Even after he forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown, helping his Kansas State club open the new season with a 49-14 season-opening rout of Nicholls on Saturday, junior safety Jonathan Alexander wasn’t done reaping the benefits.
In the locker room after the game, starting quarterback and team captain Skylar Thompson handed Alexander a sledgehammer with words etched on each side — “Dog Mentality” on one and “Selflessness” on the other.
Alexander was so thrilled that when K-State classes resumed Tuesday — Monday was Labor Day — he carried the sledgehammer around with him. His professors didn’t mind. They even asked him about it.
Fellow students were intrigued, too. Some asked for pictures with Alexander. Others tried to hold it.
That’s where Alexander drew the line.
“I’m like, ‘Nah. Skylar gave it to me,’” Alexander said. “You can’t hold it. I don’t even let my teammates hold it. Nobody gets this from me. You’ve got to earn that.”
Alexander is the first beneficiary of a new tradition at K-State. It’s simple enough: After every game, each of the seven team captains decides on a player they think personified different values throughout the week of practice or during the game. They give that player the sledgehammer with the corresponding value written on the side.
Each is inscribed with different words and phrases, including “Standard over feelings,” “Relentlessness” and “Accountability.” Recipients can keep their hammers for the rest of the week, but still, there’s no guarantee each is given out.
For example: senior safety Denzel Goolsby gave his hammer, “Standard over feelings,” to scout team running back Jacardia Wright, and senior offensive lineman Adam Holtorf gave his to a second-string offensive lineman — but three hammers remained shelved after Saturday’s game.
That helps motivate the potential recipients, who range from standouts like Alexander to scout teamers like Wright. The tradition is all about making players feel appreciated and recognized, so everyone on the roster is eligible.
“I think our scout team is doing a great job of preparing the defense, so I think that’s why we had a lot of success,” Goolsby said. “The reason we did is because the class they brought in was really talented. There’s some guys who could be playing probably in the game, but they’re giving us a great look on scout team, and that helps us play so much faster.”
In truth, the tradition goes hand-in-hand with a slogan motivational speaker Ben Newman shared with the Wildcats when he visited back in January: “Pound the stone.” That’s the title of a book by Joshua Medcalf, and Newman used the motto to fire up the team about a month after Klieman was hired and a new era began.
K-State even posted a video of Newman’s speech to the team.
“You want to do things that are significant? You want to write a story that people want to read over and over and over again? You show up and you pound the stone,” Newman told the team.
Another Newman quote from his speech: “I promise you, if you show up every single day and you choose to be relentless, and you pound the stone, this is going to be one hell of a story.”
To Klieman, the expression held enough value and represented enough of his vision that before the season, he called a meeting at his house. There, he told the players the deal — that this “Pound the stone” thing wasn’t just a fun saying to toss around.
It was going to be a real thing. A tangible thing. A reward.
“It’s great that we’re doing that,” senior running back James Gilbert said. “Miami’s got their little thing, so we want to have our tradition, so that’s what we do — give out sledgehammers after the game.”
K-State has embraced the phrase, and by now, it’s taken several forms. In the team theater in the Vanier Family Football Complex, the “16 Goals For Success” wallpaper has been removed for a new logo, which features two pick-axes and “Pound The Stone” typed underneath.
Really, it’s everywhere. It’s all over the K-State football Twitter account, which even uses the sledgehammer emoji in tweets. At Vanier, the screen that displays a countdown to the Wildcats’ next game includes overlapping sledgehammers with “Pound The Stone” underneath.
Which brings us back to the physical sledgehammers.
“All fall camp, you’re grinding to go out there and compete,” redshirt freshman linebacker Daniel Green said, “and once you go out there, you compete, and when the captains — especially as a young guy — notice what you were doing, that means a lot, you know? That’s pretty cool that we have that this year.”
To Green, that’s helped lead to a new vibe around this year’s team.
“The whole new system, new atmosphere, it’s fun to play in,” Green said. “It’s a fun defense to play in. It’s a fun team to be around. Everybody’s happy.”
The other part of that quote, where Green said “Coach puts a lot of trust in our team to do the right things,” aligns well with the message Klieman has preached time and again: It’s the players’ team. He’s given them ownership. That’s translated to, well, sledgehammers.
Perhaps the most important part of it the new tradition — the key — is that the players like it. They’re motivated to earn a sledgehammer of their own, even if the honor lasts less than a week.
“Definitely want to get it again,” Alexander said.
“It’s a great feeling and great thing to do,” Gilbert said.
Doesn’t hurt to have one of the team’s most important players on board, either.
“I think it’s a really good idea that Coach Klieman came up with,” Thompson said. “It gives us a chance to bring our team closer together and recognize each other after games and celebrate in the right way — giving guys recognition and appreciation for what they do to make our team successful.”
In the grand scheme of things, Alexander’s touchdown won’t be the most important score the Wildcats record this season. K-State was already up 35-7 before the touchdown, and Nicholls looked overmatched from the start.
That won’t be true as this season marches on, not when Big 12 play starts. Yet it stands to benefit the Wildcats that Alexander’s touchdown, as inconsequential as it may have been, had a ripple effect on the rest of his teammates.
“That’s something that really stood out to all the players,” sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert said. “Everyone has the opportunity to do that, but not everyone usually goes for the ball, even though that’s one of the most important things. Seeing him do that just motivated us to start doing that as well.”