Remembering a wild ride with an NFL star

On the 30th anniversary of NFL defensive lineman Lyle Alzado's death, Doug Moe ponders a story he's never fully told.
Lyle Alzado Performance Enhancing Drug Use July 08 1991 Sports Illustrated Cover

Lyle Alzado’s confession on the July 8, 1991 cover of Sports Illustrated.

On the night of the day I flew 2,000 miles to move into a house with Lyle Alzado, he moved out.

That’s how the book will begin, if I ever write it, which I probably won’t.

It was another book that started this whole adventure, a book manuscript that was written but never published. If you go to Amazon and type in my name and Lyle Alzado, you’ll find the following: “Still Hungry: The Autobiography of Lyle Alzado, Hardcover, August 1, 1987. Alzado and I are listed as coauthors.

Alzado, who died 30 years ago on May 14 at age 43, was an unlikely NFL superstar, a defensive lineman whose colorful personality and intimidating style of play made him as famous as any quarterback. That he played for the Los Angeles Raiders didn’t hurt. His TV commercials for Sports Illustrated with the magazine’s swimsuit models were ubiquitous. Johnny Carson loved him as a “Tonight Show” guest.

When the Raiders won the Super Bowl in January 1984, Alzado’s high profile and unusual backstory — childhood poverty, a violent father, teenage street fights — led a major New York publisher to acquire his autobiography, as of yet unwritten. Because Alzado’s agent, Greg Campbell, lived in Madison, and because I, as a young journalist, had just written a magazine profile of Campbell, I was enlisted to collaborate with Alzado on the book. From their standpoint, an additional benefit was that I came cheap. I was 28. What did I know?

The plan was for me to fly to California and move into the Manhattan Beach home Alzado shared with his wife, Cindy, and their young son. I would stay a month to six weeks, get Alzado’s life story on tape in his words, and turn it into a book. Unfortunately, and unknown to me, the Alzado marriage was experiencing turbulence. The first night I was there — after everyone welcomed me graciously — Cindy Alzado went out for ice cream with a (male) friend.

Lyle Alzado and I were doing our initial interview in their living room.

“I used to dream about being Superman,” he said, referencing his troubled youth, and I knew he’d just given me the first sentence of our book.

But his head wasn’t in it. He begged off the interview. I went to bed in the guest room. When his wife returned a short time later, Alzado exploded in anger. There was screaming back and forth, finally a moment of quiet. At which point there was a knock on the guest room door, and Lyle, in his underwear, said, “Excuse me, Doug.” He walked to the closet, grabbed a rack of clothes and walked out.

By the next morning, calm was restored. Alzado was home, if he’d ever really left. We resumed our interview while I helped him bring the things he’d put in his Rolls Royce back into the house. Cindy Alzado was lying in bed and said, “Lyle, have you told Doug yet when it was you went crazy?”

I stayed about three weeks. I knew I didn’t have much of a manuscript, but I supplemented it with “other voices” — interviewing people like Howie Long, his young teammate, and the actor Henry Winkler, and asking them to reflect on Alzado. Winkler and Alzado had partnered at numerous charity benefits.

“He’s like the Chrysler Building,” Winkler said, and last year the Denver Broncos — where Lyle played early in his career — posted a tribute to his career that referenced his charitable deeds, which earned him the 1977 NFL Players Association Alan Page Community Award.

We all knew the one thing that could truly save our manuscript would be if Lyle agreed to talk about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

He was then — in the mid-1980s — perhaps the NFL player most rumored to be taking anabolic steroids. When I flew back to California — to the Raiders’ summer training camp in Oxnard — Alzado agreed to talk about steroids, which we did, at some length, in his dorm room. He’d been using since 1969 — when he played college football for tiny Yankton College — and never stopped. “Orals, then injectables,” he said.

Alzado was not large for a defensive lineman. He believed he needed the drugs to succeed in the NFL. He knew they changed his personality, knew they might have harmful side effects. He told me it was a price he was willing to pay.

But after I wrote the chapter, Alzado and his agent decided going public would be too harmful to his image. I never got all the details, but I assume pulling the chapter contributed to the publisher’s decision not to publish the book. It was listed in Bantam’s catalog — hence the Amazon listing all these years later — but never was in print.

Four years later, in 1991, Alzado was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — “I Lied,” read the cover copy — with a first-person account of his massive use of performance enhancing drugs.

He had brain cancer and was convinced the steroids and human growth hormone had caused it.

Less than a year after the Sports Illustrated cover story, Alzado was dead.

I’ve thought since that a book about Alzado, in my voice, not his, throwing in all the wild stuff that happened — I haven’t scratched the surface here — might have value. He was larger than life in ways good and bad. How many people like that do you ever get close to?

I doubt I’ll get it written. We’ll see. In the meantime, if you go to Amazon and find our unpublished autobiography, you will learn that a third coauthor, Abraham Rothberg, is listed. I have no idea who Mr. Rothberg is or how his name got there, but I note that he appears to be a an expert on Russia with books on Stalin and Solzhenitsyn.

Maybe he really should have collaborated with Alzado.

On the other hand, for all the craziness, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

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