SANTA CLARA The call came at 3 a.m. When the voice on the other end of the phone said he was with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Amy Boone assumed the worst.
"I said, 'My God, my son is dead.' "
"No, he's not dead," the man said. "Can't you hear him screaming in the background?"
The howling was coming from Alex Boone, who was still very much in the throes of the mother of all drunken rampages.
Neighbors in the town of Aliso Viejo, where Boone was training for the NFL scouting combine, called police to report that a loud, large, menacing man was swinging from a tow truck cable. Boone ran when deputies arrived, and the 6-foot-8, 300-pound-plus man had to be Tasered twice before being arrested. The sheriff's office later said Boone's blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Boone woke up in a jail cell not remembering what had happened the previous night. As he sobered, and as he and his family learned the details, it began to occur to them that his latest alcohol-related lapse had dealt a serious perhaps fatal blow to his dream.
Playing in the NFL seemed to be Boone's destiny from the cradle.
"You know those soft-soled crib shoes that babies wear?" Amy Boone said. "They didn't make them in his size. His feet were too big."
In second grade, Alex was taller than his teacher. He had to have a special desk in fourth grade because his knees lifted the standard ones off the floor.
Best of all, he had a work ethic to go with his impressive size.
He grew up in Cleveland surrounded by a service-industry family. Amy, who raised Alex and his brother, J.J., by herself, is a nurse. His two doting uncles are a police officer and a teacher.
In this household, the nastiest, punch-to-the-gut insult would be to accuse someone of being lazy.
Tall and long-legged, Alex worked on his balance and agility. As a teenager, he was lifting weights alongside NFL players.
"He was literally the same size in high school he is now," remembers LeCharles Bentley, a former Saints and Browns center who also is from Cleveland. "It was like, 'Who the hell is this high school kid trying to compete with these full-grown men?' "
The work paid off.
Boone went to Ohio State, where he quickly won the starting job at left tackle and where he twice was named to the All-Big Ten Conference team. After his junior season, Boone was considered one of the top offensive tackles in the country.
But there was trouble on campus. He was arrested for DUI following his freshman season. Other incidents didn't make the newspapers.
"I can't tell you how many times I'd drive my butt down there (to Ohio State) and say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' " Amy Boone said.
Boone knew he had a problem. After each incident, he'd swear off alcohol forever and he'd attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He'd go months without a sip, and his family and coaches would think that he was finally sober.
Then he'd relapse. Hard.
The most devastating fall came Feb. 1, 2009, when Boone attended a Super Bowl party in Orange County. When she was younger, Amy's brother owned a bar. Being around it gave her a feel for when good-natured drinking and bonhomie would begin to take a sinister turn. She had a name for it: Starting to sizzle.
When Alex and his former agent called home that night, his mother's antenna flickered.
"He's starting to sizzle," she told the agent. "I can feel it in his voice."
A few hours later, she was staring at her son's mug shot on ESPN. Boone was charged with public drunkenness. The case later was dismissed.
At the scouting combine three weeks later, no team talked to him. And when the draft rolled around in April, no team took him.
Boone had spiraled to his lowest point.
But that's also when he began his ascent.
Not being drafted had one advantage. It allowed Boone to choose among the handful of teams that had shown some interest. He picked San Francisco because the offensive-line coach at the time, Chris Foerster, had lobbied to take Boone with the 49ers' final pick they went with defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois instead and because the head coach was Mike Singletary.
Soon after Boone arrived in Santa Clara, Singletary pulled him aside, locked onto him with his owlish eyes and told him, "You're getting on the wagon or you're getting the hell out."
It was the kick Boone needed.
Following a season on the practice squad, Boone went back to Cleveland and reunited with Bentley, who was starting a training facility for offensive linemen.
Bentley's NFL career ended prematurely because of complications from a staph infection in his knee. He's highly intelligent and highly motivated, and his ferocity and drive made him a perfect match for Boone.
The boy who grew up without a father suddenly had two.
With Bentley looking on, Boone lifted weights, flipped truck tires and even pushed a gun-metal-gray Hummer around a parking lot. His weight went from 340 pounds to a more chiseled 325. His body-fat percentage fell from 27 percent to 16 percent. The doughy Alex Boone who showed up at the 49ers facility in 2009 looked nothing like the guy who arrived in 2010.
"He's a fighter," Bentley said of Boone. "Innately, he's a fighter."
As the pounds disappeared, his prospects brightened.
In 2010, Boone landed on the 53-man squad as a backup tackle. Last season, he was part of the 49ers' short-yardage and goal-line packages. This year, the coaches decided Boone was one of their five best offensive linemen, and they gave him a shot to start at the only spot where there was an opening, right guard.
Boone had played tackle all his life, and he was reluctant at first. But he's attacked the position with the same zeal he's shown the past three years.
"It's a full-day street fight," Boone said of playing guard. "I've learned to love it."
A week ago, Amy Boone again was awake in the early-morning hours. This time, however, it was to watch her son's first NFL start, in a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings.
She didn't just follow along to see that her baby boy made it through the first quarter without injury. She slow-mo'ed each snap, making sure his blocking technique was sound, his foot placement perfect.
"Football is very big here," she said. "We watch games frame by frame. And we all thought that he had a very good first game."
The 49ers coaches agreed. So did Bentley, who speaks with Boone every day by phone and who also stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch his pupil.
Bentley's advice to Boone for the past 2 1/2 years has been to stay low while battling squatty defensive linemen.
But there's a more philosophical meaning to the message.
Boone had the strength to pull himself from the depths of alcohol abuse and make himself into an NFL starter. He's been sober since his Orange County escapade. He's 25 and now married. Last October, he and his wife had a son, Jonathan, which has only cemented his resolve.
As Bentley sees it, his job is to make sure Boone doesn't climb so high that he falls again.
"He was alone in the basement, in the dungeon," Bentley said. "Stay there. What I'm going to make sure doesn't happen to him is that all the people around him the people coming up and patting him on the back, the 'attaboys' don't put him on the path he was before."