LIONEL ALDRIDGE: A LONG JOURNEY AND HAPPY DAYS : Former Packer Is Back on His Feet
As professional athletes 20 years ago, Lionel Aldridge and Willie Davis were the defensive ends on one of the great football teams of all time, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, winners of Super Bowls I and II.
Years later, out of football, they wound up traveling widely divergent paths.
By 1977, Davis was a millionaire. Aldridge was well on his way to becoming a bum.
With a business school background at the University of Chicago--pursued during his Packer off-seasons--Davis had become, as he continues to be, one of the most successful beer distributors and radio entrepreneurs in the West.
A former sociology major at Utah State, Aldridge launched an equally impressive career in radio broadcasting and network TV--in the midst of which he was abruptly knocked down, and almost out, by mental illness.
Aldridge is a paranoid schizophrenic. But at first, his doctors diagnosed the wrong illness and treated him with the wrong medicine. Within months, he was into the wretched life of a vagrant.
In the flop houses and rescue missions of America, Aldridge’s nightmare lasted for a ghastly decade, costing him his wife and family, his jobs in radio and television, other jobs, most of his friends, his money, and eventually his self-respect.
If the people who once knew him best thought of him at all in those days, they thought, very wrongly, that Aldridge was a classic manic depressive--on the loose.
Willie Davis, who runs his many businesses from an office in South-Central Los Angeles, only heard about the nightmare when Aldridge called one day after hitch-hiking into Skid Row downtown, where he touched up his old buddy for $3. Davis gave him $300 and got him a hotel room, from which Aldridge promptly dropped from sight.
Then two years ago, Aldridge telephoned again, this time from Milwaukee. The nightmare was over. He was taking the right medication, Aldridge said. And he was working again, as an account representative at the Milwaukee post office and part-time in radio.
He was also in a cheerful, new eighth-floor apartment overlooking Lake Michigan on the city’s fashionable East Side.
“Lionel had come back from the gates of hell,” Davis said the other day, recalling that phone call in 1985. “I’ve never had a conversation with anyone that affected me that much.
“For weeks afterward, I would catch myself whistling or humming to myself, and I’d ask, ‘Why the hell am I feeling so good?’ Then I’d remember: Lionel is back.”
One day last month at a community college in Milwaukee, Aldridge spent his noon hour away from the post office--as he so often does--on a speaking engagement.
Talking to a roomful of students at Milwaukee Area Technical College, he said:
“I could be mad at somebody because I got sick. It was society that allowed me to become a bum and pull cigarette butts off the streets and out of ash trays.
“And I could be angry at God for giving me this disease.
“But I’ve made a decision not to be bitter. I have done it for one reason. I didn’t get well until I quit blaming God and society--and took the responsibility for myself myself.
“Here I am, a black man, (lecturing) white college students, but I feel very deeply about this. You--all of you--are responsible for you. Nobody is going to ride up and rescue you. . . . I know. . . . I’ve made it back because I learned to lean on myself--and because I learned to like myself.”
His text, Aldridge said, was from St. Paul’s letters to the Philippians. Reciting a lengthy verse from memory, he said: “Whatsoever things are true, . . . honest . . . just . . . pure . . . lovely . . . think on these things.”
Think on the beautiful, he said, not the untrue.
“One way to be a winner is to be honest,” Aldridge continued, speaking softly. “Honesty never loses.
“I had a setback, but I never had a drug problem. I gave up for a while, but there was a doctor who believed in me. Now I’m putting it together again--at a pace I’m comfortable with.”
Though Aldridge changes the lyrics each time, the music is always the same. And after this particular 23-minute speech, 18 or 20 listeners came up, as they always do, and crowded around, drawing Aldridge out on his themes of self-esteem and self-responsibility.
At 6 feet 4 inches and 300 pounds, he was the biggest man in the room, and one of the neatest in slacks and a long-sleeved white shirt. The tie was blue, the jacket light blue, the expression pleasant and dignified. At 46, Aldridge has the bearing and baritone voice of a cultured talk-show host.
He’s also a working man, though. Looking at his watch, he smiled and said goodby.
Driving back to the post office in his red Pontiac Firebird--"It fit me till last January, when I quit smoking and gained 50 pounds"--Aldridge said:
“There is no known cure for paranoid schizophrenia, but I am one of the lucky ones. The disease is in remission. I have largely recovered.
“I have been given some time--and I’m going to use it to help others. And to help reduce the stigma of mental illness. And to encourage the commitment of more money and resources to (mental illness) research.”
What about his personal commitments?
“I don’t want a girlfriend right now,” he said. “I go out once in a while--but to manage a steady would take more time than I have to give.
“My ex-wife . . . none of this is her fault. She’s about to be remarried . . .
“I see my children now and then. The younger one is a soccer player in (a Milwaukee) high school. The older one is a freshman at (the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee). I love them dearly . . . “
The subject was painful, and he changed it.
“I feel that I must give as much of me as I can to the post office, to WTMJ, and to the speeches (before youth groups and at mental-illness meetings).”
WTMJ is Milwaukee’s big radio-TV complex. Aldridge worked there before the nightmare and the station has welcomed him home as its Saturday morning sports announcer.
In addition, after Packer games, he doubles as analyst and talk-show host on still another WTMJ program.
During the week, he’s on full time at the post office, where, as an executive in technical sales, he helps the government fight its many private-sector competitors for the nation’s mail and parcel business.
“It’s fun, but it’s a full schedule,” he said.
At times it even gets hectic.
“This year we’ve called on Lionel to make all of our television commercials,” said Mike Mahnke, the post office’s division communications manager. “He does a first-rate job, too.”
At his desk in a large sales room, Aldridge seems as fond of his co-workers as they are of him.
Once a week, he said, he is “visited by the support people from the hospital. . . . And the doctor sees me twice a month.”
Psychiatrists disagree on what causes Aldridge’s kind of mental illness. They say it may stem either from heredity or environment, according to Dr. Charles William Wahl, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.
“Some think a predisposition . . . is in the (genes),” Wahl said. “Others, like myself, feel it’s a reaction to the traumas of early life. It may be partly both.
“Stress is usually a factor. Stress . . . can make or break you. As Nietzsche said, ‘Those things that do not kill me make me stronger.’
“There’s a great deal of variation in the prognosis, and there are no guarantees, but a cooperative and motivated patient has a better (chance).”
Cooperative, motivated. And helpful, sincere, caring. Unselfish. Glad to be alive. As he looks into the blank face of the future, Aldridge, now, is all of those.
A LIFE OF TENSION AND TURMOIL
An orphan figuratively if not literally, an only child, he grew up in other people’s homes, the homes of relatives who had big families of their own. Then for nine years in pro football, he came under the influence of a dominating, uncompromising individual, the Lombardi of the legends. Indeed, Lionel Aldridge has known stress.
The Louisiana Years: The world began for Aldridge in the disheartening, steaming fields of the rural South. Born in Evergreen, La., he was the baby in the home of his grandfather, Aaron Compton, a sharecropper.
One of the Compton daughters, Bessie Blackman, Aldridge’s aunt, said: “Lionel was born in our house one night. There were 10 (children) in our family, 8 girls and 2 boys--and Lionel made 11.”
Everyone shared equally, as Aldridge tells it. “But I was on edge all the time,” he said. “They were good to me. There was a lot of love there. But I walked a tightrope every day.”
Early on, his mother left town, following his father to the Midwest.
“Lionel was lucky in his grandmother,” Blackman said. “She even made his pants, and that isn’t easy. She would sew all night so we’d have a dress to wear in the morning. Then she’d go out and work all day in the fields.
“We’d wake up to the smell of beans cooking at 4 o’clock in the morning. She was always up and making sure we’d have something to eat for breakfast.”
Lionel hated field work. His one big interest was school. He made good grades and, as a sixth-grader, he decided that he would go to college some day. He can’t remember who influenced him. In Louisiana, though, he never missed an hour of school until the afternoon that disaster struck.
“Lionel had been out playing in the rain,” said Norma Lawson, another aunt. “He came in and said in a shaky voice, ‘Papa, a snake bit me.’
“We didn’t have a phone or a car in those days, so his grandfather ran all the way to town to get the doctor. The leg was so swollen by the time they got back that Lionel barely survived. He couldn’t walk for weeks.”
He cried much of the time.
“There were rumors that I’d died,” Aldridge remembers.
Lawson said: “It wasn’t dying that worried him. The thing that made him cry was missing school.”
Then real trouble hit. When he was 15, his grandfather died, and Lionel was bundled off again, this time to far away Pittsburg, Calif., near San Francisco, to live with his Aunt Bessie, who had moved from the South.
The Pittsburg Years: On his second morning in California, despondency drove Aldridge back to bed.
“I finally got it out of him,” Blackman said. “He felt bad because he didn’t know how to comb the children’s hair. He wanted to help me, but couldn’t. . . . We loved him, but he thought he was imposing on us.”
And in a sense, of course, he was. The Blackmans, Bessie and Benjamin, had six children of their own. “I saw them all off to college,” she said. “Every one.”
She and her husband also raised 8 other children, or 14 in all, most at the same time.
“Two of my sisters came to live with us, then two nephews, three nieces, and Lionel,” she said. “They slept all over the house. We started with three bedrooms and had to add two more, and close in the patio.”
Benjamin Blackman, a retired millwright at U.S. Steel, remembers that Lionel had been in the Pittsburg household only a few days when he came around and asked to be sent back to Louisiana.
“He thought I had too many children already,” his Uncle Benjamin said. “I knew he didn’t want to go. There was no place for him to go. So I told him I wouldn’t send him.
“I said, ‘I can’t give you much, but I’ll give you what my family have.’
“I told him, ‘I only have three rules here. First, go to school. Second, pick out nice friends--nobody carries a big knife around me. And third, don’t ask for my car.’ ”
Aldridge never felt really comfortable in Pittsburg. For one thing, everybody expected him to go out for the high school football team because he was the biggest kid in town.
Trouble was, he’d never played football. In his first 16 years, he’d hardly even seen a football, let alone a game.
“So I taught him,” his Uncle Benjamin said. “I’d never played football myself, either, but I’d watched it on the TV. I took him out back and taught him.”
Almost every night after that, after school, Lionel came home from football practice with his stomach hurting. Once or twice, the pain was so intense that he couldn’t sleep.
“I decided to drive by and see what the hell kind of a football team that was,” Blackman said. “And there was Lionel, the biggest guy on the team, running around blocking everybody with his stomach.
“So I had to give him one more lesson,” Blackman said.
Within a week, Aldridge was the team’s best player.
The College Years: If he could go back and do it again, Aldridge would doubtless choose a different school. In the early ‘60s, he wasn’t ready for mostly white Utah State, which was in mostly Mormon, mostly white, Logan, Utah.
His high school coach, however, had taken a job there and immediately arranged a scholarship for Aldridge. And there he was, a curiosity symbol in a radically different culture.
“Kids saw me coming, they’d say, ‘Here comes the chocolate man,’ ” Aldridge remembers.
More tension. And still more to come.
Hank Stoddard, sports director at WTMJ, one of Wisconsin’s most prominent radio personalities and one of Aldridge’s steadfast friends in Milwaukee, has tried to put himself in Aldridge’s shoes.
“It’s 1960,” Stoddard said. “Who do you date at Utah State? How many colors are there?”
Aldridge first saw her in a sociology class, the sunny, young, white Mormon woman who was to become his wife.
“Our relationship put us under a lot of pressure,” Vicky Aldridge told Milwaukee magazine later, describing the turmoil at Utah State, and the reaction of her parents, who at first refused to speak with her.
“My father was very religious, and the dean of the school was a personal friend of my father’s,” she said. “He used to call us into his office and threaten to kick us out of school if we didn’t break (up).”
Stoddard gives Lombardi the credit for making life bearable for Lionel and Vicky in Green Bay, where blacks are few, even today, and inter-racial couples were practically unheard of in the ‘60s.
“Lombardi told them, ‘I’m with you guys,’ ” Stoddard recalled. “He said, ‘If anybody gives you a hard time, I’ll take care of it.’ ”
Nonetheless, according to Vicky Aldridge, the NFL tried to block their wedding. That was after Lionel was drafted by the Packers but before they’d taken their case to Lombardi.
“The NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, didn’t want us to get married because he feared an adverse reaction in the press,” she told Milwaukee magazine. “He even flew to Green Bay to try to talk us out of it.”
Nobody could talk them out of it. “Nothing could break them up,” Stoddard said.
The Lombardi Years: In 1963, for a fourth-round draft choice with a white wife, life wasn’t a bowl of cherries in Green Bay. It would have been tough enough for a fourth-round bachelor. The Packers were by then a veteran championship team. Lombardi had already coached them to two of the five NFL titles they won in that decade.
What saved Aldridge was his talent. As a defensive player, he proved to be one of the best of his era, one of the most valuable of the champion Packers.
“Willie Davis was flashier,” said Dan Devine, who coached the Packers later. “Nobody was steadier than Lionel Aldridge.”
Every down was like the Super Bowl to Aldridge, teammates said. There was a day in Los Angeles, for instance, when he kept coming in the final minutes of a game that the Packers were losing by a runaway score.
It was third and two, and as Ram running back Willie Ellison started around end--on the hottest afternoon of the year in the Coliseum--Aldridge went after him. Most of the other Packers had plainly quit for the day, and even Aldridge was running out of gas, but he kept chasing Ellison until he caught him at the sideline after a gain of less than a yard.
“Considering the circumstances, that was one of the 10 greatest plays I’ve ever seen,” Devine said afterward.
Still, it’s in the record that as a rookie, Aldridge had come to Green Bay as the youngest of the Packers. And he had brought his gentle nature with him. Some say that he might have been too young and too gentle for that tough, veteran team.
On rookie night at his first training camp, he was obviously uncomfortable as most of the new players clowned around and sang comical, off-key versions of their school songs.
When the veterans called on Aldridge, he stood stiffly, hands at his sides, eyes straight ahead, and gave a serious rendition of a Utah State song in an all but inaudible voice.
Willie Davis, recalling that night, said: “I asked myself, what’s a serious one like this guy doing here?”
The team found out a week later, when Lombardi made it clear that there was a place for either Aldridge or a Packer veteran, Urban Henry. Not both. That upset Henry’s buddies.
“Almost everybody resented me except Lombardi,” Aldridge said. “And Lombardi overpowered me. Just walking into a room, he scared me.”
Aldridge learned that he, and not Henry, had made the team when he read it in the paper.
Doubting whether to believe it, he was walking into the Packer dormitory that night, eyes lowered, when he felt a tap on the shoulder.
Turning, he looked squarely into the face of Lombardi, who told him: “Nobody ever came up here and made the club the way you did.”
Speechless at the time, Aldridge said later: “At that moment, I needed that. And (Lombardi) knew it. He knew exactly how to manipulate his players--his success wasn’t an accident. But he was scary to play for.”
IN THE GRIP OF A CRUEL DISEASE
Schizophrenia: “A major mental disorder of unknown cause typically characterized by . . . a distortion of reality accompanied by delusions, hallucinations (and) bizarre behavior, etc., often with no loss of basic intellectual functions.” --Webster’s New World dictionary
In the days when Aldridge was still on the farm and going to grade school in Louisiana, a teacher asked him a question one day in class.
Replying politely, he said: “I ain’t sittin’ on nan part of the chair.”
The other kids all laughed, and Aldridge squirmed. “It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life,” he said later.
“I hadn’t realized that my grandfather had his own language. I thought everybody talked that way.”
Aldridge vowed then to learn proper English. “I made it my first priority,” he said. “Although, of course, I didn’t know what a priority was in those days.”
He does now. And he has become the good speaker he wanted to be.
“Lionel is known for that God-given voice,” said Shirley Leonard, a Packer spokeswoman.
Dan Devine said: “One thing everybody notices about Lionel is that he’s as well-spoken as he is soft-spoken.”
What’s more, he is obviously a professional, a natural, on either radio or TV. As a commentator, Aldridge comes right to the point, and when he does, he has something to say.
“Lionel is one of the top football analysts,” Stoddard said. “He has a knack for it. Getting a chance (as a commentator) is his problem.”
It is now. It wasn’t before mental illness struck him down. One day he was a rising professional, appearing on network television. The next he was out on the streets, hallucinating, behaving strangely. Considering the kind of ability he had shown in the communications field, he could hardly have been attacked by a more disastrous disease.
That is the nature of paranoid schizophrenia. Most serious illnesses are dreadful. This one torments in a particularly cruel way.
“When you feel perfect, when you feel as good as you can feel, that’s when you’re getting into trouble,” Aldridge said. “For a (schizophrenic), happiness is the dawn of real trouble.”
Feeling well often leads the patient to abandon therapy. “You feel so good that you know you don’t need any more medication,” Aldridge recalls sadly.
At UCLA, Dr. Wahl said that treatment consists of talk therapy as well as medication.
“You have to understand your past if you are to change it,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just covering up the problem (with medicine). Of course, medication is (essential).”
Aldridge is one of the many who can attest to that. For he was on and off medication several times--and had been burned every time he got off it--before he bowed to his illness.
“Today, any time I start to feel I’ve got it together, I throttle it down,” he said.
“I’ve had to learn a whole new ballgame. When I was on the bum, I felt great.”