EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Before Alex Boone ground his knuckles into NFL turf preparing to wrestle defensive linemen, he battled an opponent of an entirely different nature: alcohol addiction.
When Boone was just 14 years old, he had his first drink. It didn't take long for things to escalate.
"It got out of control early," said Boone, who turned 30 earlier this month.
Boone's nearly decade-long struggle finally came to an end when the 49ers took a chance and signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2009. As he slipped through seven rounds of the draft, Boone realized that a career in the game he loved would slip through his fingers as well if he didn't make a change.
A decision to reach out for help changed Boone's life.
Addiction is just one chapter of the lineman's story, one that eventually resulted in a happy ending through his commitment to sobriety and the support of others.
Boone now is passionate about sharing his experience with others who are fighting a similar battle. When he was approached by Vikings Executive Director of Player Development/Legal Les Pico and invited to speak about his journey to the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Arizona, Boone didn't hesitate.
"It just hit home for me because of the drinking problem, and there is a big drinking problem in our country," Boone said, who added that he wants to break the stigma associated with asking for help.
"Sometimes when you have somebody else stand up and say, 'Hey, I've got a problem, too,' it forces other people to come out and say, 'Hey, maybe it's OK [to ask for help],' " Boone said. "So if we even touched one person, we did a good job."
According to Pico and Don Patterson, a clinician and consultant for the Vikings who specializes in addiction recovery and behavior management, Boone's impact at the March event in Sacaton reached far beyond one person.
Pico has a longstanding relationship with the Gila River Indian Community where his brother, Brad, is the assistant superintendent of schools. Pico annually travels to Arizona to connect with the community and has had other Vikings players accompany him to speak on various topics. According to Pico, the middle school gymnasium was packed end-to-end with parents, students, young children and community elders who wanted to hear Boone's message.
"I just told them my story," Boone said. "I told them that I came from a very blue-collar home, I never had a father, my mom did the best she could. I was raised by my grandfather.
"I turned to alcohol early," Boone continued. "I think once I started telling them my story, people kind of started to relate – 'I get it,' and, 'We're not all super humans.' We can't just all battle everything and be tough all the time. Sometimes we do have to take a knee."
Patterson also took the podium to share options for receiving treatment and support. He explained that people struggling with alcoholism need to be willing to get help and to communicate that they have a problem.
According to Patterson, what struck him was the number of resources readily available for community members who hadn't yet taken that step.
"You have to walk in the door," Patterson said. "One of the things I say to players all the time is, 'What is man's greatest weakness?' I think man's greatest weakness is his refusal to ask for help and his internalization of all his emotions and feelings."
Pico said the audience was well-engaged during the entire presentation and even more so through a Q&A session at the end of the evening.
"This is an issue that's so well-known in that community, but it's not discussed or talked about," Pico explained. "It's like the elephant in the room – everybody sees it, but nobody wants to talk about it."
Boone fielded questions of all sorts from the guests. From elementary school students asking him how much he can lift, to older generations asking tough questions about his experience with alcohol, Boone didn't hesitate to interact with the audience.
He appreciated the wide age range of listeners and especially was grateful for a chance to share his story with the youth.
"These kids, they think, 'It's never going to happen to me.' Well, the first time you do it, you don't know what's going to happen," Boone said. "I just wanted to tell them, 'Listen – you all need to wait. You're too pure, you're too good of kids to be doing stupid [stuff] like that. Stay away from it. No good's going to come from it."
Entering his second season in Purple after signing with the Vikings as a free agent in 2016, Boone isn't one to sugarcoat things in the locker room.
Similarly, his approach to the Gila River Indian Community was a direct one, albeit knowing it would be a difficult topic for a number of people in the room. Boone said he was especially impacted by an older woman who told him that her son passed away in 2016 as a result of alcoholism. He was 25.
"[That] hit home for me," Boone said. "She was basically applauding me for not being too much of a man and getting help.
"At the end of the day, we don't know how [addiction] touches people, but I know it touches everybody in some way," Boone continued. "When I heard that, my heart broke for her. You could tell she was very distraught, and I gave her a hug. But sometimes people need to hear the truth."
Pico, who has worked in player development for the Vikings since 2005, was proud to see that side of Boone and hear him share such a personal and powerful story.
He believes that Boone's authenticity helped drive the point home for so many community members.
"It almost cost him his life, and it almost cost him his family, which is the most important thing in the world to him," Pico said of Boone, who is now married with three children. "So many people came up and said, 'We're so glad he spoke from the heart.' "
Community counselors and local law enforcement approached Pico following the presentation and said that Boone "did more in 45 minutes of talking" than they felt they had accomplished in a year's worth of work.
"My brother Brad said that the next day, that was the talk of the community," Pico said. "It's all they talked about, was this issue. It was a good thing."
When Boone dons his jersey, laces his cleats and takes the field on Sundays, his goal is to protect the quarterback and help win games.
Off the field, however, his goal is to use his past as a way to help the future of others. His mission was accomplished in Sacaton, Arizona.
"I love the platform that I have through football," Boone said. "There are so many people who will listen to you because you do play in the NFL and they want to hear what you have to say.
"Maybe at first it doesn't hit right away, but later on it's going to hit home. I think that's such a great thing," Boone added.