Dexter Manley's Pledges and Setbacks


It was Nov. 24, 1990, and Dexter Manley had just finished his first practice as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. He'd been in Arizona less than 12 hours, he wasn't particularly friendly with any of his new teammates, and he had a problem: nobody to go to dinner with.

Only a few weeks earlier, he'd finished a one-year ban from the NFL for using cocaine. Being alone in a new city, with new anxieties, wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered. I'd just spent an hour or so with Dexter in a session that was more like a confessional than an interview. That day in the bright sunlight of Tempe, Dexter told me about missing practice one day before a playoff game during the Joe Gibbs years because he was off doing coke. The tears streamed down his face and his body convulsed so violently, and he begged for forgiveness so desperately--praying right there on the spot--that I almost cried too.

Joe Bugel was the head coach of the Cardinals then, and he called my room to ask a favor: Don't let Dexter go to dinner alone. A few minutes later, Dexter called and said, "You know, it's probably not a good idea for me to go out by myself my first day away from home like this."

So we went to a seafood restaurant in Tempe. We couldn't have been there for more than two or three minutes when two fans spotted Dexter and sent over a bottle of champagne. A couple of minutes after he sent it back, two female admirers had the waiter send over a bottle of wine, and it was easy to see why Dexter didn't trust being out by himself. He ordered two bottles of mineral water that night and proposed a toast that I'll never forget, "To my everlasting sobriety," he said, triumphantly. "And to you never having to write about me and trouble again."

Of course, it was a bargain neither of us would be able to keep. Only 13 months later he had, to use his word, a "setback" while he was playing with Tampa Bay. He'd failed another drug test; it was a fourth strike. "I underestimated the tricky and insidious nature of this disease," he said that day, pledging to start over.

Each episode was almost identical to the previous one. There was the time on upper Wisconsin Avenue, sitting on the hood of a reporter's car, when Dexter learned he would be suspended from football for a third strike. Oh, and there was the time in November of 1989 when he sat before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on adult illiteracy and tried to read his notes. And the time after he learned of his 30-day drug suspension in 1988. And the time after his trip to the Hazelden, Minn., rehabilitation facility in 1987. Regret, remorse, determination, setback. By his own count, he made 17 trips to rehab centers.

Here we are again, with half the next decade gone by, and Dexter Manley is still trying to break the vicious cycle that abbreviated his pro football career, ended his marriage, sucked up his money and potential earnings, and landed him in jail. Before leaving prison in Huntsville, Tex., Monday, he had done several television interviews, the longest and most emotionally compelling with WRC-4's George Michael. There was the crying, the pledging to avoid setbacks this time, the determination.

"I was good for nothing," he told Michael. "You have to let people sink or swim. . . . The only thing that helped me was being incarcerated. It made me want to change. If I walk out of here and (screw up), this time it's going to be 25 (years) if I get caught with drugs or whatever. And now they're making people do 80 percent of their time. . . . I've seen guys here with 75 years, 55 years, locked up for the balance of their lives. I know if I get in trouble again, that's possibly what could happen to me. My back's really up against the wall."

I want to believe Dexter now, just as I did that night seven years ago in Tempe. It's easy to want to believe him because at that moment he means what he's saying with every fiber in his body. The skeptics who think of him only as a con artist or manipulator seem to miss the point that like millions of addicts, Dexter knows what he's doing is wrong, he knows his life is slipping away, he knows he has to make a definitive stand right now.

But he can't.

He tried to play in Phoenix and Tampa, but had a setback. He went to the Canadian Football League, but had a setback. For a while, he went to stay with his in-laws on the South Side of Chicago. Then Houston. Nobody, it seems, is fast enough to outrun addiction.

Now, he hopes that 14 months behind bars has helped him do what the incentive to remain eligible to play pro football couldn't: get clean and stay clean. Those of us who have heard the pledge and clinked glasses filled with mineral water are looking for some small clue, any hint that might suggest this time is different. Maybe being older will help. Maybe jail really was the answer. Maybe the breakup of his marriage to Glinda was the slap upside the head he needed. Maybe being away from football and therefore less a "celebrity" will help. Maybe all of it, the weight of everything, will make this time different.

The Sade lyric "Sweet as cherry pie/Wild as Friday night" never described anybody more accurately than Dexter Manley. He is nearing 40 years old now, football several years removed from his life. Friday night has to end. If he can volunteer to help with a high school football team and bare his soul to kids who could benefit from this cautionary American tale, then maybe in time we can revisit a Dexter Manley who won't have to cry and convulse, who won't have setbacks. Those of us who have found him irresistible all these years hope that he will never again, to use his words, underestimate the insidious nature of this disease.

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