"Here's the deal," he said to the waiter. "I want a mushroom burger with Cheddar cheese instead of Swiss. No, forget it. Let's do the old English burger with lettuce, tomato and onion, which I see there."
See, Dexter Manley was reading the menu. Dexter, who graduated from high school and stayed eligible to play four years at Oklahoma State when he couldn't read, then starred with the Washington Redskins, could handle Houlihans' menu. He made more sense than the waiter, actually.
"I can read my own book," said Dexter, and proceeded to open it to a random passage and read it. It tells how he got the courage to go to the Lab School in Washington for help learning to read because it was too painful not to.
The book is "Educating Dexter," which is the sequel to the locker-room whispers of "Dexter can't read." Dexter recalls how Jeff Bostic, lockering nearby, would hand him a paper to read in front of a crowd to embarrass Dexter.
Or Dexter would be in one of his masquerade phases, sitting in his locker holding the Wall Street Journal in front of his face, and Joe Theismann, the glib quarterback, would say, "Get the funnies, Dexter, you can't read." And he couldn't.
It's a bitter and happy and angry and infuriating tale Manley, 34, tells with the gifted touch of Tom Friend, who covered the Redskins in Dexter's time for The Washington Post. In its way, it is also a success story because Dexter sought help to get his reading level up to ninth grade. He does a radio talk show in Ottawa, where he plays in the Canadian Football League, and does a weekly column for the Ottawa Sun.
The column is actually written by an Ottawa Sun staffer, as most athletes' stuff is, but the Ottawa Sun copy desk says most of the ideas come from Dexter and a lot of them are funny ideas. Dexter's idol is Art Buchwald. He reads Forbes and Newsweek magazines and the newspapers and is, he said, in the midst of reading a hard-cover book.
It's an important tale because we know Dexter wasn't the only athlete to play out his big-time eligibility for a major institute of education as a complete and deliberate lie. It wasn't that Dexter couldn't read "Hamlet," it was that he could barely read "Run, Spot, Run."
He got out of Oklahoma State with second-grade reading skills. How can that happen?
That's his harrowing tale of being lost in the system. How did he get out of high school in Houston? How did he get to high school?
He was left back after second grade and put into a class for the retarded. Black schools in Houston in the 1960s didn't pick up learning disabilities regularly and Manley's family certainly didn't. His mother was an alcoholic; one drug-dealing brother was shot and killed, and a half-brother is serving time for robbery.
"In special education classes, you're going to move on," Manley said over the hamburger he ordered from the menu himself. "I knew I couldn't read and write, but in seventh grade, you don't tell that to your friends.
"By 10th grade, look at my situation. The only thing I had going was football, and that was what I wanted. If I go back and tell them I can't read, the next thing I know I'm too old to play."
He was big and very fast and ferocious. And he got 37 football scholarship offers. Don't blame Oklahoma State alone.
Dexter couldn't read "Hamlet," but he could play Hamlet well. He learned to go to class and sit in the front row to look interested. He learned to scam and to plead and to shed a tear that may or may not have been real. He learned to copy from someone else's exam and to cultivate friends and girlfriends to write his papers or to take his tests. There's no question, however, that Oklahoma State was quite eager to have this football player exploiting the system. "I was a great, great athlete," Dexter said.
He is a likeable fellow over lunch, in contrast to the defensive end who played himself into a rage. "On the football field, I want to hurt them, put their lights out," he said. "I love to do that. Does that make me a bad guy?"
What he says ought to be studied and analyzed like symptoms in an epidemic. He is not to be taken at face value at all times. His NFL career ended in December 1991, when he tested positive for cocaine for the fourth time.
He said the last time he used cocaine was in February 1992, and that his family means so much to him -- wife Glinda, two sons and a daughter -- and he's caused them so much suffering. "My kids mean more than drugs," he said. "But not all the time. I get that first hit, and drugs are more important."
That's an addict peeling off one layer of his addiction. But then he still has a layer of denial. "I never escalated," he said. "I didn't freebase. I didn't inject. I just snorted."
The denial by Oklahoma State is greater. Manley and Friend quote Dale Roark, the academic adviser at OSU, saying: "We knew he couldn't read a textbook. . . . I agree we exploited Dexter for four years, but he exploited us. Coaches further their careers with players like Dexter, and players in turn groom themselves for pro ball."
That's too self-serving. The institution is obligated to say it won't be party to either kind of exploitation. Today's Proposition 48 -- the 700 Rule -- means Dexter Manley's second-grade reading level would have made him ineligible as a freshman. But what then?
Dexter Manley deserves some credit for his willingness to bear the embarrassment of going to the Lab School, of hearing the whispered, "That's Dexter Manley of the Redskins and he can't read."
Athletic directors and university presidents should be required to read the book. Some of them may learn something -- $19.95 -- cheap.