up loving it,” she said.

Asked about the impact of his mother and grandmother on his athletic career, Jaylen said, “They’re the ones who put me in sports. So it was drilled into me at a young age to do something with sports.”

He played football for club teams throughout his childhood and for the team at Prospect Heights Middle School. At OCHS, he is a shooting guard for the basketball team as well as the star of the football squad.

Looking ahead to college

A single mother with three other children, Monica Alexander works as an instructional assistant at OCHS in special education classes. She has plenty to keep her busy, but these days, much of her attention is focused on her oldest child’s future in college football. He has been visiting colleges but doesn’t have a firm list of prospective schools yet, because he’s waiting to see how the football piece of the puzzle falls into place.

His mother made it clear she wouldn’t mind if he chooses a Virginia school. With a chuckle, she looked at him and said, “I would hope to make some games,” before adding, “It’s his choice. It’s what suits him and where he’s going to be content and comfortable and happy.”

A “tremendous” athlete

After spending his freshman year at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Jaylen came home to Orange County and has been a boon to Coach Jesse Lohr’s team ever since. After the Nov. 1 game against Fluvanna, in which Alexander led the Hornets to a 36-22 win with four touchdowns and 244 yards rushing, Lohr singled out Alexander for his “tremendous” play.

Jaylen is particularly proud of the Fluvanna game, because that’s when he achieved 5,000 career rushing yards. He holds the school record for rushing, with about 5,600 yards for his four years of play.

After college, he is hoping for a career in the NFL, but if that doesn’t work out, he said he wants to land a job that pays well. He likes math and plans to major in mechanical engineering in college.

His favorite teacher is Rachel Carlton, chair of the OCHS history department, who taught his African-American history class. He and Carlton’s son, Sihle Mthethwa, are football teammates.

“A phenomenal student”

“He’s a phenomenal athlete, but he’s also a phenomenal student,” Carlton said.

She remarked that because he is popular and well-known at the school, he is a role model for the other students.

“I think that when you have a leader like that in the classroom, it becomes cool to learn. When you have someone in the classroom who’s dedicated to learning, kids really respect that,” she said. “It makes my job easier.”

Carlton noted that after the death of Darius Minor, the 2018 OCHS graduate who died last year of natural causes during summer football training at the University of Maine, Alexander’s success has had extra meaning.

Alexander wore Minor’s number, 1, on his jersey for the past two seasons, a quiet but unmistakable tribute by one great high school athlete to another.

With his intelligence obvious in the classroom as well as on the football field, Carlton expects Alexander will go to a Division 1 school, get drafted by the NFL—and earn a college degree.

In her view, Jaylen Alexander’s success will be significant not just to him and his family but to the whole community: “He’s our hope, too.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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