Dexter Manley always had his own flamboyant style, and he shone brightly during his colorful days as a defensive end with the Washington Redskins. "I lived in the sun," he said.
But there have been too many days in the darkness for Dexter Manley over the past 20 years - days where he didn't know where he was, not knowing if he would live or die because of his cocaine addiction.
One thing about Manley, though: Every time he gets knocked down, he tries to get up, and now he is doing so again. Manley was released from prison in March after serving two years on a cocaine possession conviction, and he is taking another step toward recovery this weekend by coming back to the Washington area to sign autographs at Sports Card Heroes in Laurel tomorrow afternoon.
"This will get me in touch with the spirit of the Redskins fans, who are all excited about Joe Gibbs coming back," Manley said. "They may have thousands of questions for me and I won't be able to answer them all, but all I can say is the prodigal son has returned."
He is coming from a halfway house in Houston called "Next Step for Men," where he has been living since being released from Lynchner State Prison in Humble, Texas. He had been given a stiff sentence because he failed to show up for a court-ordered hearing and because of his long history of drug-related arrests.
At 45, he has a long history of stories about a reformed Dexter Manley, all with sad endings. He says this time will be different.
"I have structure and discipline in my life," he said. "I am coming up on two years being clean and sober. Most of those two years were done in state prison, but I have seen these people who I saw in prison come in here, because there is a place for homeless people who want something to eat and they are still on crack cocaine or some kind of drug, but I am staying sober. I am walking through it with sobriety, being uncomfortable, living in this halfway house."
This latest reform episode is a little different, though. Manley said he wants to set up a drug treatment facility in Washington.
"My goal is to come back and help other people who have walked through the same path I have," he said. "I want to help people in Washington who are struggling with drug use, who are shooting heroin or smoking crack cocaine. If one man can do it, so can another man. I am going to work in the recovery field and help those people. I am going to stay sober."
Manley's wife, Lydia, believes he is serious about his goal.
"I believe his calling will be in the field of sports and recovery, in particular football and recovery," she said. "Someone who has been through as much as he has, once they make their mind up to be a contributor, they have a whole lot to contribute."
Manley has been sober before, for five years while he was married and working as a researcher for one of the most prestigious law firms in Houston. But "the beast," as Manley calls cocaine addiction, consumed him again, and he went on another binge in 2001.
Manley's personal woes have been on public display for more than 20 years. There was his tearful testimony in Congress when he revealed he had gone through life unable to read because of dyslexia. His addiction has made news since he was suspended from the NFL in 1989 after testing positive for drug use.
The Redskins released him shortly afterward. Manley played for the Arizona Cardinals for one year, then for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991. He was banned from the league for life after he failed a drug test for the fourth time and played in the Canadian Football League in 1993.
He was done with football then, but not drugs. Manley was arrested four times for crack cocaine possession between November1994 and July1995. He served 15 months of a four-year sentence and was paroled in November1996. He finally appeared to have gotten his life in order after that, staying clean for five years until his arrest in 2001.
Now Manley is back for another try at a clean life. He knows people will be skeptical, but he is not looking back on his failures.
"I have learned to deal with the past and the present," Manley said. "I have to stay in the moment. I have lost so much. I lost a great deal. When you use mood-altering drugs, you walk through humility. Then you become humble. It took me awhile to become humble. But that is when you start recovering."
The gregarious former All-Pro has been trying to recover since he first used drugs after arriving in Washington as an immature young man who had found a way out of Houston's Third Ward by playing football.
"I never took drugs until I got to pro football," Manley said. "I was about 25, 26 years old when I started experimenting with drugs. I grew up in a drug-infested neighborhood, but I had such great determination to get out of the Third Ward and do something with my life."
Manley had an explosive combination of speed and power, and with the Redskins he became a dominant pass rusher. He averaged 15 sacks a season from 1984 to 1986 and still holds club records for career sacks (97.5 from 1981 to 1989) and in a single season (18 in 1986).
He also produced one enduring image for Redskins fans. Manley had dared the Cowboys to come after him "on every play." They did, and Manley responded by putting Dallas quarterback Danny White out of the 1982 NFC Championship game.
"I remember the energy from the Redskins fans at RFK that day," Manley said. "That motivated us so much. I couldn't believe I was center stage on that January day when we beat the Cowboys 31-17. It wasn't so much me knocking Danny White out or tipping Gary Hogeboom's pass, I had shot my mouth off, and I had to step up to the plate."
Manley's pre-game challenge didn't sit well with Gibbs.
"Before the game Joe Gibbs had called me into his office, and told me that this is a team sport and chewed me out about giving them bulletin board clippings to fire them up," Manley said. "But I always thought it was what you do on the field that was important. I wasn't looking at it from Joe Gibbs' perspective.
"I was excited. I really disliked the Cowboys. I grew up loving the Cowboys. I loved people like Walt Garrison and Duane Thomas, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, all those guys, and then suddenly I disliked them. I had great respect for Tom Landry. He was another man to emulate. But at the same time, Tex Schramm had started this whole 'America's Team' stuff, and I didn't like it."
Off the field, Manley was one of the stars of the team, standing out on the conservative Gibbs squads for his sometimes outrageous and colorful comments, and got caught up in the celebrity spotlight.
"All these politicians and government officials come together and put their differences aside and root for the Redskins," he said. "I was a young man visiting the White House, meeting George Schultz and Alexander Haig and President Ronald Reagan. These people knew me. That was amazing. I was in the greatest city in the world to play football. I went to all these high-powered luncheons and dinners in places like Duke Zeibert's and all those restaurants. I was such a showman, and loved to be in the spotlight. Everyone in town knew me. So I had to step up to the plate."
He struck out, though. "I had this beast on my shoulder, and the beast was cocaine that destroyed my life," Manley said. "I never felt like I got the recognition that I could have because of the beast. Because of that, I didn't live up to my expectations or the expectations of other people. I disappointed so many people. I didn't know. I was just having fun."
Despite all his falls from grace, Manley still has people who refuse to give up on him, such as his wife. They have been married for seven years, and she said she is "very cautiously optimistic" her husband will stay sober this time.
"It was heartbreaking [his 2001 arrest], but in the game of life, you have to pick yourself up and keep going," said Lydia, an electrical engineer. "I felt horrible, and I felt horrible for him. But he has always sought recovery, and works very hard to try to improve himself. That's the man I am in love with. There is so much more to him than that larger-than-life football player."
John O'Quinn, one of Houston's most powerful trial lawyers and a long-time friend of Manley's, gave him a job as a researcher in his law firm during his last stretch of sobriety. He is working for O'Quinn again, this time as an assistant general manager for the lawyer's company, Classy Classic Cars.
O'Quinn said he met Manley while he was playing for the Redskins, when he saw him having breakfast one morning in Houston. "I saw him play on television and thought he was a great player," O'Quinn said. "Then one day in a coffee shop in Houston, he was having breakfast with a friend of mine. I went over and said hello and was introduced to him. He was so friendly, we just became close friends after that."
Asked why he would get involved with Manley again, O'Quinn said, "I think he is worth it."
Manley hopes he doesn't let these people down again, and that his final legacy will be one of personal triumph, not tragedy.
"I will be a productive human being," he said. "And I am looking forward so much to coming back to Washington. That place meant so much to me."