Alzado's parting shot could be his best

May 19, 1992|By Mark Purdy | Mark Purdy,Knight-Ridder

The world was not Lyle Alzado's oyster; it was his personal theme park. RowdyLand, you could have called the place.

No one had more fun being rowdy than Alzado. He grew up rowdy in Brooklyn. He played rowdy football at Yankton College in South Dakota. He played rowdier football in the NFL. Alzado created a character that was almost theatrical in nature. He ripped off the helmets of opponents, then laughed to reporters about it afterward, bulging out his eyes and growling.

"This is a game that God would pay to see," Alzado said before the Raiders met the Redskins in one Super Bowl, and I remember laughing out loud.

"He was an absolute thespian," former teammate Todd Christensen once said of Alzado.

Only years later did we learn how artificially enhanced his act was. In the spring of 1990, Alzado revealed that he had brain cancer. Steroids had caused it, he said. Ever since 1969, he had ingested all sorts of bodybuilding drugs and human growth hormones. They had finally caused his immune system to collapse, he said. The cancer had taken over.

It was a very big story for a while. Alzado was busy making talk-show appearances and discussing his illness. An outcry was raised over steroids. Then, typically, the sports media's attention moved on to other issues. There was Magic Johnson and AIDS. There was Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. There was Bob Knight and his bullwhip. And so on.

I was as guilty as anyone. When Alzado's death was announced last week in Portland, I did not even know he had moved there. I assumed he was still in Los Angeles, where last year, an Alzado tribute dinner was called off at the last minute because not enough tickets had been sold. Alzado had been dressed and ready to leave in a limousine for the affair when the phone call came that it had been canceled. Such is the attention span of America.

Today, though, it clearly is time to revisit the Alzado case and ask if it has had any positive effect on his sport. No doctor ever proved that Alzado died because of steroid abuse. But he believed it. Ultimately, it hardly matters. We all know there has been steroid abuse in the NFL. We know the league has taken some small steps toward stopping it.

Yet we know the abuse continues, if you believe the players who talk off the record. And we know why that happens. When a college kid ponders a pro career worth millions of dollars and knows he must line up against a 290-pound lineman who might be using steroids himself, there is a strong temptation to go the same way. That is how Alzado got hooked.

It was the classic devil's bargain he struck, as a hungry Brooklyn kid who wanted to be famous in the worst way. But would Alzado have been famous if he had not played pro football? No. And would he have played pro football if he had not used steroids? He did not think so. So he kept taking them. And he died at age 43. Helluva bargain.

I am sure there are young men falling into this same trap, and I am sure there are coaches who tacitly condone steroid use by looking the other way. And when they see the notice of Alzado's death, they will blink for a few seconds, then promptly go back to the pills. Out of sight, out of mind, into the biceps.

So let me make a suggestion. If the colleges and NFL are serious about vanquishing the steroid business, I propose they combine to make a documentary short subject to be shown annually in every football locker room at every level.

The most effective anti-smoking commercials I know are the ones made by actor Yul Brynner at his request shortly before his death. You have seen them, I am sure. Brynner looks thin and wan as he explains how he chain-smoked cigarettes and how it gave him incurable lung cancer. He then looks straight into the camera, explains that he is now dead, and implores, "Don't smoke."

I do not know if Alzado made any similar commercials before his death. But in his last few television appearances, he was down to 160 pounds or so, compared to his playing weight of almost 300. His face was hollow beneath his trademark bandanna.

In one of his final TV interviews, I recall, Alzado said he wished any kids who were considering steroid abuse could crawl inside his skin so they could experience the pain he was feeling. These are the pictures that might do some good and assure us that Alzado is not forgotten. They should be shown to the high school kids and college kids and yes, to NFL players.

Those players should look at the final television pictures of Lyle Alzado and think extra hard about swallowing or injecting any steroids into their systems. RowdyLand is closed for the season. May his death not have been in vain, and may others listen as he rests in peace.

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