Stonebreaker's demons hard for friends to assess

March 31, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Those demons of torment deep within the psyche of Steve Stonebreaker drove him to a fatal decision.

Stonebreaker, a former Baltimore Colts' linebacker, died at age 56 this week when he was found inside a locked garage with his head cushioned on a pillow near an automobile exhaust pipe in Metarie, La.

The coroner's investigator, Joseph Donovan, of Jefferson Parish, said "everything is consistent with suicide."

Life, at best, offers a turbulent ride, and it was much that way for a man who put up a bold front and loved to laugh and get caught up in a crowd. But maybe he was crying on the inside, his own troubling secret protected from the world outside.

Could it have been physical duress, financial stress, damaged pride or domestic difficulties bothering him 10 years after a divorce? His survivors, family and friends likely will never know.

The calculated conjecture, if it can be called that, is it was either declining health or fiscal woes that precipitated Stonebreaker's taking his own life.

Hall of Fame defensive end Doug Atkins visited with him a month ago and said, "He seemed real happy, but looked awfully skinny to me." Such an observation lends support to the belief that the cancer which had been in remission may have returned.

Two close friends from his Baltimore days, Bert Bell Jr., a onetime business manager of the Colts now working in Atlantic City, and teammate Alex Hawkins, living in Atlanta, were stunned by the death.

"Stoney is dead?" said Hawkins. "Oh, my God. I don't know how to react to anything like that."

Bell, Hawkins and Stonebreaker were a roving trio, something of a nocturnal entry, finding mischief and causing some, when living in Baltimore and hitting places like the Gridiron Club, Sweeney's, Gussie's Downbeat and the Bear's Den.

Good times and laughter accompanied their forays into the night, looking for the excitement of a card game with the right stakes, or a jumping place with a hot band.

"About the report of a suicide, he's not the kind of a guy you'd believe would do that," said Bell. "Anyone who knew him will say the same. About 10 years ago he had a bout with cancer, but not a word lately about that.

"A real stand-up kind of fellow. A wonderful person has died.

"Anytime we talked, it only took him about five seconds to tell me if something was wrong, like in his marriage, business or how he was feeling."

Sig Hyman, who operated Pension Planners Inc., once hired Steve during the off-season.

"He was smart and a great salesman," Hyman said. "You'd never confuse him with one of those athletes who came to work for a company thinking he was going to play corporate golf. Not Steve. He produced in business."

In New Orleans, he once published a football periodical called Grid Week, made quick advancement with a ship-building company and, of late, owned a restaurant that appeared to be drawing a sizable clientele.

After returning from the hospital and a cancer operation on his throat 10 years ago, he was devastated to learn his wife, Carol, wanted a divorce. He had five young children to raise. One son, Michael, became a standout linebacker at Notre Dame until he was injured in an auto accident in 1989.

Bob Roesler, retired sports editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, recalled Steve's aggressiveness and how the public reacted to him. "In that first year with the Saints, after coming from the Colts, he got fined for starting a fight on the field," Roesler said.

"We were in Yankee Stadium when a New York Giants center, Greg Larsen, took a cheap shot at a Saints flanker named Tom Hall, who only the week before had suffered a concussion.

"When the game was over, Stoney led the charge against the Giants. He told Larsen, 'You belong to me' and it touched off an all-out battle. Steve was fined $350 by commissioner Pete Rozelle and the fans in New Orleans, incensed over the discipline, tried to pay it for him.

"Rozelle insisted the money had to come from Stonebreaker's check. So Joe Gemelli, who owned a clothing store, told Stoney to bring his children in any time they needed to be outfitted. And the $350 was used to start what is now the New Orleans Touchdown Club."

Stonebreaker -- and was there ever a more apt name for a football player? -- obviously endured inner turmoil he didn't want the rest of us to know. He made his own sad exit from this world's stage, leaving beautiful memories for those he otherwise touched with laughter and a touch of bizarre frivolity.

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