Dexter Manley's highs and lows

Former Ottawa Rough Riders defensive end Dexter Manley is photographed in the luxury apartment...

Former Ottawa Rough Riders defensive end Dexter Manley is photographed in the luxury apartment building that he and his wife Lydia call home in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., in 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/QMI Agency)

TIM BAINES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:05 PM ET

OTTAWA - Dexter Manley walked into a pawn shop one day in 1998 and slapped his 1983 Super Bowl ring on the table. Sweat was dripping down his face. He was desperate, about to be kicked out of his house.

More than a bed to sleep in, though, he needed cocaine, a habit he figures cost him $2 million over the years. He sold the ring for $1,000 and snorted it away — abracadabra ... green money turned into white powder.

Fourteen years later, at age 53, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder, who, as a defensive end, made life miserable for NFL quarterbacks such as John Elway, Neil Lomax, Doug Flutie, Danny White and David Woodley, has his ring back.

He has kicked a cocaine habit that sent him on 37 trips to rehab centres. He has been sober for six years.

After reading at a Grade 2 level throughout much of his early adult life, he can read and write, tossing words such as intrepidation and dichotomy into his sentences.

He has found purpose in a life that was plagued by bad decisions — jailed four times — at times homeless and hopeless.

He no longer threatens to kill himself. Manley reportedly called 911 more than 20 times to keep from hurting himself, and once was talked off the ledge of his apartment.

He doesn’t drive expensive, fast cars or expensive, fast women.

In Washington, they called him the Secretary of Defence.He was good, sometimes great. He had 103.5 sacks during his 11-year NFL career. He was given a $45,000 signing bonus and $60,000 salary in 1981, his rookie season.

“I was 21 years old,” Manley said. “I’d watch men driving around in their nice Mercedes-Benz. They lived in nice homes and they always had six or seven women around them. I was young and fresh and green. You always wanted to fit in with the most popular guys in town. You wanted to be like them.”

He would become like them, and then some.

“I grew up in a church,” Manley said. “God had a fence around me my whole life. I was thinking, ‘I don’t need God, I was a self-made man.’ I got full of myself. I didn’t use drugs ... until I got to the NFL.

“I would go out in Georgetown to the bars. One night, it was 1982, a lady asked me about cocaine. I went to her apartment and she came out in high heels and G-string panties. I was at the table, chopping up the cocaine, listening to Johnny Taylor. I thought I had really arrived. I thought I was somebody.”

Cocaine and champagne became the high life.

But while he was being bad off the field, he was good, damn good, on the field.

In 1986, he had 18.5 sacks, selected to play in the Pro Bowl ... while putting much of his salary up his nose. It caught up with him.

By 1989, he had failed his third drug test. In 1991, he failed his fourth.

“The commissioner wanted to meet me. I had already failed the drug test,” Manley said. “I didn’t want him to ban me, so I retired. I didn’t want to face it after all I had worked for. I was devastated that I had to make that announcement on Dec. 12, 1991 that I had to walk away from the game I loved.”

Four times, Manley spent time in The Big House. He served 15 months of a four-year sentence at Harris County Jail in Houston after pleading guilty for two counts of cocaine possession on Aug. 4, 1995.

“I remember standing in front of the judge in that orange jumpsuit,” Manley said. “I really wanted to die. I didn’t want to face it.

“Drugs were really accessible in Houston. You think you’re not depressed. You’ve lost your career, your wife is gone, your kids are gone and you still think you’re on Cloud 9. Cocaine makes you think you’re still on top of the world. I had a brand new 1994 Mercedes-Benz 420. I had money when I went to Houston but, in nine months, I was homeless, they’d repossessed my car, I was living on the doorstep of the YMCA where they’d run me off. I stayed six or seven months in a hospital. I was a menace to society, in and out of rehab centres. It took me over 15 years to get a one-year chip of sobriety.”

Manley’s battles in the trenches, trying to outsmart and outmanoeuvre behemoth offensive linemen, were nothing compared to the battle inside, demons that never seemed to go away.

“Early on in this life of addiction if the sun came out, if it was a beautiful spring day, if it was close to the weekend, driving in my $60,000-$70,000 car with Luther Vandross or another R and B singer playing in the background ... those were all triggers for me,” Manley said. “It brought it all back. I was in another place. I was in denial.

“You need to have conviction. You have to have courage. It wasn’t easy to say no. You meet some new chick, a beautiful lady. And you think sex, drugs and rock and roll, all over again.

“Even though my value system went all against that. When I was that black boy in the Baptist church, I never thought this could ever happen. All of a sudden it was happening. I got caught up in it.”

Why cocaine? Why use?

“The first time you try cocaine, it’s a euphoria feeling,” Manley said. “You keep chasing that feeling. Chasing and chasing. And you’re never going to get that feeling again.

“In Houston, it was an $8,000-a-week habit for me. I wasn’t making that kind of money. And that’s why I was on the street.”

While Manley talked about getting clean, about turning his life around and living up to promises long unfulfilled, his wakeup call came June 17, 2006.

“It was a Friday night. I was driving my car and I was delusional,” he said.

“The police pulled me over. I was out of it. I had used drugs a couple of days before. The police officer looked at me and said I had to get to the hospital. He got on his walkie-talkie and told a rescue squad to pick me up and take me to the hospital.”

Manley had a colloid cyst the size of a quarter, his brain was swelling. The surgery lasted 12 hours.

“After that surgery, the doctor, (wife) Lydia and me went to lunch one day. He said to me: ‘Dexter, you’re going to be better now. I don’t think you’ll ever use drugs again.’

“I was so afraid I was going to die. It scared me straight. I got 90 days clean, then four months clean, then six months clean ... it just kept on going. I’ve changed my whole life. I let God continue to use me.”

Dexter Manley is a changed man.

It’s obvious by the tone of his voice, by his conviction.

He has three children — Derrick, Dexter II and Dalis — and four grandchildren.

He’s a marketing guy for Certified Building Services. And he drives a 2008 Impala, nothing fancy.

“I made a lot of money playing football, but I spent a couple of million dollars on drugs,” Manley said. “And while I was in and out of the system, I would say I lost $15 million-$20 million in income.

“I don’t have to feel, ‘Why me, why me?’ I don’t have to look down at my shoelaces anymore. I’ve gone through the rain, the wind and the storm ... and I’m still here.

“The rain will fall and the sun will rise again the next day. It pertains to life’s ups and downs.

“When I left the NFL, I didn’t think I would survive. But I didn’t hide in the alley. I would wake up and put one foot in front of the other.

“I proved people wrong. I suffered. I’ve seen the bottom of life. When you know your history, who wants to go back to that? I’m just so glad I’m here. I want to live.

“Hopefully my story can change somebody’s life. If I can do it, why can’t somebody else?”

MANLEY'S BIG SECRET

Dexter Manley had a big secret. He couldn’t read or write.

He had been called a dumb black jock ... or just stupid. He was teased relentlessly. Once, he slammed a teacher into a blackboard.

As a second grader, he got 19 failing grades. But the Houston school system kept promoting him from grade to grade. Let him be somebody else’s problem. What turned out to be poor auditory memory was never addressed, never remedied.

And after his children were born, he couldn’t read bedtime stories to them. No Dr. Seuss. Nothing.

Something happened Nov. 18, 1985 that would shake him: Lawrence Taylor snapped Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s right leg into a pretzel on Monday Night Football. It was gruesome and Theismann’s career was over.

Said Manley: “I thought to myself, ‘What if that happened to me? Joe had something to fall back on. He was a Notre Dame graduate, he was a Caucasian male and he was a rich Republican.

“I was making half a million dollars a year and I couldn’t read or write. I was pretending ... like I had Boy George makeup on.”

Manley attended classes for four years at Oklahoma State, starting in 1977.

“When I went to Oklahoma State, I could not read or write, but I will tell you one thing, I was a good football player,” he said. “I went to class, I had good verbal skills. But I did a lot of cheating. I don’t advocate that, but that’s what I had to do to make it. I never missed a class. I didn’t skip school.

“I came to Washington in 1981 and I was confused when I hit that football field. It was such a dichotomy. How do you go from feeling so good to not feeling good ... to not being able to read the plays in the playbook.

“I had to put on a facade. I’d see white men walking around with the Wall Street Journal, wearing a trenchcoat. So I bought a trenchcoat and a suit and walked around with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I thought that’s what I had to do to cover up my disability. I was at a second-grade reading level.”

Manley enrolled at the Lab School of Washington in 1986.

“In three years, I was reading the Washington Post,” he said. “I proved people wrong. Sooner or later, you have to walk in your own shoes. I don’t have to look at my shoelaces anymore.”

RECALLING THE CFL EXPERIMENT IN OTTAWA

Dexter Manley was intrigued when he got a call from a football team in Ottawa in 1992.

He didn’t know much about the Rough Riders; he didn’t need to.

He did know this was a chance to play football again.

Manley was at the Sierra Tucson treatment centre in Arizona when he heard from his agent, Bob Woolf. Rough Riders GM Dan Rambo wanted Manley to play in the CFL.

“I was pretty much done,” Manley said. “But when I got the offer, I wanted to go to Ottawa and give it a good shot. I wanted to save face. My son and daughter were young when I was in Washington, so they didn’t really have memories of me playing football. I was grateful they brought me in.

“(Rough Riders owners Lonie and Bernie Glieberman) made me feel like I was somebody again. But to tell you the truth, my heart wasn’t in it. When I got to Ottawa, I was somewhat disappointed when I got to the stadium. I thought it was going to be like Division 1 with the facilities, but it was more like junior college stuff. But I couldn’t say no. I needed the money.”

There were more obstacles.

“I don’t think (coach) Ron Smeltzer wanted it to happen for me ... I didn’t particularly like him. They were reluctant to give me a fair shot.

“I was so discouraged, I wanted out. The practice facility had holes in the ground. It was like going back to the community where I grew up. I was thinking, ‘Man, how did I get here?’ ”

Getting paid $60,000 for the season, with free housing, Manley found what he was looking for on the bar scene.

“I started using a little cocaine every once in a while,” he said. “Some guy at a bar in (the Byward) Market would know who I was and sell me some cocaine. I was experimenting again. My second year there, I didn’t do it.”

The first season, Manley played three games before being benched. He played three more in 1993. The team was bad, but it’s tough to blame Manley. In the games he played, the Riders were 4-2.

Manley wants to make it clear. He enjoyed it in Ottawa. He liked the people.

“I don’t regret going to Ottawa. I really enjoyed it in Ottawa. I like Canada.”

The Gliebermans moved on to start a Shreveport franchise in 1994 and Manley decided to call it quits.

DEXTER'S WIFE ROCK-SOLID

Lydia Manley has seen her husband, Dexter, take a roller-coaster ride through life.

Why? Why stay with a man who couldn't seem to kick his addictions and who served time in jail, most recently from 2002 to 2004?

"I knew he was worth hanging in there for," Lydia said. "There were rough times. I wrote him every day when he was incarcerated. I was just a friend at the time and I personally didn't think he would survive the incarceration. I wrote him a letter every day to keep him encouraged. He sent me a letter back every time. But when he was finally released and he still had a relapse, I was so disappointed.

"He had brought all those letters out and we divided them up, all the letters from him were in one knapsack and all of the letters from me were in another.

"I thought, 'This is crazy. Nothing works.' I threw away one knapsack of letters. I thought OK, we'll keep one bag, we'll see what happens. I was still holding out hope. But he continued to use and I threw away the next bag.

"It would be great to go back and look at those letters, what was said for 15 months, but I don't have them. But I always held out hope, no matter how much hope I lost."

It took a long time, but Manley finally turned his life around, with his wife solidly behind him.

"I'm very proud of him. I look at him now. He's living such a clean life. He goes to church every Sunday. He's a model citizen at this point. (TV reporter) Bryant Gumbel came here last year and asked him if he could keep this up. Dexter said yes he could, anything you practise, you get better at.

"The more you practise living right, the more right you live. He has a strength not many people have. It's not just a physical strength, it's spiritual."

The couple will celebrate its 15-year anniversary Sept. 13.

"I'm the best thing that ever happened to her," Manley said with a laugh.

tim.baines@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos